Hungary's Tokaj region - aiming to regain old glories

"The wine of kings - the king of wines" - is what Louis the 14th, of France is reported to have said as he popped the cork on another bottle of Tokaj wine. This is the delicious sweet wine produced in the north-eastern Hungarian region of Tokaj - with a little bit of it stretching into Slovakia. The region is World Heritage listed and the flagship of Hungarian wine production. It is now trying to regain its former glory.

Wine has been produced in the Tokaj region since the 14th century. It is the combined presence of special geological, climatic and biological conditions along with strict rules applied for centuries that make the taste of Tokaj wines so special and inimitable. Mihály Konkoly of the Pannon-Tokaj Trading House explains:

"The speciality is the micro-climate, the botrytis cinerea, a kind of fungi, which is necessary to get aszú berries and, of course, the soil, give the opportunity special white dessert wines. Aszú is a kind of raisin, a kind of botrytised grape, very, very late harvested grape. The water is going off from the berries during the harvesting period. That's why everything is concentrated in the berries: sugar, aroma, acids, etc. In Tokaj, there are very strict rules for cultivating grapes and the winemaking technology, as well".

"Other experts I talked to added that the special volcanic soil containing triolite tufa and the white grapes retaining acid content, even when they are overripe, also contribute to the uniqueness of wine produced in the Tokaj region. The noble wine varieties from Tokaj became known all over Europe. Erzsébet Prácser, the owner of the family wine cellar "Erzsébet Pince" in Tokaj believes that Prince Ferenc Rákóczi, the landlord of the Tokaj area in the late 16th and early 17th century made the first important steps to make this wine known in many countries of the continent.

"I like to say that Rákóczi was our first real great marketing manager since he made the Tokaj wine known in countries his diplomats travelled to. That is how the Tokaj wine got to the Sun King, for instance, or to the royal courts of King Gustav of Sweden and Tsar Peter the Great of Russia who then purchased large quantities. The image of Tokaj wine was bright until after the Second World War when the nationalisation of private properties and the fact that the large Soviet market attracted huge quantities without respect to quality did a great damage to the quality and image of Tokaj wines".

During the past 15 years much has been done to improve quality and marketing. But the wine industry is rapidly changing. For instance, the latest health trend in public taste - in line with discouraging people from consuming sugar - does not help the cause of sweet Tokaj wines. That - just like the EU directive - calls for lower production levels that producers wish to counter with higher quality. This year's figures seem to confirm these efforts as vintage promises to be around 26,000 tonnes in the region, 20-30 per cent less than last year, but of higher quality.

"Our problem now is that high quality and great care are not yet reflected in the prices we can achieve. That's when the importance of marketing comes into the picture again. I think Hungarian wine producers should be given similar support by the government to those enjoyed by their colleagues in Chile, for instance. What I have experienced in California recently is that the name 'Tokaj' is well-known but the actual wine is not. Mentioning Hungary abroad, everybody heard about Tokaj and Puskás - wine lovers and football lovers know about them".

The Tokaj brand name used to be used not only in Hungary but also by producers mainly in France, Italy, Australia and the United States. EU regulations on geographical indication ordered French and Italian producers to relinquish using the Tokaj brand name, including its spelling varieties. The Italians offered a huge amount of money to Hungary for the right of using this brand name and when rejected, they even turned to the European Court of Justice that eventually decided in Hungary's favour. The European Union also settled this issue with Australia and the United States and both counties agreed to phase out the use of the Tokaj brand name in the next few years. However, the situation with Slovakia where about 10 per cent of the Tokaj region extends to is different. Zoltán Harcz of the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture explains:

"There was an agreement signed on the 14th of June, 2004 by the representative of the European Commission and the agriculture ministers of Slovakia and Hungary. In this agreement, there are certain tasks for Slovakia, something like the harmonisation of the rules on Tokaj wines, of regulations on bottling, labelling of Tokaj wines and there is a maximum area of Slovakian Tokaj wine growing region: this is 560 hectares".

So, with the debate about the use of the prestigious 'Tokaj' name settled, Hungarian producers must now concentrate their efforts on re-establishing the old glory of the wine of this UNESCO World Heritage listed region.