A Taste of Tokaj: Wine of Kings, King of Wines
By Shelley Puhak
Editor’s note: Most of the Tokaj Wine Region is located in Hungary, but a small section, about two square miles, is located in the Slovak Republic.
Tokaj is sometimes referred to as Tokay.
A man resembling a clean-shaven Santa Claus swings opens a large barrel top serving as a door, revealing a set of stone steps leading underground.
I follow him into an underground tunnel cut out of the volcanic tufa rock. This passageway empties out into a cool, cavernous room with a wrought iron chandelier hanging from the domed ceiling. Barrel tops are mounted on the wall, inscribed with various humorous sayings.
“Life is Too Short”
I sit on a rough-hewn bench underneath one that reads, “Zivot je prilis kratky, aby sme pili nekvalitne vino” (“Life is too short to drink rubbish wine.”)
I’m underneath the Slovak village of Vinicky in a 400-year old cellar. Santa Claus is actually Gejza Nagy. He and his wife Anna own the Zlaty strapec vineyard, and he boasts that his family has been making wine in this region for centuries.
We had arrived asking for an ochutnavka, a tasting, and as I soon find out, Mr. Nagy takes his tastings very seriously. He pours me a half glass of amber-colored, sweet Tokaj wine, and we toast to our health. He pours me a half glass of another varietal and we toast to good weather. And he pours, and pours, and pours.
“Maly, maly,” I keep insisting, “Smaller, smaller.”
It’s ten in the morning, and I know I can’t handle more than a full glass or two. Finally, I have to go get my Slovak cousin Andrea and her friend Constantine and ask for help finishing up.
Mr. Nagy laughs and tells me if I get too tipsy, there is a B&B on the property, where 700 SKK ($22) will get me a nice room to sleep off the wine.
After we’ve tasted all six wines the vineyard carries, Mr. Nagy warns us that coming up into the summer air will intensify the wine’s effect, and it does.
It’s hard to believe that just over an hour ago I was in the Tatra mountains. Now, only 100 miles south on the Hungarian border, the bright sun is dazzling and the air feels almost sultry.I’m pleasantly lightheaded as we arrive at our next stop, the Stredne odborne uciliste pol’nohospodarske Vinicky, a former school in the same village.
Our guide takes us down into a tunnel like the one under the Nagy’s property, but much larger, with many smaller passageways sprouting off. Our guide tells us this set of tunnels is 52 feet (16 meters) underground and over 147 feet (45 meters) in length. I make an audible sound of surprise.
My cousin waves her hands dismissively as she translates the guide’s response for me: “He says that there are passages like these under everyone’s property.”
The Tokaj Label
I learn these Tokaj wine cellars were built during the Turkish invasions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Although they were originally designed as hiding places for troops and supplies, villagers soon discovered that the wine they stored here tasted much, much better than that stored above ground.
That’s because the temperature and humidity stay constant year-round—50 degrees (10 C) and 95% humidity.
Between occasional raids by the Turks, enterprising villagers found time to cultivate vines and ferment their wine in these cellars, and the Tokaj label was legally established in 1655.
Thick Black Fuzz
I can’t imagine hiding down here in complete darkness, feeling my way along the wet, cold walls covered with a thick black fuzz.
Luckily, this tunnel is dimly lit by the occasional humming florescent light, and our guide carries a flashlight. He trains it on the black fuzz on the walls and tells us this is actually Cladosporium cellare, a valuable fungus that acts like a powerful air filter.
It eats bacteria that could be dangerous for the wines and regulates the humidity. The Tokaj region is the only place in the world where this fungus grows naturally.
The wine that made Tokaj world famous is Vyber (in Hungarian: aszú). This sweet dessert wine is made from cibebs, Tokaj varietal grapes that have been exposed while still on the vine to another fungus, Botrytis cinerea.
This is the same fungus that is used in the production of French Sauternes, as well as Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. It causes the grapes to shrivel, intensifying their sugar and flavor.
These natural raisins are picked in one day, always after the 25th of October. The ‘cibéby’ are trampled in huge vats to form a paste. Wine is then poured on the paste and left to soak. The product is transferred to wooden casks where it will age for up to six years in these special Tokaj wine cellars. The Cladosporium cellare on the walls will give the wine a rich sherry flavor.
The ratio of cibéby to wine is indicated on the label of all Tokaj Vyber wine by its putno rating, which ranges from three to six. In old Slovak, putna was a barrel. A putno rating of three means that three barrels of cibéby have been added to 136 litres of wine, while a rating of four means four barrels have been added, and so on. The higher the putno rating, the sweeter, stronger and more expensive the wine will be.
The Duke of Transylvania, Frantisek Rákoczi II, sent his own six putno wine to Louis XIV, who termed it “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” – “Wine of Kings, King of Wines.”
Our guide also mentions that in the 18th century Tokaj wine became famous as a medicine for healing anemia and nerve illnesses. Tokaj was also the favorite drink of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Voltaire, and Goethe. Beethoven and Schubert dedicated songs to it.
This region was once part of the sprawling historic Tokaj wine region of the Kingdom of Hungary. After WWI, new borders left two square miles of this region cut off from the rest.
Since then, while Hungarian vineyards have flourished, Slovak vineyards that produce Tokaj of comparable quality have struggled.
Our guide shrugs, and he tells us no one is much interested in Slovak Tokaj anymore, not like they used to be. When this school was established in 1952, students competed for admission. But by 1997, the school couldn’t find new applicants, and soon after, it was forced to close.
The school is now only open to tourists and sommeliers. Our guide says his most frequent visitors are groups of Italians who hike all day and drink all night, or experts who come for a closer look at the Botrytis cinerea and for a taste from the extensive collections.
Today, we’re the only visitors. As our guide pours out some five putno Tokaj, I ponder how a celebrated wine slips into obscurity. I sip at the Tokaj, sweet and smoky, with a citrusy bite, and I tell my cousin, “It’s a damn shame.”
IF YOU GO:
Villages in this region include: Cerhov, Mala Trna, Vel’ka Trna, Cernochov, Vel’ka Bara, Mala Bara, Slovenske Nove Mesto, and Vinicky.
The closest major airport is in Kosice, 44 miles (71 km) northeast of the Tokaj region, with regular connecting flights to Prague and other Eastern European capitals.
The fastest route is by rental: take the E-50 east from Kosice, and then 79 south (on maps, the 553). The drive takes a little over an hour.
Alternately, you can take a 45-minute train ride from Kosice to Trebisov and then the regional bus from Trebisov to Vinicky (approx 1 hour).
(All conversions from Slovak crowns (SKK) to US dollars are approximate and are based on the exchange rate, which is subject to change.)
1. Zlaty strapec vineyard
Tel: 421 056/ 637 39 75
Free tours and tastings, wine store on premises.
Rooms in the B&B run 700 SKK ($22) a night
2. Stredne odborne uciliste pol’nohospodarske
Tel: 421 056/ 637 33 72
Tours are 50 SKK ($1.56) per person.
One can opt to stay in the former dormitories for 120 SKK ($3.75) a night.
Shelley Puhak lives in Baltimore, Maryland and is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of New Orleans.
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