Hungarians are chronic storytellers. Perhaps it’s in their DNA, or the result of relying on oral history to preserve their national identity as kingdoms, empires, occupations, and wars have defined their land. Another identity-ridden Hungarian pastime is wine. The appellation of Tokaj-Hegyalja (“foothills of Tokaj”) in northeastern Hungary and southwestern Slovakia represents both; Hungarians even sing about the sweet nectar of Tokaj in their national anthem.
Very few wine regions possess as much unbroken history, so significant a heyday, and such a decided fall into obscurity. As such, the focus of most Tokaj literature is about past greatness and hopes of reclaiming it. Much of what has been written also highlights King Louis XIV’s famous phrase, Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum (“Wine of Kings, King of Wines”), and ends with a discussion of the collectivized quantity-over-quality industrial production under Communism. While both are true and important in understanding the region, Tokaj is no longer static, looking backwards, or dreaming of an unknown future. Twenty-five years after the first wave of privatization, Tokaj finally has the people and experience needed to reposition itself as one of the world’s classic appellations. Today, the world’s first vineyard classification system and the oldest producer of botrytized wines is once again terroir driven, dry, sparkling, under flor, and as refreshingly sweet as ever.
This, the first of two installments, aims to give some basic background on the appellation, then outline Tokaj’s history: what originally made it a classic wine region, why it nearly disappeared, and how it’s re-emerging today in a relevant way. With this context in mind, the next installment will offer a more detailed look at how a new generation is embracing the appellation’s history and pedigree while also improving farming and winemaking, adjusting to new wines laws, and striving for increased quality across the board.
The steep terraced vineyard of Öreg Király-dűlő (“Old King Vineyard”). First mentioned in 1285, this vineyard was fallow from the 1960s until 2004, when it was replanted and its terraces mended. As one the first things you see upon entering the region, it represents a recurring theme of making the old new again.
Driving into Tokaj from Budapest, it’s immediately obvious where wine country begins. Vast fields of mustard transition into 411 formally active volcanic peaks rising above the winding Bodrog and Tisza Rivers and adjacent marshlands. Vineyards become the dominant crop hugging the river and cutting deep into the Zemplén Forest. As in many classic appellations, the 27 villages of the Tokaj PDO have unique identities and possess a mixture of classified vineyards.
Tokaj refers to the region, while Tokaji is the wine. The "i" in Hungarian is possessive; it is correct to say either Aszú from Tokaj or Tokaji Aszú. To further complicate, Tokaj is both the name of the appellation and one of the 27 villages within it.
Hungarian wine appellations © FÖMI VINGIS
The 27 villages of Tokaj © András Ede Molnár
Due to 20 million years of volcanic activity, Tokaj’s deeper subsoil is mostly tuff, with topsoil varying across the region. In grossly simplified terms, windblown loess dominates in the south and on Tokaj Hill, and a mixture of rock and clay locally called nyirok covers the rest. Other key volcanic soils include rhyolite, andesite, dacite, bentonite, zeolite, kaolin, opal, and obsidian. Highlighting these various volcanic soils is paramount in Tokaj. Whether tasting with a large producer or in a garage operation, there will inevitably be a bowl of stones on the table and someone encouraging you to hold, smell, and commune with them.
Stones & bread on the table in Tokaj
The Bodrog and Tisza Rivers are important influences as well. The Bodrog runs alongside most villages and intersects with the Tisza in the village of Tokaj. The area between them is called the Bodrogköz (“land amidst the Bodrog”). Sparsely populated and prone to annual flooding, this region is the source of moisture that is then pushed towards the vineyards and protected from the northerly winds by the Zemplén Forest. Timing is everything: fog and mist are found elsewhere, of course, but they often arrive long before the grapes are ripe, leading to grey rot—which no one calls noble!
Szepsi Laczkó Máté is often credited with the discovery of how to use botrytis cinerea in winemaking. In 1631, he fled his vineyards due to an impending battle with the Turks and returned to widespread botrytis. According to legend, he nonetheless went ahead with making wine, and sweet botrytized wine was born. That said, the first mention of Aszú dates to 1571.
Whether the legend is true or not, Tokaj arguably has the most consistent botrytis with healthy grapes of any wine region in the world. It’s a celebrated affliction perfected over hundreds of years of trial and error.
Progression from fresh to Aszú berry © Disznókő
Tokaj’s underground cellars are another distinction of the region. Over 100 miles of cellars, mostly carved into the volcanic tuff between the mid-15th and the late 17th century, are covered in a mold called Cladosporium cellare that feeds on the alcohol evaporating from cask and bottle. The resulting microclimate, which smells incredibly fresh and alive, covers nearly every square inch of a healthy cellar. The high humidity, often near 95%, is perfect for long-term aging and keeps alcohol levels low due to very little water loss in cask.
The contrast of thick, jet-black mold and golden wine in bottle make these caves look like an alchemist’s workshop.
The six most common native grape varieties in the post-phylloxera era have retained their popularity in the region due to their high acidity, sugar concentration, and ability to contract botrytis. The most planted variety is Furmint, followed by Hárslevelű, Sárga Muskotály, and smaller amounts of the rest.
Furmint (Foor-mint): Furmint has tightly packed clusters of medium-sized berries, ripens late, maintains high acidity, and is very prone to botrytis. The late ripening is key in building up sugar concentration, and the tight clusters spread botrytis efficiently. DNA profiling has identified Furmint as an offspring of Gouais Blanc and therefore likely a half sibling of Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay Noir, and others in that family. Furmint was mentioned as early as 1611 in Tokaj.
Hárslevelű (Harsh-level-loo): A genetic offspring of Furmint, Hárslevelű has looser bunches and relatively thick skins, making it less prone to botrytis in the drier years. Late ripening, aromatic (its name means “linden leaf”), and with elegant acidity, it can easily stand on its own or act as a blending component for both dry and sweet wines.
Sárga Muskotály (Sharga-moose-kah-tie): Known as Muškát Žltý in Slovakia, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains in France, Moscato Bianco in Italy, and Gelber Muskateller in Austria. The most aromatic grape in Tokaj, it also maintains great acidity and is later ripening. Its uses run the whole range, from dry to Aszú wines.
Kövérszőlő (Koo-ver-sue-loo): Literally “the little fat one,” this is a big-berried grape that nearly went extinct. Revived in the 1990s, it produces quite a bit of sugar but lacks acidity. Although some producers make single varietal wines, most is blended into sweet wines.
Zéta (Zay-tuh): Formally known as “Oremus” prior to 1999, it is a cross between Furmint and Bouvier designed for Aszú production. It has high sugar concentration, is prone to botrytis, and ripens early.
Kabar (Kah-bar): Also known as Tarcal 10, this is a crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier, which results in early ripening, thick skins, high acidity, and potentially high sugar levels. Only authorized in 2006, there is very little planted in the region.
As medieval Europe transitioned into the Renaissance and the early modern era, sugar remained a rare commodity, alchemy was wildly popular, and we can safely assume people enjoyed drinking alcohol. Imagine the appeal of golden sweet booze! Tokaji was medicine for popes and a favorite among the French royal court and Russian tsars. It was also a well-documented muse for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Catherine the Great, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, Bram Stoker, Leo Tolstoy, Pablo Neruda, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Denis Diderot, and Voltaire—to name just a few. Swiss-born alchemist Paracelsus spent years unsuccessfully trying to extract actual gold from it. In the new world, Thomas Jefferson imported wine from Tokaj for presidential banquets in the early 1800s. As recent as the early 1900s, Tokaji was still available by prescription.
During the height of Tokaj’s popularity in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, people flocked to the region from all over Europe, making it one of the most densely populated and diverse areas in Hungary. In the early 1700s, Greek merchants were a driving force, soon followed by Italians, Walloons from Belgium, Armenians, and German-speaking Swabians.
Still others came because Tokaj was a tolerant religious hub, reflected in the 1568 Edict of Torda. In the first half of the 19th century, Jews were the dominant ethnic group. They made huge contributions to the region and can be credited with keeping high quality wines on the international market for centuries. Before this time, most barrels were smeared with pork lard as a preservative. Jewish winemakers instead preferred well-toasted barrels treated with sulfur. Many of the buildings now home to the Royal Tokaji Company were once owned by a prominent Jewish winemaking family. This fact was lost for centuries, but today, there are plaques installed on the walls commemorating the original owners, the Zimmermans. Cultural and religious diversity helped the region thrive by fostering competition, driving quality, and providing connections to export markets.
Tokaj’s history is grand, but its reputation has changed drastically. It begs the question: what happened?
Despite popularity throughout Europe, Tokaj’s success began unraveling with the partition of Poland in the late 1700s. Along with other difficult international relationships dictated by the Habsburgs, Tokaj ran into trade problems with key export markets. This was quickly followed with phylloxera in the 1880s. World War I was next, resulting in the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, through which Hungary lost a staggering 71% of its territory, including seven communities and approximately 910 hectares of Tokaji vineyards that are now in modern-day Slovakia. The loss of land also included essential internal markets. Supply soon began to outweigh demand, and producers began to fortify for the first time, a practice that wouldn’t be outlawed until 1991. WWII came soon after this, all but exterminating the immensely important Jewish population and devastating Hungary with the usual horrors of war.
Communist control was the final blow. Collectivized state-controlled mass production took over, and private ownership on a commercial scale came to an end. Steep and terraced vineyards were abandoned for the flatlands. First-class vineyards that had been planted for hundreds of years were quickly consumed by the forest or ripped out altogether. For the next 50 years, until 1989, the loss of key markets, diverse ethnic communities, and knowledge of the land and cellar continued.
In the early days of privatization following the fall of Communism (early 1990s), foreign investments were the dominant engine behind replanting, sourcing updated winemaking equipment, improving farming, and focusing on high quality wines—sweet Aszú in particular. Royal Tokaji Wine Company was one of the first in the region, cofounded by well-known British writer Hugh Johnson. The French soon followed, with estates like Disznókő (owned by AXA Millésimes), Dereszla (CANA), Château Pajzos (Jean-Louis Laborde), and Tokaj Hétszőlő (Grand Millésimes de France). Other key early wineries include the American-owned Királyudvar (Anthony Hwang) and the Spanish-owned Tokaj-Oremus (Vega Sicilia). These investments produced some of the benchmark wines that demonstrated that great wines could be made in Tokaj once again, including the 1993 Royal Tokaji Company Essencia, 1993 Disznókő Aszú 6 Puttonyos, and 2000 Királyudvar Úrágya Dry Furmint. They were also incubators for a new generation of Hungarian winemakers, such as these important figures:
Funds committed to the revitalization of Tokaj through 2020 by the Hungarian government and the EU total 330 million euros. Claessens International has been hired to rebrand Tokaji around the world and modernize the state-owned and largest producer, Grand Tokaj (previously Tokaj Kereskedőház Zrt). Massive vineyard research for the whole appellation is also underway. The rest of the money is largely allocated for infrastructure and tourism, with an overarching goal of higher quality across the board.
The Hungarian government finally targeted Tokaj as a “growth area” in 2014. At the core of this is a 100-million-euro community winemaking project called Közösségi Borászati Infrastruktúra Projekt, which will provide local winemakers access to modern winemaking equipment, including a mobile bottling line. Large custom crush facilities are being built in the villages of Tállya, Tarcal, and Sárospatak. For most local growers and winemakers (those working outside of the larger, foreign-owned wineries), making a living has been very difficult. The region needs incentives like this to help retain and incentivize Tokaj’s driven, dedicated, and creative locals.
Fortunately, Tokaj has many passionate people. Soon after privatization, organizations like Tokaj Renaissance (1995) sprang up to foster, protect, and promote a community of like-minded producers. Others soon followed, all with similar aims of raising quality and awareness. These are just a few:
Local markets and festivals, the most successful celebrating a specific village’s culture, history, and wine, foster enthusiasm and raise funds that are being used to revive village identities, connect producers, and improve local families’ quality of life. Some of the most notable are Tokaji Ősz (“Tokaj Autumn”), Bodrogkeresztúr’s All Saints' Month Merriment, and Tarcal’s Spring Witching Weekend. In Bodrogkisfalud, they have the Dűlőszelektált Farsang - Borok és Betűk, or “Vineyard-Selected Carnival,” where people dress like up like single vineyards!
Research and education are playing an important role as well. The village of Tarcal is home to the Research Institute for Viticulture and Oenology (RIVOT). Originally a training school started in 1872, it became a research institute in 1949 and in 2011 was rebranded, with goals of research, education, breeding, and clonal selections. RIVOT also publishes Szőlőlevél (meaning “grape leaf”), which has become a crucial resource, especially since quality research-driven publications have been rare in the past 25 to 30 years. In the town of Tokaj, newly renovated museums like Világörökségi Bormúzeum Tokaj and Tokaji Múzeum are amazing resources for trade and consumers alike.
Confrérie de Tokaj in the 600-year-old Rákóczi Cellar © Tokaj Confrérie
Tokaj has the nuts and bolts needed to build itself back up again: a diverse range of volcanic soils, vigorous native grapes, unique winemaking techniques (Aszú especially), local cooperages, and a surplus of characters driving the industry at all levels. Yet 25 years isn’t long in the wine world. Out of the 11,000 potential hectares in the appellation, less than 6,000 are currently planted. Efforts toward better clonal selection and planting the right grapes in the right places are underway—but only beginning. And while investments from the EU and the Hungarian government are promising, it remains to be seen if they will go as planned.
There is much work to be done, but the region is well positioned and prepared to move forward. After its wild early successes and a very great fall, Tokaj is finally relevant again and deserving of our attention.
The second installment on Tokaj will take a closer look at appellation law, winemaking styles, farming, key producers available in the US market, and how to contextualize this appellation within the larger world of wine.
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Confrérie de Tokaj
Tokaj Wine Region
Excellent excellent article!