Miles Lambert-Gócs performs a useful service by writing authoritative books on wines that most people know very little about. Previously, he reviewed Greek wines in his The Wines of Greece (1990), and in the present volume he turns to the wines of the Tokaj region in Hungary. Relatively few people are well-informed about these wines; most people know only that they are largely sweet, dessert wines that come in 500 ml bottles as a rule.
The volume is divided into four principal chapters: the first one deals with the "peoples, clans, persons, entities" involved in the production of Tokaji wines, going back to George Draskovics (1515-1587) who was bishop of the city of Pécs and provided Pope Pius IV some wine from the Hegyalja region. The second chapter is devoted to a description of place names and the geography of the Hegyalja region and its villages. The third deals with the various wine growing hills and tracts, while the fourth chapter gives a thorough account of grape varieties, wine types, wine making techniques and the characteristics of the various wines. What is unusual about the book is that each chapter begins with a lengthy alphabetical section which reads, more or less, like an encyclopedia, after which the author provides a summary essay on the subject of the chapter. These alphabetical sections largely compensate for the lack of an overall index, although my preference would have been to provide such an index anyway. These alphabeticaL sections comprise among them nearly 200 pages of the total book (269 pages) and will be more usefully employed for reference work rather than a continuous narrative.
The most interesting part of the book is Chapter 4, dealing with various types of grapes, wines, techniques and characteristics. One should first note that the Hegyalja-Tokaj region overlaps the national boundary between Hungary and Slovakia. The region began to be noted for its wines in the late 15th century when the Turkish occupation of southern Hungary made the import of wines from that region by Poland no longer practical. The essence of tokaji wines is, of course, that they are botrytized. Vinyard tracts were classified as early as the mid-17th century at the initiative of the Princes Rákoczi and this initial classification was followed up in 1772 and 1792. Lambert-Gócs discusses at length the desirable elevation of wine tracts. During the past 200 years, the dominant grape variaties have been the furmint, hárslevelü and sárga muskotály. (For the reader not conversant with Hungarian, the author provides a basic pronunciation guide.) A crucial concept in undestanding the making of the tokaji aszú is the aszú dough or aszú paste: which is a paste obtained by mashing together the botritized grapes, their stems, skins, etc. into a paste and soaking this paste in wine or must for 12-48 hours. It is apparently quite well established that botrytized wines were made as early as the 17th century.
An important concept is the "puttonyos level" of the wine: this is the number of 28-30 liter butts of botrytized aszú that were added to a gönci barrel of 136-140 liters of must (or wine). In fact, by 1936 this system was replaced by specifying for each puttonyos level the required sugar content and the required non-sugar extract; thus, for example, for a 6 puttonyos, the per liter content had to be 150 grams of sugar and 45 grams on non-sugar extract. Tokaji wines are also subjected to what is called "darabbantartás" the practice by which barrels were not fully filled and only partially bunged; this practice is thought to have started as early as the second half of the 17th century. Two related techniques are "máslás" and "forditás," with the latter being much more recent than the former. The former makes for a lesser quality botrytis wine and involves pouring a non-botrytized wine over the lees of aszú, while the latter involves pouring must or wine "over the trampled remains of the process for a previously made botrytis wine." The famous "eszencia" is made from the syrup that is pressed out by the weight of the botrytized grapes lying on top of each other; since 1936 the sugar content per liter must be at least 250 grams. The alcohol content is low and eszencia is aften used to improve the quality of other aszú wines
In earlier times, the insides of the barrels were rubbed with bacon fat, but it is not clear what the consequences of that practice were.It is clear that botrytis wines could not be made every single year. The principal grape, the furmint, originated in the Balkan/Black Sea region and may have made its way to Hegyalja from Southern Hungary. It seems probably that no western varieties of grapes succeeded in making inroads in the region. There is much, much more here than one could possibly include in a brief review and the reader will be astonished by the breadth of the scholarship that went into this book. I strongly recommend it for anybody who is interested in the history and the making of tokaji wines.
I think the volume would have benefited from an overall index, although the alphabetical arrangement of topics in each chapter is a definite help. I should also mention that my (original) copy of the book was missing pages 40-41, 44-45 and 48-49; an obvious printing error which was promptly remedied when the author graciously sent me a new copy that did contain those missing pages.
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