Tokaji, The Famed Wine of Hungary

Tonight on Chug, Zane makes his final stop in Budapest, Hungary. On this adventure, he chugs more high-octane beers and local spirits than any episode yet. Between local tripel and dubbel brews, Hungary’s version of moonshine, and cocktails in refurbished warzone sectors of the city, he somehow passes up the world’s first made sweet wine, Tokaji. A phenomenon of Mother Nature with aging potential greater than 200 years, Tokaji wine has been coveted by the likes of King Louis XIV, Bram Stoker, Thomas Jefferson, and Catherine the Great to name a humble few. This nectar of the Gods is considered among wine lovers to be the “Wine of Kings, and The King of Wines.” Tokaj has long been Hungary’s most respected and famous region so esteemed by the people, it is lauded in the Hungarian national anthem, “Tokaj szölövesszein nektárt csepegtettél.” Translation:  thank you God for dripping sweet nectar into the vineyards of Tokaj!

Tokaj Wine Region

Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels

Cradled by the protective Carpathian Mountains to the north and east, Tokaj rests in the northeast corner of Hungary on the borders of Slovakia and Romania. Tokaj produces a range of wines, from bone-dry through late-harvest, to the extraordinary Esszencia, as well as the famous Tokaji Aszù at 3, 4, 5, or 6 Puttonyos. Despite the diversity of wine styles, the region is heralded for its nectar-like, botrytized Tokaji aszú wines (note the –i on the end). The word Tokaj denotes the place, wheras Tokaji denotes the wine itself. The ham-shaped region spans 25 miles and is comparable in size to France’s famous Cote d’Or wine region in Burgundy. This tiny span of land specializes in three grapes: Furmint, Harslevelu, and Muscat Blanc (Sarga Muskotály).

Tokaji Wine Styles 

Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels

The Aszú (botrytized) wines for which Tokaj is most known are predominately made from Furmint grapes affected by a type of symbiotic fungus, Botrytis cinerea. This beneficial mold grows in very particular conditions that are analogous to the “perfect storm” scenario when cold and hot air collide. When the mold does grow in a controlled manner, it is referred to as the noble rot. In this instance, the mold dehydrates the grapes of their water content, thereby increasing sugar and flavor levels in the grapes. Even though it may seem odd in practice to think a mold is welcomed in a vineyard, similar to how people view the pesky appearance of white and green fuzz on their bread loaves, the mold facilitates the creation of spectacular wines with intense raisin flavors and honeysuckle aromas. The concentration of aszú is indicated in puttonyos. A puttonyo is a large basket used for harvesting grapes. The number of puttonyos of aszú grapes added to a 136-liter barrel of base wine was a traditional measure of sweetness levels back in the day.

Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels

The non-aszú Tokaji wines receive less attention than their sweeter counterparts, since they are not made with 100% pure aszú berries. These wines are referred to as szamorodni wines, literally meaning “as it was grown.” These wines showcase various levels of sweetness, most comparable to late harvest dessert wines, since they do contain a small percentage of aszú berries. Dry Tokaji wines have become more popular over the past 100 years and are made purely from ripened grapes not affected by the mold.

The Magic of Tokaj

The true glory of the region lies in the Aszú wines themselves and their magical tastes and smells. To sip a true Aszú Tokaji is to taste a piece of heaven. To understand the magic, one has to understand the unique geography of Tokaj and the indigenous grape, Furmint. Once past the beautiful suburbs of Budapest headed east, the Great Hungarian Plain stretches forward in a flat, almost featureless landscape full of sunflowers and corn crops. The town of Tokaji sits above the plain on top of an ancient volcanic cone situated in the undulating foothills of the majestic Carpathians Mountains—home to the sinister historical figure, Count Dracula. In Tokaji, the confluence of two rivers, the Bodrog and the Hernàd, meet and are responsible for forming the moist fogs that blanket the Tokaj vineyards in the late Indian summers characteristic of this area. The indigenous grape, Furmint, is perfect for the region by chance, evolution, or divine providence, who knows which? Either way, the grape begins maturing with thick skin that turns to thinner consistency as it ripens, allowing for the sun to evaporate more water content, making for higher sugar levels. Furthermore, the Furmint grape grows a second skin, unlike other grapes, later in the growing season allowing for longer hang times on the vine into October and late November. This is the crucial point in the season when the fogs start appearing and in turn usher in the noble rot.

Photograph by National Geographic Channels
Photograph by National Geographic Channels

This wine of legend has been in the making since the 1500s. Although war and political upheaval has slowed the production of these rare wines, the collapse of the communist regimes in 1990 allowed for the influx of money and winegrowers from around the world who are rallying around the cause of restoring the wineries to their former glory between the 18th and 19th centuries. If you can hunt a bottle down, it’s well worth the effort. One thing is certain, Zane could easily throw back a Tokaji wine with a smile and rush of ecstasy, versus a grimace and a belch backed by ethanol fumes!

ProTip: When visiting the Tokaj region, seek out a true Eszencia wine. This anomaly of nature represents a wine above 6 puttonyos in sweetness. Technically, these are not even true wines because of their enormous sugar concentrations. Eszencia is the juice of aszú berries that drips out of the fermentation vats where the aszú berries are stored. Drip by drip, the nectar is collected in small demi-john bottles and the wine takes close to four years to ferment. But once made, they will age for more than two centuries. Now that’s a Spiler wine!