Tokaj, in Hungary's far northeast, has been renowned for centuries for its unique dessert wines, the Tokaji Aszú. Today it is emerging as a producer of excellent dry wines too and even sparkling wine is being added to the portfolio.
The region possesses a tremendous terroir: perfect south- and southeast-facing vineyard sites on a mixture of volcanic soils formed by the activity of some 400 volcanoes, as well as more loess-based soils around the town of Tokaj itself. The composition of the soil often changes dramatically within a few steps, due to the plethora of geological material released millions of years ago by the volcanoes that were covered by the Pannon Sea.
But soil alone cannot make an Aszú. Tokaj is located at the meeting point of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, where the grapes, predominantly Furmint and Hárslevelű, supplemented by floral Sárga Muskotály and Zéta or unctuous Kövérszőlő (the 'fat grape') and Kabar, receive plentiful 'noble rot' (Botrytis cinerea) in the autumn. The combination of humid, damp air sweeping over the vineyards on misty mornings and dry, sunny afternoons in autumn means that the desired noble rot (as opposed to grape-destroying grey rot) develops.
The sight of the mists swirling over the vineyards in autumn is truly magical.
What is Tokaji Aszú?
The term aszú is cognate with the Hungarian word for shrivelled, indicating what happens to the grapes when they are infected by the botrytis. Instead of making them taste of mould, it gives them a wonderful concentration and acidic tang. But botrytis does not occur every year. A couple of recent dry vintages, 2011 and 2012, have made Aszú rarer than ever - though fortunately botrytis was back in 2013. Some good botrytis occured in 2014 too, but the quantity was very low due to the swamp-like conditions which destroyed much of the vineyards.
The harvest of Aszú is painstakingly slow and expensive to manage but also a sight to behold and a tradition to savour. Teams of mature women clad in headscarves scrutinise the vines for grapes that have been infected by the noble rot. Their appearance may be humble but they know exactly what they are doing. Years of experience have taught them to sort grapes like a diamond dealer sifts gems. They pick grape by grape, meticulously examining each vine and each cluster in pursuit of the botrytised fruit. Aszú berries are separated from the rest and saved to be added to the must or the wine.
A puttony is a hod, a container that was traditionally used for collecting Aszú berries, with one hod holding around 25kg. A 5-puttonyos wine is therefore one in which each 136-litre barrel, known as 'gönci hordó', contains the equivalent of five hods worth of botrised grapes. Today the sweetness is measured by the range of residual sugar rather than puttony and gönci hordó.
Tokay, Tokaj or Tokaji?
Tokaj is the name of the small town that has given its name to the region as a whole. Tokaji, with a final 'i', is the Hungarian adjectival form of the name and means 'of or from Tokaj'. The anglicised form of Tokaj in the past was Tokay, probably now obsolete but until fairly recently the name by which the wine was known to English-speakers.
Tokaj has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2002 and has a long and important history. The first mention of Tokaji Aszú wines dates back to 1571, according to Tokaj Renaissance, an organisation of vintners that seeks to put the region back where they feel it belongs.