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Hungarian Review: Tarcal and the Wine of Kings – Travelling in the Tokaj Region

As harvest season is very much upon us, we at Hungary Today are happy to present an essay on the country’s most famous wine region, Tokaj-Hegyalja, courtesy of  the literary journal The Hungarian Review.

In the article below, author Gordon McKechnie describes his experience visiting the villages of the Tokaj region and tasting its world-class wines, while at the same time providing an engaging, interesting account of the area’s history. 

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At the hilltop, above the terraces of vines, the Terézia Chapel’s bright white walls and new copper roof shine like a bright beacon against the deep blue of the autumn sky. The leaves on the vines are turning golden with the season. With the sun on our backs the October afternoon is pleasantly warm.

The Terézia vineyard, one of the best and most historic in the Tokaj region, is named after the chapel; and the chapel in turn is named for St Theresa, namesake of the Empress Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa, the only ever female Habsburg ruler, lived from 1717 to 1780 and reigned from 1740 to 1780. Among her many titles she was Queen of Hungary, crowned in Bratislava (Pozsony, Pressburg) on 25 June 1741. In the precarious early years of her reign, when the questioning of her right to rule led to the War of the Austrian Succession, Hungarian support for the young Queen stood firm, and Maria Theresa throughout her long reign reciprocated with affection for Hungary. The Terézia Chapel was built in her honour in 1750 and still today towers above the famous vineyards of the Tokaj-Hegyalja. (“Hegyalja” means “foothills” in Hungarian.) Along these foothills of the Zemplén Hills grow the grapes that make Hungary’s most famous wines, the legendary tipple of kings and emperors, “Tokay”.

As we walk up the tracks between the vines towards the chapel, it becomes clear that a major renovation is underway. After the Second World War and the arrival of the Communist régime, the Terézia Chapel was stripped bare and gradually fell into ruin. Today, twelve men are at work here undoing the desecration. They lay paving stones on a level bed of sand. To a slightly higher level, around the base of the chapel itself, a yellow digger delivers fresh earth.

We walk among the workmen, beneath the scaffolding on the west façade, through the doorway, into the chapel. Inside, the chapel is bare – bare floors and fresh bright-white walls. There is nothing else to see. The work here is more reconstruction than renovation.

Terézia Chapel, Tokaj. Photos by courtesy of Gordon McKechnie

From the terraces in front of the Terézia Chapel the view is magnificent. To the northwest, immediately in front of us, are the vines of the famous Mézesmály vineyard. Beyond the main road to the north are the vineyards of Disznókő, bought from the state in the early days of post-Communist privatisation by AXA, the French insurance company. Farther still in that direction is the village of Mád. Many of the vineyards around Mád belong, and have belonged since 1989, to Hugh Johnson and the Royal Tokaji Wine Company which he founded. (I have long been a fan of Hugh Johnson’s writings on wine. The excellent mapping in the successive editions of his World Atlas of Wine has been a much welcome addition to my appreciation of the art of Bacchus.) Beyond Mád, lost in the hazy distance, is Monok, birthplace of Lajos Kossuth, Hungary’s great patriot and leader of its 1848 War of Independence. In the opposite direction, to the southeast, is the village of Tarcal. Here, and all the way round the base of the volcanic Bald Mountain to the village of Tokaj itself, the great classified vineyards of the Tokaji appellation continue.

Tokaj has the oldest system of vineyard classification in the world. Bordeaux wine was officially classified in 1855. The vineyards around Tokaj were first classified by Prince Rákóczi in 1700. In 1737, the classified Tokaj vineyards were sub-divided into first, second and third growths – all distinguished from the other unclassified growths – a system that would be adopted more than a century later in the Bordelais. The initial 1737 classification has been lost. A second one, still with us today, was made in 1772. In those classifications, there were two vineyards that stood apart, stood even above the classified first growths. They were known as “great first growths”. One lies to the south of Tarcal and one to the north of the village.

South of the village is Szarvas. The great Szarvas vineyard was once owned, like much of the land around here, by the Rákóczi family. But in 1711 it was confiscated from them by the Habsburgs. Francis Rákóczi II, the last of his line, had just led and lost a nine-year Independence War against the Austrian Habsburgs. Szarvas became one of the most prestigious Imperial and Royal (K. und K.) Court Vineyards. It was not the first royal association with Tarcal. Apparently, King Kálmán had a wine cellar in Tarcal as early as 1100.

The great first growth just to the north of Tarcal is the Mézesmály vineyard. “Mézesmály” means “honey pot”. The name says it all.

The Terézia vineyard at the north end of Tarcal forms part of the 100 hectares Gróf Degenfeld estate, some 32 hectares of which are currently put down to vines. Thirteen of these hectares lie within the Mézesmály vineyard. Hugh Johnson and the Royal Tokaji Wine Company own the other 11 hectares of the honey pot.

Degenfeld is the name of a widespread German noble family, with roots going back to the 13th century, and taking its name from the village of Degenfeld in Swabia to the east of Stuttgart. One of the Degenfeld lines has been established in Hungary since the 18th century. In 1857, one of its members, Count Imre Degenfeld, a leading Tokaji vineyard owner, was a founding member of the Tokaj Region Wine Producers Association. Hungary, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, found itself on the losing side in the First World War, and when the Treaty of Trianon at the end of the War stripped Hungary of two thirds of its former territory and left one third of ethnic Hungarians outside the borders of the new shrunken country, the Degenfeld owners of their Tokaji vineyards found themselves living within the new borders of Romania. Then, after the Second World War, when Communism came to Hungary, the vineyards were expropriated by the state. In 1964, the Degenfelds that had once owned the Tokaji vineyards emigrated from Communist Romania to Germany.

Following the end of Communism in Hungary in 1989, property that had been expropriated by the previous régime was restored to its original owners, and so the Gróf Degenfeld name came again to the vineyards lying to the north of Tarcal. A decade-long process of restoring the estate and making quality wines again began.

The Tokaj-Hegyalja is exclusively a white wine producing region; but you do not find here the Chardonnays and Sauvignons Blancs that have proliferated around the world. Here the native grapes, at least those that survived the 19th century phylloxera plague, still reign. Most of these trace their genetic origins, as do traditional winemaking methods, to the Balkans and the Aegean rather than to Italy and France.

The most common grape variety here is Furmint. About 70% of the vines here are Furmint. The next most frequently planted is Hárslevelű. The Terézia vineyard grows both – the thin-skinned Furmint that requires more water on the higher water-retaining terraces and the more robust Hárslevelű on the lower slopes where the rainwater flows more readily away.

The first bottle of wine we drank in the area, with our dinner the evening we arrived, was a 2012 Hárslevelű from the Terézia vineyard. It was, at first, something of an acquired taste, different from any wine I had drunk before. But it was not long before I was enjoying its spicy notes. The taste memory remains with me and I think I prefer it to most of the Furmints that make up the bulk of dry Tokaji wine on the market.

Of course, the fame of Tokaj rests on its sweet wines. In a tasting in the Gróf Degenfeld cellars we progressed from dry Hárslevelűs and Furmints towards them. We tasted a light 2014 (“a bad year”) Muscat Blanc that had been vinified off-dry (15 grams of sugar per litre). It is wine for drinking young. A similar wine in the heurige of Vienna would be gone before the Christmas following the harvest. Next came a 2013 Kövérszőlő at 111g of sugar per litre. It was very easy to drink. Kövérszőlő is a rare grape even in the Tokaj-Hegyalja. But at least a few plants survived the phylloxera plague of 1886. Many other varieties that once grew in the Tokaj-Hegyalja were totally lost. Today Kövérszőlő is not frequently grown. A pity.

Szamorodni is a word of Polish origin and means “as it comes”. It is made from ripe grapes harvested late, though not berry by berry as with an Aszú wine, and every berry is thrown into the press. Depending on the residual sugar level, a Szamorodni wine can either be dry or sweet. The wine has then to spend at least two years maturing, much of that time in wood. Usually, the dry wines spend longer in wood. Dry Szamorodni is often said to compare to sherry or Jura wines. I found what I tasted to be more like a dry Madeira or a Tuscan Vin Santo. To my surprise, I preferred the sweet Szamorodni – a Gróf Degenfeld 2012 Szamorodni made from 100% Furmint grapes.

A view over the vineyards

While Szamorodni is a traditional way of making Tokaji wine, it is on the region’s Aszú wines that the “Tokay” legend rests. The method of making Tokaji Aszú is unique to Tokaji. To make Tokaji Aszú, the shrivelled botrytised grapes are picked individually, harvesters passing along each row of vines several times as necessary. The picked grapes are then left in a heap. The sugary juice that leaks from the heap (it can contain up to 800g/litre of sugar) is kept as the ingredient for Eszencia, the most expensive of all Tokaji wines. The botrytised grapes from the heap are then added to a vat of the new wine of the year to start a secondary fermentation. Tokaji Aszú is traditionally categorised by the number of twenty-kilo hods (“puttony”) added to each 137 litre barrel. Thus, you can have three, four, five or six puttonyos Tokaji Aszús – the higher the number, the sweeter the wine. Traditionally, the Aszú wine was kept in a wooden barrel for the number of puttonyos added plus two years. Nowadays Aszú wines tend to be bottled rather earlier.

We tasted several Tokaji Aszú wines at various places around Tokaj. At our tasting in the Gróf Degenfeld cellars we tasted a 2009 five puttonyos wine, made 100% from the Furmint grape, that had spent two years in the barrel. Its sugar content was 146g/litre. It was a splendid culmination to our tasting.

Later that day, after a dinner of grilled goose liver, I had a small and expensive glass of Eszencia. I had never tasted anything like it before. But I preferred the slightly less sweet, rather less costly, five puttonyos Aszú.

The Tokaji appellation extends not only to the northwest of the village of Tokaj itself but also to the northeast – along the foot of the Zemplén Hills – all the way to the border with Slovakia. In fact, the traditional territory of Tokaji wine extends across the border into Slovakia. Those who drew the new international frontiers at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 had other things on their minds than the territorial integrity of wine-growing districts.

In recent years, other parts of the world that used to use the name “Tokay” to associate their product with the legendary original have had to drop it. Tokay d’Alsace, for example, is now sold simply as Pinot Gris. Slovak Tokaj, however, can still legally use the hallowed name. There are about 900 hectares of vineyard across the border, and the majority of the population in the Slovak Tokaj wine-growing region still speaks Hungarian as its native language. Wine-making rules, though, are somewhat different across the border. They can, for example, make and sell a two puttonyos Aszú wine there, something that is not done in Hungary.

As with all great wine-growing areas, it is the climate and the soil that make for the special wine-growing conditions. The geographic position of the Tokaj-Hegyalja is defined by the sheltering Zemplén Hills to the north and the warm air coming in from the Great Hungarian Plain to the south. The autumnal mists rising from the Bodrog River help provide the ideal conditions for the growth of the botrytis, the noble rot that shrivels the grapes and intensifies their sweetness. The underlying rock in the Tokaj-Hegyalja is volcanic tufa. In the south of the area the topsoil is generally loess, in the central and northern sections, it is clay and pebbles. The climatic and soil conditions, though, vary subtly from vineyard to vineyard and it is those variations that underlie the varying qualities of the wines they produce and the venerable Tokaji classification system.

It is said that the method of making the Aszú wines, to which Tokaji has owed its fame through the centuries, was developed not around Tokaj and Tarcal in the south, but rather at the northern end of the appellation, near the town of Sátoraljaújhely, now on the frontier with Slovakia, at a now-classified vineyard known as Oremus. “Oremus” is Latin for “let us pray”. There was once a Benedictine monastery on this site and to that, presumably, the vineyard owes its name. In the 17th century the Oremus vineyard was in the possession of (surprise!) the Rákóczis. In the autumn of 1620, the normal wine harvest was delayed by marauding Ottomans, forcing the grapes to be picked late, after the rot had set in. Máté Laczkó Szepsi, Protestant chaplain to the Rákóczis and also in charge of the Oremus vineyard and the making of its wines at the time, took the problem of rotting grapes and – necessity being the mother of invention – developed the method by which the Tokaji Aszú wines are made to this day. He even, confidently, kept the wine thus made for a decade before serving it at the celebrations on Easter Day 1631. At least that is the story.

By way of historical postscript, one of the chaplain’s descendants today makes Tokaji wine from his vineyards around the village of Mád, just to the north of Tarcal. István Szepsy is today one of the leading and most respected winemakers in the Tokaj-Hegyalja. The well-regarded British wine writer, Jancis Robinson, recently wrote: “I do feel the word genius is not too hyperbolic a word to describe the modest Mr. Szepsy.” After you have tried a glass of his steely dry Szepsy “Szent Tamás” Furmint, move on to the amazing Szepsy Six Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú. Tell me then whether you think the kings and emperors of yesteryear were wrong in their devotion to “Tokay”.

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As you drive northeast from Tokaj, from Tarcal and Mád, along the foot of the Zemplén Hills, there are vineyards on your left most of the way. Many of these vines have been replanted since 1989. On your right, you pass the village of Olaszliszka. “Olasz” means “Italian” in Hungarian, and it is said that Italians settled here in the 13th century and brought with them the techniques of winemaking. It is a charming story, but there do seem to be records of vines being grown in the area as early as the 5th century AD; and it is also said that when Árpád led the Magyars into what is now Hungary in 896 he rewarded some of his followers with prestigious vineyards in the Tokaj-Hegyalja. Moreover, the settlers of Olaszliszka may not even have been Italians. It has been suggested that they may have been Walloons, from present-day Belgium. Apparently at the time “Olasz” referred to the speakers of any of the medieval languages descended from Latin.

The wine festival in Tokaj

There are other traces, however, of even older Italian settlement in the Tokaj-Hegyalja. King Kálmán, who reigned from 1095 to 1116, settled Sátoraljaújhely on Count Rathold of Caserta. Tradition has it that the village of Bári, just to the east of Sátoraljaújhely, was settled then by Italians he brought from Bari. Over time, of course, the Italians went native and became Hungarians, and today, though now in Slovakia and officially known as Bara, the village is majority Hungarian-speaking.

Beyond Olaszliszka on your left, set among the vines, is the village of Tolcsva. Tolcsva is home to the winery for the revived Oremus label, revived in 1993 by a Spanish consortium. Here also are the Rákóczi Cellar and the Constantine Cellar, so-called because it once belonged to the Greek royal family. Together they constitute the Tokaji Museum Cellar. This is not the only historical presence of Greeks in the Tokaj-Hegyalja. There are records of Greeks living in these parts since the 13th century when King Béla IV brought them here to settle on lands depopulated by the murderous Tatar raids of 1241-42. In the 18th century, Greek families dominated the Tokaji wine trade. In 1768, Douglass Sylvester visited the Tokaj-Hegyalja and, in his 1773 An Account of Tokay and Other Wines of Hungary, noted that the inhabitants of Tokaj town were Magyars and Greeks.

Nobody has yet mapped all the cellars of the Tokaj-Hegyalja. They are everywhere. Some are more than 500 years old, possibly considerably older. Most are said to have been dug out of the tufa, and reinforced in places with brick, by Carpathian Germans from the region of Metzenseifen (Mecenzéf in Hungarian, now Medzev in Slovakia), who specialised in this type of work in the 17th and 18th centuries. The long tunnel-like cellars of the Tokaj-Hegyalja, often on several levels, play an important role in the making of Tokaji wines for their walls are home to a particular kind of mould known as Cladosporium cellare. Cladosporium cellare apparently lives only here and in some of the wine-making regions of neighbouring Austria. It keeps the air in these cellars clean and allows yeasts and bacteria to feed on the oxygen in the wine, imparting subtle flavours to it.

Oddly enough, Tolcsva is also the birthplace of William Fox, the 20th century California film magnate, whose name lives on in Fox News and 20th Century Fox. His competitor, Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Pictures, was born only a few kilometres to the east of Tolcsva in the village of Ricse. The Jewish population of the area came here from Galicia in the 18th century at a time when Galicia was overpopulated and this part of Hungary had spare land following the last Rákóczi rebellion at the beginning of that century.

Return from the lights of Hollywood to the main road along the foot of the Zemplén Hills. Shortly before you reach Sárospatak there is a road on the left leading to Hercegkút. Turn there.

It is the geographical layout of Hercegkút that strikes you first. The village consists of a single long street, running roughly south to north. Either side of the street is lined with houses built in a style that I have seen elsewhere in Hungary and in traditionally Hungarian-inhabited villages in neighbouring countries, such as Piskolt in Romania (Pişcolt in Romanian). The short gable end of the house, with two or three lace-curtained windows, faces the street. From the street, and at right angles to it, the house stretches a long way back. Along its south-facing side, are more windows, flowers, a pillared terrace perhaps, and the main door. Farther back the long building shelters garages, tool sheds, barns, animals… In the other – north-facing – side of the house there are no windows. This wall faces the neighbour behind and forms the south wall to his long narrow courtyard. Some of these houses are set remarkably close together.

Hercegkút wine cellars

Until 1904 the village of Hercegkút (meaning Prince’s Well) was called Trautsondorf, named after Prince Trautson of a noble family originally from Tirol. The ruins of a castle on the road from Innsbruck to the Brenner Pass share the family name. Trautsondorf was so named because it was Prince Trautson who, in 1748–50, brought German settlers from the Schwarzwald here to what was then uninhabited forest. We know the names of all the original German settlers because a register of 1750 has been preserved. Within a generation, the cleared land was producing Tokaji wines and the maturing wine was being stored in rows of strange little subterranean cellars in the hillside behind the village. Today you can walk here on paved paths that run like miniature avenues through a troglodyte village. You pass a series of triangular stone façades, each with a locked wooden door in it, behind which a passage leads under a mound of earth stretching back into the hillside. A few of the mounds even have chimneys rising from them. You would not be at all surprised if a hobbit came walking along the path towards you.

Among the winemakers who keep their barrels of wine in the Hercegkút cellars is one who has named his wine after one Robert Gilbert Porteous – or Robert Wojciech Portius as he is known here and in Poland – Tokaj-Portius. Robert Porteous was one of the most renowned wine merchants of his day. Based in Krosno, in southern Poland, he became the major importer of Tokaji wines into Poland at a time when Poland was Tokaj’s most important export market. The trade made him one of the richest men in Poland in his day. In Krosno you can still visit the family chapel, the Robert Gilbert Porteous Lanxeth family chapel, and walk along a street named after him. While in Krosno, you can even buy a set of wine glasses from the famous Krosno glassworks from which to drink your Tokaji Aszú.

In his will, laden with generous bequests, Robert Porteous wrote:

Having acknowledged all through my life His Majesty John Casimir as my gracious King and Protector, I wish to give him further proof of my loyalty by leaving him the sum of 10,000 florins. I also present him an altar made of pure gold. My relations Francis Gordon and John Dawson will attend to this my request.

It is not everyone who mentions the King as a beneficiary in his will. The state often takes enough as it is in inheritance tax. But well might Robert Porteous have thought of the king in this regard. It was only due to the immigrant merchant having received from the Polish King the right to import Tokaji wine that Robert Porteous had become the rich and generous man he was.

Robert Porteous, Francis Gordon and John Dawson were among the significant numbers of east-coast Scots who emigrated to Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries. Robert Porteous himself was probably born at Langside (whence, probably, Lanxeth in Polish), near Dalkeith, now in the outer suburbs of Edinburgh, in the early years of the 17th century. Porteous is a well-known surname from the Scottish Borders. One of that name, Captain John Porteous, lynched by the Edinburgh mob in 1736, gave his name to the Porteous Riots that are described in the early chapters of Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian. The Tokaji wine merchant from Krosno, clearly, fared far better than his unfortunate stay-at-home namesake in Edinburgh.

The paved north–south street through Hercegkút comes to an end at the last house in the village. A track continues past the football field. When we walked along it there a game was in progress. We stopped briefly to join the small crowd of four of five spectators. We were, perhaps, watching an international match. The team in yellow were the sort of people – German or Hungarian – that you expect to see in Central Europe. The players on the blue team, however, looked as though they might have come from India or Pakistan. Presumably, however, they were Roma; and, thus, though ancestrally from the Indian subcontinent, not recent arrivals. Some nearby villages have significant Roma populations.

Recall, before leaving Hercegkút, that this was a German settlement. Into the middle of the 20th century the people of the village still spoke German and maintained customs, traditions and festivals they had brought with them from the Black Forest 200 years earlier. After the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War, this ancestral link brought trouble to the village. On 2 January 1945, 135 villagers were rounded up by the Red Army and deported to forced labour in the Soviet Union. Today, only the elderly in Hercegkút speak German as their native tongue.

Beyond Hercegkút, beyond the football field, the track becomes a footpath. A wooden footbridge with missing planks takes you across the stream that flows through the valley. Then, across the fields ahead of you, you see the spire of the church at Makkoshotyka rising above the village. This is a Reformed Protestant church and Makkoshotyka, unlike Hercegkút, is an old-established Hungarian village with origins going back almost to the arrival of the Magyars from the east more than a millennium ago. Nearly half the village’s population today is of Roma origin.

Twenty minutes or so after leaving Hercegkút, the path brings you out onto the paved road as it enters Makkoshotyka. Immediately opposite you is a wooden monument. At first sight it looks like an ordinary crucifix with two women mourning the death of Jesus at either side of the foot of the cross. As you look closer, though, it is quite different. The familiar imagery of the crucifixion, with all its attendant emotional and spiritual content, has been taken, removed from its Christian context and applied to a quite different subject.

Trianon Monument at Makkoshotyka

First, the withering wreaths placed at the foot of the cross are all decked with ribbons in the Hungarian national colours – red, white and green. Second, instead of a wooden image of Christ on the cross, a carved cloth hangs there. What could be a stylised house or crown sits on the shroud. Third, and here it becomes clear, instead of Pontius Pilate’s legend (“INRI” – “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) on the top bar of the cross we read a date – “1920”. This, then, is a Trianon Monument, a monument mourning the Treaty of Trianon, whereby Hungary was, on 4 June 1920, reduced to a third of its pre-World-War-One territory. And, in case there is any doubt as to what this cross and date refer to, there is on the slope behind the monument a pattern marked out in white stones in the shape of the pre-1920 borders of Hungary, a Hungary that included Burgenland (now part of Austria), all of today’s Slovakia, the Sub-Carpathian region of Ukraine, Transylvania (now in Romania), the Vojvodina (now in Serbia) and Slavonia and Croatia across to the Adriatic Sea. The ground within the border of white stones is planted with three rows of flowers – red in the north, white in the middle and green flowers in the south. The profound national shock of Trianon, the mourning for lost lands and lost kindred, are present in the wooden bodies of the women at the foot of the cross. They cover their grief-stricken faces with their hands. Yet, implicit in the choice of this particular Christian symbolism for the monument, there is also a ray of hope. Christ did not stay dead in his grave. Hungary too, the monument subtly proclaims, will rise again.

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In my makeshift cellar, I still have one very dusty bottle – cobwebbed, spotmarked with age and bearing a red-white-and-green ribbon and the crest of Communist Hungary around its neck. I brought the bottle home from Budapest in 1988. It is a 1981 Tokaji Aszú 4 Puttonyos from the village of Tolcsva, Hollywood in the hills of Hungary, the home today of the revived Oremus label. Now that I have been to Tokaj, Tolcsva and Tarcal, walked the vineyards and valleys of the Tokaj-Hegyalja and breathed the air of its mouldy cellars, I feel that I might soon be opening my bottle and drinking it one evening around the fire with some very good friends. The wine it contains was, admittedly, made at a time when the fortunes of the Tokaji vineyards were at a low ebb; but, still, it is only 34 years old. They say that some of the great Polish cellars supplied by Robert Gilbert Porteous kept their Tokaji Aszú for 200 years.

Let us pray.

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By Gordon McKechnie 

Be sure to check out more articles from the Hungarian Review here.