Tokaji Aszú has always been celebrated as quite simply the best sweet wine in the world. What few people know is that this small region, tucked away in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains of north eastern Hungary and bathed by the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, is where botrytis was first discovered in the mid sixteen-hundreds. This is what the word aszú (assoo) means: botrytis, noble rot, the mysterious mould that transforms Tokaj grapes into gold.
Indeed, ever since its miraculous discovery, Tokaj has been hailed as the liquid gold of Hungary, quoted in the national anthem, its praises sung by kings, queens, popes, poets, musicians and philosophers from all over the world. Then as now, whoever passes through the gateway to the Tokaj region instantly senses something magic in the air and feels an indefinable feeling of nostalgia upon departure.
Legend has it that Tokaji Aszú wine was first made by a priest, Máté Szepsi Laczkó. In the first third of the 1600’s, prior to the grape harvest, the harvesters were called to arms to fight the invading Turks and, by their return, all the grapes had withered on the vine. The priest ordered them to be picked anyway and to everyone’s astonishment, from the heaped grapes a celestial elixir trickled down. Tokaji Aszú, “assoo” meaning “withered” was born.
Tokaji vineyards were the first in history to be classified by quality. A century and a half before Bordeaux's classification, in the 1730’s Mátyás Bél recorded the first vineyard classification in Tokaj. 173 vineyards were mentioned at this time, arranged in first, second and third class rankings. A royal decree issued in 1737 determined the 28 settlements in the area of which grapes can be harvested in order to make Tokaji wine. But it was not until the end of the 18th century that Tokaji became globally renowned. It was precious enough to be used as bargaining tool by Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II in enlisting Czar Peter the Great’s support in the Hungarian war of independence.
Empress Catherine of Russia kept a detachment of Cossacks to escort her personal supply to St. Petersburg and Louis XV would order Tokaji by the cask for his mistress Madame de Pompadour. It was he who coined the phrase, “This is a King of Wines, a Wine of Kings!”. Queen Victoria received a case of Tokaji for every year of her age until her eighty-first birthday, when she received 972 bottles!
In the unrest centuries of medieval Hungary, the countryside was constantly ravaged by marauding armies, forcing the people of the region to burrow secret cellars for their liquid gold. The wine had to be aged in specially made 136 litre oak casks in the nearby village of Gönc, so as to fit into the labyrinthine cellars deep underground.
In 2002, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee included the historical Tokaj-Hegyalja Wine Region as a cultural landscape on its World Heritage list.