Tokaji wines are the original sweet white wines of Europe, made from grapes affected by noble rot (botrytis), a style of wine which has a long history. The wine originates  from the region of Tokaj-Hegyalja in Hungary and Slovakia. The name Tokaji (which in Hungarian, means “of Tokaj” and a Protected Designation of Origin) is used for labelling wines from this wine district. 




The Tokaj region lies some 240 km north-east of Budapest, Hungary, in the Zemplen Mountains at the confluence of the rivers Bodrog and Tisza.




Aszú is the world-famous wine that is proudly cited in the Hungarian national anthem. It is the sweet, topaz-coloured wine that was formerly known as “Tokay” throughout the English-speaking world.
The original meaning of the Hungarian word aszú was “dried”, but the term nowadays is more associated with the type of wine that is made with botrytised grapes. 


These wines were immortalised by consumers that included: Pope Pius IV, King Louis XIV, Catherine the Great, Voltaire, US President Jefferson, Eugénie Napoleon, Queen Victoria and latterly Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. 




These sweet and dry wines have glorious richness combined with uplifting acidity. The average alcoholic strength is around 9 – 14%. Most Tokaji wines are between 10 – 12% which demonstrates that you do not need high alcohol to produce world class sweet wines such as Port or Madeira (which are fortified). 


Tokaj usually enjoys long sunny summers, while dry autumns and early morning mists  from the two rivers, encourage the development of noble rot on the hanging bunches of aszú grapes. The Botrytis Cinerea makes the grapes dry and shrivel, thus concentrating the compounds and developing the fruit. All of these characteristic elements give the Tokaji wineries their own distinctive and unique terroir. 





The classification of growths is not an official one today (like it is in Bordeaux), it has more historic significance. 





Great First Growths : Szarvas Dülö and Mézes Mály (In the text of the 1700 classification this latter vineyard stands out as the very finest – described as Pro Mensa Caesaris Primus Haberi –‘to be the first choice at the Royal table’.)

Seventy-six vineyards were classified as Primae Classis Well-known First Growth vineyards include: Disznókö , Szerelmi , Hétszölö , Betsek , Szent Tamás , Nyulászó , Oremus and Bányasz.


There are fifty-nine 2ndclass growth vineyards and thirty-eight 3rd class.


Other varieties include Essencia (which has nothing to do with Aszú Eszencia), and Forditas.



(some of the principal estates)



Royal Tokaji Company owned by an Anglo-Danish group

Crown Estates (Tokaj Keresked?ház Co.)

Disznóko Estate -owned by the French group Axa Millésimes.

Oremus Estate -owned by Spain’s Vega Sicilia.

Planted Acreage



Total: The area is only 275 square kilometres (106 mile²) in size (55 km long and 30 km wide ) (34 x 18.6 miles). Today the area under cultivation measures around 6200 hectares (15320 acres). 


Grape varieties



1. Furmint 76 % – A variety with very high levels of tartaric acid which is particularly susceptible to botrytis.

2. Hárslevel? – Lindenleaf 21 % – Less susceptible to botrytis but rich in sugars and aromas.

3. Muskotály (Muscat Lunel) 2 % – The most difficult grape to grow but important seasoning.

4. Zéta (Oremus) – Bouvier & Furmint 0.7 %

5. Kövérsz?l? 0.3 %

Wines produced

Essencia : is the most sought after, expensive and rarest type of Tokaji wine.

Aszú: – the sweet, topaz-coloured wine 


Szamorodni: Typically higher in alcohol than ordinary wine. It often contains up to 100-120 g of residual sugar.


Dry Wines: Tokaji Furmint, Tokaji Hárslevel?, Tokaji Sárgamuskotály and Tokaji Kövérsz?l?. 


Other wines include Essencia (has nothing to do with Aszú Eszcenia) and Forditas



Soils are largely clay with a volcanic substratum.





Typical yearly production in the region runs to a relatively small 10,028,000 litres (2,650,000 gallons).

Top Vintages Produced

Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos 1906 ; Monimpex Tokaji Aszú (Eszencia 1957); Monimpex Tokaji Muskotályos Aszú 5 puttonyos 1963; 1993, 1999,( Essencia 2000), Tokaji Aszú 2006, 2007


The vines grown for Aszú are approximately 20 years old and in general, yields are kept to 10 hectolitres per hectare. The meeting of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers at Tokaj creates a mist similar to that experienced in Sauternes which encourages ‘noble rot’  to affect the dried and shrivelled Aszú grapes. The grapes from one vine yields roughly one small glass of wine.


Fermentation takes place in used 140 litre Gönci barrels made from Hungarian oak. The cellars extend for over 2kms, where there is an abundance of natural yeasts, and thus the fermentation process can last from one to two years. Legally, Aszú wines must be matured for a minimum of three years. 


Wines from Royal Tokaji are usually aged for longer, whilst still retaining their distinctive uplifting acidic tones.




Disznóko Estate sits at the foot of a vine-clad hill, a group of 18th century buildings with the addition of the striking press house and tractor garage, designed and built by prize winning architect Dezso Ekler in 1995.

Its soils are volcanic, which people believe adds a certain minerality to the wines, with the hill of Tokaji changing more to loess (wind-blown, silt sediment).


Disznóko’s vineyards were declared as ‘first class’ in the 1772 classification of Tokaji, but in common with other estates of the region, the period of Communist rule saw a sharp decline in quality as production was converted to the mass production of blended wines using grapes from other regions across Hungary. 


After the fall of the old regime, the purchase of the estate by Axa Millésimes in 1992 saw the biggest investment ever in Tokaji, with new cellars and an extensive replanting of the vineyards. Similar stories of rehabilitation took place across Tokaji, such that today Tokaji Aszú has regained its reputation for quality.


The Royal Tokaji Company plans to double production by opening a new €3.25million winery in September 2010. The new facility will increase annual production from 30,000 to 60,000 six-bottle cases, but will focus on increasing volumes of dry Furmint and a late harvest wine rather than the region’s signature style Aszú.

Ben Howkins, international sales director for Royal Tokaji  commented “There will always be a limit on Aszú – in 2001, ’02 and ’04 we didn’t have any Aszú at all but we can always get the volumes of Furmint and late harvest wines.”


Aszú classification

By the end of the 17th century, Tokaji aszú wines were so well regarded throughout the Courts of Europe, that Prince Rakoczi was urged to classify all the finest vineyards around the 28 villages in the region. Thus, the famed Tokaji wine region has the distinction of being Europe’s first classified wine region.

Aszú classification was traditionally based on how many puttonyos (25kg baskets used in the harvest of grapes) of dried out, aszú, grapes were added to a barrel of dry wine. 


Nowadays it is based on sugar content. The sweeter, the richer: the richer, the rarer: the rarer, the more expensive. Essencia, which often takes years to ferment to an incredible 3% alcohol is therefore the rarest wine of all.


• 3 Puttonyos : 60 – 90 g of sugar per litre


• 4 Puttonyos : 90 – 120


• 5 Puttonyos : 120 – 150


• 6 Puttonyos : 150 – 180


• Aszu Essencia : 180 – 450


• Essencia : 450 – 850


The Royal Tokaji Wine Co. produces a growth-selected 6 puttonyos Aszú from Szt. Tamás grapes, the 1993 Aszú enjoyed the distinction of being one of the top 100 wines in the world that ‘you should drink before you die’. ( 


From a line-up of vintages, 1999 has to be first choice. This was a truly fantastic, classic vintage in Tokaj, and is the first where all the improvements made in the region post-Communism are flaunted to full advantage. Disznókö’s 1999 Aszú Five Puttonyos is delicious, and embodies the clear-cut, unsullied, focused mineral style that the company desires as its hallmark. 


The particularly hot, dry spring of 2011 suggested that the harvest would be early and of exceptional quality.


Acknowledgement wishes to thank Jörg Matzdorff of for his kind assistance with providing advice and images for this article.

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