The vineyards of Tokaj-Hegyalja were the first ever to be formally classified - more than one and a half century before the classification of Bordeaux. Already in the mid-17th century the Rákóczi family introduced 1st, 2nd and 3rd class (or cru) quality ratings. Records of it did not survive. The second official effort on classification was completed in 1772.
Besides introducing 1st, 2nd and 3rd Class Growths, the classification of growths defined two outstanding growths as Great First Growths: Szarvas and Mézes Mály.
The First Class Growths are the ones which are most exposed to the sun and the changes of the atmosphere, ideally situated on the steepest declivities and on their upper parts. In this manner, for example, the Tokaj mountain is planted quite round about, its soil is everywhere of the same quality, but the best site is that which has south exposure, and is perfectly accessible to the air both from east and west. Yet, long before 1700, clayey loam soil derived from volcanic rock, especially riolite, trachyte, and andesite, had become regarded as preferable. Also loess was a notable soil type. Seventy-six vineyards were classified as 1st Class, or Primae Classis in contemporary Latin.
Vineyards rated as second class are often found on hills with first class rating, but are situated on their lower parts, and with lesser degree of slope. Below the 120-meter level, stoniness declines, and cold air sinks there. Also, in account of lesser heat retention, a soil type called stone-dust was less esteemed than others like loess or riolite. On the Tokaj mountain for example, the vineyards on slopes with southeastern exposure are considered 2nd class. There are fifty-nine 2nd Class Growths.
Although Tokaj is the most famous locality of the region, there are spots which produce wines which are more preferred, as excelling in strenght and arome, like wines from Mád or Tolcsva. 3rd class growths are mainly the ones with exposure to the west or north, which is the case on the north slope of the Tokaj mountain. Here, the lack of water is the problem, which nature tries to regulate with wine. Still, the most important difference between the thirty-eight Third Class and the First or Second Class Growths refers to their exposure, since soil type is from the same quality.
Here is an introduction to the most famous vineyards of the Tokaj region.
The orientation in the vaults of the Saxon wine cellars in the Dresden Royal Palace was simple. All cellars got unique names: Burgundy cellar, Hofbier cellar etc. Augustus the Strong, one of the most illustrious monarchs of the European baroque period, often thought of his favourite cellar, the „Tokajerkeller“ (Tokay cellar), and loved to have a walk through it. The Saxon sovereign regularly bought Tokaji wines at fairs, in order to increase the stock, or received them as gifts from kings and noblemen. In 1697, when he was elected the King of Poland in Cracow, a lot of Polish princes and counts tried to win Augustus´ favor with expensive Tokaji - which was already wellaged at that time.
Augustus II „The Strong“ (1670-1733),
Augustus the Strong was not only famous for his immense physical strength, but also for having a soft spot for beautiful ladies. To one young lady, who initially rejected the terms of the official status of a mistress, he sent two barrels of Tokaji wine in June 1705. Shortly after she became his most famous mistress: Countess Constantia von Cosel. She even managed to make the amorous king to sign a marriage contract. This fatal document brought her almost fifty years of imprisonment, after Augustus became tired of her, and she refused to surrender the contract.
In 1927 an auction took place in the Saxon capital Dresden on which 62 bottles of Tokaji from the Royal cellar of Augustus the Strong have been auctioned. After the death of his son Augustus III, these bottles made their journey from Warsaw to the Saxon Royal wine cellar in Dresden. A portion of these bottles came from the vineyards of the families Szirmay and Pattornyai from Erdöbénye. The bottle below shows the crossed swords of the Saxon Royal house, and the word „Hofkellerei“. The vintage is estimated between 1650 and 1690. This should therefore probably be the world's oldest intact Tokaji bottle ...
Certificate of origin for the Tokaji bottles on the Dresden auction in 1927, signed by the Foundation of the House of Wettin, which administrated the heritage of the former Saxon Monarchy.
Two similar bottles were opened at a tasting of historic Tokaji bottles in London in 2006, which was also attented by Hugh Johnson. Also the Swiss wine writer Sigi Hiss had the privilege to participate. He wrote about the second bottle:
„... dried vegetables, some vegetable broth, aldehyde, Madeira character. Then, after 15 minutes, lovely sweet taste with some bitter caramel, hint of dried fruit ... apple ... good depth and complexity. Much sweeter on the palate ... more complex but has slightly sharp acidity, then was really good after an hour, significantly longer finish with noticeable sweet caramel notes. Absolutely tremendous, both as a wine and as a piece of history ...“
After 2001 this is the second Essencia produced by István Dorogi, presenting the very loess-based fruity style of the vineyards on the slopes of the Tokaj Hill, called "Kopasz"...
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„Until now I haven´t been defeated by anyone or anything, but Tokaji wine defeated me last evening.”
Tsar Peter the Great after a meeting with Prince Rákoczi II
Peter I of Russia