Wine folk are often reluctant to admit they like sweet drinks – it doesn’t come across as very brainy. But there is one time of the year when everyone’s allowed to have a sweet tooth, and that’s Christmas, when dining tables cluttered with cracker paper, low-burning candles and abandoned pudding plates fill with bottles of dessert wine in all shades of amber and gold.
Back in the 19th century, sweet wines were some of the most sought-after drinks in the world – Yquem Sauternes, Tokaji and the South African sweet wine Constantia changed hands for huge sums, and were enjoyed from the palaces of France to the Russian imperial court.
Sauternes may be the famous one today, but Constantia has the distinction of being name-checked by Jane Austen, Dickens and Baudelaire. To see what all the fuss is about, try the exquisite new 2014 vintage of its modern-day incarnation, Vin de Constance (£198 for six 50cl bottles or £168 for a 150cl magnum, Berry Bros & Rudd).
And it was Tokaji that was known as the “king of wines and the wine of kings”. Produced by vineyards that were first classified in the early 1700s, this liquid gold was one of Hungary’s most prized exports right up until the dawn of the Cold War. “One of the world’s great wines got stuck behind the Iron Curtain,” recalls the distinguished wine writer Hugh Johnson, who was one of the first on the ground following eastern European communism’s collapse in 1989-91. Inspired by old vintages he tasted, Johnson went on to found Royal Tokaji, now one of the region’s foremost producers. “It wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “When we first arrived we moved into a bleak scene with nowhere to stay and very little to eat.”
Today, Royal Tokaji is renowned for making single-vineyard wines exclusively from first-growth vineyards. And they are meticulous: “We only pick when the grapes are absolutely right, which means we might pick just five or six from each bunch in a single day”. What makes Tokaji different to Sauternes is its freshness, its acidity – it has a lip-smacking quality, so it’s often drunk as an aperitif in Hungary. And at a rare tasting of Royal Tokaji vintages from the 1990s, hosted by Johnson, I was struck by how well this freshness continued to shine more than two decades later.
Royal Tokaji’s top vineyard is the hard-to-pronounce Nyulászo, which produces wines that are, in Johnson’s words “sinfully rich, vivid with fruit flavours, as long as the Danube and as lively as Liszt”. Only tiny amounts of the 1991 and 1996 vintages are available (£395 for six 50cl bottles, Farr Vintners). Rich with quince, acacia honey and clove-spiked apple, and tropical lychee and pineapple topped with that signature orange-peel zestiness, they are wines fit for a king – and most certainly for Christmas.