“ Tokaji does for you at the end of an extended gourmet meal, what champagne does at the beginning”.
Tokaji Aszu, that wonderful nectar of a wine enjoys a long and illustrious history, too long to explore in a short article. It is rich and intertwined with history, intrigue, politics, as well as warfare.
When Hungarian King Louis the Great received 30 barrels of Malvasia (aka Malmsey) as war indemnity from the city-state Venice he was hooked by its intensity of fruit and balanced sweetness (1358).
The island of Malvasia was then under Venetian rule and the astute merchants correctly thought that if marketed, malvasia would become popular in Europe, particularly sun-starved northern Europe.
However, when the Ottoman Empire took control of the island supplies started to become scarce. Eventually King Louis decided to grow malvasia around the Lake Balaton. The attempt was successful, and the fame of the wine throughout Europe started to grow especially among the nobility and clergy.
As luck would have it Ottoman Turks won the battle of Mohacs and many of the growers were forced to seek refuge in the gentle foothills of Tokaji Hegyalya
(Tokayi Hills) close the Slovak border (1526).
After many trials and errors, observant growers noticed that overripe and shrivelled grapes yielded a concentrated and very sweet must, much superior to that of the regular wine. The shrivelled grapes were attacked by botrytis cinerea, an airborne fungus, that develops when mornings are foggy and afternoons sunny and dry. Botrytis happens to be beneficial when the fruit is ripe. On unripe fruit it is called grey rot!
Botrytis occurs in a few growing regions namely Sauternes, Ontario, British Columbia, and some parts of California.
Despite continued warfare between Turks, Hungarian separatists and Polish armies, Tokaji growers managed to produce and protect their precious nectar by building cellars dug into the hills, where temperatures are a constant 50 F
(10C). After a few years astute growers noticed a considerable change in both the aroma and taste of the wines given the quality of the vintage.
By 1620 yields per hectare were established and the size of Gonci barrels standardized. By 1700 all vineyards were classified as First, Second and Third Class (roughly equivalent to growth in Bordeaux) . 76 vineyards were classified as first, 59 as second and 38 as third. Fifty-six years before Marques de Pombal, the prime minister of Portugal, thought of demarcating the Douro vineyards to prevent fraud and fully 155 years before the now famous 1855 Bordeaux Classification.
Tokaji wines are classified as:
Szamorodni (as it comes) dry or off dry
Aszu 3 to 7 puttonyos
Szamorodni is a wine made from regularly harvested grapes and vinted as every other wine.
Aszu on the other hand follows a very laborious and complicated path. First, botrytis affected grapes are harvested bunch-by-bunch, sometimes even grape-by-grape. They are a placed in a container called puttonyo (holding 20- 25 kilos). These botrytis-affected grapes are then worked to a mass and placed into a Gonci barrel (130 litre capacity) filled with szamorodni wine. The introduction of this sweet mass imparts a particularly lively, sweet but not cloying taste to the whole. The greater the ratio of botrytis affected grapes to szamorodni in a barrel the sweeter and more concentrated the taste. Generally Aszu wines contain from three to seven puttonyi.
Essencia is a class in itself. This nectar comes from the juice generated by the weight of the upper layer of grapes in a quill basket. Understandably, this tends to be very little, therefore extremely concentrated. Essencia, when available, costs as much trockenbeerenauslese wines from Germany and Austria sometimes even more.
Out of the 38 first class qualified vineyards the following are considered to be the very best:
Birsalmas, Sasalia, Disznoko, Hintos, Sta Tomas, Mulato, Oremus, Megyer and Mezes Maly, which enjoys a particularly good reputation for being, classified as first great class.
By the end of the 18th century, the fame of Tokaji Aszu had spread throughout Europe, including the Russian and Polish courts, and eventually was accessible to a few privileged and rich customers.
Pope Benedict XIV wrote to Maria Theresa, Archduchesses of Austria and Queen of Hungary, in grateful acknowledgment of a gift of Tokaji: “ Happy is the country which grows them. Happy is the Queen who sends them, and happier still am I to drink them.”
Louis XIV, the sun king, kept supplies for his mistress Madame de Pompadour and successive Popes slept with bottles by their bed sides believing the wine to have curative powers.
Most of the finest vineyards were owned by the Hungarian nobility and Emperor Franz Jozeph was famous for his gift of 972 bottles of Tokaji to Queen Victoria on her 81st birthday ( a case for each of her birthdays from that vintage ) in 1900. We do not know how and who enjoyed all, of them.
When the communists started to politically and financially control the country, all vineyards were confiscated and declared public property, thus eliminating to all incentive to produce a fine wine.
After the harvest, the wines were blended according to quality and aged for excessively long periods. Ninety per cent of the production went to the U.S.S.R. in exchange for natural gas. Quality was neglected in the Borkombinat, the state owned winery, in favour of quantity since it was the sole producer and purveyor of Tokaji wine. What little was exported to western countries reflected more Soviet taste and philosophy than terroir and tradition. Yet, miraculously some growers who were old enough to remember the taste of pre-communist wines, managed to squirrel away a few kilos of fine fruit and vinted their own according to tradition keeping them for special occasions.
In 1989 Peter Vinding-Diers, a Danish-born yeast specialist, convinced Hugh Johnson of World Atlas of Wine fame to buy land in Tokaji Hegyalya to create aristocratic wine once again. Negotiations were slow and convoluted, since all government bureaucrats made every effort to make bloc progress and foreign investment. In 1990, by pure coincidence Peter Vinding-Diers discovered a book describing all the 1700 vineyard classification in a Buda antiquarian. Armed with this information and proof of the historical importance of these vineyards Hugh Johnson and him were able to convince Hungarian bureaucrats that making and marketing single-vineyard Tokaji Aszu wines was in the best interest of the region, the government, and all wine enthusiasts everywhere.
Almost overnight the word got out and French insurance companies with wads of money lined up to buy land: GAN acquired Megyer and Pajzos now called Chateau Megyer and Chateau Pajzos; then AXA bought Disznoko and GMF purchased the Hetszolo estate. Vega Sicilia, the venerable Spanish winery of Ribera del Duero, decided to get into the act by acquiring Oremus and Hugh Johnson and Peter Vinding-Diers founded the Royal Tokayi Wine Company. The latter produces and markets single vineyard first class classified Tokaji Aszu wines that are lively, vibrant with fruit and concentrated, more in the Sauternes style than pre 1990 that employed oxidative technology.
In 1983 I had the opportunity to taste 1980 to 1965 Tokaji Aszu wines with a range of puttonyi in the cellars of Borkombinat, then managed by Andras Baszo. All the wines reflected the then prevailing philosophy: overage all wines.
The wines tasted were more akin to Madeira. Oremus and Chateau Pajzos and Domaine Hetszolo are still produced using oxidative technology but not to the extend that Soviets liked. To my palate the Royal Tokaji wines are more appealing. Tokaji Aszu (5 – 6 puttonyos) complement best pan -seared fattened goose liver slices, enriched with authentic balsamic vinegar, fruit based desserts, fresh in-season peaches, nectarines and apricots.
The best wineries are:
The Royal Tokaji Company
TASTING NOTES ON 1995 Vintage ROYAL TOKAJI WINE COMPANY ASZU WINES
TOKAJI BIRSALMAS 5 PUTTONYOS (2ND CLASS CLASSIFICATION )
HONEYED AROMA, MEDIUM-BODY, SUPERBLY BALANCED WITH GOOD DEPTH OF FRUIT.
TOKAJI BETSEK 5 PUTTONYOS (1ST CLASS)
AN EXCELLENT HONEYED AROMA OF BOTRYSIZED GRAPES, FOLLOWED BY A REFINED AND “ LIGHT “ TEXTURE. CLEAN, SMOOTH, LONG AND SATISFYING FINISH.
TOKAJI NYULASZO 6 PUTTONYOS (1ST CLASS)
DIRED APRICOT AND HONEY AROMAS, FOLLOWED BY AN AMALGAM OF DRIED FRUIT TASTES. FULL-BODIED, SWEET BUT NOT CLOYING WITH AN
TOKAJI SZT. TAMAS 6 PUTTONYOS (1ST CLASS)
CANDIED FRUIT AROMAS, REFRESHING, FLAWLESSLY BALANCED, SILKY SMOOTH WITH AN EXCELLENT LONG AND SATISFYING FINISH
TOKAJI MEZES MALY 6 PUTTONYOS (1ST GREAT CLASS)
OUTSTANDING! A WINE FOR MEDITATION!