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Discovering Hungary’s Tokaji wines

Discovering Hungary’s Tokaji wines

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-09-01

The wine of tsars, kings and emperors, this golden treasure which has been produced for over four centuries nearly disappeared altogether between 1949 and 1989. Happily, for the past twenty years there has been a concerted effort to give this legendary sweet wine a new lease of life. Viva Tokaji Aszú!

Situated 230 km from Budapest in the north-east of Hungary, the small region of Tokaj is at the crossroads of central Europe, with routes leading to Romania, Ukraine and Slovakia. The volcanic hills lying between the Bodrog and Tisza rivers were overrun by Mongolian invaders in the 13C, then by the Ottomans in the 14C. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002, this former stronghold of the Princes of Transylvania has its own special magic, the ultimate expression of which is none other than… Tokaji Aszú!
A legendary wine
No other wine has been imbued with the same aura of legend and mystery as Hungarian Tokaji.* A potion of youth which was once believed to contain gold (the 16C alchemist Paracelsus even travelled to Hungary to investigate the claim), Louis XIV called it the ‘Wine of kings and king of wines.’ This ambrosia was so sought-after that in the 19C the tsars had it shipped to St. Petersburg guarded by a Cossack regiment!… In point of fact, Tokaji is history’s first great sweet wine. The first - long before Yquem in Sauternes - to be made from grapes infected by noble rot, or botrytis. Thanks to its golden depth; its heady aromas of apricot, honey and spice; its silky texture and sensual intensity, it is today still considered to be the world’s finest sweet wine.
An exceptional environment
Over millions of years, hot water springs washed the volcanic rock, irrigating the soil and raising many different kinds of sediment from the earth’s depths to its surface, providing the grapevines with their mineral palate. With south-facing hills burnt by the sun and buffeted by the wind, the Tokaj region seems to have been designed to produce the very finest of wines. The Tokaj vineyards were first classified by Transylvanian prince Ferenc II Rákóczi  in the early 18C. The most prestigious vintages are grown on the slopes of former volcanoes at an altitude of 100 to 500 metres near the villages of Tokaj and Tarcal.  But it is that of Oremus, a bit further north, which gave the very first sweet tokaji in recorded history.
Furmint and hársevelu: two grape varieties unique to Tokaj
In the 13C, Italian colonists invited by King Bela IV brought from the Piedmont a fine-skinned grape known for its natural acidity: furmint. This variety still accounts for 70% of the region’s vines, whilst 20 to 25% of the grapes are hársevelu (literally ‘lime tree leaves’), less sensitive to botrytis but rich in sugar and aromas. These two excellent varieties, which are not grown anywhere else, are supplemented by a small percentage of yellow Muscat or other ancient cultivars.
A vinification process unlike any other
As autumn settles in, a thick fog arises from the Bodrog and Tisza Rivers and blankets the horizon in shades of pink and blue. This fog is responsible for the development of botrytis cinerea, a fine, ash-grey mould which increases the sugar level of the grapes. The heat of the Indian summer and the dry south winds lead to passerillage, a stage which further concentrates the natural sugars. By the time the grapes have fully ripened, they will be partially dehydrated, or ‘raisined,’ and will give off new aromas of chocolate, dried prunes and mushrooms. This timely combination of noble rot and drought results in the grape called aszú. Replete with sugar and aromas, it is the essential ingredient in the splendid, sweet Hungarian wine called Tokaji Aszú.
In late October, women harvest the grapes one by one and place them in puttony, traditional wooden hottes holding 25 kg of fruit each. Every worker picks approximately 10 kg of grapes per day, fending off the bees which assail the sweeter-than-sweet dried fruit all the while - the presence of many bees is a harbinger of a fine vintage! One vine may be picked over several times in a month, according to the ripeness of the grapes. Grape harvesting is an exhausting task which is generally undertaken by extended families; frequent nips of brandy are required in order to keep going!
Eszencia, a Hungarian treasure 
Aszú grapes are so shrivelled and dry that they cannot be pressed. They are first taken to vats fitted with taps; over many hours, the weight of the grapes is such that a thick liquid begins to seep out. This liquid is the quintessence of the aszú called Eszencia, so rich in sugar (up to 900 grams per litre!) that fermentation cannot take place.
Eszencia is a Hungarian treasure which can fetch several hundred euros per bottle… Filled with trace elements and minerals, Eszencia is still today prescribed by doctors to treat digestive and cardio-vascular disorders.
After the grapes have given up their Eszencia, they macerate 12 to 48 hours in wine or must of the same year. This results in a basic fruit paste which is then pressed; the juice obtained is poured into traditional 136-litre oak barrels called Gönc casks.
According to legislation, all Tokaji wines must remain in Gönc casks for at least 24 months. During this time, vinification takes place in the depths of magnificent underground cellars, the oldest of which date from the 12C. These veritable tunnels dug out of volcanic tuff can run for several kilometres. As soon as one enters these cool cellar complexes, one is immediately engulfed in a sublime bouquet of fruit preserves. The walls are covered with a grey-black fungus which coats the bottles, some of which may be conserved for up to 150 years!
* Hungarians spell the wine ‘Tokaji’ and the city ‘Tokaj’. In English, the wine and the grape it is made from are also known as Tokay.
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