Tokaji, the sweet wine that hails from the Tokaj region of Slovakia, grows in the southeastern corner of the country. Once a part of Hungary, the country most famed for Tokaji, Slovakia somehow got left out of the wine party. Not for long though, as now the world is rapidly discovering what untold treasures are grown in Slovakia.
Slovakia’s Tokaj region happens to be one of the smallest wine regions in the world with just 2,241 acres. Tokaji has a reputation for being an elixir for youth. Whether that’s true or not, it can’t hurt to enjoy it. Interestingly though, unlike the big wine regions, it’s not teeming with tourists. This peacefulness won’t last for long though as wine enthusiasts everywhere are discovering an almost forgotten region. The saying “what’s old is new again” truly has found no greater merit than Slovakia’s Tokaj region.
In the Tokaj region, naturally sweet wines are produced, each marked with numbers 3, 4, 5 or 6. Of these, 6 is the sweetest as well as the most rare. The wines get their sweetness from a noble rot that plagues the grapes in humidity. Botrytis is what gives these wines their decadently rich taste and deep honey color. If you love complexities, Tokaji from Slovakia will certainly hit all the right notes.
Before you put up your hand and shun it for being sweet, know that Tokaji from Slovakia isn’t some cloyingly sweet liquid like the kind of stuff you’d have bought in your college years when you didn’t know any better. While it does have a high level of sugar, good Tokaji never gives off that harsh sweetness.
The winemaking process in Tokaj revolves around oxidation processes from traditional times. The wine is left to mature in oak barrels with small holes that allow oxygen in. Meanwhile, dark mold grows on the walls, the bottles, and oak barrels in a cloak of black fuzz. In most places, mold growth wouldn’t be ideal, but here for this purpose, it is what brings Tokaji into fruition. It is one of the best living examples of symbiosis, where the mold and the wine serve each other, and when the wine is served to you, you’ll see the difference it makes.
Thanks to the clay soil atop volcanic subsoil and the sunny slopes along the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, the Tokaj terroir is just perfect for drying out the grapes. While several varietals are used, Furmint is one of the most popular because it has a unique feature. As the grapes mature with thick skins, the skins become thinner and more transparent during ripening. The sun penetrates them and causes the liquid inside to evaporate, leading to a higher concentration of sugar. With other grapes, they tend to burst, but not Furmint. It grows a second skin, protecting it from rotting. Once it develops the mold, it is ready to come off the vine.
Other grape varietals grown here include Hárslevelü, Yellow Muscat, Zéta, Kabar, and Kövérszőlő. Once removed from the vines, the cellar process begins, one etched out of solid rock somewhere between 1400 and 1600 AD that allows a constant temperature to hover between 10 and 12 Celsius. With the mold running on the evaporated alcohol, the humidity stays between 85 and 90%, perfect for the aging of Tokaji.
Tokaji was once enjoyed by royalty and even composers like Beethoven. Today, it’s being rediscovered though it will likely bode best with the lighter, drier varieties. For centuries, it was the darling of the wine world, and one of the most expensive wines to have the pleasure of tasting. The region has been fast at work trying to bring back Tokaji to its former stardom, something that was trampled on during the Communism days.
Due to the small size of the region though, the only options are to limit the number of bottles sold and keep the price high. For true connoisseurs, that really won’t be an issue. Touring the tiny region is one of the most spectacular experiences. You’ll find many producers and opportunities to discover the sensational flavors created by what on the surface seems to be rotting grapes.
Perhaps you’ve had the chance to taste Tokaji from Hungary, and while it is the darling of the world when it comes to this sweet wine, it is ideal to try the Slovakian producers. Tokaj Macik, helmed by Jaro Macik, features an ornate estate that lives up to its reputation for alluring Tokaji. The Tokaj Macik Grand Furmint is a nice dry offering.
Tokaj & Co. is another producer which once was state-run during Slovakia’s Communism period. With the largest holdings of vineyards in the tiny region, you’ll find a large range of wines, each well-crafted with flavors of coffee and toffee and hints of nuttiness.
Interestingly, two producers in the region, Matuš Vdovjak of Vdovjak Winery in Vel’ka Trña and Marián Takáč of Vinarstvo u Koña in Cerhov, have done something quite unique by crafting wines with an exploratory sensation. They were inspired by travels to Georgia where wines are made in a traditional kvevri and decided to experiment with their own to outstanding results. Now that you know a bit more about the king of wines, perhaps reveling in the feeling of royalty is the best way to fill your cup.