Origins of a noble wine

NO WINE style as old and prized as Tokay can get by without a colourful legend.
So here's what happened, according to local lore. In the mid 17th century, a noblewoman called Zsuzsanna Lorantfly owned an estate encompassing the entire present-day Tokay region. Her priest, who doubled as her winemaker, postponed the fall harvest in 1650, fearing an attack from the Turks.
The priest's precautions may have saved his grape pickers, but it left his grapes vulnerable to a humidity-loving fungus called botrytis. Some of them succumbed and shrivelled, but the thrifty cleric didn't discard them. Rather, he had them picked, crushed, and added to the must made from unaffected grapes.

NO WINE style as old and prized as Tokay can get by without a colourful legend.

So here's what happened, according to local lore. In the mid 17th century, a noblewoman called Zsuzsanna Lorantfly owned an estate encompassing the entire present-day Tokay region. Her priest, who doubled as her winemaker, postponed the fall harvest in 1650, fearing an attack from the Turks.

The priest's precautions may have saved his grape pickers, but it left his grapes vulnerable to a humidity-loving fungus called botrytis. Some of them succumbed and shrivelled, but the thrifty cleric didn't discard them. Rather, he had them picked, crushed, and added to the must made from unaffected grapes.

The product of this experiment was served at the next year's Easter celebrations - and it was much admired.

Meanwhile, the threat of a Turkish invasion remained quite real, leading to another innovation in Lorantfly's vineyard. To hide the precious wine from potential attackers, the winemakers dug tunnels into the hillside, the entrances to which could be easily hidden. These distinctive caves, given the region's humid climate and the fact that they contained traces of evaporated wine, were perfect hosts to the black mould that is supposed to be critical to Tokay's ageing process.

Whether or not the above is precisely true, we do know this: The region pioneered the use of botrytis-infected grapes in dessert wine. In fact, the fungus was exploited to such great effect in Tokay that within 100 years winemakers in Germany and France were using it to create their own celebrated dessert wines. In the process, the fungus gained a much loftier name: noble rot.

And - also as a matter of fact and not of legend - Tokay wine gained by the 18th century a fervent following among Europe's royals. The French court adored it, and the Habsburgs were so enamoured of it that they introduced it to the Russian imperial court. In an era mad for sweet wines, Tokay became known as the "wine of kings, king of wines". The Champagne area of France, at that point known mostly for its still wines, was as yet no rival.

- Compiled by Tom Philpott from the Oxford Companion to Wine

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