Vines had been cultivated here long before the discovery of the effects of botrytis, which itself dates back to around the year 1650 when locals seeking shelter from an imminent Turkish raid missed the harvest, according to Tokaj folklore. On their return, they found the berries had shrivelled up and for want of better grapes they made do with the resources that they had. Máté Sepsy Laczkó, chaplain and winemaker, presented the resultant wine made from the aszú berries to his mistress the following spring, more than likely with a slight lump in his throat. However, she apparently liked the wine – or at least we have to conclude as much given its glorious future that lay ahead.

The story, somewhat mythic and ostensibly far fetched, does nevertheless contain more than a grain of truth. The basic method of aszú-wine making was first described by the chaplain of the Rákózis, Máté Sepsy Laczkó in the early part of the 17th century, and documents suggest it must have already been existing in the 1500s – more than 200 years before botrytized wines were made anywhere else in the world. By the end of the 17th century Tokaji was firmly established as one of the greatest wines of the world. The 18th and 19th centuries saw Tokaji reach the height of its fame, as the drink of choice of royal courts the length and breadth of Europe.

In a desperate example of wine-diplomacy, Prince Rákóczi tried to secure the favour, and more importantly, the money of Louis 14th in his insurrection against the Habsburgs. The Sun-King was charmed by the wine and his regal words – vinum regum, rex vinorum, wine of kings, king of wines – have been attached to the wine ever since. Louis 14th even promised his financial aid, although we may suspect he must have been led by political rather than organoleptic motives. In the end, he failed to keep his word as he was much too busy fighting on all fronts. Ultimately, the Habsburgs reigned victorious and the fine vineyards of the rebel Prince Rákóczi were confiscated in the name of the crown in whose hands they remained for the next few centuries.

The esteem afforded Tokaj and the ensuing prosperity it brought was duly nurtured. Royal decrees were issued to regulate winemaking practices in order to safeguard quality standards. The first ever known system of classified growths was devised in Tokaj whereby small plots of vineyards deemed to produce good to very good wines on a permanent basis were ranked as first, second and third growths on several subsequent occasions, such as in 1700 and 1772.

After such a glorious past Tokaj’s tragic fate in the 20th century is almost beyond belief. The phylloxera louse, the troubled history of Central Europe, the disaster of the two World Wars and the holocaust that saw many of the Jewish négociants tragically perish all contributed to the region’s downfall. The advent of the communist system dealt the final blow. In the frenzy of levelling out differences across all walks of life, vinification, though importantly not grape-growing, was centralised into a single state holding. Huge-quantities were produced for an insatiable and undiscerning market with a disastrous effect on quality and image. The fact that some truly fabulous wines continued to be made under such adverse circumstances is a real tribute to the region and its winemakers.

In 1989, as the system toppled, a vigorous renaissance took hold as Tokaj reinvented itself in an astonishingly short time. A number of domestic and foreign investors as well as local producers have created new wineries that combine ancient traditions with state of the art technology. Their aim is nothing less ambitious than to restore Tokaji to its former glory. The future definitely looks bright; and thanks to its dedicated winemakers, Tokaj finally seems to be on the right path once again.

Timeline of events:

13th century

 first records of wine making in the region

14th century

labyrinthine cellars are carved out of the rock

15th century

first written mention of Tokaji (M. Istvanffy: Regni Ung. Historia, Cologne)

16th century

major breakthrough of Tokaji wines on the international scene, establishing Tokaji as the world’s most expensive and most sought after wine. First Aszú wines are made: Aszú wine is mentioned in the Nomenclature of Balázs Fabricius Szikszai (Vinum passum: aszu szeoleo, i.e. aszú grapes).

17th century

The Rákóczi era. Tokaj is famous all over Europe. The Russian and Polish export markets drink up almost half of the production. Mate Sepsy Laczko describes the method of aszú wine making.

18th century

Louis the 14th names Tokaji “the king of wines, wine of kings”. The tsars base a unit of Cossacks in Tokaj with the sole purpose of buying and safely escorting the best aszú to St. Petersburg.

1730 – the first classification of Tokaj vineyards in Matyas Bel’s monumental work, “Life of the peoples of Hungary around 1730”

1772 – the first semi-official (royal) classification

19th century

phylloxera devastates vineyards in the 1880s and 1890s

20th century

after the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy, with the division of Hungary the vineyards of Újhely, Szőlőske and Kistoronya (178 hectares in all) are joined to Czechoslovakia (today: Slovakia). The socialist planned economy further devastates the region after 1945.

1989 – a new beginning after the collapse of the Berlin wall.

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