The Slovak wine region of Tokaj may use the Tokajský/-á/-é label ("of Tokaj" in Slovak) if they apply the Hungarian quality control regulation. This area used to be part of the greater Tokaj-Hegyalja region within the Kingdom of Hungary, but was divided between Hungary and Czechoslovakia after the Treaty of Trianon.
Furmint accounts for 60% of the area and is by far the most important grape in the production of Aszú wines. Hárslevelű stands for further 30%. Nevertheless, an impressive range of different types and styles of wines are produced in the region, ranging from dry whites to the Eszencia, the world's sweetest wine.
The area where Tokaji wine is traditionally grown is a small plateau, 457 m (1500 ft) above sea level, near the Carpathian Mountains. The soil is of volcanic origin, with high concentrations of iron and lime. The location of the region has a unique climate, beneficial to this particular viniculture, due to the protection of the nearby mountains. Winters are bitterly cold and windy; spring tends to be cool and dry, and summers are noticeably hot. Usually, autumn brings rain early on, followed by an extended Indian summer, allowing a very long ripening period.
The Furmint grapes begin maturation with a thick skins, but as they ripen the skins become thinner, and transparent. This allows the sun to penetrate the grape and evaporate much of the liquid inside, producing a higher concentration of sugar. Other types of grapes mature to the point of bursting, however, unlike most other grapes, Furmint will grow a second skin 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 the "noble rot" (Botrytis cinerea) mold. Grapes then are harvested, sometimes as late as December (and in the case of true Eszencia, occasionally into January).
Typical yearly production in the region runs to a relatively small 10,028,000 liters (2,650,000 gallons).
Types of Tokaji wine
A bottle of Tokaji Aszú 4 Puttonyos, vintage 1990, in a 500 ml bottle of the style that is typical for Tokaji wine. The capsule label with the colours of the Hungarian flag is also characteristic.
Dry Wines: These wines, once referred to as common, ordinárium, are now named after their respective grape varieties: Tokaji Furmint, Tokaji Hárslevelű, Tokaji Sárgamuskotály and Tokaji Kövérszőlő.
Szamorodni: This type of wine was initially known as főbor (prime wine), but from the 1820s Polish merchants popularised the name samorodny, (The word stems from Slovak, Prekmurian Slovene, and Kajkavian Croatian languages, which used to be spoken before the hungarization of the Pannonian Basin. The word is an adjective and means "self-grown", "the way it was grown", or "made by itself"). What sets Szamorodni apart from ordinary wines is that it is made from bunches of grapes which contain a high proportion of botrytised grapes. Szamorodni is typically higher in alcohol than ordinary wine. Szamorodni often contains up to 100-120 g of residual sugar and thus is termed édes (sweet). However, when the bunches contain less botrytised grapes, the residual sugar content is much lower, resulting in a száraz (dry) wine. Its alcohol content is typically 14%.
Aszú: This is the world-famous sweet, topaz-colored wine known throughout the English-speaking world as Tokay. The original meaning of the Hungarian word aszú was "dried", but the term aszú came to be associated with the type of wine made with botrytised (i.e. "nobly" rotten) grapes. The process of making Aszú wine is as follows.
Aszú berries are individually picked, then collected in huge vats and trampled into the consistency of paste (known as aszú dough).
Must or wine is poured on the aszú dough and left for 24–48 hours, stirred occasionally.
The wine is racked off into wooden casks or vats where fermentation is completed and the aszú wine is to mature. The casks are stored in a cool environment, and are not tightly closed, so a slow fermentation process continues in the cask, usually for several years.
The concentration of aszú was traditionally defined by the number of puttony of dough added to a Gönc cask (136 liter barrel) of must. Nowadays the puttony number is based on the content of sugar and sugar-free extract in the mature wine. Aszú ranges from 3 puttonyos to 6 puttonyos, with a further category called Aszú-Eszencia representing wines above 6 puttonyos. Unlike most other wines, alcohol content of aszú typically runs higher than 14%. Annual production of aszú is less than one percent of the region's total output.
Eszencia: Also called nectar, this is often described as one of the most exclusive wines in the world, although technically it cannot even be called a wine because its enormous concentration of sugar means that its alcohol level never rises above 5-6 degrees. Eszencia is the juice of aszú berries which runs off naturally from the vats in which they are collected during harvesting. The sugar concentration of eszencia is typically between 500 g and 700 g per litre, although the year 2000 vintage produced eszencia exceeding 900 g per liter. Eszencia is traditionally added to aszú wines, but may be allowed to ferment (a process that takes at least 4 years to complete) and then bottled pure. The resulting wine has a concentration and intensity of flavor that is unequaled, but is so sweet that it can only be drunk in small quantities. Unlike virtually all other wines, Eszencia maintains its quality and drinkability when stored for 200 years or more.
Fordítás: (meaning "turning over" in Hungarian), wine made by pouring must on aszú dough which has already been used to make aszú wine.
Máslás: (derived from the word "copy" in Hungarian), wine made by pouring must on the lees of aszú.
Other sweet wines: In the past few years reductive sweet wines have begun to appear in Tokaj. These are ready for release a year to 18 months after harvest. They typically contain 50-180 g/l of residual sugar and a ratio of botrytised berries comparable to Aszú wines. They are usually labeled as késői szüretelésű (late harvest) wines. Innovative producers have also marketed tokaji wine that does not fit the appellation laws of the above categories but is often of high quality and price, and in many ways comparable to aszú. These wines are often labeled as tokaji cuvée.
In 1999, Chateau Pajzos became the first winery to produce a Tokaji ice wine.
A bottle of Tokaji Eszencia.
It is not known for how long vines have been grown on the volcanic soil of the fork of the rivers Bodrog and Hernád. This predates the settlement of the Magyar tribes to the region. According to legend, the first aszú was made by Laczkó Máté Szepsi in 1630. However, mention of wine made from aszú grapes had already appeared in the Nomenklatura of Fabricius Balázs Sziksai which was completed in 1576. A recently discovered inventory of aszú predates this reference by five years.
Tokaji wine became the subject of the world's first appellation control, established several decades before Port wine, and over 120 years before the classification of Bordeaux. Vineyard classification began in 1730 with vineyards being classified into 3 categories depending on the soil, sun exposure and potential to develop noble rot, botrytis cinerea, first class, second class and third class wines. A royal decree in 1757 established a closed production district in Tokaj. The classification system was completed by the national censuses of 1765 and 1772.
In 1920, following the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a small part of the Tokaj wine region (approx. 1.75 km²) became part of Czechoslovakia due to the Treaty of Trianon, while the rest remained part of Hungary. After World War II, when Hungary became a Soviet-influenced state, Tokaji production continued with as many as 6,000 small producers, but the bottling and distribution were monopolized by the state-owned organization. Since the collapse of the communist regimes in 1990, a number of independent wineries have been established in the Tokaj wine region. A state-owned producer continues to exist and handles approximately 20% of the overall production.
In 1703, Francis Rákóczi II, Prince of Transylvania, gave King Louis XIV of France some Tokaji wine from his Tokaj estate as a gift. The Tokaji wine was served at the French Royal court at Versailles, where it became known as Tokay. Delighted with the precious beverage, Louis XV of France offered a glass of Tokaji to Madame de Pompadour, referring to it as "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" ("Wine of Kings, King of Wines"). This famous line is used to this day in the marketing of Tokaji wines.
Emperor Franz Josef (who was also King of Hungary) had a tradition of sending Queen Victoria Tokaji Aszú wine, as a gift, every year on her birthday, one bottle for every month she had lived, twelve for each year. On her eighty-first and final birthday (1900), this totaled an impressive 972 bottles.
Tokaji wines have been famous for a long time, which has resulted in their name being “adopted” by other wines:
Historically Tokaji was a white wine from the region of Tokaj in the Kingdom of Hungary. Tokaji wine was mentioned as early as 1635 with reference to the sweet dessert aszú (botrytised) wine. Prior to the phylloxera epidemic in the 1880s, wine was grown in Tokaj from various types of mainly white grape varieties. In English and French the spelling Tokay was commonly used.
Under Hungary's and Slovakia's accession treaty to the European Union, and an earlier 1993 agreement, the Tokaj name (including other forms of spelling) has been given Protected Designation of Origin status. From March 2007, wine producers in France and Italy have no longer been allowed to use the Tokay or Tocai name for their wines, which were made from two unrelated varieties.
The name Tokay came to be used in the Alsace region of France for wines made with the Pinot gris grape, typically as Tokay d'Alsace. Following the 1993 agreement, the name Tokay Pinot gris was adopted as an intermediate step, and by 2007 the use of the Tokay part was no longer allowed nor used. Many Alsace producers switched to the name Pinot gris several years before the deadline.
There has also been a long-running dispute between Hungary and Slovakia over the right to use the name Tokaj. Negotiations between the two governments resulted in an agreement being signed in June 2004. Under this agreement, wine produced on 5.65 km² of land in Slovakia is allowed to use the Tokajský/-á/-é label. However, a number of practical issues remain. Slovakia has pledged to introduce the same standards enshrined in Hungarian wine laws since 1990, but it has not yet been decided who will monitor or enforce those laws.
The Rutherglen wine region in Australia produces a dessert wine made from Muscadelle grapes that has usually been referred to as Tokay, but which has little resemblance to the grapes or the processes of Hungarian Tokaji. Following a change in regulations in 2007, this variety of dessert wine has been sold under the name "Topaque" by some wineries, but as of 2012 some others continue to label theirs Tokay.
Ukraine also produces wines labelled "Tokay," which are generally produced in Transcarpathia. This wine is made from similar cultivars is bottled in similar 500 ml bottles, but does not necessarily adhere to the same standards; this issue is being negotiated.
In popular culture
A bottle of Tokaji Aszú 3 Puttonyos
In "His Last Bow" by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is mentioned by the Prussian spymaster Von Bork, employing his persona Altamont, as taking a shine to the drink: "Altamont has a nice taste in wines, and he took a fancy to my Tokay. He is a touchy fellow and needs humouring in small things. I have to study him, I assure you." Holmes later drinks with Watson and discusses the wine, taken — like the Dalloways' — from royalty: 'from Franz Josef's special cellar at the Schoenbrunn Palace.'
In Chapter 2 of Bram Stoker's horror novel Dracula, Jonathan Harker describes the first meal served to him by Count Dracula: "The count himself came forward and took off the cover of a dish, and I fell to at once on an excellent roast chicken. This, with some cheese and a salad and a bottle of old tokay, of which I had two glasses, was my supper."
In Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, the male guests at the Dalloways' party drink an "Imperial Tokay" from "the Emperor's cellars."
A bottle of "genuine imperial Tokay" plays a prominent part in the Lord Peter Wimsey short story "The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste", which centers on identifying wines by taste.
In H. Warner Allen's short story "Tokay of the Comet Year", a rare Tokay features prominently in a complex plot involving spies and a missing treaty.
In Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, there is an attempted poisoning by the Master of Jordan College (the novel) or an official of the Magisterium (the film) of one of the major characters, Lord Asriel, via a decanter of Tokaji (spelt 'Tokay') in the first chapter. Tokaji is said to be Lord Asriel's favorite wine.
In Terry Gilliam's film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the Baron and the Sultan make a wager over whether the Baron can obtain, from "the imperial cellars at Vienna," a bottle of Tokaji superior to that proffered by the Sultan.
A 'Tokay Blanket' was a term Hobos used (up to the 1940s) in reference to drinking alcohol to stay warm.
Nero Wolfe serves Tokaji Essencia to his assembled guests in Rex Stout's 1947 mystery story, "Man Alive," as the story moves toward the identification of the murderer. The story first appeared in the December 1947 issue of The American Magazine, then in Three Doors to Death, a 1950 collection of Nero Wolfe novellas, and finally in 1961's Nero Wolfe omnibus volume, Five of a Kind.
Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums contains the passage: "Pretty soon we headed into another siding at a small railroad town and I figured I needed a poor-boy of Tokay wine to complete the cold dusk run to Santa Barbara."
In Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, Tokay is the wine of choice that Erik serves to Christine when they have lunch the day after the night he first abducts her. He proudly tells her that he got the wine himself from the Konigsberg cellars. The Tokay mention is in the chapter "Apollo's Lyre."
In Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, after having had dinner with champagne, Sobakevich and the main Chichikov opted to open a bottle of "the Hungarian," which "gave them more spirit" and "improved the communication."
In Traveller (role-playing game), Tokaji Essencia has been reserved for private use of the Imperial family, with black-market prices reaching 1 million credits per bottle.
In Hud, Alma the housekeeper tells Hud, "I don't drink anything but Tokay wine."
^“A rich, sweet, moderately strong wine of a topaz color, produced in the vicinity of Tokay, in Hungary; also, a similar wine produced elsewhere.” Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, Mass.: G.&C. Merriam, 1913). See Tokay at page 2166.
^ abLichine, Alexis (1987). Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits (5th edition ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 497–499.