February 15, 2011 / 10:53 AM / 9 years ago

Sweet "king" of wines reclaiming its heritage

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - It survived two world wars, decades of neglect under communism and like a number of other eastern European royals, the “king” of wines has re-surfaced and is keen to let the world know of its claim.

Sweet Tokaji Aszu (pronounced “ossu”) wine is grown in vineyards located 120 miles northeast of Budapest in the UNESCO world heritage site of Tokaj, Hungary’s most famous wine region.

The region produces dry and sweet wines, but it is the honeyed Aszu for which this region is so famous.

Made from grapes afflicted by “noble rot,” which concentrates the sugar content, the sweet wine has been Hungary’s crowning glory for hundreds of years.

During the 17th and 18th centuries it was the favorite drink among Europe’s royal households. It is said that King Louis XIV of France liked it so much that he called it “The king of wines and wine of kings.” Even Peter the Great was an admirer; “I was conquered by Tokaji wine,” he said.

But Tokaj wasn’t always so highly esteemed. After World War II, when Hungary became a Soviet-influenced state, its wine production was limited to a central-planning system. The result was devastating for Hungary’s wine industry.

However, new investment and a renewed commitment to traditional wine-making has helped to restore the region to its former glory. The vineyards of Tokaj were the first in the world to be classified according to quality.

“The production methods are unique and it is arguably where great wine was created... between 1700 and 1737,” said Ben Howkins of the Royal Tokaji Wine Company.

In 1995, top local producers formed the Tokaj Renaissance Association with the goal of reviving the old classification system. Today, great wines are once again being made in Tokaj and more travelers are coming to the region each year.

“Most of our customers who want to travel to Tokaj have tasted Tokaji wine already, have become fascinated by it, and want to taste more of it and learn more about it,” said Carolyn Banfalvi, author of “Food Wine Budapest” and owner of foodie tour company Taste Hungary.

The Tokaj region is divided into 28 intimate towns and villages which visitors can easily travel throughout, stopping along the way at the various wineries and wine cellars.

Often, visitors can meet directly with wine-makers and learn about the unique role of wine-making here. Many wineries are still owned and operated by individual families.

Aside from the wines, there is much else to explore. Mansions which once belonged to 18th and 19th century merchants can be found in Tokaj’s center.

There is also a local museum, which has displays of the region’s history and wine-making culture. For those wishing to work off all that sweet wine, there is hiking, horseback riding and kayaking in the surrounding scenic countryside.

Tokaj may not compare in size to other wine regions in the world but its intimate and modest feel is its greatest appeal.

“There are not many undiscovered wine legends,” Howkins said. “The region is fascinating because it is still in a gentle time warp.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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