TOKAJ-HEGYALJA WINE REGION (20)
“The Wine of Kings, the King of Wines”
According to the legend the conquering Prince Árpád was riding along the Bodrog river when his path was crossed by a huge hill. His valiant knight Turzol was first to climb the summit, and on return he reported to his master that the hillside was covered throughout with tranquil vineyards. Árpád then awarded Turzol not only with the hill, but also the entire area up to the intersection of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers. The village of Turzol was built here (today Tarcal). Later many a medieval chronicler mentioned the wines of the Hegyalja region, as well as the growing of the aszú grapes. Wine produced in the region was an immense success with the pontifical court when the Cardinal Draskovics presented it in as early as 1362. From then on it was known simply as “Tokay”, and the pontifical cellars were never low on the “wine of kings, and the king of wines”. In the 14th century new plantations were established in the region of Sátoraljaújhely under the direction of Pauline monks. Their call to pray, “Oremus”, very often heard from the direction of the castle chapel, later stuck, and one part of the vineyard was named Oremus, as well as the wine produced there which has a very special flavour. The Tokaj-Hegyalja region also boasts an immerse, widespread system of cellars ideal for the storage and maturation – in bottles or in casks and barrels – of wines of many a vintage. Cellar walls are covered with a thick black coat of fungus, “noble rot”, which enters into mystical interaction with the wines. That is the key to the secret of Hungary’s renowned wines…
Wine Path of Tokaj-Hegyalja
Tokaj-Hegyalja is perhaps the most famous part of Hungary. The region
is renowned for its vineyards and wine cellars throughout the world. Tokaj-Hegyalja is one
of the first strictly designated wine-producing regions in the world, boasting the oldest
system of land division by balks.
The cultural and historical past of Tokaj is remarkably rich, but first of all it is renowned for its special wines. “Vinum regum rex vinorum” – The wine of kings, the king of wines – exclaimed Louis XIV when first tasting Tokay Aszú. Tokay is beyond doubt the finest wine in Hungary, which is acknowledged so much that it is remembered even in the Hungarian national anthem.
The history of the wine-producing region stretches back to A.D. 290, for the petrified grape leaf found in Erdőbénye dates from this period. The conquering Magyars, arriving in the area in the 10th century, found a flourishing viniculture.
The wine-producing area of Tokaj-Hegyalja lies in the north-western part of the country – close to the Slovak and Ukrainian borders – extending over the eastern and southern slopes of the Zemplén mountains, for around 60 kilometres. 6600 hectares of vineyards of 27 localities within the triangle formed by three distinct mountains, Mt. Sátor of Sátoraljaújhely and that of Abaújszántó, and Mt. Kopasz of Tokaj, belong to the wine-producing region, with the town of Tokaj as its centre.
The soil of the region – which significantly influences the type of wines produced here – is of an extremely special composition: the base is composed of tuff and volcanic rock upon which clay and loess form the surface layer. The climate of Tokaj is fairly cool – the area approximately lies at the latitude of Aube Champagne – the average annual temperature is only 10.5 °C.
The Tokaj-Hegyalja Wine Path Society was founded in Tarcal in 1997. The primary purpose of the society is the establishment of the touristic infrastructure of the wine path, in accordance with European standards.
In the wine-producing region of Tokaj-Hegyalja, the planting and processing of only four white grape varieties is permitted: Furmint, Hárslevelű (both are original Hungarian varieties of grape), Muscat Lunel and Oremus. Seven different types of wine may be produced from these varieties of grape. It is important to note that only white wines are produced in this region.
Pure white wines
They may be classified as dry, semi-dry, or semi-sweet produced from one of the four varieties. Perhaps the most famous one is the light, fresh, dry Furmint, produced by a reductive procedure, a recent vintage of which is an excellent accompaniment to fish dishes.
In spite of the fact that premium quality champagne base may be produced from the Furmint variety – because of its rich acid content – only a small amount of champagne is made which is hardly known outside the region.
Szamorodni dry or sweet
Grapes are processed as they ripen, meaning the regular berries and dried raisins together. They crush, stalk, soak, and press the grapes. Depending on the sugar content of the must – and the amount of Aszú raisins – the wine will be dry or sweet after fermentation. Sweet Szamorodni contains at least 10 grams of sugar per litre. Dry Szamorodni consumed at 8 °C is an ideal apéritif.
According to the story, Máté Szepsi Laczkó – court chaplain of Zsuzsanna Lorántffy – fearing a Turkish raid, lead his people to vintage with a delay of several weeks in mid November, 1630. The fruit of the Oremus strip had shrivelled and become dry by then. The clergyman produced an unequalled wine from this vintage. They say this was the first dessert wine produced by adding choice grapes dried on the vine.
During the making of Aszú the dried grapes are separated from the whole berries, are collected in vats and processed into a paste resembling dough. From this so-called Aszú paste they add as many times 25 kilograms to 136 litres of fermenting must as the number of butts they want the Aszú wine to be. (The vintage butts used at the time, in which they put the Aszú grapes, could hold 25 kgs, and the traditional wooden cask for fermenting Aszú held 136 litres.) Only 3,4,5, and 6-butt Aszú wine is produced in Tokaj according to the tradition of several centuries.
After fermentation the Aszú grapes are removed from the new wine by a process of careful pressing and the wine is aged for at least 3 years in a wooden cask of a cellar at Tokaj-Hegyalja.
The different butts of Aszú also mean distinction according to remaining sugar content: the 3-butt Aszú contains 60–90 g/l, the 4-butt Aszú 90–120 g/l, the 5-butt Aszú 120–150 g/l, and the 6-butt Aszú 150–180 g/l of leftover sugar.
Tokay Aszú is best when consumed at a temperature of 8–10 °C. It perfectly accompanies goose liver paste, blue cheese, and desserts, but an older Aszú wine consumed after a meal by itself – perhaps with a good cigar – also provides a lasting experience.
This wine is produced in small quantities, not so well known even in Hungary. They dilute the Aszú paste (which had already been processed) remaining after the preparation of the Aszú, with fermenting must. After fermentation they remove the paste and age the wine for a couple of years in wooden casks.
Its preparation is exactly like that of the Aszú, the only difference is that a larger amount of Aszú paste is added to the fermenting must. Aszúesszencia is basically equivalent to a 7 or 8-butt Tokay Aszú wine.
The pure must flowing out of the Aszú grapes under their own weight – before they are processed into a paste – is what we call Natúresszencia. This is a true “viticultural rarity” with a sugar content of 600–800 gram/litre (!) and an alcohol content of merely 2–4%. It is worth mentioning that there are also first class distilled liquors produced of wine, marc, and the lees of wine at Tokaj-Hegyalja. The best quality wines come from the local small cellars, of course, where the secrets of the wine making of Tokaj have been passed on from father to son… From among the larger cellars it is mainly the foreign ones – primarily those of French and Spanish interest – which are superior to others.
Wine-producing towns and villages
Mád, Tállya, Tolcsva, Tarcal, Sárospatak, Tokaj, Sátoraljaújhely
Dishes to go with wines
Furmint Roast meat braised with must and grapes
Hárslevelű Easter fried lamb
Muscat Lunel Cobbler’s curds
Aszú Cold goose liver
Grilled slices of goose liver with Tokaj sauce
Ingredients for 4: Goose liver 300 g, ground black pepper 3 g, butter 120 g, apples 400 g, grapes 400 g, chives 10 g, leeks 60 g, Tokaji Szamorodni 100 ml, salt.
Slice goose liver and season with ground pepper. Fry both sides in the butter until brown. Remove the liver, and fry peeled and sliced apples. Add the grapes, the finely chopped chives and the sliced leeks. When the onions have browned, add the wine and bring to the boil. Pour the sauce onto the fried slices of goose liver and serve with vegetables braised in butter, or vegetable mousses.