Tokaj-Hegyalja is Hungary’s first and one of its most beautiful wine regions, stretching out over the gentle southern slopes of the Zemplén Hills in the triangle formed by Tokaj, Abaújszántó and Sátoraljaújhely. The combined beneficial effects of favourably located vineyards, the soil structure of volcanic origin, the rays of autumn sunshine and the moisture rising from the nearby River Bodrog are the secret behind the quality and special character of Tokaj wine. The tradition of making Tokaji Aszú, “the king of wines, and the wine of kings,” is largely passed on from father to son in the region.
Even before the Hungarian conquest, grapes were cultivated over the wine region’s 5,500 hectares of cropland, and the area was the world’s first self-contained wine region. A royal decree to this effect was promulgated in 1737, listing 28 settlements in the environs of which grapes suitable for the making of Tokaj wine could be grown. In 2002, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee included the historical Tokaj-Hegyalja Wine Region as a cultural landscape on its World Heritage list. The survival of the traditions of vine-growing that have evolved over the past 1,000 years in their pristine, original form and the integrity of the region over the length of a millennium justified the declaration of the wine region as a part of World Heritage.
The wine region is characterised by a continental climate, a volcanic rock base (of andesite, rhyolite, and tuffs thereof), and black soil formed upon it. While the mineral-rich volcanic rock favours full-bodied wines, areas with more loess-heavy earth suit wines of a mellower character.
The characteristic feature of the Tokaj-Hegyalja Wine Region is botrytisation, which occurs from year to year thanks to the combined properties of the cropland, the particular microclimate, the neighbouring rivers (Bodrog, Tisza) and appropriate grape varieties (Furmint, Hárslevelű, Muscat, Zéta, Kövérszőlő, Kabar). The mould that gives rise to the process of botrytisation (Botrytis cinerea) cannot itself be regarded as something unique to the wine region as it is also to be found elsewhere – unlike the cellar mould (Cladosporium cellare) covering the walls of the cellars hollowed out from rhyolitic tuff, which provides optimal conditions (temperature and moisture content) for wines during their maturation in wooden barrels.
During botrytisation, thanks to early autumn rains and dawn mists, the grapes swell and burst, triggering the noble rot process of botrytis. As a consequence of the special microclimate, the rainy season is followed by a lengthy warm and sunny period, promoting the botrytisation of the berries and concentration of flavour, succulence and sugar content.
The making of Tokaji Aszú is a tradition dating back centuries in the wine region. The first stage of the process is to pick the grapes from each cluster individually at harvest time and place them in vats, where they are stored until processing. During this time, the nectar that will be bottled as Eszencia trickles from the perforated vats under the Aszú berries’ own weight.
In the autumn of 2013, with a view to standardising the quality of Tokaj wines, new winemaking regulations were created in the wine region. For Aszú, the minimum sugar content was set at 120 g per litre. In addition, it was specified that wines produced here may be matured and bottled only at the place of cultivation, i.e. in a given settlement belonging to the wine region.
Part of the programme of quality renewal instigated at the winery in 2013 is to assess vineyard growing potential and the condition of existing vineyards, as a result of which a so-called geographic information system (GIS) was created as an entirely new development expressly unique to the Grand Tokaj winery.
The goal of the survey of vineyard potential was to map out the features of vine-growing areas in the wine region. During this process, experts used data on vineyard capacities and cultivating potential to determine the production goals of a given area of land and which grape varieties are suitable for cultivation on that land. This is especially important because the winery, in its role as an integrator in the region, maintains contact with more than 1,400 farmers, with whom it shares a common interest in cultivating good-quality basic materials producing wines of a high standard. You can read more about this aspect of Grand Tokaj’s activity by clicking on the link: Our role as integrator.
The process began with a survey of the 5,500 hectares of land suitable for vine cultivation in the Tokaj-Hegyalja Wine Region, based on the aforementioned criteria. The survey used 21st century methods to determine the land’s topographical features and soil conditions, while applying historical data and satellite images to characterise its mesoclimatic and macroclimatic potential. On-site visits to vineyards in the course of the survey were supplemented by aerial and remote sensing data.
Data collected on the condition of vineyards were entered and graphically visualised in the newly developed, complex geographic information system.
The survey of cultivating potential was carried out between 2013 and 2015, resulting in the creation of a geographic information system in support of decision-making that permits grape procurement at the winery to be modelled and planned ahead. The winery tested the system in 2015, and already experienced a positive impact at harvest time, when appropriate scheduling resulted in the gathering of a good-quality crop.
Furmint is a grape variety of Hungarian origin, one of the most distinctive and frequently occurring varieties in the Tokaj-Hegyalja Wine Region.
Its vine stocks are characterised by strong growth, sprouting fewer shoots than other varieties, which grow in a vertical direction and do not require a great deal of expenditure in their management. The clusters are medium-sized and loosely bunched. The variety is not susceptible to weather and disease, withstanding sunshine and drought well, and even resisting winter frosts.
Furmint is a late-ripening variety, harvested from September to November in accordance with technological demands. Due to its honey-sweet and often fruity flavour, as well as its propensity for botrytisation and acidity retention, it is one of the most favoured varieties in the wine region.
Wines made from Furmint grapes are highly fragrant, hard and full-bodied, with a comparatively high acidic content. Furmint is regarded as an undeniably valuable and multi-faceted Hungarian variety.
Besides Furmint, Hárslevelű is the other widely occurring grape variety in Tokaj-Hegyalja, an old regional variety of probably Hungarian origin. It gained its name from the similarity of its leaves to those of the linden tree.
Similarly to Furmint, its vine stocks are characterised by comparatively strong growth, and it requires negligible pruning and training. Hárslevelű vines produce large clusters of smaller grapes, which are consequently less inclined to botrytisation. Its use in the production of Aszú is thus negligible. Hárslevelű needs ideal conditions to thrive as it is not the strongest variety in terms of resistance.
Hárslevelű grapes are typically harvested late from September to November, in accordance with technological demands. With a distinctive flowery aroma and fresh acidity, the variety yields succulent, full-bodied wines with a spicy essence of linden flowers.
Sárgamuskotály grows in only a few wine regions in Hungary, but in many more places in Europe. It is known as one of the most long-established varieties.
It is characterised by slender vine stocks and dense medium-sized clusters of very small, succulent grapes with thin and soft skins, thus making it particularly inclined to botrytisation. Susceptible to disease, the variety is only really at home in deeply layered, nutrient-rich and well-watered soils.
Wines produced from the variety are softly succulent with a delicate Muscat aroma, with an acidity that remains even when well-matured.
The Kabar grape variety was created by crossing Bouvier with Hárslevelű. Its vine stocks produce few shoots, while its leaves are ivy green. Its yield is lower than that of Zéta, but it is particularly prone to botrytisation. The berries are thick-skinned, making them more resistant to rainy weather.
This grape variety is linked to the name of Ferenc Király, who created it in 1951 by crossing Bouvier and Furmint. Previously known as Oremus, its name was changed to Zéta much later.
Vine-stocks of medium-strong growth produce extremely dense conical clusters of medium-sized grapes. Typically ripening in the second half of September, the variety was introduced to the wine region due to its excellent susceptibility to botrytisation. Due to its weaker level of resistance, it requires a greater amount of attention.
Zéta wines most closely resemble Furmint, being full-bodied and harmonious with a delicate acidic composition.
Indigenous to the Black Sea region, this grape variety disappeared from vineyards following the phylloxera epidemic, and has since maintained only a modest presence in the wine region.
The berries are relatively large, the skins thin and the flesh soft and succulent.
Outstandingly prone to botrytisation, with favourable weather and the right conditions it can produce as much as three times the weight of Aszú berries as Furmint vines.
When planting Kövérszőlő, special attention must be paid to the orientation of the vines, given the grapes’ propensity to rot. It feels most at home on breezier, drier hillsides, and has a good resistance to both frost and drought.
Kövérszőlő produces pleasant wines that are mildly fragrant, delicately acidic and harmonious.