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King of Wines, the Wine of Kings

by Brian Lobel

While many individuals take immense pride in their nation’s dessert wine – Portuguese of their Port, the Spanish of Sherry and Germans of their Ice Wines – the survival of Hungary’s Tokaj wine through centuries of bloody conflict elevates the wine to near mythic proportions. If the legend about Tokaj’s miraculous medicinal powers were not enough to impress the most jaded wine enthusiasts, the grueling and ritualistic process by which Tokaj farmers continued to make the wine is bound to amaze. According to wine expert Joe Kafka, Tokaj (pronounced toe-KAI) continues to be made through one of the most laborious processes in modern-day winemaking. In the small Tokaj region of Hungary, about 125 miles east of Budapest, each usable grape is still handpicked by growers at a specially designated time of year: when the grapes have actually begun to decay on the vine. While every other farmer and winegrower in the world fears the word “rot,” Tokaj winemakers depend on their grapes decomposing on the vine into “noble rot.” Botrytis Cinerea, the less romantic name for noble rot, randomly sets on the grapes in the Tokaj region – sometimes skipping individual branches or whole fields – and is responsible for the unique flavor of the Tokaj grapes. When noble rot chooses to take hold on a given vine, it progresses unpredictably. The noble rot’s randomness in setting, or not setting, on Tokaj vines was perceived by the superstitious as divine intervention. Tokaj was fabled as a miraculous, medicinal cure-all during the Middle Ages. Tokaj was perhaps most famous for being the oft-enjoyed beverage of Europe’s royalty and elite. King Louis XIV described the wine as “The King of wines, the wine of Kings.” Pope Benedict XIV thanked the gift of Tokaj with “Blessed be the land that has produced you. Blessed be the woman that has sent you. Blessed be I who drink you.” And even Voltaire dedicated a poem to the “amber beverage with gleaming hues that weaves the golden threads of the mind and makes the wittiest of words scintillate.” In Hungary, the wine takes prominence in the national anthem – Tokaj szolovesszein nektart csepegtettel, or, “Nectar flowed, drops of pure gold from Tokaj winepresses.” When the Communists came to dominate Hungary in the middle of the 20th century, Hungarian farmers were forbidden to produce Tokaj wine, as its laborious production was considered highly wasteful as well as distinctly elitist. The Communist regime insisted on Tokaj grapes being used for basic table wine, demanding that all grapes be harvested at a given time and disregarding the specificity required to perfectly harvest the noble rot. The mandate resulted in a wine called Bull’s Blood, generally considered about as drinkable as the name implies. Although the international wine community feared that the skill of Tokaj farming would be lost forever during this time, the tradition has remained. The growing heritage has remained even as modern business practices dictate regimented harvest times and disavow the careful consideration historically required of the wine. The noble rot’s fickle nature continues to be impossible to plot, thereby forcing Tokaj farmers to pluck grapes individually while most wine manufacturers harvest full vineyards with modern machinery. Although such specificity keeps prices for Tokaj wines generally high, the quality has not been diminished. Today, wine connoisseurs and Hungarians alike are witnessing a revival in Tokaj production that is extremely exciting. At Chicago’s Paprikásh Restaurant, owner Michael Clements witnesses Hungarians and non-Hungarians alike “zipping back” the highly alcoholic dessert wine with, or often without, an accompanying meal. But has he seen the fabled medical power of Tokaj? Any divine occurrence? The miracle, according to Clements, is that after drinking, or zipping Tokaj, “you got a smile on your face.” TOKAJ WINE A complex and aged dessert wine, high in acidity, with hints of honey, nectarine, orange and caramel. Served best with a strong cheese or after-dinner fruit. Wine consultation provided by Joe Kafka.


  • Kafka Wines: Over 250 wines under $15 every day – located at 3325 N. Halsted.
  • Paprikásh Restaurant: Specializing in authentic Hungarian cuisine – located at 5210 W. Diversey.