The Elixir of the Tsars
Tokay Essencia, Essenzia, Eszencia, Aszu-Essencia. It is safe to say that Tokaji Aszú is the first (since the sweetened and doctored wines of the ancient world) of the great sweet wines, well established as such by the mid-17th century. The beneficial effects of botrytis were noted here almost a century before they were accidentally discovered in Germany, Moreover, the vineyards were the first ever to be classified: in 1700 Prince Rákóczi of Transylvania introduced 1st, 2nd and 3rd class (or growth) quality ratings. Tokaji was the most highly regarded and sought after wine particularly by Russian and Polish royalty and nobility. The vineyards, mostly owned by the Hungarian aristocracy, were the country’s most valuable assets. (Catherine the Great can claim to be one of the first foreign investors; she owned, and protected with her own guards, a major vineyard.)
There is much evidence that the wine appealed to English connoisseurs in the 18th and early 19th centuries. (Christie’s archives reveal that Tokaji appeared in a catalogue dated 1770, only 4 years after James Christie set up his auction business). Another appreciative connoisseur was Thomas Jefferson who imported and served ‘rich Tokaji’ (‘for which I paid a guinea a bottle’) at his presidential banquets in the early 1800’s. The aftermath of WWI was disastrous for the Hungarian landowners and trade. In 1925 a remarkable cache of old wines was literally unearthed and purchased by Berry Bros. Their 1927 price list includes early 19th century vintages ‘from the princely house of Bretzenheim which became extinct in 1863’. It seems that the family, concerned that the revolutionary forces of 1848 would seize their property, walled up their valuable old wines.
Historically the wine and the region were called Tokay by the English but the wine is more correctly referred to as Tokaji and the region as Tokaj.