"C'est le roi des vins et le vin de rois." -Louis XV
This is the wine of kings and the king of wines.
More than just another wine, Tokay, or Tokaji in Hungarian, has often been called the king of wines. It is rare, takes a long time to age, and is unusually sweet and strong for a non-fortified wine.
The name Tokaji is derived from Tokaj, a village 200 km east of Budapest on the Tisza River. Grapes have been grown there for centuries, but they made dry wine, not the sweet Tokaji Aszú that is internationally famous today. According to legend, this practice started in the 17th century when the Turk invaded and the grapes were left on the vine extra long. Returning villagers found the grapes had been afflicted with Botrytis cinerea, a type of mold sometimes called "Noble Rot". Not wanting to waste all the grapes, they picked the shriveled fruits, mashed them, and mixed them with the dry white wine. Pressing out the resulting sweetened wine and allowing it to ferment again produced a very fine wine... I find this story hard to credit, but the process is right.
The area around the town of Tokaj is mountainous and the grapes for the wine are grown there on south facing slopes and hillsides. The soil is described as rich and rocky, very well suited to the growing of grapes. In the autumn the days are warm and the nights cool and humid, perfect conditions to increase the sugar content of the fruits and encourage the noble rot.
Starting traditionally on Simon-Judas's Day, October 28th, the botrytized grapes, called aszú; in Hungarian, are picked and seperated from the ones uninfected by the mildew. In areas where there are not enough aszú grapes (more than 50% in the vineyard) they are harvested and not seperated to make Tokay Szamorodni, meaning as it was grown or as it comes. This is an okay wine not particularly notable though often good, but it should not be confused with the internationally known Tokay Aszú. The normal grapes seperated out go into making of vin ordinaire called Tokaji Ordinal, Tokaji Furmint, Tokaji Hárslevelú, or Tokaji Muscat depending upon the variety of grape used.
The shriveled grapes are stored in large vats while the base wine ferments and small amounts of juice flows from them pressed by the weight of the grapes themselves. This is the Eszencia (Essence), it is a very sweet wine and usually used for mixing to bring other Tokays up to snuff, but it can also be allowed to ferment on its own for years.
Once the base Szamorodni is ready it is the aszú are carefully mashed and then mixed it. The combination is allowed to sit for two to three days to absorb the sugar and flavors. It is then pressed, and the wine is put into aged oak casks to mature for a time that varies based upon the proportions used. It is said that Tokay should age for two years plus the number of puttony. The puttony is a traditional measure, like the hod, and was used to describe the amount of aszú grapes added to a Gönc cask before adding the base wine. The range found in Tokays is from 3 to 6 puttonyos.
Tokay can age for a very long time in the rock passageways. High sugar content makes the process slow. Even when ready it will keep for a century or more in well managed bottles. Vintages more than three centuries old have been tried and found to be very good.
The Fruits of the Earth
Contrary to what Webster thinks there is no such thing as a Tokay variety of grape. The ones used are the Furmint and Hárslevelú with small amounts of Muscat Lunel (I am told this is an alternate name for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains -M) to enhance the bouquet. About 2/3 of the grapes used are Furmint with most of the rest being Hárslevelú. These are relatively high sugar content grapes, from what I'm told. They start out at 20-25% sugar content and by evaporation after being infected with the Botrytis cinerea it goes up to 40-70%.
The poisoned wine that Rasputin was served with walnuts and pecans by his killers is supposed to have been Tokay.
The Hungarian National Anthem contains the lines:
And let Nectar's silver rain
Ripen grapes of Tokay soon.
A few sites with infomation about Tokay: