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A short history of Tokay

Tokay is made from a table grape (also called Flame Tokay) with a thick red skin and blandtasting flesh with seeds.

Not a very good start to one of the world's great sweet wines, but if you add some creative winemaking... No wine style as old and prized as Tokay can get by without a colourful legend. So here's what happened, according to local lore. In the mid 17th century, a noblewoman called Zsuzsanna Lorantfly owned an estate encompassing the entire present-day Tokay region in Slovakia. Her priest, who doubled as her winemaker, postponed the fall harvest in 1650, fearing an attack from the Turks.

The priest's precautions may have saved his grape pickers, but it left his grapes vulnerable to a humidity-loving fungus called botrytis. Some of them succumbed and shrivelled, but the thrifty cleric didn't discard them. Rather, he had them picked, crushed, and added to the must made from unaffected grapes.

Meanwhile, the threat of a Turkish invasion remained quite real, leading to another innovation in Lorantfly's vineyard. To hide the precious wine from potential attackers, the winemakers dug tunnels into the hillside, the entrances to which could be easily hidden. These distinctive caves, given the region's humid climate and the fact that they contained traces of evaporated wine, were perfect hosts to the black mould that is supposed to be critical to Tokay's ageing process.

Whether or not the above is precisely true, we do know this: The region pioneered the use of botrytis-infected grapes in dessert wine. In fact, the fungus was exploited to such great effect in Tokay that within 100 years winemakers in Germany and France were using it to create their own celebrated dessert wines. In the process, the fungus gained a much loftier name: noble rot.

And - also as a matter of fact and not of legend - Tokay wine gained by the 18th century a fervent following among Europe's royals. The French court adored it, and the Habsburgs were so enamoured of it that they introduced it to the Russian imperial court. In an era mad for sweet wines, Tokay became known as the "wine of kings, king of wines". The Champagne area of France, at that point known mostly for its still wines, was as yet no rival.

Tokay's prestige continued into the 20th century; even today, it ranks with Port, Madeira, and some Alsatian whites as among the world's most prized after-dinner wines. Yet the 20th century nearly devastated the Tokay region, especially the Slovak part. When the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved at the end of World War I, the Tokay area was split in two - with 90 percent remaining in Hungary, and the rest going to the new Czechoslovakia. World War II severely disrupted the entire European wine trade, and the post-war rise of Communism in both Tokay countries meant nationalisation of the vineyards, and a shift of focus from quality to quantity. In Communist Czechoslovakia, the indifference to the Tokay mystique was so great that the government traded away its right to the Tokay trademark in exchange for the right to export beer to Hungary. That deal has since been annulled, but Slovak winemakers still lack the right to sell their wine to European Union countries under the Tokay name. Hungary signed a 13-year trademark deal on the Tokay name in 1993; Slovakia, then in the throes of the Velvet Divorce, didn't participate in those talks. Thus when Communism fell, the Hungarian Tokay region underwent a renaissance - foreign investment poured in, and the wine became fashionable again. But the Slovak part languished. Without the right to export into the lucrative EU market, foreign winemakers saw little reason to invest in Slovakia's tiny bit of the Tokay region.

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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