I landed in Hungary a few days ago and I'm currently in the town of Mad, deep in the heart of the Tokaj ("TOCK eye") wine district. A few hour’s drive east of Budapest, this wine country is is so special that the entire district was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Everything is wine-centric in Mad, including things such as the "Botrytis" Hotel. Golden ripe fruit is hanging on the vines and the autumn colors are painting the leaves. Magic is about to happen.
Tokaj (or Tokay) is the sweet wine made in the Tokaj wine region. It’s the world’s oldest botrytized wine. Botrytis is a fungus that attacks sugar-laden grapes with the help a special micro-climate. During the autumn a morning mist is created by the convergence of two local rivers; and, the wet mornings along with the warm afternoons create the perfect storm for the Botrytis fungus. Like in the Sauternes district of Bordeaux, “noble rot” (aka Botrytis) thrives in these conditions. Grapes are attacked by the fungus which bores microscopic holes through the skin of the berry to get the sweet nectar. What is left is a shriveled, concentrated grape filled with uber-sweet juice, high in acidity (which balances the sugar) and filled with beguiling aromas caused by the interaction with the noble rot.
People in the Tokaj district long ago recognized they had a very special sweet wine like no other. In 1757 the monarchy made a law that established geographical boundaries for the sweet wine region. This was the world’s second appellation system (Chianti, the first, was legally demarcated in 1716.) Tokaj didn’t stop there, however. Vineyards were then classified based on quality, and it all was approved in 1772.
From the 17th to 19th centuries Tokaj graced the tables of royalty throughout Europe. In the late 1800’s, however, Tokaj fell victim to the phylloxera bug that destroyed the vineyards throughout Europe. World Wars I and II didn’t help. Nor did Communist rule. Knock-off Tokaj from other countries further worsened the situation.
But, Hungary is on the move again supported by moneys from the European Union to reinvest in its prized Tokaj wine district. The E.U. has cracked down legally on others in Europe using the protected name Tokaj. Moreover, the E.U. has recently invested 330 Million Euro for viticultural improvements moving the local wine industry into the 21st century.