Tokaj-Hegyálja (Tokaj at the foot of the hill) is the wine region that covers the now-extinct volcanoes of the Zemplén Hills, named after the town of Tokaj that anchors the southern end of the range, nestled at the foot of Kopasz-hegy (Bald Mountain), the region’s tallest volcanic remnant at 512 meters (1680 feet). It’s here that Hungary’s most famous wine, sweet Tokaji Aszú made from beautifully shriveled, botrytis-affected grapes, has been produced for at least 500 years.
Far from the administrative center of Budapest and beyond the eastern industrial outpost of Miskolc, Tokaj-Hegyálja was spared Soviet-era industrialization. Its towns and villages, the cobbled streets, ancient underground cellars, peasant farmhouses and aristocratic manors, its dense oak forests and marshlands, were frozen in a by-gone era. The wines, however, were not so fortunate. Subject to the quantitative demands exacted from virtually all of the country’s products, even Tokaji Aszú was stripped of its nobility and made a commodity.
But that’s now old news for the history books. Since 1991, Tokaj has fomented its own cultural revolution. The region’s most celebrated producers are relying less on the glories of the distant past, and pointing less to the more recent past for excuses. They’ve moved on to the serious business of producing great wine, unlike any other in the world. As Gustav Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”, an appropriate maxim in Tokaj’s post-volcanic, post-communist era. (Extract from Volcanic Wines by John Szabo. Published by Jacqui Small.)