Tokay is made from a table grape (also called
Flame Tokay) with a thick red skin and blandtasting
flesh with seeds.
Not a very good start to one of the world's great
sweet wines, but if you add some creative winemaking...
No wine style as old and prized as Tokay can
get by without a colourful legend. So here's
what happened, according to local lore. In the
mid 17th century, a noblewoman called
Zsuzsanna Lorantfly owned an estate encompassing
the entire present-day Tokay region in
Slovakia. Her priest, who doubled as her winemaker,
postponed the fall harvest in 1650, fearing
an attack from the Turks.
The priest's precautions may have saved his
grape pickers, but it left his grapes vulnerable to
a humidity-loving fungus called botrytis. Some
of them succumbed and shrivelled, but the
thrifty cleric didn't discard them. Rather, he had
them picked, crushed, and added to the must
made from unaffected grapes.
Meanwhile, the threat of a Turkish invasion remained
quite real, leading to another innovation
in Lorantfly's vineyard. To hide the precious
wine from potential attackers, the winemakers
dug tunnels into the hillside, the entrances to
which could be easily hidden. These distinctive
caves, given the region's humid climate and the
fact that they contained traces of evaporated
wine, were perfect hosts to the black mould that
is supposed to be critical to Tokay's ageing
Whether or not the above is precisely true, we
do know this: The region pioneered the use of
botrytis-infected grapes in dessert wine. In fact,
the fungus was exploited to such great effect in
Tokay that within 100 years winemakers in
Germany and France were using it to create
their own celebrated dessert wines. In the process,
the fungus gained a much loftier name: noble
And - also as a matter of fact and not of legend
- Tokay wine gained by the 18th century a fervent
following among Europe's royals. The
French court adored it, and the Habsburgs were
so enamoured of it that they introduced it to the
Russian imperial court. In an era mad for sweet
wines, Tokay became known as the "wine of
kings, king of wines". The Champagne area of
France, at that point known mostly for its still wines,
was as yet no rival.
Tokay's prestige continued into the 20th century;
even today, it ranks with Port, Madeira, and some
Alsatian whites as among the world's most prized
after-dinner wines. Yet the 20th century nearly devastated
the Tokay region, especially the Slovak part.
When the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved at the
end of World War I, the Tokay area was split in two
- with 90 percent remaining in Hungary, and the rest
going to the new Czechoslovakia. World War II severely
disrupted the entire European wine trade, and
the post-war rise of Communism in both Tokay
countries meant nationalisation of the vineyards, and
a shift of focus from quality to quantity.
In Communist Czechoslovakia, the indifference to
the Tokay mystique was so great that the government
traded away its right to the Tokay trademark in
exchange for the right to export beer to Hungary.
That deal has since been annulled, but Slovak winemakers
still lack the right to sell their wine to European
Union countries under the Tokay name. Hungary
signed a 13-year trademark deal on the Tokay
name in 1993; Slovakia, then in the throes of the
Velvet Divorce, didn't participate in those talks.
Thus when Communism fell, the Hungarian Tokay
region underwent a renaissance - foreign investment
poured in, and the wine became fashionable again.
But the Slovak part languished. Without the right to
export into the lucrative EU market, foreign winemakers
saw little reason to invest in Slovakia's tiny
bit of the Tokay region.
* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery