Wine: War of the Tokays

Enough to fuel a regiment. WIne cellar in the Tokaj-Hegyalja region, Hungary. Photo : Legnaw
Enough to fuel a regiment. WIne cellar in the Tokaj-Hegyalja region, Hungary. Photo : Legnaw
23 December 2009 – Polityka (Warsaw)

For more than 40 years, Hungary has been fighting to have the Tokaj wine region recognized as a protected designation of origin (PDO). Having battled with the Soviet Union, France and Italy, it is now in dispute with neighbouring Slovakia, which is putting up stiff resistance.

The French monarch Louis XV dubbed the most famous of the Tokaji sweet wines vinum regum et rex vinorum (the wine of kings and the king of wines). Along with France's Saint-Émilion (Bordeaux) and Portugal's Alto Douro and Pico island regions (Port), the narrow 87-km long area in the Tokaj hills is one of the few wine regions to feature on the UNESCO World Heritage List—a fact which reflects Hungarian pride in the Tokaj name which it has sought to protect against forgery and imitation.

Quarrel with the USSR

The international career of sweet Tokaji Aszu wine, often referred to as Tokay in English, began in the 16th century when Polish merchants began exporting it on a grand scale. The Russian Tsar was extremely fond of Węgrzyn (Wegry meaning "Hungary" in Polish) and made sure he had adequate supplies by purchasing several acres of vines in the Tokaj hills and sending special convoys of Cossacks to transport casks of Tokaji to Moscow. After the Russian Revolution, these deliveries continued by train until communist nationalization of vineyards in the wake of the Second World War resulted in a diplomatic crisis, which was only resolved when the Hungarian government gave Moscow back its vineyards. Tokaji was very popular in the Kremlin: Stalin liked it almost as much as Georgian Tsinandali—which he claimed had great medicinal properties— and his successor Nikita Khrushchev even had Tokaj vine stocks planted on the basaltic hills of Crimea, but they soon fell victim to rot and the wine bore no resemblance to the Hungarian vintage.

Battles with France and Italy

At the end of the 16th century, troops from Alsace pillaged the Tukaj region and carried off 4,000 barrels of valuable wine along with vine stocks that were later replanted in Alsace. Centuries went by and Tokay d'Alsace gained widespread popularity to the point where, in the mid-1960s, Hungary filed a complaint with the EEC for the abuse of its trade name. After twenty years of negotiations a compromise was finally reached: Hungary would be granted exclusive use of the Tokaj and Tokay names, but in exchange it would have to abandon the term "Médoc," which had been associated with certain wines from the Eger region, and the use of "Cognac" labels on Lanchid brandy. The struggle with Italy proved to be even more hard-fought. Wine growers in the Friuli region had adopted the Tocai name to market two types of wine, Tocai friulano and Tocai italiano. These light dry whites bore nor resemblance to Hungarian Tokaji, but the Tocai Friuliano vintages were well regarded and had even won several awards. The dispute was finally terminated by a 1993 ruling of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which upheld Hungary's sole right to use the Tocai label.

The Slovakian front

However, just when it seemed that the battle of Tokaji had finally been won, a new and even more daunting adversary came to the fore. Following its emergence as an independent state in 1993, Slovakia immediately began to market a range of wines under variants of the Tokaj name. And it had some justification for doing so. Four of the villages in the original Tokaj wine region defined by Empress Maria Theresa were located in Slovak territory: an inconvenient fact that no one had bothered to take into account when Hungary was separated from Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. The Hungarians, who were especially galled by the Slovaks' use of imported grape varieties, insisted that proper quality control standards for the making of Tokaji were not applied on the other side of the border. The Slovaks hit back: accusing the Hungarians of boosting volume by planting vines on flat ground and ignoring standards for the production of Aszú.

In 2008, talks resulted in a preliminary agreement in which the two sides recognized "Tokaj as an invaluable historical heritage" for which both countries would share responsibility, and the Hungarians acknowledged the existence of a 565-hectare Tokaj area on the other side of the border, which gave Slovakia 10% of the wine growing region. However, in the spring of 2009, Slovakia demanded that its designated area be extended to include 908 hectares, which effectively put an end to the accord. The conflict is unlikely to be resolved before 2010, when an EU decision on the use of the Tokaj name may result in the creation of two distinct wine regions. In the meantime, we can only hope that the quality of Tokaji will not be affected.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.