The king of wines, the wine of kings: Tokaji aszú

Louis XV is said to have remarked to his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, as he handed her a glass of Tokaji aszu, “This is the king of wines and the wine of kings.” He was not, however, the first to say these original-sounding words. They appear alongside the name of the wine on a court menu dating back to the time of Louis XIV.

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Wine of kings

To this day, the Latin version of this saying – Vinum regum, rex vinorum — is allowed to appear on Tokay wines of particular quality.

wine of kings

Great labyrinths of cellars extend beneath the villages of the region. The layer of earth above them ranges from 16 to 165 feet (5 to 50 meters), according to the variations in ground level at the surface. In places, several cellars lie one above the other, connected by vertical shafts. Most were dug between the 15th and 19th centuries. In the early days, they served as places of refuge in war.

The cellars have an ideal level of humidity and a constant temperature of 50-54 °F (10-12 °C). The walls are covered in a thick layer of mold called Cladosporium cellare. It feeds on the alcohol evaporating from the casks. This creates the microclimate essential for the production of the unique aroma and flavor of Tokay wines. The wines begin their maturation in fairly small oak casks (either Gönci, with a capacity of 36 gallons or 136.6 liters, or Szerednye, 58 gallons or 200 liters). The wood is penetrated by the air carrying the beneficial mold.

wine of kings

Tokaji aszú

All the wines of Tokaj-Hegyalja are of excellent quality, but Tokaji aszú is the undisputed king among these aristocrats. According to tradition, the world has Zsuzsanna Lórántffy, wife of Prince György I Rákóczi, to thank for this wine. We are told that once, in the middle of the 17th century, the advance of the Turkish army caused her to postpone the grape harvest on the prince’s estates near Tokaj. By the time the grapes were eventually pressed, they were shriveled and moldy. To everyone’s astonishment, they yielded a quite exceptional wine. Its fame soon spread far beyond the country’s borders. The cause of the shriveling and rotting was the mold we call “noble rot,” Botrytis cinerea, whose spores penetrate the grapeskins. The mold encourages the evaporation of moisture, reducing the acidity of the fruit, and increasing the sugar content, possibly to as much as 70%.

wine of kings

The grape harvest starts at the end of October, continuing through the whole of November. Only the shriveled grapes are selected from the bunches harvested. These desiccated grapes are mashed, either by being trodden to a pulp in a vat in the traditional manner, or by being crushed in a special mill.

(Photos: Wikipédia)