What's the meaning of the numbers 3 through 6 on the labels of Hungarian Tokaji?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What is the meaning of the numbers 3 through 6 in the names of Hungarian Tokaji? Is it a measure of sweetness? I notice that the higher the number, the more expensive is that vintage of Tokaji.

—John P., San Francisco

Dear John,

Yes, that number on a bottle of Tokaji, which ranges from three to six, is directly related to the wine’s level of sweetness. Three is sweet, and six is really, really sweet. Originally, the number referred to the number of puttonyos, or buckets, of sweet botrytis-affected grapes called aszú that were added to a dry wine. The more that were added, the sweeter the final wine would be.

The days of counting buckets have passed, so now the number refers to the wine’s residual sugar. Three puttonyos means a minimum of 60 grams per liter of residual sugar, all they way up to the 6 puttonyos classification, which refers to a minimum of 150 grams per liter of residual sugar. If that’s not enough residual sugar for you, you should keep an eye out for bottlings marked “Eszencia,” which are made entirely from aszú grapes. These are some of the rarest and most expensive bottles of wine in the world.

You’re also correct that there is a direct correlation between the sweetness and the price of a Tokaji. Making wines with botrytis comes with a set of risks and expenses, but if you ever get a chance to try it, it’s pure nectar.

—Dr. Vinny

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