Tokaji Aszú 1956 – History locked in a bottle

András Horkay – Dip WSET

Tokaj is Hungary’s best-known and most prestigious wine region. Its characteristic sweet Tokaji Aszú wine is widely considered one of the best of its type the world.

Tokaji Aszú’s uniqueness is comprised of many ingredients, such as the indigenous grape varietals and the microclimate influenced by the two surrounding rivers, the Tisza and the Bodrog. The wine makers use special methods to harvest the grapes and to make the wine, and some deep cellars are carved into the rocky hillsides with wine matured in small wooden barrels. Tokaji Aszú was first documented in 1571. The local appellation system for making Aszú has been in existence from as early as the 1600s. This wine has earned Tokaj-Hegyalja global fame as the world’s oldest officially created wine region, which has been part of Unesco World Heritage since 2002.

The 1956 vintage 5 Puttonyos Aszú is part of the Museal Collection of the Hungarian Agricultural Ministry, which consists of more than 280,000 bottles. Dated between 1867 to the beginning of the 1990’s, this collection boasts over 100 vintages, primarily of dessert wines. The ’56 Aszú is one of the most noteworthy wines of this special selection. It is not simply one vintage out of collection covering over 100 years, but one of the most outstanding in terms of quality, and certainly one of the most important wines in the context of Hungarian history. Few people will know that the harvest work started on 22nd October, just one day before the beginning of the revolt against The Soviet Union. The old communist regime tried its best to eradicate the ’56 vintage so they decided to label the 1957 vintage as 1956.

In spite of the difficult history, some of the ’56 aszú has survived for posterity. To mark the 60th Anniversary of 1956, the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture has rebottled 150 bottles of this unique vintage, harvested in the autumn of 1956.
As part of this project, members of the National Wine Expert Commission (OBB), the National Food Chain Safety Office, and the Directory of Wine and Alcoholic Beverage (NÉBIH BAII) had the opportunity to re-taste about 150 bottles of the 1956 vintage 5 Puttonyos Aszú. The project had two phases. Firstly,  a selection of 150 bottles of the ’56 vintage were transported from the Tolcsva cellars to the tasting venue, before being sent for rebottling to the laboratory of the Dereszla Winery at Bodrogkeresztúr. The tasting took place in isolated, laboratory conditions. Once opened, each of the original bottles underwent sensory testing, meaning the members of OBB tasted and judged each individual bottle. Wines declared as being of a good standard were moved to a sterile bottling room where the winemaker of Dereszla and the expert of NÉBIH BAII re-filtered each bottle to preserve wine stability. Finally, they were rebottled into the new 0.375l purpose made bottles and individually sealed with cork.

This is how the newly corked, newly bottled 5 puttonyos aszú was made, getting a new look, label and an exclusive box for the 60th Anniversary.

Out of the Jubilee ’56 bottles many were introduced at the ‘56 remembrance ceremonies of the Agricultural Ministry and many government events outside Hungary and during the first weeks of December at the Christmas Celebrations of Ambassadors accredited to Hungary. – Two bottles are joining us at next years SITT tasting at Spring so look out for registrations! Pre-register to taste here.(the Editors)

Tokaji Aszú 1956 Tasting Notes
With deep amber colours in the middle with green shades which transforms into golden yellow towards the edges. With its ripe scent, concerted with very good intensity. In its complex scent you will discover dates, walnut, caramel and tobacco notes and the botrytis layered scents relevant to Tokaj specialty grapes. With its taste ripe madeira will flash up, with the clarity of long ripened cognac with raisins, figs and prunes. Flows slowly and elegantly when pouring, with body and thickness, delicately creamy, with lusciously oily texture with fine green walnut and black tea character. Lively acidity balances the wine well with its high natural sugar content. All together this wine is still in perfect shape with its pulsing intensity, integrated flavours, concentration levels and a very long finish.

MWs on Tokaj
Elizabeth Gabay MW says “The first time I tasted Tokaji was in 1993 on a trip to Czechoslovakia and Hungary. I first visited the Slovakian region of Tokaj before crossing over to Hungary. At that time, Tokaj was the only Hungarian region anyone suggested visiting. It was the jewel in a rather empty crown. It was also a significant era as modern western winemakers were moving in and changing the wine scene rapidly. I visited Royal Tokaj where the wine was still made in the traditional way. Long cellars lined with black fur-like mould. Locked alcoves full of Tokaj reserved by international buyers. Tastings in candle lit corners of the cellar. 
I was shown how the clue to tasting Tokaji was that, due to its high acidity, you could taste dry to sweet to dry and the wine would always show well. The wine was amber gold, redolent of spice and barley-sugar, rich and toffee like – very different to the fresher style of today. The strangest part of the tasting was matching the wonderful Tokajis with food – I was served a 6 puttonyos wine with a large slice of Arctic Roll, more appropriate to school dinners than a dessert fitting for the wine of kings.”
We have asked Caroline Gilby MW about what was the best Tokaj vintage she came across recently and in general: “There have been some amazing Tokaji Aszú years in the last decade and I’m looking forward to seeing how they mature. Particular favourites at present are 2006, 2008 and 2009, with 2013 also looking very promising though it’s still a real baby.  All years that show the hallmarks of great Tokaji – expressive, complex aromas with great intensity, luscious sweetness and that exquisite balance of fine acidity that gives Tokaji its unique and ethereal quality.”