Will the real Tokay please stand up?

July 18 2013 by Debra Meiburg MW

To dispel any lingering confusion, Tokay (pronounced toh-kai) is the English spelling of Tokaji, which means wine from the Tokaj region.  The Tokaj vineyards are planted on the low foothills where the great Hungarian plains meet the Carpathian Mountains.  The wine that really put Tokaj on the map is Tokaji Aszú, widely regarded as one of the world’s most magnificent sweet wines alongside France’s Sauternes and the late harvest wines of Germany.  The only difference in the fortunes of these exalted wines is that Hungary’s industry lost its lustre during the cold war, churning out state-factory-driven production that barely resembled the noble wine that France’s King Louis XIV once purportedly pronounced, “vinum regnum, rex vinorum” – the wine of kings and the king of wines.

Luckily when Hungary became a democratic republic in 1989, foreign investment flooded into Tokaj to revitalize this world treasure.  Investors such as Lord Jacob Rothschild, prominent British wine authority Hugh Johnson and financial powerhouse AXA brought formidable investment to Tokaj, which can be seen by the wineries’ striking architecture, state of the art facilities and breath taking wines.  Further evidence of their success is that Disznókő’s Tokaji Aszú has been featured in Cathay Pacific’s First Class Cabin.

Like several other of the world’s greatest sweet wines, Tokaji Aszú is produced from grapes so shrivelled and gnarly that they could be easily confused with month-old raisins.  And like the other great sweet wines of the world, misty legend surrounds the discovery of this tangerine scented elixir.  As the story goes, in the mid-1600s the Tokaj locals were called upon to combat the Turks on one of their many invasions.  Forced to abandon their harvest, they returned some time later to find the grapes withered and rotting.  In desperation, a priest requested that the grapes be harvested anyway.  Upon pressing, a sweet juice miraculously oozed from the raisins, which the priest blended with the previous year’s dry wine and thus Tokaji Aszú was born.

In fact, Aszú existed much earlier than the legend purports, appearing on royal and papal inventory lists of the 1500s.  Tokaji Aszú was a favourite of many writers and composers through the centuries including Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert, Hadyn and Goethe.  And in slightly more recent times, Austrian Emperor Franz Josef was known to send cases of Tokaji Aszú to Queen Victoria for her birthday – 12 bottles for each year of her age, which by her eighty-first birthday in 1900 was a whopping 972 bottles.

Six varieties are approved to produce Tokay and only one of them – furmint – is pronounceable, even after a one week stay in Hungary.  Fortunately the easy-to-pronounce furmint variety constitutes 60%-70% of the region’s plantings and produces an impressive range of wine styles, from crisp, dry whites to the world’s sweetest wine, Tokaji eszencia.  Lest you thought furmint (literally fur-mint) was tricky, we won’t get stuck into the truly tongue-twisting varieties like hárslevelű, sárgamuskotály (aka muscat blanc à petit grains), kövérszőlő, zéta and kabar.

The name “Tokay” itself is easy enough for foreigners to pronounce however, and over the centuries many countries have sponged it, with even France pinching it to refer to pinot gris from Alsace.  Italy ascribed the name tocai to a grape variety grown in its cool northeastern region of Friuli, which now (in a patriotic twist) goes by the name friulano. Even the very distant Australian region of Victoria borrowed “Tokay” – using it for their concentrated, deeply colour Rutherglen sweet wine – as did Hungary’s neighbours Slovakia, who laid such a firm claim to the name that in 2004 the two countries agreed five square kilometres of Slovakian vineyard may also label their wines Tokaji as long as production conforms to Hungary’s high standards.

However, in a champagne-style victory for the producers of this uniquely ambrosial tipple, as of 2007 only the central European Tokay/Tokaji is allowed to make use of the name, so now we can all raise our glasses comfortably, firm in the knowledge that we’re drinking the same thing the grandmother of Europe did.