The Story of Tokaji, the Wine of Kings

The fear of some may be the dream of others. While winegrowers worldwide lose sleep over worries that their crops will be attacked by fungus, others pray this will happen. In Hungary, the leading wine, Tokay (or Tokaji), is produced from rotten grapes attacked by the fungus Botrytis cinérea, which generates an effect known as “noble rot” and leaves the juice of the fruit concentrated, resulting in a sweet wine without equal.

History of Tokaji

This wine, celebrated by various personalities in human history, is born in Tokaj-Hegyalja, a region in northeastern Hungary, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, on the banks of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, approximately 200 km from Budapest. In Hungarian, “jota” is pronounced “i.” Therefore, when popularized, Tokaji became known as Tokay.

It has yet to be discovered how long Tokay wines have been produced. One of the stories says that in 1650 the region was in danger of invasion by the Ottoman Empire. Hence, the person in charge of viniculture determined that the harvest was postponed since the Muslims condemned the consumption of alcohol. With the delay, an apparent misfortune happened when the fungus attacked the grapes.

In order not to lose the harvest, the contaminated clusters were separated and only then added to the must made from natural grapes. When the wine was consumed the following year, it was observed that the drink was divine nectar.

Tokaji: the wine of kings

Tokaji soon became the favorite wine of many personalities, such as musicians Beethoven, Rossini, Liszt, Schubert, Haydn, and Johann Strauss. Literature exponents such as Goethe, Alexandre Dumas, Bram Stoker, and Friedrich Schiller, among many others, also appreciated Tokay and immortalized the drink in their poems, books, and songs.

Wine cork of tokaji wine

Wine cork of Tokaji wine: Famous sweet wine of Hungary from Tokaj Wine region

Legend has it that Louis XIV, in 1703, was presented by Ferenc Rákóczi II, Prince of Transylvania, with some bottles of Tokay. The monarch appreciated it so much that he was soon served at court in Versailles. His successor, Louis XV, also fond of the liquid, offered a glass to Madame de Pompadour, his mistress, and would have said the famous phrase: “wine of Kings, King of wines,” which until today remains a Tokay slogan.

Its unique style also enchanted Pope Pius IV, who received it as a gift from a Hungarian archbishop during the Council of Trent (1562). Highly appreciated by the tsars, especially the Romanov dynasty, by the Polish court and the Austro-Hungarian royal house, it was also a sure presence at the banquets of other European courts.

By the end of the 17th century, Tokaji Aszú wines were so famous throughout Europe that Prince Francis II Rákóczi insisted that a ranking be drawn up with the best vineyards around the 28 villages of the Tokaj region.

What is Tokaji, and how is it made?

Tokaji is a dessert wine from the Tokaj region of Hungary.

Regarded as one of the best dessert wines in the world, Tokaji is also one of the most expensive dessert wines due to its production process.

Tokaji Wine is produced with grapes attacked by noble rot. This process requires particular conditions, being possible in only a few places worldwide.

The grapes that give rise to the wine, usually Furmint, Hárslevelü, and Yellow Muscat, are harvested during their best maturation. During fermentation, the fungus Botrytis cinerea naturally attacks part of them.

This fungus causes dehydration of the fruits and increases the concentration of sugar and acidity. This mixture is added to winemaking, thus increasing the complexity of the wine.

Its minimum maturation before entering the market is 3 years, with 2 to 18 months in wooden barrels. According to Hungarian legislation, the minimum residual sugar content is 120 g/L.

What are the Characteristics of Tokaji?

Tokaji is a highly refined dessert wine considered to be genuine liquid gold.

Visually, Tokaji has an intense golden color, revealing, on the nose, an elegant aromatic bouquet, where notes of honey, nuances of citrus fruits, such as orange and apricot, as well as floral, mineral, and earthy touches stand out.

Tokaji has excellent sweetness in the mouth, ranging from 60 to 180 grams of residual sugar per liter, a great body, and a long finish.

Another essential characteristic of Tokaji Wine is its exceptional aging potential, lasting several decades. The best labels only increase in complexity with age in the bottle.

What are the types of Tokaji?

Bottles of Tokaji in Hungarian traditional cellars. Sweet white wine degustation

Bottles of Tokaji in Hungarian traditional cellars. Sweet white wine degustation

Wines from the Tokaj region are divided into six categories: Dry Wines, Tokaji Szamorodni, Tokaji Aszú, Tokaji Eszencia, Tokaji Fordítás, and Tokaji Máslás.

Dry Wines: these are dry wines produced in the Tokaj region, known by the names of the grapes that compose them, such as Tokaji Furmint, Tokaji Hárslevelû, and Tokaji Sárgamuskotály.

Tokaji Szamorodni: wines produced with partially botrytized grapes without a selection of botrytized berries (aszú). They can be dry wines or dessert wines.

Tokaji Aszú: these are the best-known dessert wines in the region, produced by adding botrytized grapes to the must during fermentation. They are classified according to the level of botrytized grapes added to the base wine, a measure known as buttons. Tokaji Aszú Wines range from 3 to 6 puttonyos.

Tokaji Eszencia: is the rarest type of Tokaji Wine, representing the nectar of botrytized grapes. Its sweetness level is so great that it can be compared to honey’s, with a low alcohol content of less than 6%.

Tokaji Fordítás: is a wine produced by pouring the base wine into the selection of botrytized berries (aszú) that have already been used to make Tokaji Aszú Wine.

Tokaji Máslás: This wine is produced by pouring the base wine on the fine lees of botrytized berries (aszú).

How to harmonize Tokaji?

One of the most traditional ways to consume Tokaji Wine is alone, after meals.

But this nectar is also great in the company of foie gras and blue cheeses, such as Gorgonzola and Roquefort.

If you want to pair Tokaji with desserts, the best choice is fruit and nut-based desserts.

5 facts about Tokay wine

  • Tokay is so important to Hungary that wine is mentioned in the national anthem.
  • Pius IV would have exclaimed at the Council of Trent in 1562: “Here is a wine worthy of the papal table.” Another legend states that the Supreme Pontiff used Tokay in his Eucharistic celebrations instead of the “ordinary” red wine.
  • Pope Benedict XIV delivered a blessing as he was presented by Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary, with some boxes of Tokay: “Blessed be the land that produced you, blessed the woman who sent you, and blessed be I who drink you.”
  • Empress Eugenia, the widow of Napoleon III, who died at 94, attributed her longevity to the two glasses of Tokay she drank on an empty stomach in the morning.
  • The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I had the tradition of sending Queen Victoria of Great Britain, on her birthday, 12 bottles of Tokay for each completed year of life. In celebration of her 81st birthday in 1900, the monarch received 972 copies.

Royal Tokaji launches the world’s most expensive wine

Recently, Royal Tokaji launched a Tokaji Essencia 2008 with a starting price of 35,000 euros, considered the highest price for a wine at launch.

The high price stems from the cost of production and scarcity. More than 180 kilos of grapes produce a magnum, with each grain harvested by hand. Remembering that everyone needs to be attacked by the fungus botrytis cinerea – the noble rot. Therefore, only 18 bottles of this 2008 vintage will reach buyers.

Tokaji Essencia 2008 surpassed the market value of a Burgundy classic, O Romanée-Conti, to become the most expensive wine upon release.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine RegionsTags: By Published On: April 7, 2023Last Updated: October 22, 2023

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