The short answer is yes, puttonyos are relevant and should still be part of wine lovers’ vernacular, particularly those enamored with the history of Hungary’s Tokaji wines.
The long answer, however, is as complex as the history of Tokaji winemaking itself.
Tokaji, a sweet wine from the region of Tokaj, was long labeled by its number of puttonyos, a unit of measurement ranging from 3 to 6, indicating the wine’s sweetness level. But in 2013, that changed, altering tradition rooted in centuries of history.
Here’s a brief history lesson on the lusciously sweet wines of Tokaji:
- 1252 – The first mention of Tokaj vineyards in a charter of donation by Béla IV.
- 1550 – Tokaji makes its way to the international market, finding popularity in Poland and the Royal Court in Vienna.
- 1730s – Mátyás Bél, a polymath who spearheaded geographic science in Hungary, creates a list of vineyards, organizing them by location and quality.
- 1737 – A royal decree outlines winemaking protocol, delimiting the area and creating a system of appellation control.
These milestones were long before the rest of the world kept such a watchful eye on regulations, making the area one of the first official winemaking regions worldwide.
All of this makes the 2013 labeling changes, doing away with classifying wine by puttonyos, relatively recent.
Prior to 2013, measuring Tokaji Aszú sweetness was done with puttonyos. The word evolved from ‘puttony’, a 25-liter tub commonly carried on workers’ backs during harvest. The more puttonyos emptied into a 136-liter Gönci barrel, the higher the sweetness of the resulting wine. A Tokaji Aszú wine could be 3, 4, 5, or 6 puttonyos.
The sweetness of Tokaji Aszú wines comes from grapes affected by botrytis (aka noble rot). Botrytis occurs in regions with humid conditions, such as those created by the meeting of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers, forming morning fog. With humidity comes the risk of noble rot becoming deleterious gray rot. Fortunately, Tokaj boasts long sunny autumn afternoons, producing perfectly dried grapes with highly concentrated sugars.
Rather than counting baskets, an evolution of practice saw the number of puttonyos on the label as an indication of a specific amount of residual sugar. Three Puttonyos contained 60 g/l, increasing in 30 g/l increments up to 6 puttonyos weighing in at a minimum of 150 g/l of sugar.
There was also a bottling called Aszú Eszencia weighing in at 180-450 g/l, which gets confusing, given that the crème de la crème of all the aszú wines is Tokaji Eszencia.
Tokaji Eszencia is from the free-run juice of aszú berries. It takes a lengthy fermentation to achieve even the slightest amount of alcohol (often only 3% ABV) before the yeast perishes, leaving a minimum of 450 grams per liter of sugar. Instead of a glass, indulgers ceremoniously sip the wine from a teaspoon because it’s so thick.
Authorities made the decision to discontinue Aszú Eszencia in 2013 to help protect the quality of Tokaji Eszencia and prevent potential buyers’ confusion.
A Quick Note on Tokaji Grapes
The most famous Tokaji wine grape is Furmint, accounting for approximately 66% of grape plantings in the region. It’s a white grape with naturally high acidity and tannins to balance sugars.
Härslevelu comes next, accounting for about 19% of the region’s plantings, and emits aromatic notes, as does Sárga Muskotály, known elsewhere as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
Other permittable blending grapes are Kabar, Kövérszóló, and Zéta. While there are some single-varietal wines, blends are common.
A Post-Puttonyos World
The elimination of puttonyos labeling for most levels of Tokaji Aszú was a massive change in 2013 — Wines of Tokaj still states 6 Puttonyos as an allowable label.
Since 2013, the minimum residual sugar of Tokaji Aszú starts at 120 grams of sugar per liter (formerly 5 puttonyos). Anything less than that is a Late Harvest wine.
The goal of the changes were to raise quality levels and lessen confusion, but there were industry concerns about the shift being difficult for consumers. Particularly for fans of Tokaji Aszú of 3 or 4 puttonyos who may not know to look for the new Late Harvest label.
Though the change was made a decade ago, consumers are likely to still see Tokaji wines with the former terminology for a couple of reasons. First, pre-2013 Tokaji is readily available on shelves, as their sugar levels allow them to age handsomely. Additionally, producers can still print puttonyos on the label if they meet the minimum sugar level. However, if they do, they are not allowed to be labeled as Aszú and are generally considered to be more entry-level wines.
In short, puttonyos still matter. But paying attention to the wine’s vintage and whether the word ‘Aszú’ is on the label are all clues to the wine’s quality and style.