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How one ‘wine’ is made to be sipped from a spoon

This week saw the unveiling of a ‘wine’ that’s so precious, it’s meant be served from a spoon, with restaurants charging more than £200 per sip.

Royal Tokaji Essencia from 2016

The drink is Hungary’s Tokaji Essencia, the most intensely sweet ‘wine’ in the world, with more than 535g/l of residual sugar – around five times the amount found in a can of coke, and four times the quantity contained in a bottle of Château d’Yquem, the famous sweet wine from Sauternes.

Although a few producers make Essencia, this week’s release has been made by Royal Tokaji, and hails from the 2016 harvest.

Not only is the wine made in tiny quantities, but it is the eighth vintage released by the producer in the past 30 years, with previous expressions coming from 1993,1999, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009 and this week, after a seven-year gap, the 2016.

The wine is so concentrated, it comes in a gift box containing a crystal spoon for serving it, and, where it is poured in restaurants, the listing is ‘by the spoon’ – with this diminutive measure costing more than £200 in places such as The Fat Duck – where a 50ml serving of the 2008 vintage will set you back £260.

Speaking about the nature of the liquid, Royal Tokaji managing director Charlie Mount said that each spoonful of Essencia contained on average 746 berries, all of which were picked by hand.

These are special berries too, each one shrivelled following a November-harvest after an attack of Botrytis cinerea, known as ‘noble rot’, which concentrates the sugars, acids and flavours in the grapes.

Each berry is then hand-selected by pickers, who will each harvest around 5kg of the grapes, making several passes through the vineyards, with around 40 kilos needed to make one 37.5cl bottle of Essencia.

The liquid is then obtained without pressing the berries, but released naturally from the raisined grapes under their own weight, as a syrup-like juice.

Once collected, this free-run liquid is bottled by lots and placed in different sizes of glass demijohns to slowly ferment in Royal Tokaji’s 13th century cellars, which it does spontaneously.

Due to the incredibly sweet nature of the juice, the yeasts work very slowly, and can only convert a small proportion of the grape sugars into alcohol, with the 2016 Essencia from Royal Tokaji seeing fermentation finish by December 2019 with 1.9% abv – meaning that Essencia is not strictly a wine.

In terms of the style of the drink, Royal Tokaji winery director Zoltán Kovács said on Monday that “2016 is always about acidity,” noting that it was notably high in all of the producer’s sweet wines from this vintage, before describing the character of the Essencia from this harvest as “electrifying” – with 15.5 g/l of acidity.

Continuing he said, “Such high acidity brings tremendous balance to the richness given by the sugar content,” having said that the 2016 release is the “third most acid” after the 99 and 93 vintages.

In terms of flavours, he said that the Essencia had “a lot of botrytis complexity”, noting a range of characters, from lime to apple, pear and quince.

The special nature of the liquid and Tokaji’s sweet wines made from shrivelled, botrytis-affected berries, known as aszú grapes, he said was a result of the Hungarian region’s unique combination of climate and volcanic bedrock – as well as grape varieties, notably Furmint.

Essencia must by law contain a minimun of 450g/l of sugar, with some examples approaching as much as double that quantity.

Royal Tokaji’s 2016 Essencia will be launched through fine wine merchants in the UK, with just 2,300 x 37.5cl bottles available for the world.

Kovács said the liquid had been released to be drunk now, but could last more than 100 years, commenting, “Our life is not long enough to reach the drinking window of Essencia”.

Although the RRP of the Essencia 2016 has yet to be revealed, last year’s release, which was from the 2009 vintage, is on sale for £1,636 for a 37.5cl bottle in Harrods, although Mount said that London department store also stocked a magnum of Essencia for £36,000.

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