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The Most Famous Wine You've Never Tasted

Matt Kramer
Posted: June 17, 2004

One of the early turning points of my wine life came 27 years ago, when I formed a little consortium to buy a bottle of 1926 Tokaji Eszencia. It was $200 for a 500ml bottle, which was more than a week's wages for me at the time.

This was the real thing, a pre-Communist bottling. And it lived up to its billing: Each sip was almost explosively mouthfilling, with a swirl of intense flavors of minerals, dried raisins, numerous spices, walnuts, cocoa, coffee and yet more. The acidity made this sumptuous sweet wine surprisingly refreshing.

After that, I always wanted to visit the Tokaj region, which lies in eastern Hungary, a three-hour drive from Budapest. (A word about nomenclature: Tokaj is the place name, while Tokaji is the wine name.)

Since living in Venice put me more than halfway there, so to speak, I set up a series of appointments with prominent growers in Tokaj.

Made mostly from an indigenous white grape called Furmint, Tokaji is created by macerating must or brand-new wine with individually picked botrytized grapes (called aszú, or shrivelled). The more of these botrytized grapes there are, measured by bucket (puttony), the more intense and sweeter the wine. A six puttonyos ("six-bucketed") wine is tops.

The rarest, sweetest of all is pure Eszencia itself, which is the free-run juice that drips out from the base of the container holding the botrytized grapes. Eszencia is the juice of grapes that have no juice. It takes years to ferment and never reaches more than 5 percent alcohol. "One yeast, one bubble, one month," quipped one producer.

Tokaji was once one of the most famous wines in the world, its name copied shamelessly, like Champagne or Chablis today. You can see the old success in the vast network of underground cellars. These miles of cellars, upholstered in a dense, black furry mold, once held enormous quantities of wine in barrel and bottle.

What's happening in Tokaj today is nothing less than a resurrection. Few formerly great wine districts are more burdened by the catastrophic effects of modern history.

The first blow was World War I, in which Hungary lost 70 percent of its land area. Then came World War II. Its impact on Tokaj was the loss of the region's Jews.

Unusually, perhaps uniquely, Tokaj was dominated by Jewish wine merchants. Nearly every small village in the Tokaj zone was about one-quarter Jewish. They owned vineyards, but above all, they were central to the selling and marketing of Tokaj's wines. Then, in 1944, they were wiped out.

After that came decades of Communist rule. Vineyards were nationalized. An industrial winery processed all of the grapes, creating dreary wines that further destroyed Tokaj's reputation and markets. Nearly all of the wine went to Russia.

Finally, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Hungary -- and thus Tokaj -- had the freedom to restore itself.

Probably no other wine zone in the world was such a Sleeping Beauty. Plenty of would-be princes came with the kiss of hard cash.

Numerous Tokaj wineries are now owned by outside investors, such as the French insurance company AXA (Disznók´ó); the famed Spanish winery Vega Sicilia (Oremus); Bordeaux château owner Jean-Louis Laborde (Megyer and Pajzos); Anglo-Danish investors (Royal Tokaji); and American investor Anthony Hwang (Királyudvar), among many others.

Today, the initial ardor and optimism appears to have cooled, braced by the cold shower of markets that are only grudgingly receptive to rich, sweet wines.

There's an only recently resolved wrangle about modernizing the old Tokaji style, wherein wines were left in barrels only two-thirds full, the better to allow the wine to oxidize and take on Sherry-like notes. (The modernists, thankfully, won.)

Tokaji tastes like no other wine, which is both a blessing and a burden. It takes a recalibration of the palate to fully appreciate its slightly raisiny, heavily botrytized qualities.

And did I taste anything that reminded me of my reverently remembered 1926 Tokaji Eszencia? In fact, I did. Tokaj's best producers, such as István Szepsy, Uri Borok, Királyudvar and Oremus, are creating extraordinary wines, real collectibles.

Tokaji is today's most underappreciated truly great wine.

Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.

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