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Comprehensive description of all European growing areas, their grape varieties, traditions and legal rules with maps.


Description to Tokaj-Hegyalja

Probably Hungary's best-known wine is named after the town of Tokaj in the north-east near the borders with Slovakia and Ukraine. The word "Tokaj" is probably of Hunnic-Turkish origin and means something like "forest by the river". It was first mentioned in a chronicle at the end of the 11th century, where the crossing of a Cumanian army over the river Tisza at "Thocoyd" is described. Hungarian viticulture on a larger scale was founded by King Béla IV (1235-1270), and the first boom in the Tokaj region occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is no longer possible to determine when the very first Tokaj Aszú was produced, but it is certainly one of the first wines made from botrytised noble sweet berries.

Weinberge von Tokaj in der 2. Hälfte des 16. Jahrhunderts und Fässer

The history of Tokaj

There are numerous legends surrounding the "invention" of Tokay. It is said that as early as 1562, at the Council of Trent, Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) was presented with a Tokaji Aszú and remarked: "Summum pontificem talia vina decent! ("Such wine belongs on the papal table"). The first written mention of aszú wine is often cited as 1571, more precisely in a writing from the inventory of the Garay family dated 15 May 1571. As early as 1590, the term "Vinum passum-aszu szeőleő bor" (wine made from aszú berries) appears in the posthumously published work "Nomenclatura" by Balázs Szikszay Babricius (+1576). And in 1635, a list of the Rákóczi cellar mentions "7 barrels (the Gönc bar rel was the standard size) and 2 Àntalag (= small barrel) Aszúszőlő-Bor" (= aszú grape wine). The estates of Prince György Rákóczi I (1600-1660) included the Tokaj region of Tokaj-Hegyalja.

When one of the numerous Turkish raids threatened again around 1631, the court preacher in charge, Máté Szepsi-Laczkó (1576-1633), decided to wait with the grape harvest until the danger had been averted. During the long and sunny autumn, the berries began to shrivel and noble rot set in. The winegrowers were instructed to press the grapes from the Oremus vineyard separately during the harvest. At Easter 1651, the first "Tokaj Ausbruch"(dry berry selection) was served to Princess Zsuzsanna Lorántffy. The Hungarians therefore still honour Szepsi-Laczkó today as the "Aszú inventor". A national evaluation for the Hungarian wine regions dates back to 1707. In it, the regions were divided into five categories or quality classes. Only the Tokaj-Hegyalja region was classified as first-class. It was at this time that the great importance of the area as a valuable trade product began to be realised.

From the 17th century onwards, Tokaj played an important role at many European courts. Royal lovers were Franz-Joseph I, Maria Theresa, Frederick the Great, Victoria I and Wilhelm II. Many famous writers, poets and composers mentioned Tokay in their works. These were Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Faust), Heinrich Heine (Book of Songs), Friedrich von Schiller (Wallenstein), Franz Schubert, Bram Stoker (Dracula), Johann Strauß Sohn (Fledermaus), Theodor Körner (in a wine song), Nikolaus Lenau (Mischka an der Theiss) and Voltaire (Proof of God). In 1733, the Russian tsar's court established its own wine-buying commission in the town of Tokaj. Tsarina Elisabeth Petrovna Romanova (1709-1762) ordered a delivery of 375 barrels by letter on 8 November 1745 and noted as a postscript:"And if there is even a possibility, send with messengers at least three antal (barrels of about 75 litres), which I cannot get anywhere here, when I cannot be without wine, as you also know" .

Under her successor Catherine the Great (1729-1796), a special Cossack detachment escorted the supplies to her residence in St. Petersburg. The French Sun King Louis XIV (1638-1715) awarded it the title "Vinum Regum - Rex Vinorum", in German "Wine of Kings - King of Wines". Tokay was also often used as a diplomatic weapon. When the Turks were driven out of Budapest in 1686, Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II (1676-1735) wanted to establish the now liberated Hungary as an independent kingdom. To ally himself with Louis XIV, he sent him a noble Tokay. Emperor Franz-Joseph I (1830-1916) also used the wine for diplomatic purposes, greeting the English Queen Victoria (1819-1901) every year on her birthday with a consignment of Aszú.

The heyday of the Tokaj wine trade was during the heyday of the Rákóczi and Bercsényi ruling families in the 17th and 18th centuries. During this period, most of the countless wine cellars (185 were counted in Tokaj alone) were dug into the loess soils that were excellently suited for this purpose, for which there was a separate profession of cellar digger. From the last third of the 18th century onwards, there was a decline, on the one hand due to warlike events, which left the vineyards uncultivated or destroyed, and on the other hand due to economically imposed measures, especially in the reign of Maria Theresa (1717-1780). Only as much Tokaj wine was allowed to be exported as Austrian wine was imported. In 1745, the ruler of Russia Tsarina Elisabeth (1709-1762) sent 600 bottles of it. Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758) also received a shipment and the latter thanked him with an extraordinary citation.

The wine adulterations that took place on a large scale in many countries in the 19th century also contributed to Tokay's bad reputation. There were even detailed recipes for this, for example, in a work from 1875 it was written: Take 100 l of normal wine; 15 l of sultana essence; 0.5 l of bitter almond essence; 0.1 l of elderflower essence; 4 kg of sugar; 0.5 kg of caramel; 4 kg of glitterine and 6 l of 80-percent alcohol. Such wine could be ordered by the cartload from a wine merchant in Vienna-Döbling at a ridiculous price. During the communist period of government after the Second World War, there was a total decline in Tokaj culture. Almost all the larger wineries were nationalised. Tokay was produced cheaply and as a mass wine. From the beginning of the 1990s there was a new beginning and Tokay experienced a rebirth.

The Tokay region (Hungary and Slovakia)

The defined boundaries for the right of appellation of origin in Hungary have changed a few times over the centuries. The oldest documented demarcation dates back to 1641, when 12 municipalities belonged to the narrower Tokay region. Today's Tokaj wine region was designated by the Hungarian Wine Law in 1997 and also registered in the Treaty of Lisbon. The area, which resembles a triangle and is about 60 kilometres long and about 30 kilometres wide, is located in north-eastern Hungary on the border with Slovakia and Ukraine and includes the four towns of Sárospatak, Sátoraljaújhely, Szerencs and Tokaj, as well as 23 smaller municipalities.

But, surprisingly, there is also a Tokaj-like wine outside Hungary. This special status is held by an area in Slovakia that directly borders the Hungarian Tokaj-Hegyalja area. Here, a Tokaj-style wine is produced in the three municipalities of Kistoronya, Szõlõske and the Slovak part of the municipality of Sátoraljaújhely. Slovakia invoked the wine law from 1908, when this area still belonged to Hungary. After years of dispute, the two countries agreed in 2003 that the wines produced within the 565-hectare area could bear the Slovak designation of origin "Tokajský". An expansion to almost 1,000 hectares is planned.

Tokajer - Weinberge Tokaji-Hegyalja und Weinkeller bei Abaújszántó

The eponymous town of Tokaj lies at the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers near the Kopaszhegy (Bald Mountain at 512 m). The area is bordered by the three rivers Hernád, Bodrog and Tisza (Tisza). These influence the specific humid climate, which promotes botrytis (ung. nemespenész). The climate is extreme, a cool and dry spring is followed by a hot summer and then an initially wet, later dry and long sunny autumn. The vineyards cover around 5,700 hectares of vines. Only wines from the varieties Furmint (60%), Hárslevelű (25%), Muscat Lunel/Sárga Muskotály (Muscat Blanc), Kabar, Kövérszőlő(Grasă de Cotnari) and Zéta are allowed to carry "Tokaji" on the label. Wines from other varieties, such as Chardonnay, may only bear the geographical indication, "Zempléni g.g.A." (local wine). The best and most famous single vineyard sites are found mainly in the municipalities of Bodrogkeresztúr, Mád, Rátka, Tarcal, Tállya, Tokaj and Tolcsva.

The first surviving wine-growing regulation dates back to 1641, when a regulation consisting of 48 points existed in the municipality of Mád. Under Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II (1676-1735), a detailed wine-growing regulation was issued in 1700. At that time, aszú production was probably simpler than it is today. In a document from 1758 it says: "After the aszú berries have been infused with must, stir them well together and do not cover the vat too tightly. After three to four days of fermentation, when the sweet juice of the berries has dissolved in the must, the mass is pressed out by hand and the wine left to ferment."

In 1904, the "extraordinary regulations for the Tokaj wine region" were published, which included a geographical demarcation with a total of 33 localities, the mandatory requirement for the use of oak barrels and the absolute prohibition of mixing Tokaj wines with wines from other regions. Furthermore, only those wines whose vines came from "mountainous vineyards" (i.e. slopes) could be called Tokaj. The 1997 wine law declares Tokaj-Hegyalja as the only "closed" wine-growing region in Hungary. Within this area, this means special protection and special specifications regarding the vinification, treatment and distribution of Tokay.

Under the misleading name Tokay, Tokayer or similar, grape varieties have been cultivated and wines produced all over the world. In Italy's Friuli-Venezia Giulia, there was the grape variety Tocai Friulano ( Sauvignonasse ) and in France's Alsace a Tokay d'Alsace as a synonym for Pinot Gris. Overseas, not only Tokay but also other well-known wine-growing regions such as Bordeaux have always been misused. All these names had to be changed after the decision of the European Union and also on the basis of international agreements from 2007 onwards. The origin-protected name Tokaj may only be used for the Hungarian and the Slovakian original.

The Tokaj wine types & production

In 2017, a revised product specification became valid (with further changes expected). None of the wines may be bottled outside the wine region. The addition of grape must for sweetening purposes is prohibited. For the Tokaj specialities Aszú, Eszencia, Szamorodni, Fordítás and Máslás, alcohol increase and acid changes (deacidification or acidification) are prohibited. In addition to sparkling wine, the following types of wine may be produced:

  • Aszú
  • Aszú-Eszencia (was eliminated in 2013).
  • Eszencia
  • Szamorodni (dry and sweet)
  • Fordítás
  • Máslás
  • Késői Szűret (late harvest)
  • White wine

Aszú (ung. Tokaji Aszú, sl. Tokajský Výber).
Aszú or Tokaji Aszú is the famous, classic Tokaj wine. It is made from overripe, botrytis-infested berries that are hand-picked one by one. The term is derived from aszalt (dried). In principle, aszú corresponds to a dry berry selection. According to the traditional method, the berries are collected in puttonyos (butts) of 25 kg. The grapes are then pressed into a dough-like pulp by means of a basket press (rarely still done today with the feet), whereby the grape seeds (which contain a lot of tannins ) must not be crushed. In parallel, a grape must is obtained from unbottled grapes of the same vintage, which is added to the paste unfermented, already in fermentation or as a fermented base wine. The grape seeds floating on top are removed. The mixture is subjected to maceration for 18 to 48 hours with stirring. This releases the sugar from the grapes. After pressing, fermentation begins. The pressed out mixture is used for Fordítás (pomace wine).

In the past, the usual measure for the base wine or grape must was a Göncer barrel (136 to 145 l), or Szerednye barrel (200 to 220 l). The higher the number of puttonyos/butts used, the sweeter and more concentrated the wine. The prescribed ageing time was "puttonyos number plus 2", so for a 6 puttonyos this was 8 years of ageing. In the old days, one to five butt Tokay Aszú were produced, later they were reduced to two to five butt Tokay Aszú. Around 1790, the six-butted aszú was created and the two-butted aszú was omitted, because the quality of good Szamorodnis was very close to this. The two-butts were still produced until the second half of the 20th century. From 1997 onwards, there were only three- to six-butts with a residual sugar of at least 60, 90, 120 and 150 g/l.

From the 2013 vintage onwards, there were fundamental changes. The designation "Tokaji Aszú" is now only permitted for 5 or 6 puttonyos. The base wine must come from the same vintage as the aszú berries, so the wines are 100% true to the vintage. No more wine or must quantities are prescribed (like the Göncer barrel used to be). Instead of wine (which gives more body and alcohol), grape must or grape must already in fermentation (which gives more fruitiness and aroma) may be used, but this varies from winemaker to winemaker. The wine must mature for at least 18 months in traditional large wooden bar rels or barriques and may not be marketed before the second year after the harvest. Due to this long storage time in the air-permeable wooden barrels, most wines can be described as at least slightly oxidative. The given analytical values for a Tokaj Aszú are:

  • at least 19% potential alcohol content
  • at least 120 g/l for 5 puttonyos or 150 g/l for 6 puttonyos residual sugar
  • at least 9% actual alcohol content (indicated on the label)
  • at least 6 g/l total acids
  • maximum 2.1 g/l volatile acidity

The earlier varieties "Tokaji Aszú 3 Puttonyos" and "Tokaji Aszú 4 Puttonyos" may no longer be called "Aszú" or "Tokaji Aszú". A wine with at least 45 g/l residual sugar may be called Késői Szüret (late harvest) or Szamordni édes (sweet). On the bottle label, the puttonyos number can be indicated for all of them.

botrytisierte Weintraube und Eszencia-Flasche

This speciality, also called nectar, was first mentioned in 1707. In the 19th century, it was called "Tokay Ausbruch Essence" in German-language literature. In the past, eszencia was not considered a wine at all, but rather a medicine. In most cases, the Eszencia was also "given back" to the aszú (if this was not done, it was called a "castrated aszú"). This is still the practice of most wineries today. In the case of the berries intended for the Tokaji Aszú, the free-run must, which is obtained only by its own weight, runs off without prior pressing and is slowly fermented. Although the fermentation for the Eszencia often lasts several years, the minimum alcohol content of 5% required by the EU is hardly ever reached. Hungary, however, has obtained an exemption for this speciality. The actual alcohol content is mostly very low, ranging from 1% to 8% vol. The wines must have at least 27.75% potential alcohol content and at least 450 g/l residual sugar. The dark-coloured wine has a honey-like consistency. This precious rarity is often only served by the glass in the wineries.

This quality level was only created in the 20th century. The intention was to create an additional level between the 6-butted Aszú and Eszencia. In the Hungarian wine law of 1977, it is defined as "outstanding aszú wine from a first-class site and excellent vintage". At least the same conditions as for Aszú applied. The botrytised berries had to have a sugar content of at least 180 g/l. The meaningfulness has always been disputed, because the name often led to confusion with Escenzia. The variant was therefore eliminated as of the 2013 vintage.

The name "Szamorodni", first mentioned in 1828, means "as grown" in Polish. This means that there is no selection of the best-suited berries, as is usual with Aszú, but that the grapes are harvested and processed as they have grown. Polish traders had learned to appreciate the wine, which was then called "Főbor" (Engl. main wine), and spread the new designation when marketing it. However, there should be a part of noble rotten berries, on which the quality and sweetness depend. The wines can therefore be vinified dry (száraz) or sweet (édes). They must mature in wooden barrels for at least 6 months. Some producers age them oxidatively.

This means "turning" in German. The pressed aszú dough is "turned" (stirred) and then infused with grape must, fermenting grape must or wine still in fermentation from the same vintage and fermented to completion. This is a grape marc wine. The wine must mature in wooden barrels for 6 months.

This wine has been known since the middle of the 16th century. The name is derived from the Polish word "Mászló" (butter), because the wine has a buttery taste (for Polish influence on the origin of the name, see Szamorodni). It is a yeast-pressed wine. The lees (full yeast, lees) of the aszú wine or szamorodni is infused with must, fermenting must or fermenting wine from the same vintage. The wine must be matured in wooden barrels for 6 months.

The Tokay producers

Well-known producers of Tokaj include Árvay, Balassa, Barta, Béres, Bodrog-Várhegy, Carpinus, Demeter Zoltán, Dereszla, Disznókő, Dobogó, Erzsébet, Füleky, Gizella, Grand Tokaj, Gróf Degenfeld, Hétszőlő, Höldvölgy, Juliet Victor, Kikelet, Kardos, Lenkey, Mád Wine, Megyer, Pajzos, Pelle, Pendits, Samuel Tinon, Kikelet, Tokaj Nobilis and Zsirai. The association "Tokaj Renaissance", founded in 1995, is dedicated to the cultivation and culture of wine.

The following saying can be found on a label: Aki e üvegböliszik annak kivantatik, hogy a Borok Kiralyanak aranyfenye emlekeztesse a hegyaljai tajra, ahol immar ezredik eve ragyog a szölöt ökere a Nap! Kivantatik, hogy a Kiralyok Boranak, legendas gyogyhatasa kedves egeszsegere valjek). In German it means: "Whoever drinks from this bottle, may the golden shine of the king of wines remind him of the landscape of Hegyalja, where the sun has been shining on the vines for a thousand years now. May the legendary healing properties of the wine of kings be transferred to his health". The Tokaj region was finally designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002.

Source: Kristian Kielmayer
Tokay region: By Georg Hoefnagel - Own scan, Public domain, Link
Barrels: By Zoltan Szarvas on Pixabay
Vineyards Tokaji-Hegyalja: By Unknown, CC BY-SA 2.5, Link
Wine cellar: By Verita - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Grapes: By CrazyD - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Eszencia: By Eszencia.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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