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Will the real Tokay please stand up?

By Debra Meiburg MW

To dispel any lingering confusion, Tokay (pronounced toh-kai) is the English spelling of Tokaji, which means wine from the Tokaj region. The Tokaj vineyards are planted on the low foothills where the great Hungarian plains meet the Carpathian Mountains. The wine that really put Tokaj on the map is Tokaji Aszú, widely regarded as one of the world’s most magnificent sweet wines alongside France’s Sauternes and the late harvest wines of Germany. The only difference in the fortunes of these exalted wines is that Hungary’s industry lost its luster during the cold war, churning out state-factory driven production that barely resembled the noble wine that France’s King Louis XIV once purportedly pronounced, “vinum regnum, rex vinorum” – the wine of kings and the king of wines.

Luckily when Hungary became a democratic republic in 1989, foreign investment flooded into Tokaj to revitalize this world treasure. Investors such as Lord Jacob Rothschild, prominent British wine authority Hugh Johnson and financial powerhouse AXA brought formidable investment to Tokaj, which can be seen by the wineries’ striking architecture, state of the art facilities and breathtaking wines. Further evidence of their success is that Disznókő’s Tokaji Aszú has been featured in Cathay Pacific’s First Class Cabin.

Like several other of the world’s greatest sweet wines, Tokaji Aszú is produced from grapes so shriveled and gnarly that they could be easily confused with month-old raisins. And like the other great sweet wines of the world, misty legend surrounds the discovery of this tangerine scented elixir. As the story goes, in the mid-1600’s the Tokaj locals were called upon to combat the Turks on one of their many invasions. Forced to abandon their harvest, they returned some time later to find the grapes withered and rotting. In desperation, a priest requested that the grapes be harvested anyway. Upon pressing, a sweet juice miraculously oozed from the raisins, which the priest blended with the previous year’s dry wine and thus Tokaji Aszú was born.

In fact, Aszú existed much earlier than the legend purports, appearing on royal and papal inventory lists of the 1500’s. Tokaji Aszú was a favorite of many writers and composers through the centuries including Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert, Hadyn and Goethe. And in slightly more recent times, Austrian Emperor Franz Josef was known to send cases of Tokaji Aszú to Queen Victoria for her birthday – twelve bottles for each year of her age, which by her eighty-first birthday in 1900 was a whopping 972 bottles.

Six varieties are approved to produce Tokay and only one of them – furmint – is pronounceable, even after a one week stay in Hungary. Fortunately the easy-to-pronounce furmint variety constitutes 60-70% percent of the region’s plantings and produces an impressive range of wine styles, from crisp, dry whites to the world’s sweetest wine, Tokaji eszencia. Lest you thought furmint (literally fur-mint) was tricky, we won’t get stuck into the truly tongue-twisting varieties like hárslevelű, sárgamuskotály (aka muscat blanc à petit grains), kövérszőlő, zéta and kabar.

The name “Tokay” itself is easy enough for foreigners to pronounce however, and over the centuries many countries have sponged it, with even France pinching it to refer to pinot gris from Alsace. Italy ascribed the name tocai to a grape variety grown in its cool northeastern region of Friuli, which now (in a patriotic twist) goes by the name friulano. Even the very distant Australian region of Victoria borrowed “Tokay” – using it for their concentrated, deeply colored Rutherglen sweet wine – as did Hungary’s neighbors Slovakia, who laid such a firm claim to the name that in 2004 the two countries agreed five square kilometers of Slovakian vineyard may also label their wines Tokaji as long as production conforms to Hungary’s high standards.

However in a champagne-style victory for the producers of this uniquely ambrosial tipple, as of 2007 only the central European Tokay/Tokaji is allowed to make use of the name, so now we can all raise our glasses comfortably, firm in the knowledge that we’re drinking the same thing the grandmother of Europe did.

Comments 9 Comments for “Will the real Tokay please stand up?”
  1. Becky Sue Epstein on 03.20.13 at 02:01

    Having loved Tokaji wines for a long time, I am now not buying them because of the new extreme right government. Does anyone know of a movement to counteract this repressive regime?

  2. Dusan Jelic on 03.20.13 at 17:30

    Truly a brilliant post Debra! Having visited Tokaj a few weeks ago my memories are still sweet!

    On the other hand to link Tokaj drinking with the government is ludicrous.


  3. Debra Meiburg MW on 03.20.13 at 17:47

    Agreed! Becky, please don’t punish the winemakers for the government’s actions!

  4. Igor Vizner on 03.21.13 at 00:04

    Hello Debra,

    Thank you for this article, I was glad to read it.

    You mentioned very briefly the Slovakian part of Tokaj region, which once formed the whole Tokaj region. However, it has found itself ‘cut off’ in newly created Czechoslovakia, after the dissolution of Austrio-Hungarian empire in 1918.

    It is tiny, in comparison to the Hungarian counterpart, yet full of passionate winemakers making quality Aszu wines, as well as excellent dry wines ‘samorodny’ and many more.

    All producers of Tokaj wines in Slovakia (there are 9) are regrouped in organization called ‘Tokaj Regnum’. You can visit their website for more information: http://www.tokajregnum.sk/en

    In order to see the map of whole tokaj region, you can go to this site (only in french, sorry): http://tokaj.free.fr/tokay-slovaquie.html

    Note the border between the two countries in upper right corner of the map. This border did not exist before 1918.


  5. Donn Rutkoff on 04.17.13 at 06:11

    Becky, you prefer Lenin and Stalin? The first one murdered the royal family, children and all. Maybe you prefer Putin? That is a scary idea. Or is it Putin who you protest?

    Stalin murdered 20 million, before the start of WW2, many by starvation. You should be thankful that right wingers Thatcher, Reagan, and the Polish Karol Voytyja, also known as Pope JP2, faced the communist empire squarely, with no help from Reuters, the AP, The Washington Post, or Dan Rather, and undermined it into collapse.

    Wake up and don’t rely on Matt Lauer and Colbert for your news & history.

  6. Donn Rutkoff on 04.17.13 at 06:13

    Becky, I appreciate your writing and opening up pages of the wine world, in plain English, a contrast to some glossy publications and wordy wordists.

  7. Donn Rutkoff on 04.17.13 at 06:15

    I mean Debra, not Becky, on fine writing. Got too agitated re: Becky’s protest politics.

  8. martin subova on 04.18.13 at 02:35

    Igor vizner I’m sorry to say but vines from Slovakia( a country that didn’t exist before the World War) are awful and primitive compared to your neighbor Hungary.

  9. Hajni Pracser on 04.18.13 at 20:21

    Hey Becky, I don’t know what you are reading but it is not correct about Hungary’s government. It is not an extremist government, the media reports incredibly inacurately and sensationally (what’s new) about what really is going on.
    Besides all those reports being totally inaccurate, the winemakers (one myself) only strive to do their best in the realm of wine (not politics!), and are extremely sad to read such a comment.

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