Tokaji – the wine that nearly died

Tokaji is the legendary wine that nearly passed into myth. It was once so highly prized that the Czar of Russia kept a detachments of soldiers in Hungary purely to bring the latest vintage safely back to St Petersburg. But by the time the British wine writer Hugh Johnson visited in the 1970s the wines had become in his words “dilute, merely sweet without character.”

Tokaji should be made from grapes affected by a fungus called Botrytis or noble rot. This form of fungus dries the grapes and concentrates the sugar. These grapes are known in Hungary as Aszu meaning dry. They are  crushed into a super sweet paste and then added to a base wine which is then refermented. This time-consuming method was invented in the 16th century. The rarest form of Tokaji, Essencia, was made from the syrup that drips off the Aszu grapes before they are pressed. It was rumoured to have miraculous restorative qualities.

The 20th century was a disaster for Tokaji. It lost its best customers after World War One, the Romanovs and the Habsburgs. Then after the World War Two all production was collectivised. Istvan Szepsy was manager of the Borkombinat, the state wine monopoly. His job was to make as much wine as possible for the undiscerning Soviet market. The resulting wines were oxidised, pasteurised, sweetened with sugar and sold as an imitation Tokaji. The knowledge of how to make the real thing nearly died out. But in secret Szepsy tended a small plot of his own vines and carried on using the time-consuming old methods to create minute quantities of intensely sweet wine.

On his visits to communist Hungary, Hugh Johnson has been fortunate enough to try some 19th century Tokaji which affected him deeply. He described the flavour as like “celestial butterscotch”. So in the 1989 when Hungary was opening up, he started the Royal Tokaji Company with Danish winemaker Peter Vinding in conjunction with a group of farmers from the village of Mád. And who did they turn to manage the operation? Istvan Szepsy of course, the man who carried in his brain the nearly lost techniques of how to make authentic Tokaji.

Some vital information had been lost though. At one time Tokaji had been as thoroughly mapped as  Bordeaux or Burgundy but following the upheavals of the 20th century, nobody knew exactly where the best vineyards were. The final piece of the jigsaw came in a moment of startling serendipity: whilst browsing in in a secondhand bookshop in Budapest, Vinding found an old book written in Latin charting the great vineyards of Tokaji.

This year Royal Tokaji will release the 2008 of their Essencia. This is only made in exceptional vintages. The syrup from the Aszu berries is left to ferment for years but because of its intense sweetness never gains more than about 3% alcohol. Price is as yet to be confirmed but likely to be around £500 a bottle. Tokaji is firmly back on the fine wine map and once again aficionados are willing to pay for the very best.

This article originally appeared in Quintessentially magazine.