The king of wines

A legendary wine from Hungary is undervalued.

Tokaji, the legendary sweet wine of Hungary, is a treasured commodity whose cost hardly reflects its painstaking production process–at least for the moment. Rescued from a slump under the late Communist regime, Tokaji (pronounced Tok-eye-eee) is once again the rare nectar praised by Schubert and Goethe. For now, it's a bargain that may last only until Hungary's recent entry into the European Union begins to bolster the country's economy. “In 1990 and 1991, a flood of foreign investors snapped up vineyards at ridiculously low prices,” says Toronto-based Tokaji connoisseur John Szabo, Canada's only master sommelier. “It looked like the opportunity of a lifetime for many people, particularly the French.” The French love affair with Tokaji goes back at least to the time of King Louis XIV, who dubbed it “the wine of kings and the king of wines.”

In 1993, Hungary imposed firm regulations for Tokaji production, and one might date the rebirth of Tokaji to that year, especially since it also happened to be a truly great vintage. Vintage is becoming a less significant marker of quality in some parts of the world, but not in Tokaj.

Like every region, Tokaj has its local varietals made from Furmint, Hárslevelu, Muskotály and Zéta grapes. Hungarian-born writer George Jonas (in the news most recently as the author of the book that inspired Stephen Spielberg's movie Munich) is one of those who appreciates Tokaj's varietal wines. “My people had a few acres in the foothills, which they rented out, and the rent for people working the vineyards was a hectolitre of a very good, drinkable wine made fresh–that year's harvest,” recalls Jonas, who came to Canada in 1956. “It's worth mentioning only because Tokaji is usually viewed as a dessert wine, but this was a very drinkable, lesser-known table wine.”

The region's most celebrated product, however, is Tokaji aszú, which has been produced there for more than 400 years. According to legend, says Szabo, in 1630, a pastor named Máté Szepsy Laczkó “was fearing a Turkish attack, and he held off the harvest until late in the fall, when he realized the grapes had started to rot on the vine. He decided to harvest it anyway, and created the first botrytis-infected sweet wine in the world.”

Botrytis cinerea, a fungus that causes what is known as “the noble rot,” depends on a precise confluence of conditions that happen to prevail in Tokaj. “Tokaj is the beginning of the great plains of Hungary, the beginning of the Carpathian mountain range,” says Thomas László, vice-president of winemaking operations at Heron Hill Winery in Hammondsport, N.Y., and former chief of operations for winemaking at Chateau Pajzos and Chateau Megyer in Hungary. “From a lot of the good vineyards in Tokaj, you're standing in a kind of bowl, and with the flooding of the Bodrog River–usually due to snow melts–it's very marshy and wet throughout the year. When this becomes important is in the fall, when you get a mist that floods in from the flatlands and covers the vineyards–but it will dry up in the afternoon sunshine.”

Morning mist and afternoon heat are perfect for the noble rot, which concentrates the sugars and fruit essences in the grapes. “The terroir we have here is unique,” says András Györffy, managing director at Megyer and Pajzos. “We get the botrytis nearly every year.”

Tokaji aszú is made by hand-picking only the botrytis-infected grapes (known as aszú berries), which are steeped in a base wine, then aged at least two years. A hopper called a puttony was traditionally used to carry the fruit from the fields. Today, the adjective “puttonyos” is used with a numeral from three to six to describe the sweetness of the wine: the higher the number, the sweeter product.

Szabo describes the typical aszú flavours: “Dried apricots, raisins and figs, orange marmalade, crême brulée, buckwheat honey and Chinese five-spice. A common characteristic is the really refreshing acidity; even a six-puttonyos that starts off very sweet in the mouth has an acidulated fruit finish that makes the wines very food-friendly, despite the high residual sugar.” Szabo recommends some classic combinations: Tokaji and foie gras, or duck à l'orange, quail or pork. The wine also complements a range of desserts, particularly anything containing apricot or peach. “It's one of the few wines that can stand up to good chocolate,” says Szabo. “And it's a stunning match with blue cheese.”

Nectar that seeps from the aszú berries is collected to become a highly concentrated drink called eszencia. “It's usually something around 80% sugar, so it's like honey,” Szabo says. “You could stand a spoon up in it.” Eszencia can be drunk on its own, but is also used as an enhancer in aszú. “A good picker, berry by berry, can pick 10 kilograms a day, and from 1,000 kilograms you might get 20 litres of eszencia–just to give you the magnitude of its rarity and why it's so expensive,” says László. “There may come a period where aszú is not financially sound to make; at EU minimum wage, it would be very expensive.”

A less time-intensive product is what Tokaj producers call szamorodni, from a Polish word meaning “as it comes.” Aszú berries are not hand-picked to make this old-fashioned style of Tokaji; instead, whole bunches with both sound and rotten grapes are used. “You may end up with a dry wine, semi-sweet or sweet; it's essentially a standard late-harvest wine,” says Szabo.

“Fortunately,” says László, “1999 and 2000 were exceptional years. We made incredible wines, and we made copious amounts. It ages beautifully; it's not uncommon to buy 20- or 30-year-old vintages stored by the vintner.”

Besides Chateau Megyer and Chateau Pajzos (singled out as “the number one winery in the northern part of the foothills” by László Alkonyi in his loving work Tokaj: The Wine of Freedom), top vineyards include disznóko, tokaj oremus, hétszolo, and szepsi. Importers include Michael Bailey & Co. (Eastern Canada); Divin Paradis (Quebec); Vinifera Wine Services, Vergina Imports Inc. and HHD Imports Inc. (Ontario); Christopher Stewart Wine and Spirits and David Herman & Son (Western Canada). A limited selection is available through provincial wine retailers. For example, Ontario's LCBO regularly stocks a range of Tokaji under $40, and occasionally sells rarer bottles at $80 to $100. They can also special-order mahogany-boxed bottles of Royal Tokaji eszencia for about $600.

“A good vintage can age even 100 years or maybe more,” says Györffy. “So it's a long-term investment. It's one of the world's great values, I think.”