Tokaji – The King of Wines

There is a renaissance taking place in Tojaki. The Telegraph, Wine and Spirits Magazine and Decanter. com have all commented on the rebirth of this most ancient of wines. I used to get a lovingly bubble wrapped bottle of Tokaji for Christmas sent by my Grandfather; it was quite simply, delicious.

Tokaji comes from Hungary and has been celebrated by kings for 400 years. It has many firsts to its name. It was the first wine to be made intentionally from botrytised grapes. Abbot Szepsi Laczko Máté perfected the technique of making Tokaji in 1631 for the Prince of Transylvania (and no, he was not a vampire).

Hungary implemented the world’s first vineyard classification system in Tokaji in 1772. The rarest Tokaji Eszencia costs £350 per 50cl and the oldest bottle of wine ever to be sold was a bottle of 1646 Imperial Tokaji in 1984.

It was the favourite drink of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great (who ordered an entire Cossack detachment to be permanently stationed in Tokaji to guard the wines), Frederic II of Prussia, Voltiare, Goethe and Schubert. Queen Victoria received a dozen b ottles of Tokaji every birthday from Emperor Franz Josef for her lifetime. For her penultimate birthday in 1900 she received 972 bottles. It is even mentioned in the Hungarian National Anthem: “ On Tokaji’s vine stalks you have dripped nectar.” In 1703 Francis Rákóczi II, Prince of Transylvania gave Louis XV of France numerous bottles as a gift. Louis called it “Wine of Kings, King of Wines” and this has been associated with Tokaji ever since. In 1737 the Tokaji winegrowing area was delimited by Royal Decree.

Given this wealth of history Tokaji was nearly lost entirely under Communist rule. It is only since 1989 that redevelopment has been taking place. This involved rediscovering ancient techniques and led to the rebirth of Tokaji. Money poured in from outside investment and half a dozen new ventures had been started by 1993.

One of these is the Royal Tokaji Company, of which wine writer Hugh Johnson is a partner. It is the only producer in the region which is focusing on single vineyards. Single vineyards have a long history in the region. A book which dates bac k to 1700s rating various Tokaji vineyards was found hidden in an old wine cellar of the Royal Tokaji Wine Co, written entirely in Latin. It was found to be the Prince of Transylvania’s ranking of vineyards first, second and third growths.

Several estates are now owned by French Insurance Companies such as Axa and Gan. French expertise is flooding into the region via French agricultural co-ops who have also purchased estates. Indeed, Chateau Pajzis is owned by Jean Michael Arcoute, a Bordeaux vineyard owner and French oenologist Michael Rolland also has interests there.

Tokaji is officially made from 4 grapes: Furmint, Hárslevel (Lime Leaved), Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Lunel) and Zéta. The vineyards lie near the Carpathian Mountains and soar 1500ft high. The soil is volcanic with high concentrates of iron and lime.

The dominant Furmint grapes begin maturation with thick skins but as they ripen the skin becomes thinner and transparent. This allows the sun to penetrate the grape and evaporate much of the water ins ide, producing a higher proportion of sugar. Other grapes mature to the point of bursting and some juice escapes; however unlike other grapes Furmint grows a second skin after this which seals it from rot. This also has the effect of concentrating the grape’s natural sugars. The grapes are left on the vine long enough to develop a noble rot condition.

It is the Aszú wines that made Tokaji famous. They are made from dried and shrivelled grapes. Aszú means “dry” in Hungarian. The first mention of Aszú grapes was in 1571. These grapes are hand picked into a traditional wooden bucket called a Puttony. The level of sweetness depends on how many puttonyos are added to the wine.

Two is the driest and six is the sweetest. The grapes are then placed in a stee l container with a rack at the bottom. Their weight ekes out a small amount of free run juice called Eszencia. This is collected and put in glass jars. It takes 10 years to ferment. The almost juiceless grapes that are left are mixed with a dry base wine made from non Aszú grapes and fermented in barrels made from Hungarian Oak.

As for the wine, Hugh Johnson says it should be a:

“Golden colour which comes from using brown, raisined berries and not from oxidisation. It should exhibit the flavour of dried fruits – figs, quince and apricot. Botrytis gives it a honied component. It has a palate cleansing acidity which balances the sugar and helps the wine improve with age.”

Indeed Tokaji has been credited with being an aphrodisiac and a “cure-all” throughout the ages. Johnson agrees:

“it is enormously energising…a real pick me up”

Tokaji is traditionally drunk before or after the meal and goes with foie gras and blue cheese It is the perfect partner for fruit desserts based on apricots, peach, quince, melon, mango, cheesecakes and sweets made with nuts such as walnut, hazelnut and almonds. It is less cloying than most sweet wines because of the refreshing acidity.

Due to the high status of Aszú wines Tokaji’s dry wines are often ignored but it does produce some excellent varieties. They are normally named after the respective grapes ie: Tokaji Furmint, Tokaji Hárslevel and Tokaji Sárgamuskotály (Muscat). Szamorodni wines are made with bunches of botrytised grapes and depending on the fermentation process can be either sweet or dry. Szamorodni means “as they were born”.

Olly Smith in Wine and Spirits Magazine has noted that:

“Under Communism the elitist Aszú was shunned and the recipe, tradition and pride was all but lost. While co-operation and the exchange of ideas are widespread, privatisation has brought a shrinking consensus on how best to build the region’s future.”

Even the Hungarians agree that there are:

“even more possibilities for variety than Burgundy”

There are two different camps, one believing that they should focus on Samorodni and dry wines, and the other favouring the ancient Aszú wines (such as Johnson). The To kaji Crown Estates, once owned by Prince Rákóczi, were destroyed so they would not fall into the hands of the Hapsburgs.

They have since risen from the ashes and offer dry Tokaji as well as the more traditional. They hold a bottle from 1680s in their Museum Cellars. The Cellars are 300 years old and are covered in the famous mould that allows the wine to age indefinitely.

Tokaji is deservedly being resurrected and is no longer the singular preserve of Monarchs. I will let Jonathan Ray of The Telegraph have the last word:

Leave a Comment