These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Tokay Past and Present: History in a Bottle

Tokay wine took its present form when a winemaker postponed the fall harvest in 1650, fearing an attack from the Turks.

The Tokay area draws its name from a town in present-day Hungary. It first entered modern historical records as a wine-producing region in the early 15th century, when the area lay squarely in the Hungarian Kingdom. At that time, Tokay was known for its dry wines. In 1526, the Ottoman Empire won a decisive battle in Hungary, eventually gaining control of the country's lower half. Upper Hungary - present-day Slovakia - became the seat of the kingdom, known as Royal Hungary.

The Tokay area lay just within the bounds of Royal Hungary, leaving it free to make wine (the Ottomans, Muslims, disapproved of alcohol consumption). But being right on the border left it vulnerable to frequent Turkish invasions. And this, according to Hungarian wine lore, led to the invention of the dessert wine for which Tokay is so famous today.

Here's how the story goes: a noblewoman called Zsuzsanna Lorantfly owned an estate encompassing the entire present-day Tokay region. The estate's priest, who doubled as its 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 shriveled, but the thrifty cleric didn't discard them. Rather, he had them picked, crushed, and added to the must made from unaffected grapes.

The product of this experiment was served at the next year's Easter celebrations-and it was much admired.

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

Whether or not the above is precisely true, we do know this: the region pioneered the use of botrytis-infected grapes in dessert wine, starting around 1650. 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 loftier name: noble rot.

And there's no doubt that by the 18th century Tokay wine had gained a fervent following among Europe's upper classes. The French court adored it - Louis XVI declared it the "wine of kings, and the king of wines". The Habsburgs, who had since taken over the Hungarian crown, were so enamoured of it that they introduced it to the Russian imperial court.

Before long Tokay became fashionable among the artistic set. Beethoven and Schubert dedicated songs to it; Goethe, Heine, Voltaire, and Browning all lavished praise upon it.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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