Renaissance of Hungarian
By Ben Howkins, Co-founder and Director of Royal Tokaji
The legendary Tokaj wine region in North East Hungary is arguably the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. Certainly by the late 17th century, the owner of these vineyards, Prince Rakoczi of Transylvania, had
listened to his subjects of the 28 villages who, for generations, had been producing higher-quality wines than their neighbors. He classified their finest vineyards into 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes. This became the forerunner of the vineyard status of what we recognize today as being AOC or DOC.
What are Tokaji wines? They are debatably the world’s first-recognized classified sweet or rich wines. In a unique river confluence, early morning mist, carrying the botrytis fungus, was cast up and settled on the neighboring vineyards. Grapes shriveled into ‘aszu berries’, which literally means ‘dried berries.’ The rich Tokaji Aszú wines became the most sought-after wines in Europe. Popes, czars, kings, queens, emperors, poets and writers all wanted to taste these miracle wines, which were thought to be health restorative and endow these leaders with unmatched virility. Tokaji even was incorporated into the Hungarian national anthem.
The Attempted Destruction of a Legacy
This is the heritage of Tokaji, which the Russian communists so very nearly destroyed after WWII. All private wine producing and exporting was banned; the state took over. This state monopoly cared little for quality, but it cared much for quantity. To satisfy the eager throats of their comrades back home, instructions were given to expand production by pausing the “grape selection” button, leaving bungs out in casks to artificially oxidize the wine, giving it a false more aged appearance, and sometimes to fortify the wines to give them more vigor.
In every story, there is always a hero, or in the case of Royal Tokaji, a maverick — someone whose morals and integrity stood above the crassbureaucrats. The maverick in this case was István Szepsy. Not only was he directly descended from the priest Szepsy who is credited with thecreation of Aszú wines, but István had been clandestinely producing Aszú wines in the way that his forebears had been doing for centuries. Not for him, mass production. Quality was paramount.
This veritable eureka moment signaled the route by which this ancient winemaking area could once again start producing and exporting world-class wines.
The Royal Tokaji Wine Company was originally created with 60 enthusiastic wine farmers who each brought one hectare to the joint venture. István Szepsy made our first couple of vintages. Meanwhile, at the request of Lord Rothschild, who had a Hungarian grandmother, I was dispatched to buy a Tokaj vineyard. Hugh and I joined forces. Monies were raised. We exported our first wines to the U.S. in 1994 after the mandatory aging three years in oak casks. Our partners in the U.S. — Wilson Daniels — have contributed so much to the success of Royal Tokaji.
Those early days were real pioneering. Exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure. The team was driven by the belief that we could once again bring back these extraordinary wines to the level of luxury that they had once enjoyed and were renowned for.
Vineyard selection, careful blending, dedicated packaging, routes-to-market all contributed to Royal Tokaji being consistently awarded the right color medals and happy 90-plus ratings from the beginning. We had to wait 8 years before our first Essencia (1993) was ready. We made history by vinifying and bottling our 1st- and 2nd-class Aszú wines by single-vineyard status. We enabled Hungarians to once again be proud of their heritage and world-class brand — Tokaji Aszú.
Royal Tokaji became the undisputed brand leader internationally as more and more private companies followed in our wake. The category was once again on the shelves and sommeliers loved these sweet ‘n dry wines with richness yet searing acidity. Once Royal Tokaji had established itself as a luxury brand, the trade and consumers became inquisitive as to the grape variety behind these unique wines. Step forward the Furmint grape, which we now offer as a dry white wine under the Oddity label.
New Milestone Achieved
In 2015, Royal Tokaji will celebrate our 25th anniversary. Readers with more than just a passing knowledge of European history will recognize that this, in itself, is a remarkable achievement. Most importantly for Hungary, the year 1990 represents ‘freedom’ from the past communist masters. Thus, our 1990 vintage was the first vintage harvested ‘in freedom’ for more than 40 years. Secondly, it is a testament to the vision of Britain’s most esteemed wine writer, Hugh Johnson, who had realized then that all (historic) European wine areas were producing excellent wines except one, the Tokaj wine region in Hungary.
Royal Tokaji has succeeded in re-creating the heritage of Tokaji; now it is up to luxury enthusiasts to enjoy these legendary wines.