Tokaji, wiping out most of the Hungarian landowners. Viticultural standards fell and the quality of
the wines dropped after the war, a process hastened in the 1930's by the extinction of the largely
Jewish-owned trading houses that specialized in Tokaji.
In 1925 a remarkable cache of old wines was unearthed and purchased by the British wine
merchants Berry Bros. Their 1927 price list includes early 19th century vintages ‘from the princely
house of Bretzenheim which became extinct in 1863’. It seems that the family, concerned that the
revolutionary forces of 1848 would seize their property, walled up their valuable old wines. Some
of these bottlings are pictured below. The booklet that Berry Bros produced to accompany the
sale of these wines, packed with anecdotes from grateful customers about the curative and
indeed life-giving powers of Tokaji Essencia, is a classic of its kind, and extracts are reproduced
The communist era saw wine-making that was competent, if seldom inspired, but all this
changed in the early 1990's, with the opening up of the vineyards to foreign investment and
expertise. Today great wines are once again being made in Tokaji.
Historically the wine and the region were called Tokay or even Tokai in English but the wine is
more correctly referred to as Tokaji and the region as Tokaj.
Tokay Essence 1811
"Bottled about 1840. Formerly the property
of the Princely Family of Bretzenheim,
which became extinct in 1863""
Sold by Berry Bros in the 1920's.
The ne plus ultra of Tokaji, and one of the
greatest of all 19th century wines.
Tokay Essence 1889
"Of superlative quality, bottled about 1910, from
the estates of the late Count Jules Esterhazy."
Tokay Essence 1914
"Of very fine quality, invaluable as a restorative,
from the estate of the Baron Maillot."
Tokaji circa 1680
From the Royal Saxon cellars
Possibly the oldest intact bottle
extant. Believed listed in the
famous 1929 Dresden auction.
Tokaji vintages 1802 - 1947
The Tokaji Region
The historic Tokaj-Hegyalja wine-growing region is located in the northeastern part of Hungary, close to the borders to Slovakia and
Ukraine. The area where Tokaji wine is traditionally grown is a small plateau, 457 m (1500 ft) above sea level, near the Carpathian
Mountains. It is only 275 square kilometers in size (55 km long and 30 km wide). Today the area under cultivation measures around 6200
The soil is of volcanic origin, with high concentrations of iron and lime. The location of the region has a unique climate, beneficial to this
particular viniculture, due to the protection of the nearby mountains. Winters are bitterly cold and windy; spring tends to be cool and dry, and
summers are noticeably hot. Usually, autumn brings rain early on, followed by an extended Indian summer, allowing a very long ripening
The Tisza and Bodrog rivers and their flood-plains result in high humidity which encourages the development of noble rot, Botrytis cinerea,
often favorably affected by a rainy period during late summer. The long and warm autumn often delays the grape harvest until November or
even later. Aszú is made only in good vintages, when it is worth picking and selecting Aszú grapes, which is done by hand. During one
decade there are on average two excellent, four good and four average or weak vintages. Excellent vintages in the recent past include 1972
(arguably the vintage of the century), 1975, 1983, 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2000.
Tokaj-Hegyalja became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
Vines, believed to be indigenous to the region, were first cultivated in Tokaj during Roman times. Hungary was invaded by the Mongols in
1241. Many of the spectacular underground cellars which are such a feature of the region were built during this turbulent period.
The Ottoman Turks conquered much of what is now Hungary during the 16th Century. The well-defended Tokaj region was never fully
occupied but was subject to raids and the threat of invasion throughout this period. Legend has it that at some stage during this time, the
Tokaj vineyards were left un-harvested due to the Turkish threat. When the farmers returned the grapes had dried up and shrivelled and the
concentration of sugar and acidity was remarked upon - the resulting wine was in the end of surpassing quality and this marked the birth of
Tokaji Aszú. However, the actual techniques for Tokaji Aszú production were not refined until the 1630's. The wines for which the region is
famous result from skilful application of winemaking techniques developed in Tokaj nearly 400 years ago and passed from generation to
generation, despite the trauma of wars, famine and political change.
The name Aszú means desiccated in Hungarian - Europe’s most complex language. The actual vinification process for Aszú wines was
first developed by Abbot Szepsi Laczkó Máté (1576-1633) in 1631, for Zsuzsanna Lórántffy, who was the consort to Prince György Rákóczi I,
Prince of Transylvania from 1630 to 1648. Tokaji Aszú was frequently mentioned in writings from the mid 16th century onwards, indicating
that making wine from botrytis-affected grapes soon became common practice. Distributed by enterprising Polish and Jewish traders,
Tokaji Aszú soon gained an excellent reputation at several European royal courts.
The indigenous Hungarian grape varieties Furmint and Hárslevelü (and, to a small extent, Muscat Lunel) are used
to produce the famed wines of Tokaji. Furmint accounts for 60% of the area and is by far the most important grape
in the production of Aszú wines. Hárslevelű stands for further 30%. An impressive range of different types and
styles of wines are produced in the region, ranging from dry whites to Essencia, the world's sweetest wine.
The Furmint grapes begin maturation with a thick skins, but as they ripen the skins become thinner, and
transparent. This allows the sun to penetrate the grape and evaporate much of the liquid inside, producing a higher
concentration of sugar. Other types of grapes mature to the point of bursting, however, unlike most other grapes,
Furmint will grow a second skin which seals it from rot. This also has the effect of concentrating the grape's natural
sugars. The grapes are left on the vine long enough to develop the "noble rot" (Botrytis cinerea) mold. Grapes are
then harvested, sometimes as late as December (and in the case of true Essencia, occasionally into January).
Typical yearly production in the region runs to a relatively small 10,028,000 liters (2,650,000 gallons).
In years that produce only few berries with noble rot, selecting those berries manually is not economical. In such
cases, the grapes are generally processed as they are harvested, without selection. However, a certain content of
Aszú berries is obligatory for the designation Szamorodni. Depending on the proportion of Aszu-quality berries, the
resultant wine will be either dry or sweet. Well-made Szamorodni can be cellared for up to 20 years, and particularly
fine examples may be drinkable for 40 or 50 years. A sweet Szamorodni must contain at least 30 grams of residual
sugar per liter. The word "Szamorodni" has its roots in Polish, meaning “as grown.”
Tokaj Aszú is the typical noble sweet wine from Tokaj-Hegyalja. The basis of this wine are hand-selected, over-ripe
botrytis-affected berries. After careful selection, these berries are processed to an Aszú paste. The taste and quality
of an Aszú wine chiefly depends on the number of baskets (puttonyos) filled with over-ripe berries (each basket
weighs 25 kilograms), which are added to a cask (these are called Gönci, and have a capacity of 136 liters) of dry
base wine. The proportion of aszú berries and dry base wine is about 1:1 for a 6 puttonyos Aszú. A 3 puttonyos Aszú
must contain at least 60 grams of residual sugar; 90 grams are required for 4 puttonyos, 129 grams for 5 puttonyos
and 150 grams for 6 puttonyos. After several months of fermentation, the Aszú normally matures for 3 to 8 years -
traditionally through oxidative ageing with deliberate air contact. A bracing and long lasting acidity characterizes this
dessert wine, which is one of the slowest maturating wines made anywhere.
Tokaji Aszú Essencia
Aside from the pinnacle of pure Essencia, Aszú Essencia (often itself confused with Essencia) is the highest
quality designation among Tokaji wines. Its preparation is the same as that for Aszú wines, but it is produced only
in excellent years. The quality level is no longer indicated by a specific number of puttonyos, however, it is generally
much higher than a 6 puttonyos Aszú. Aszú Essencia has more than 180 grams per liter of residual sugar and over
50 grams of sugar-free extracts. Fermentation often takes years, and needs to be sustained by using specially
developed yeast strains. Before being released to market, Aszú Essencia must mature for at least five years, at
least three of which must be in wood.
Tokaji Essencia is the most sought after, expensive and rarest type of Tokaji wine. Hand-selected botrytis-affected
berries, which are later needed for Aszú preparation, are gathered into a keg and kept in it for a couple of days
before the Aszú paste is prepared. Due solely to the berries’ own weight alone, some highly concentrated juice of
the finest quality will have accumulated on the bottom of the keg. This is the free-run juice that Essencia is made
from. The fermentation process is incredibly slow, yielding an alcohol content of between 2 and 4% only after
several years. Normally an Essencia’s residual sugar content is between 400 and 500 grams/litre, but it may
surpass 800 grams/litre and a record-breaking 900 grams and more have been measured. One keg containing 25
kilograms of over-ripe Aszu berries produces only between 1 and 1.5 liters of Essencia. (If not sold individually,
Essencia is added to the Aszú wines to improve them yet further).
Because of its enormous sugar content (balanced always though by tremendous acidity), often syrup-like
texture and extremely low alcohol levels, Essencia is not really a wine in the conventional sense, but rather a
unique elixir, the quintessence of the grape, with an almost supernatural concentration of taste and aroma. It's
something that every wine aficionado dreams of tasting at least once, and to do so is likely to be a life-
enhancing and never-forgotten experience.
It has long been claimed that Essencia has curative and medical benefits, and indeed, in the 19th and early 20th
century the principle market for it in English speaking countries was as a kind of revitalizing tonic, to be given to
invalids and the seriously ill by the teaspoonful. Many eminent doctors of the day attested to its remarkable powers,
in some cases claiming that a single teaspoon of the elixir had literally restored patients on their deathbed to
robust good health.
How to enjoy Tokaji wine
Tokaj wines are brought to market only after maturation in cask and additional storage time in bottle. So once a bottle is bought, it is
generally ready to be consumed. Having said this, all good Tokaji can still be stored for many years; the higher qualities can be cellared for
decades, and true essencia will last for two centuries or more: the greatest Tokaji wines are almost immortal. With the arguable exception
of the wines of Chateau Chalon (also the result of oxidative winemaking), Tokaji is the longest-lived unfortified wine in existence. For this
reason 19th century and even 18th century bottles are keenly sought after by collectors and fetch enormous prices. Tokaji Aszú is best
consumed at a temperature of 11 to 14 °C. Warmer temperatures enhance its flavour but make it appear less fresh. A Szamorodni can be
enjoyed at slightly cooler temperatures than an Aszú.
If the Aszú has been made in the traditional, oxidative style, a tightly sealed bottle can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks after
opening without any loss in quality. This way you can easily open several bottles at the same time for parallel tasting! A Tokaji Aszú is an
elegant companion to many desserts. As a rule of thumb. make sure that the sweetness of the wine is greater than the sweetness of the
dessert. As with Sauternes, Tokaji wines also compliment blue mold cheeses, especially Roquefort.
In Russia, the Imperial Court imported large quantities of the very finest Tokaji and the wine became closely associated with the Romanov
dynasty. Customers included Peter the Great and Empress Elizabeth, while Catherine the Great actually established a Russian garrison in
the town of Tokaj with the aim of assuring regular wine deliveries to St. Petersburg.
With the advent of the phylloxera plague in the 1880s (a decade later than in France), viniculture in Tokaj hit rock bottom. Production
collapsed, and many vineyard owners went bankrupt. Gradually the vineyards were replanted on grafted rootstock, and there was a revival
by the early 1900's, only for sales to again all but disappear with the advent of World War I. After the collapse of the monarchy in 1918, the
Imperial vineyards was taken into state ownership. In the beginning of the 1930s, only five percent of the production could be sold. In 1948
all the major family estates were taken into state ownership (including great estates like Oremus and Disznókő), where they remained
until the collapse of communism in 1989. In the post World War II period, Tokaji production continued with many small producers, but the
bottling and distribution were entirely monopolized by the state-owned organization.
Since the collapse of the communist regime in 1990, Tokaji has experienced a remarkable renaissance. First, investors came from
France, Spain, Germany and England, but also from Hungary itself: local winemakers bought vineyards in excellent locations. Over time,
the premium vineyards have been divided into smaller and smaller parcels, many are now in the hands of local artisanal producers. Today
wine aficionados can find excellent Aszú wines from first-class vineyards, produced by dozens of small and medium-sized wineries. A
state-owned producer continues to exist and handles approximately 20% of the overall production.
In the first years of the 18th century, the Transylvanian patriot and defender of the region, Prince Ferenc
Rákóczi II, (1676 -1735) recognised the unique quality of Aszú wine and used the proceeds from Tokaji
wine sales to finance his battle against Habsburg and Austrian domination of Hungary. In 1703, in the
hope of cultivating an alliance with France, Rákóczi gave King Louis XIV some Tokaji wine from his
Tokaj estates as a gift. This was served at the French Royal court at Versailles, where it became
known as Tokay. Delighted with the precious beverage, Louis XV of France offered a glass of Tokaji to
Madame de Pompadour, referring to it as "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" ("Wine of Kings, King of
Wines"). This famous line is used to this day in the marketing of Tokaji wines.
After his final defeat in 1715, by Imperial decree, the Rákóczi family’s estates, including the highly
regarded Szarvas vineyard became Hungarian Crown property.
Emperor Franz Josef had a tradition of sending Queen Victoria Tokaji Aszú wine, as a gift, every year on
her birthday, one bottle for every month she had lived, twelve for each year. On her eighty-first and final
birthday in 1900, this totaled an impressive 972 bottles.
Tokaji wine received accolades from numerous great writers and composers including Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert, Johann Strauss,
Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Friedrich von Schiller, Voltaire and Bram Stoker. The composer Joseph Haydn's favorite wine was Tokaji. Besides
Louis XIV, several other European monarchs are known to have been keen consumers of the wine. Louis XV and Frederick the Great tried
to outdo one another when they entertained guests with Tokaji. Napoleon III, the last Emperor of France, ordered 30–40 barrels of Tokaji at
the French Royal Court every year. Gustav III, King of Sweden, loved Tokaji.
Tokaji Wine Styles
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Tokaji Aszú can lay claim to be the first of the world's great sweet wines (at least since the honey-
doctored wines of the ancient world), being well established as such already by the mid-17th century.
The beneficial effects of botrytis were noted here almost a century before they were accidentally
discovered in Germany and France, moreover, the vineyards were the first ever to be formally
classified. Tokaji wine became the subject of the world's first appellation control, established well over
a century before the classification of Bordeaux. Vineyard classification began in 1730 with vineyards
being ranked into 3 categories (first class, second class and third class) depending on the soil, sun
exposure and potential to develop noble rot, Botrytis cinerea.
Tokaji - especially the rare free-run juice called Essencia - was the most highly regarded and sought
after wine by the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Polish royal houses and nobility. The vineyards,
mostly owned by the Hungarian aristocracy, were the country’s most valuable assets, and indeed
Tokaji is mentioned in the Hungarian national anthem. Russia's Catherine the Great can claim to be
one of the first foreign investors; she owned (and protected with her own locally stationed infantry
battalion) one of the most prestigious vineyards.
There is also abundant evidence that the wine appealed to English connoisseurs in the 18th and early
19th centuries. Christie’s archives reveal that Tokaji appeared in a catalogue dated 1770, only 4 years
after James Christie set up his auction business. Another appreciative connoisseur was that great
wine lover Thomas Jefferson who imported and served ‘rich Tokaji’ (‘for which I paid a guinea a bottle’)
at his presidential banquets in the early 1800’s. After a glittering heyday in the 18th and early 19th
centuries, the vine blight phylloxera and then later the onset of World War I were to prove disastrous for