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The first known occurrence of the name, in the form “Tokaj,” is in the 13th-century genealogy and history entitled Gesta Hungarorum, penned by the famous chronicler Anonymus. The Gesta, and many sources after it, refer to the emblematic hill of the region not as Tokaj but as Tarcal, today the name of a village at the western foot of the hill. Remarkably, Tarcal was also the name of the hill in Syrmia far to the south, today known as Fruska Gora in Serbia, which yielded the most famous wine of medieval Hungary.

Records enumerating the administrative units have existed since 1641, but these early sources are riddled with gaps and contradictions. For instance, one of the documents does not mention a single village north of Tolcsva. A landmark in the history of Tokaj is a document approved by the National Assembly in 1737, which lists the following villages as entitled to sell wine under the Tokaj name (the list is in alphabetical order, and the names in parentheses are the modern/full names of the settlements): Benye (Legyesbenye), Erdőhorváti, Golop, Keresztúr (Bodrogkeresztúr), Kisfalud (Bodrogkisfalud), Kistoronya, Liszka (Olaszliszka), Mád, Olaszi (Bodrogolaszi), Ond, Patak (Sárospatak), Ratka, Szántó (Abaújszántó), Szegi, Tarcal, Tállya, Tokaj, Tolcsva, Újhely (Satoraljaújhely), Vámosújfalu, Zombor, and Zsadány (Sárazsadány). In addition to these villages, other accounts refer to Bodroghalász, Bekecs, Hercegkút, Károlyfalva, Makkoshotyka, Monok, Szerencs, Szőlőske, and Vegardo. All in all, the various records mention at least 32 settlements.

As the birthplace of world-famous wines, Tokaj has a better-documented history than most wine regions in Hungary. It is beyond the scope and purpose of this book to provide a chronological account of the events whose influence is still tangible in the region such as the Walloon immigration (not yet conclusively proven), the arrival of Italian settlers in the 12th century, the Rakóczis’ accumulation of wealth and property (c. 1600-1660), the influx of Ruthenes and especially Germans, the activity of Greek, Serbian, and Jewish merchants, etc.
The two leading grape varieties, Furmint and Hárslevelű, are often harvested, pressed, and fermented together throughout the region. To some extent this makes sense, as their ripening schedules are not sufficiently different for growers to eschew the convenience of joint processing, not to mention the fact that many older plots still in cultivation are mixed plantations, containing the two varieties side by side.

Tokaji Aszú can be defined as a sweet wine with a high concentration of residual sugar that is made from hand-selected shriveled grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea, macerated in wine or must before pressing, and matured in oxidative conditions without the addition of spirits of a higher alcohol content. To our knowledge, no other wine available commercially in the world meets all these criteria.

Botrytis cinerea, a species of fungus that causes both gray rot and noble rot, needs high humidity and sufficiently ripe berries with a high concentration of sugar as the two fundamental conditions for it to exert its benign influence by “attacking” the grapes. When it does, it affects the fruit in two ways: It increases the evaporation of the water content from the berries, and produces special aromatic substances inside them. If the shriveled berries have a “smooth-shaven” wrinkle surface and exhibit a color between yellow and brown, it is considered a good quality aszú crop. If the berry surface looks gray and “bristly” with mould, the grapes are less valuable.

According to former statistics, aszú vintages used to occur in three years per decade on average. In some years, such as 1962, only a trickle of Aszú was produced. This is no longer the case. The production of Aszú wines is now feasible even in an unfavorable year, such as 1997. In such years, the quantities will, naturally, be much smaller. Proper vine loading and grape maturity are both prerequisites for an adequate concentration of sugar and other substances, which the berries need to achieve in order to contract botrytis. Consequently, we have reason to “rewrite” the aszu vintage charts of former times, which used to be based primarily on considerations of quantity .

In the past, harvest in Tokaj meant removing entire bunches of grapes and transferring them to boards or tables where the aszú berries were picked out of the bunches one by one, by hand. Working in this manner, a harvester was able to produce two kilograms of aszú berries an hour. These days, the better wineries as a rule, members of the Pannon Wine Guild and/or the Mád Circle-pick out the botrytized berries without removing the bunches from the vines. This method often takes three to five “passes” through a vineyard during a harvest season, but it has obvious advantages. First, it prevents potentially harmful further alterations in the berries after they have been shriveled and botrytized to an ideal degree. This means that the berries will be—weather permitting as good as possible. Second, the berries left on the vines will become infected by botrytis more easily.

Before pressing, the harvested botrytized grapes are soalted for a period of 16 to 36 hours in fresh must, murci (fermenting wine), or new wine that has completed fermentation. This “leaching” is crucial to the extraction of as much substance as possible from the shriveled berries, and to achieving a concentration very few wine regions in the world can rival. (In those few that do, though, some other factor, for instance botrytis, will invariably be missing from the equation).

Let us back track and speak of what was traditionally the first phase after harvest: the crushing of the grapes gently to avoid seed damage. The berry pulp known as the “dough” or “paste” was for a long time ere-ated by treading the grapes by foot, but more recently by crushing them with rubber rollers. The experiences of the past decade have shown us that it is perfectly possible to make excellent Aszú wine without mechanically splitting the grapes first.

To this day, the soaking of botrytized berries is a distinctive feature of making sweet Aszú-type wines throughout the Carpathian Basin, including around Lake Balaton and at Rust in Burgenland, Austria. Following this unique maceration process and pressing, the Aszú will take shorter or longer (sometimes months) to ferment, depending on a number of factors including temperature and sugar levels. The best growers shun the use of selected yeasts, preferring instead to rely on wild yeasts naturally present in the vineyards to trigger fermentation. Another characteristic trait of Tokaji Aszú is that it is made using relatively little sulphur, resulting in low levels of free sulphuric acid in the finished wine.

Barrels are obviously an issue, in more ways than one. The 136-liter cask served until quite recently as a framework for measuring concentration. The grade of the Aszú depended on how many puttony* (a 27-liter harvesters hod) of botrytized berries were blended with a gönci caskful of dry wine or must. These days, Aszu is made in barrels of optional capacity, not to mention the stainless steel tanks used by several wineries. Not surprisingly, the concentration of a finished wine is no longer determined with reference to a put-tony number (though it is still described in these terms), but by official analysis prior to the authorization of its release.
Let us briefly touch upon the troublesome issue of refermentation, before addressing the functional contribution of barrels. This phenomenon, known all too well by producers of sweet wines across the world, can occur if the spontaneous fermentation of the wine stops for some reason for instance, because the yeasts cannot tolerate the given alcohol level. Over time, some of the alcohol evaporates, reactivating the yeasts, which causes major damage by using up the sugar reserves of the wine if it is left unattended. Growers in Tokaj say that their wine has “straightened out” when it has lost all its residual sugar to refermentation. Much like a dry Szamorodni, these “straight wines” can actually be very fine, but they invariably spell losses for the grower who had set out to make a precious sweet Aszú. There are a number of ways to combat refermentation. One of them, the removal of “awakened” wine to another location for heat sterilization, is only feasible at large wineries, and will rob the wine of much of its aroma. The other measure, theoretically available to all, is to fortify the wine by adding distilled spirit to stop the fermentation. However, fortification is now prohibited by law in Tokaj, as it was back in 1908, although even Atkin rightly emphasizes that “Refermentation […] was deliberately prevented during the Communist period**.” This leaves sterile filtering as the only legal solution today.

Returning to the barrels, it is instructive to remember that in Tokaj the staves used to be split, rather than sawn, from unblemished logs until the early 20th century. As elsewhere, oak was invariably the best wood for this purpose, owing to its even growth and its regular, dense grain structure that the splitting method did not damage. By contrast, sawn staves often have their fibers cut through, which can easily result in leaking barrels. This explains the importance of using split staves for barrels in Tokaj, also as a measure for guarding against the evaporation of alcohol. When matured in such a barrel, an Aszú of sufficiently high initial alcohol level (of at least 13%) will not lose perilous quantities of alcohol. In other words, a sound Aszú can easily pull through the two years of barrel time required by the regulations nowadays, provided of course that adequate hygiene and sulfur levels are observed. Before bottling, the Aszú will be cold-stabilized and sterile-filtered.
Many sources, including Ivan Balassa, insist that Tokaji was always shipped in its barrel. This seems to be borne out by tax records from the 17th to 19th centuries, which indicate large barrel inventories in Tokaj year in and year out. Such large barrel parks only make sense if we accept that most of the wine was sold in the barrel it had been stored in. The invariable use of new wood improved stability and, inevitably, imparted a distinct flavor to the wines. As sawn staves gradually displaced split ones, they left a mark on the quality of the wines. The process of decline -if not the leaking barrels- was sealed by the production and trade policies of the Communist era. The eastern markets clamored for their “Aszú” in such quantities that it was impossible to satisfy the demand other than through substandard mass-production methods and forced oxidation. The few better wines had to be blended off with the many worse, and the resulting equalized products quickly corrupted the consumer s notion of what Tokaji Aszú was truly all about.

But what is true Aszú like? If an Aszú has been made in accordance with current regulations which stipulate, among other things, three years of maturation, including two in wooden casks and one in the bottle but was bottled as early as is permitted, without longer aging in wood, then it will exhibit fresh fruit flavors in the lead while still young. A vertical tasting of wines held in honor of the 10th birthday of the Disznókő Winery demonstrated that, over the course of ten years, an Aszú, initially variously decried or hailed as a copycat Sauternes, can take on all the traits of color, taste, and aroma that we used to prize in the Aszús made in the 1960’s and ’70’s but without the flaws inherent in those wines.

Embracing and implementing micro-oxidation is a key factor in making good Aszú. Micro-oxidation, which essentially occurs through the pores in the barrel’s wood, is certainly not amenable to making wines that will seem 10-20 years old at three to four years of age—this can be achieved, if it must, by not topping off barrels and by frequent racking. What micro-oxidation does do is establish a subtle process of maturation that the wine will complete in the bottle. Over time, Tokaji handled in this way will develop rich tertiary aromas and flavors, without losing its acidity and mineral taste, unmatched by any other sweet wine in the world. Identifying such wines simply — and censoriously — as “reductive Aszú” is just that: a reductive argument, and a huge mistake. All it takes to expose this fallacy is a quick taste of the genuinely reductive sweet wines we described in category B/2 above. Despite their mineral notes, high sugar, and botrytis flavors, these wines will never be mistaken for an Aszú which owes its distinct character to intensely shriveled berries, the ensuing maceration, and the circumstances of oxidation. Primary fruit aromas define an Aszu until it has reached three to five years of age. Thereafter, the wine will slowly develop hints of sun-dried fruits, various nuts, and caramel or toffee. This process results from the natural alteration of sugars in an acid medium over time.

Among the natural factors, high acidity makes a fundamental contribution to the unique character of Tokaji, particularly Aszú. As is well-known, the high concentration of titrable acidity does not necessarily equal a forcefully acidic taste. Because Tokaji Aszú is invariably made from overripe grapes, harsh malic acid is never a problem, but the wine will have high levels of other, more benign acids that keep the often extraordinary sweetness from being cloying. (The same principle underlies the wonder of Trockenbeerenauslese from the Mosel and the Rhine.) The decisive influence of the acidity notwithstanding, one must keep in mind that ripe tannins and minerals are responsible for some of the most subtle and delicious forms of astringency on the palate. Working in a synergistic combination with the acids, these substances can attain a perfect balance with the intense sweetness of Tokaji Aszú.

The minerals and trace elements, present in the soils of Tokaj in a form that is readily accessible for the vine’s roots, contribute their own flavors to the wines. This is why the first single-vineyard Aszús after the “great leveler” era of the command economy have been such a revelation. Due to the diversity of terroirs in the region, the wines show ever new facets of Tokaji Aszú to us. Especially fascinating are the Aszús made from Hárslevelű grapes grown on loess soils, for instance from the celebrated Szerelmi vineyard. These wines can be likened to an amorous man courting the lady of his heart: they are tender without losing virility.

Last but not least, cellars are indispensable in shaping the character of Tokaji Aszú. About 98% of the region’s sweet wines are aged in 4-5 meter wide single-vaulted cellars dug in volcanic tuff. These cellars have a constant temperature of 9-11 °C, depending on their depth below the ground and other circumstances, and are never subject to fluctuations over the year. Even more important are the adequately high and constant levels of humidity, owing to the presence of the black mould called Cladosporium cellare that clings to the cellar walls. Pleasantly warm and dry to the touch, this fungus performs a vital function in the cellar by acting as a humidity buffer, while also making a spectacular black backdrop for the tasting of golden wines.

No account of the region would be complete without mention of the Tokaj Renaissance Association, an assembly of winemakers committed to superlative quality. The members of the group, also called Classified Vineyards of Tokaj, have built on the legally defined minimum parameters by implementing their own self-imposed criteria for wine production, and even making the release of their wines the subject of joint evaluation. No wine can display the logo of the Association if it has not been approved by this community.

Vintages in Tokaj have been recorded continuously since 1801. The much-publicized old chart that many people are familiar with rates vintages by up to five stars. Although we do not know exactly what criteria were used, it seems reasonable to assume that the main consideration was the quantity of the botrytis harvest rather than the sheer quality of the aszÚ berries (although the two may to some extent overlap). In general, the rating of the vintage has always reflected the performance of the noble sweet wines; dry wines are not normally taken into consideration in TokaJ.

Area: 5428 hectares.

Climate: hot summer, cold winter, long, hazy autumn.

Vine varieties, wines: “Furmint” – developing noble rot best, acidic, fine fragrance. “HÁrslevelŰ” – more robust, full-bodied. “Yellow Muscat” – developing noble rot under favourable conditions, hard acid, extraordinarily fine, elegant fragrance.

For more interesting information:

> Hungarian wines and wineregions (authors: Zoltán Benyák, Tibor Dékány)

> Terra Benedicta 2003: Tokaj and Beyond (authors: Rohály Gábor, Mészáros Gabriella, Nagymarosy András)