Tokaj is the gold standard of the Hungarian wine regions. It is Hungary’s most famous wine region, the oldest classified wine region in the world, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and home to the world’s first Noble Red Wine, the sweet golden Tokaji Aszú (“toe-kye as-zoo”).
Named after the village of Tokaj, the region is made up of 28 towns scattered along rolling hills and nestled between two rivers, the Tisza and the Bodrog. The rivers create a special microclimate in the area with high levels of moisture in the air, offset by wind and abundant sunshine.
To receive the Tokaji denotation, dry or sweet, a wine can only contain the 6 native varieties of Furmint (“foor-meent”), Hárslevelü (“harsh-level-ooo”), Kabar (“kah-bar”), Kövérszölö (“kuh-vaer-sue-lou”), Zéta (“zay-tuh”), and Sárgamuskotály (“shar-guh-moose-koh-tie”). The wine is made from individually picked botrytized grapes that are then mashed and soaked in dry wine or must. The resulting wine, after aging, is golden, extremely sweet (120-180 grams per liter) and has the potential to age indefinitely if stored correctly.
Botrytis cinerea, known as "noble rot," is a usually nasty fungus that can actually create some of the world's best sweet wines.
Six grape varieties are officially approved for Tokaji wine production, with Furmint (accounting for 60 % of the area), Hárslevelű (30 %, also known as Feuille de Tilleul), and Yellow Muscat, or Muscat Lunel (Hungarian: Sárgamuskotály) being the most important ones. A classical Aszú blend contains all these three grape varieties, with Furmint being the dominating one, and with Muscat Lunel at a very small portion only. However, every winemaker has his own secret blend. Even single variety Aszús can be found, like the Muskotályos Aszú with its very particular character.
The Furmint grapes begin maturation with a thick skins, but as they ripen the skins become thinner, and transparent. This allows the sun to penetrate the grape and evaporate much of the liquid inside, producing a higher concentration of sugar. Other types of grapes mature to the point of bursting, however, unlike most other grapes, Furmint will grow a second skin which seals it from rot. This also has the effect of concentrating the grape's natural sugars. The grapes are left on the vine long enough to develop the "noble rot" (Botrytis cinerea) mold. Grapes are then harvested, sometimes as late as December.