Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum: Tokaji aszú, the drink of kings

The Tokaji Aszú wine is legendary for good reason. It is considered one of the world’s finest noble sweet wines, and its production requires a unique process. Due to its natural characteristics, Tokaj and its surrounding areas in Hungary have become the centre of Aszú production.

History of the elixir

One thing is certain: by the 17th century, Tokaji Aszú was already famous worldwide and was a must-have at the tables of European royalty. When XIV. Louis tasted the Tokaji wine, he called it the „wine of kings, king of wines.”

The legend of the first Aszú wine is connected to Reverend Máté Laczkó Sepsi, who served as the court chaplain of Zsuzsanna Lórántffy. It is believed that he prepared this peculiar and special drink for her Easter celebration in 1631. They say that he used grapes from the Oremus vineyard in Sátoraljaújhely, which belonged to the princess.

This legend is attributed to the creator of the modern Hungarian language, Ferenc Kazinczy, who found evidence of it in his family history (indeed, his great-grandfather, Péter Lórántffy Kazinczy, was a governor of Lórántffy’s estates). There is certainly some truth to this legend as Sepsi contributed to the development of Aszú. In 1623, the Furmint grape, known for its excellent aszúsodás (botrytization), first appeared in his vineyard in Erdőbénye, and it became an essential new variety for mass Aszú production.

Another version suggests that the prolonged harvesting period during wars provided the first opportunity to collect botrytized grapes for Aszú. According to a theory that can be traced through historical archives, economic prosperity in the 14th-15th centuries coincided with cultural development, leading to the elevation of culinary practices to an art form. This, in turn, promoted new agricultural techniques. As we know, during the reign of King Matthias, Italy, a cultural leader in Europe at that time, had a significant influence on Hungary.

How is the aszú made?

In connection with Aszú, parallels can be drawn with the making of “mazsolabor” (raisin wine), which arrived in Hungary during the peace treaty with Venice during the reign of King Louis the Great. At that time, Venice ruled over some parts of the Greek islands where such wines were produced. This theory suggests that these sweet and noble wines were already known among our aristocrats. With the desire to catch up with Europe, the knowledge brought by the foreign masters provided the necessary expertise, and a select group of experts most likely began experimenting with creating “good local wines” as early as the 1500s. It is a fact, as Antal Szirmay also recorded, that by the 1550s, they already prescribed the third round of pruning, which extended the grape’s vegetation period and allowed the formation of Aszú.

Worldwide recognition

However, it is essential to acknowledge that all of this development leading to worldwide recognition would have been difficult to achieve without the presence of the Ottomans. Yes, Tokaj-Hegyalja owes its fortune mostly to the Ottoman troops! (A curious coincidence that Tokaj, and thus the term “Tokaji,” has Turkish origins, which Balassa Iván translated as “riverside wooded area”). Before the Ottoman occupation, the Szerémség region, enclosed by the Danube and Sava, was considered Hungary’s finest wine-growing area, from where viticulture knowledge gradually spread north. While 20 of our current22 wine regions were continuously or partially under occupation, Tokaj-Hegyalja was not threatened by this danger (only the town of Tokaj fell into Ottoman hands for a short time). Thus, an opportunity arose for the wine region to enter the market of Szerémség wines, which also contributed to the spread of Aszú.

The Tokaji Aszú wine remains one of the world’s most extraordinary and legendary sweet wines, and its history is woven into Hungary’s rich winemaking heritage.