Sauternes and Tokaj wines are some of the most sought-after in the world. Both regions are famous for producing sweet, concentrated white wines that can age for decades–some can even age for centuries under the right conditions. These wines share similarities–botrytized grapes are used in both regions, for example–yet comparing Sauternes vs. Tokaji reveals that these are two very different wines. For one thing, they don’t have the same flavor profile. Fine Sauternes is known for tasting rich and honeyed, while Tokaji Aszú is often much fruitier and more acidic.
So which wine is right for your collection? It depends on which sweet style you prefer and whether you plan on reselling your collection for a profit later. Ultimately, though, there’s no reason to choose between Sauternes and Tokaji. Many collectors invest in both because they each bring something to the table. Iconic Sauternes producers like Château d’Yquem make great wines that can be laid down for decades, while young wine from renowned producer Royal Tokaji often tastes amazingly complex soon after release. If you love sweet wines, investing in both Sauternes and Tokaji can be incredibly rewarding.
How Sauternes Is Made vs. How Tokaji Is Made
Since many of the differences between these wines arises from the way they’re made, you’ll need to consider the winemaking traditions in each area in order to compare Sauternes vs. Tokaji:
Sauternes Winemaking Techniques
Winemakers in Sauternes rely on noble rot to produce some of the greatest sweet wines in the world. Foggy conditions in the region encourage the growth of Botrytis cinerea, a mold that leeches water from the grapes and causes them to shrivel on the vine. The removal of excess water concentrates the sugar and flavor in the grapes, resulting in sweet, intense wines. Each year around the month of October, winemakers carefully select the most botrytized grapes in the vineyard. Since winemakers in Sauternes only make wine from botrytized grapes, yields are very low in years when noble rot isn’t widespread. To deal with this unpredictability, some lower-quality producers may use chaptalization to artificially increase the sugar levels in the wine.
Sauternes is made from three grape varieties:
- Sémillon (the primary grape used in Sauternes)
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Muscadelle (if used, typically only in small amounts)
After harvest, winemakers crush the grapes and allow the juice to ferment. The fermentation process naturally stops after the wine has reached 15 to 16 percent ABV. As much as seven percent residual sugar is left behind, making these wines taste exceptionally sweet.
Tokaji Winemaking Techniques
Like Sauternes, Tokaji is also usually made from botrytized grapes, but in a very different way. The term Tokaji refers to any wine made in the Tokaj region that spans parts of Hungary and Slovakia. These wines can be made from any of six grape varieties:
- Furmint (the most common)
- Yellow Muscat
- Zéta (formerly called Oremus)
These grapes tend to be thicker-skinned and more acidic than the white grape varieties in Sauternes, and Furmint is particularly acidic and thick-skinned in its early stages of growth. As Furmint grapes ripen, the skins stretch and become thinner. When this happens, sunlight penetrates the skin more easily, increasing the concentration of sugar inside the grapes. Furmint also takes a long time to ripen fully (winemakers can harvest the fruit as late as January). The longer winemakers leave the grapes on the vine, the greater the likelihood that noble rot will develop.
However, unlike in Sauternes, Tokaj winemakers don’t have to make their wines from botrytized grapes alone; they can blend botrytized and non-botrytized grapes to make different styles of wine. This means that some Tokaji wines are sweeter than others. The most notable wine styles made in the Tokaj region are:
- Dry wine: Made from grapes that were harvested early and not always botrytized.
- Szamorodni: Made from a blend of botrytized and non-botrytized grapes. Its sugar levels vary from száraz (dry) to édes (sweet).
- Aszú: A very sweet wine made from a blend of dried-out botrytized grapes and uninfected grapes. This is one of the most popular types of Tokaji among collectors. It often has a perfect balance between acidity and sweetness.
- Essencia: Perhaps the sweetest wine in the world. Winemakers store all of their botrytized grapes in a vat until the end of the harvest season. The grapes release juice into the bottom of the vat, which is collected and fermented. Essencia has between five and six percent ABV and is so sweet that it can only be enjoyed in very small quantities. These wines can age for 200 years or more.
The sweetness of the final wine depends on how much paste is added to the must, measured in “puttonyos.”
To make Tokaji Aszú, the most famous of the Tokaj wine styles, producers only use grapes that have been completely depleted of water by botrytis. They make a paste from these dried-out grapes and then blend the paste with must from non-botrytized grapes. The sweetness of the final wine depends on how much paste is added to the must, measured in “puttonyos.” Six puttonyos means that there is an equal amount of paste to must. Fewer puttonyos makes the wine taste drier; more puttonyos makes the wine taste sweeter.
These differences in the way botrytized grapes are used are what set Tokaj wines apart from those made in Sauternes, and they also give Tokaji more diversity of flavor and potentially more sweetness than Sauternes. In 2014, the Tokaji trade council increased the minimum residual sugar requirement for Tokaji Aszú. This means that three and four puttonyos Tokaji wines are no longer produced; modern Tokaji Aszú now must contain at least 130 grams of residual sugar per liter (five to six puttonyos). Sauternes, by comparison, typically only contains between 80 and 120 grams of residual sugar. While there are some Sauternes wines that contain more sugar and some older Tokaji Aszú vintages and dry Tokaji styles that contain less sugar, in general, the driest Tokaji Aszú is still sweeter than most Sauternes wines.
Sauternes vs. Tokaji: Flavor Differences
Other than sweetness, the most noticeable flavor difference when comparing Sauternes vs. Tokaji is the amount of acidity in the wine. Even though Tokaji is often much sweeter and contains more residual sugar than Sauternes, it’s also more acidic. The acid balances out the sugar, and as a result, Tokaji tastes refreshing and usually quite fruity. Many collectors say that drier styles of sweet Tokaji are easier to drink in larger amounts because their plentiful acid makes them taste less rich than other sweet wine styles. On the Wine Berserkers forum, one member explained, “There’s a tension that you get with the wines from Tokaj that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Sauternes changes more than Tokaji as it ages and takes on great complexity and a distinctive nutty flavor.
By contrast, Sauternes wines are usually more honeyed and concentrated. Fine Sauternes is creamier than Tokaji and has more dried fruit flavors. These are superb dessert wines, but can be so rich that many people can only enjoy a small glass or two before their palates need a break.
Bottles of Tokaji Aszú in the five to six puttonyos range (120-150 grams per liter of residual sugar) are most comparable to Sauternes in terms of sweetness. If you normally struggle to get through an entire glass of sweet wine because it’s too rich, then five or six puttonyos Tokaji Aszú or Tokaji Szamorodni édes may be better options than Sauternes. They’re sweet, but they won’t exhaust your palate.
If you’re looking for a wine to lay down, then Sauternes and any style of Tokaji are great options because they age for decades. Sauternes changes more than Tokaji as it ages and takes on great complexity and a distinctive nutty flavor, while Tokaji starts out complex and will stay fresh-tasting even with age. In the end, the wine you choose depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish with your collection as well as what you like to drink.
How to Choose the Best Wine for Your Collection
Whether you invest in Sauternes, Tokaji, or both, only buy wine from producers with good reputations if you want to make a profit by reselling your bottles. Here are a few notable producers that make some of the most valuable Sauternes and Tokaji wines:
- Château d’Yquem
- Château Rieussec
- Château Guiraud
- Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey
- Château de Fargues
- Château Doisy-Védrines
- Château Suduiraut
- Château de Cosse
Château d’Yquem is generally a better investment for collectors looking to turn a profit in a shorter period of time since these bottles increase in value more quickly.
In terms of market value, both Sauternes and Tokaji can plateau in price after aging for some time. This is common for sweet wines with aging potential and is especially true for very sweet Tokaji wines. A bottle of 2008 Royal Tokaji Essencia, for example, is expected to age for more than a century. The Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin says, “It might constitute blasphemy, but the freshness means you can enjoy this now, or as my drinking window suggests, wait another 100 years, as temporally fantastical as that sounds.” Because the wine will take so long to reach full maturity, its value will rise slowly and incrementally. The price of a bottle of 2008 Royal Tokaji Essencia currently averages around $1,000 per bottle and isn’t likely to change dramatically over the next year or two. This means that if you plan on flipping your bottles for a profit, you’ll have to be patient. Château d’Yquem is generally a better investment for collectors looking to turn a profit in a shorter period of time since these bottles increase in value more quickly. Top Château d’Yquem vintages are highly sought-after and valued on the secondary market.
Sauternes and Tokaji are some of the most delicious dessert wines in the world, and each region has a unique experience to offer. Investing in both gives you a glimpse into what makes these wines so distinctive and beloved.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.