I have always wondered it was the gorgeous taste of Tokaj wine that first made it famous, or indeed its legendary restorative powers. But perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was something altogether more compelling, wine and legends.
Tokaj wine region consists of 28 named villages, and 7000 hectares of classified vineyards, of which currently about 5000 hectares are planted. The cultural landscape of Tokaj demonstrates a long tradition of wine production. The intricate pattern of vineyards, farms, villages and small towns, the low hills and river valleys, the historic networks of deep vine cellars – all illustrate the facets of the production of the famous Tokaj wines, the quality and production process of which have been strictly regulated for 300 years. A royal decree in 1757 established a closed production district in Tokaj, the world’s first system of wine apellation. The vineyards’s classification began in 1730, and was completed by the national censuses of 1765 and 1772. Tokaj’s fame arises from the fact, that it is the origin place of the „Aszú”, the first botrytized wine of the world. The characteristics make Tokaj Wine Region unique include the soil (which is from clay, loess and volcanic stones here), the microclimate of the sunny, south-facing slopes, the indigenous grape varieties (as furmint, yellow muscat, „hárslevelű”, „kabar” and „kövérszőlő”), and the cellars, which wete carved out solid rocks between 1400 and 1600. The cellars provide a constant temperature of 10-12 C. The characteristic mould thickly covering their walls feeds off the alcohol evaporated during th wine’s aging, and keeps the humidity in the range of 85-90 %, which is ideal for the aging of the wines of Tokaj.
The Hungarians use the word Aszú to describe shrivelled, desiccated grapes, and also to describe grapes whose sugar is concentrated by noble rot. The first mention of Aszú grape wine dates back to 1571 in a property deal clearly demonstrating that the Aszú grapes had been kept separate from the normal grapes in the vineyard of Mézes Mály. And this would at the very least imply that the producers of Tokaj wines were the first in the world to harvest shrivelled and nobly rotten grapes on purpose – the Germans on the Rhine didn’t get the hang of purposefully nobly rotting their grapes until 1775.
Sixteenth-century Europe was a melting pot of crazy ideas and fantastical propositions. And into this world of alchemy and intrigue strode Tokaji. An Italian thinker, named Marzio Galeotto – secretary of King Matthias Corvinus – spread the word, that the wines of Tokaj contained gold. He’d visited Tokaj, and reported that there was golden ore in its hills, that the sand in the vineyards’ soils contained particles of gold, and that some of the vines even had golden shoots. That brought the most famous alchemist of the day, Paracelsus to Tokaj and, not surprisingly, he failed to extract gold from the grapes or their wine, though he did make the rather baffling observation that sunshine ‘like a thread of gold, passes through stock and root into the rock’. So this kept the Tokaj wines and gold legend bubbling away for quite a while yet.
And not only this, the more commonly accepted legend is that the parish of Tokaj, called Szepsi Laczkó Máté postponed the vintage at the great Oremus vineyard in 1630, fearing an attack by the Turks. Or was it 1633? Or was it 1650? That’s the trouble with legends, who knows? Anyway, the Turks were certainly threatening – just over the Bodrog River, and Oremus was the family estate of Prince Rákóczi, the most prominent local nobleman. The date doesn’t really matter, because the exceptional climatic conditions along the Bodrog River, with its morning mists and warm autumn days, would mean that grapes had been nobly rotting there on a regular basis for centuries. But it was the local Tokaj wine producers who first began to make one of the world’s great wine styles – naturally sweet, luscious wine from nobly rotted grapes.