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Short history of the Tokaj Wine Region

The Tokaj Wine Region has one of the richest histories of all the wine regions in Hungary. Along with unusual terroirs with the varied geology and soils that make it unique, it has a wealth of history. Its story is on a par with the great wine regions of the world like Burgundy and the Rhône Valley in France or Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy.

Two Hungaries and Ottoman Turkish subjection

The loss of the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the period during which there were “two Hungaries” (1526-1540) followed by the start of subjection to Ottoman rule (1541) brought significant changes to the region. Firstly, the internal migration within the borders of Hungary to the Tokaj Wine Region that had begun in the mid-15th century continued. Settlers arrived from (Bačka, Syrmia – today in Slovakia, Slavonia – today in Croatia, and Temesköz – today in Romania). This had a beneficial effect on the already high standards of vine cultivation and winemaking. The process of making Aszú wine and főbor (Szamorodni) were written down in this period. Secondly, the rapid spread of Lutheranism and Calvinism in the area brought greater freedom to the wine region. The landowners became believers of the reformed religion and put more moderate taxes on their subordinates, which increased their interest in winemaking and trade. Thirdly, the structure of land ownership in the region changed significantly. This was particularly true for lower nobility and gentry in the historical counties of Abaúj-Torna and Zemplén. After the defeat at the Battle of Mohács, the Hungarian political elite of the time were lost. Their places were taken by landowning families who had been without influence in greater politics until that time but who entered the scene as the new aristocracy. These included the Alaghy, Bethlen, Bocskai, Csáky, Dobó, Erdődy, Gyulaffy, Keczer, Lórántffy, Nádasdy, Esterházy, Rákóczi, Szepessy, Szuhay, Thököly and Vay families who in the 16th and 17th centuries were to define the history of the wine region. The family members were not only landlords, but they became good keepers of the land, establishing model vineyard estates on the land around towns and villages. The wines made here were sold abroad, primarily on the Polish market, for a very good price. The royal free towns and wealthy burghers of Upper Hungary who had owned vineyards since the mid-15th century were allowed to keep their vineyards.The development of the wine region was not even broken despite the repeated Ottoman raids. Actually, many gentry families rose in rank to become aristocratic families. They mainly had Tokaji wines to thank for their enormous fortunes. This is how the Barakonyi family of Tornabarakony, the Gönczy of Mád, the Szemere of Syrmia, the Bercsényi of Székes, the Bónis of Tolcsva and the Szirmay of Szirmabesenyő became influential landowners. In addition, the Hungarian aristocracy of Transylvania also acquired large areas of vineyards in the wine region, partly through gifts from rulers, partly through marriage and partly through inheritance. This is how we see such large landowners as the Andrássy, Apafi, Kemény, Gyulaffy and Teleki by the last third of the 17th century. Influential landowners of the region met in 1640 and 1641 in the market towns of Mád and Tállya. One outcome was regulations concerning vineyard works, harvest, winemaking and ownership rights. Only a short time later these regulations became known as the Hegyalja Laws, and they were to form the basis for the demarcated wine region a little later on. We can call this the first real golden age of the wine region.The spread of the Counter Reformation in 1663, the failure of the anti-Habsburg Wesselényi conspiracy (1670), the Kuruc uprising (1682-1685) organised by Count Imre Thököly (1657-1705), the two Tokaj uprisings (1671, 1697) and the Rákóczi War of Independence (1703-1711) posed real challenges and burdens on the landowners, and the wine region suffered greatly. Those who were unwilling to convert during the violent spread of Catholicism were expelled and their lands confiscated, transferred to the Treasury. Numerous aristocratic families lost their vineyard estates due to the Wesselényi conspiracy. In addition, vineyard work was often not carried out on the confiscated lands, and the vines quickly fell into neglect. However, the Viennese court did categorise the confiscated areas according to their characteristics, and this information later served as the basis for future vineyard classifications. After the Rákóczi War of Independence several former landowners paid huge sums to buy back their estates, but it took several years before the confiscated and neglected lands flourished once again. In the 18th century the ownership structure changed significantly. The former serf, gentry and lower aristocracy were unable to recover from the damage they had suffered. So they were forced to sell their estates to wealthier aristocrats. Actually, in the 1720s a new aristocracy appeared as the large landowners in the wine region. These were families that were loyal to the Viennese court such as Aspremont, Buttler, Grassalkovich, Gyulay, Haller, Holló, Károlyi, Klobusiczky, Mudrány, Nigrelli, Orczy, Roxer, Waldbott and Zombory. Few of the old families remained; only the Andrássy, Erdődy, Szemere, Szirmay and Vay. We can call the decades after the end of the Rákóczi War of Independence the second golden age of the wine region. It was characterized on the one hand by rebuilding and regular vineyard classifications, and on the other hand by better and better vintages. Moreover, in 1737, in connection with a case of wine counterfeiting, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1711-1740) issued a secret imperial and royal decree in which he declared Tokaj-Hegyalja a demarcated wine region, the first in the world, thus protecting local producers and owners. However, much land remained the property of the court. The crown estates established on lands around Sárazsadány, Tarcal and Tokaj in 1749, mainly on the former Bercsényi and Rákóczi estates, remained in state ownership almost up to the present day. Initially Greeks and Armenians were favoured as merchants, and then from the second half of the 18th century Jewish traders from Galicia (along the border of Poland and Ukraine today)

Conquering Hungarians

The Kabar people, who were of Magyar and Turkish origin and arrived from the east during the Hungarian Conquest, brought a developed vine culture from the northern Caucasus. However, we know that vines were already being tended in the area we now call the Tokaj Wine Region. Those who came before the settling Hungarian tribes had already recognised the favourable geographical and strategic qualities of the area in the 10th century, so the region quickly became lands belonging to the clan leaders, the ruling princes and later the royal hunting estate. References to royal cellars in late-11th-century documents are testament to their ownership. Indeed, a royal estate with autonomous administration (erdőispánság) was formed with Sárospatak as the manorial centre by the early 13th century. The area became one of the most important and favoured royal hunting grounds so the local people enjoyed a more privileged position than those in neighbouring counties.A significant number of Italians and Walloons were invited to settle in the area by the Hungarian rulers in the 12th century. These newcomers played a major role in the development of the wine region as they brought their highly advanced viticultural and vinicultural culture of ancient Roman origin. However, this wave of settlement was temporarily suspended by the Mongol invasions of 1241 and 1282. Following the devastation, the Hungarian kings of the Árpád dynasty continued to encourage the resettlement of foreign settlers who spoke Romance languages, also known as hospes in Latin (guest peoples), to today’s Tokaj Wine Region. After the House of Árpád died out in 1301, the next ruling dynasty, the Anjou, continued this settlement policy. As a result, by the first third of the 14th century, the towns and villages along the foothills (Hegyalja) had reached such a level of development that they had their own churches and enjoyed reduced taxes owed to the king and the church on the wine they produced.

Monastic orders played an important role in changes in the wine region in the Middle Ages

The loss of the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the period during which there were “two Hungaries” (1526-1540) followed by the start of subjection to Ottoman rule (1541) brought significant changes to the region. Firstly, the internal migration within the borders of Hungary to the Tokaj Wine Region that had begun in the mid-15th century continued. Settlers arrived from (Bačka, Syrmia – today in Slovakia, Slavonia – today in Croatia, and Temesköz – today in Romania). This had a beneficial effect on the already high standards of vine cultivation and winemaking. The process of making Aszú wine and főbor (Szamorodni) were written down in this period. Secondly, the rapid spread of Lutheranism and Calvinism in the area brought greater freedom to the wine region. The landowners became believers of the reformed religion and put more moderate taxes on their subordinates, which increased their interest in winemaking and trade. Thirdly, the structure of land ownership in the region changed significantly. This was particularly true for lower nobility and gentry in the historical counties of Abaúj-Torna and Zemplén. After the defeat at the Battle of Mohács, the Hungarian political elite of the time were lost. Their places were taken by landowning families who had been without influence in greater politics until that time but who entered the scene as the new aristocracy. These included the Alaghy, Bethlen, Bocskai, Csáky, Dobó, Erdődy, Gyulaffy, Keczer, Lórántffy, Nádasdy, Esterházy, Rákóczi, Szepessy, Szuhay, Thököly and Vay families who in the 16th and 17th centuries were to define the history of the wine region. The family members were not only landlords, but they became good keepers of the land, establishing model vineyard estates on the land around towns and villages. The wines made here were sold abroad, primarily on the Polish market, for a very good price. The royal free towns and wealthy burghers of Upper Hungary who had owned vineyards since the mid-15th century were allowed to keep their vineyards.The development of the wine region was not even broken despite the repeated Ottoman raids. Actually, many gentry families rose in rank to become aristocratic families. They mainly had Tokaji wines to thank for their enormous fortunes. This is how the Barakonyi family of Tornabarakony, the Gönczy of Mád, the Szemere of Syrmia, the Bercsényi of Székes, the Bónis of Tolcsva and the Szirmay of Szirmabesenyő became influential landowners. In addition, the Hungarian aristocracy of Transylvania also acquired large areas of vineyards in the wine region, partly through gifts from rulers, partly through marriage and partly through inheritance. This is how we see such large landowners as the Andrássy, Apafi, Kemény, Gyulaffy and Teleki by the last third of the 17th century. Influential landowners of the region met in 1640 and 1641 in the market towns of Mád and Tállya. One outcome was regulations concerning vineyard works, harvest, winemaking and ownership rights. Only a short time later these regulations became known as the Hegyalja Laws, and they were to form the basis for the demarcated wine region a little later on. We can call this the first real golden age of the wine region.The spread of the Counter Reformation in 1663, the failure of the anti-Habsburg Wesselényi conspiracy (1670), the Kuruc uprising (1682-1685) organised by Count Imre Thököly (1657-1705), the two Tokaj uprisings (1671, 1697) and the Rákóczi War of Independence (1703-1711) posed real challenges and burdens on the landowners, and the wine region suffered greatly. Those who were unwilling to convert during the violent spread of Catholicism were expelled and their lands confiscated, transferred to the Treasury. Numerous aristocratic families lost their vineyard estates due to the Wesselényi conspiracy. In addition, vineyard work was often not carried out on the confiscated lands, and the vines quickly fell into neglect. However, the Viennese court did categorise the confiscated areas according to their characteristics, and this information later served as the basis for future vineyard classifications. After the Rákóczi War of Independence several former landowners paid huge sums to buy back their estates, but it took several years before the confiscated and neglected lands flourished once again. In the 18th century the ownership structure changed significantly. The former serf, gentry and lower aristocracy were unable to recover from the damage they had suffered. So they were forced to sell their estates to wealthier aristocrats. Actually, in the 1720s a new aristocracy appeared as the large landowners in the wine region. These were families that were loyal to the Viennese court such as Aspremont, Buttler, Grassalkovich, Gyulay, Haller, Holló, Károlyi, Klobusiczky, Mudrány, Nigrelli, Orczy, Roxer, Waldbott and Zombory. Few of the old families remained; only the Andrássy, Erdődy, Szemere, Szirmay and Vay. We can call the decades after the end of the Rákóczi War of Independence the second golden age of the wine region. It was characterized on the one hand by rebuilding and regular vineyard classifications, and on the other hand by better and better vintages. Moreover, in 1737, in connection with a case of wine counterfeiting, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1711-1740) issued a secret imperial and royal decree in which he declared Tokaj-Hegyalja a demarcated wine region, the first in the world, thus protecting local producers and owners. However, much land remained the property of the court. The crown estates established on lands around Sárazsadány, Tarcal and Tokaj in 1749, mainly on the former Bercsényi and Rákóczi estates, remained in state ownership almost up to the present day. Initially Greeks and Armenians were favoured as merchants, and then from the second half of the 18th century Jewish traders from Galicia (along the border of Poland and Ukraine today).

Interruptions in trading

In 1754 Maria Theresa (1740-1780) set an internal customs decree for wines coming from Hungary into the Austrian hereditary lands. This greatly affected the Tokaj Wine Region as landowners had to pay the Treasury high protective customs tariffs. Another blow was the political crisis of the Polish-Lithuanian Union that lead to its disintegration and division. This resulted in the wine region losing its most important market, Poland. In addition, landowners were swept into serious overproduction predicament as this period brought many outstanding vintages. The crisis was temporarily relieved by the French Revolution (1789-1794) and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). However, the tragic agricultural vintages that started on the continent in 1814 caused a serious setback. Terrible vintages followed for a decade and no market was found for Tokaji wines. The wine region was only able to recover in the 1850s. Actually, they were in search of new markets for the wine and consequently the Tokaji Bormívelő Egyesület (Tokaji Wine Growers’ Society) was established in Mád in 1853. It appeared that following the Compromise with Austria in 1867 the wine region was once again set on a steady track for unbroken development. However, the promising beginning was totally destroyed by the outbreak of phylloxera around 1880 that did not spare Tokaj either. Numerous estates went bankrupt and an enormous number of autochthonous grape varieties, for example Kövérszőlő and Ezerjó, disappeared from the wine region. It took some twenty years of dedicated work by the vine growers to recover from the devastation caused by phylloxera.

The Peace Treaty of Trianon cut the Tokaj Wine Region in two

The 20th century was no kinder to the wine region. The Trianon Peace Treaty that closed World War I made the Tokaj Wine Region a border area. Settlements like Bártfa, Eperjes, Kassa, Késmárk, Lőcse, Rozsnyó, (Bardejov, Prešov, Košice, Kežmarok, Levoča and Rožňava today in Slovakia) and Ungvár (Uzshorod in Ukraine) – whose councils and wealthier residents were important estate owners in the wine region – were left on the other side of the new borders. This was compounded by the massive downy mildew epidemic that devastated the vineyards not long after the peace treaty, and thus ruined many more estates. By the time the wine region was finally starting to recover, the world economic depression of 1929 broke out causing the bankruptcy of many vineyard owners. Then World War II brought great devastation to both the population and the lands. Jewish residents, who owned vineyards and traded the wine, were deported in 1944; most died in the concentration camps. After the Communists took power in 1945, many businesses and properties were nationalised, thus putting an end to the large estates in the Tokaj Wine Region. The violent collectivisations followed in the 1950s. During the subsequent decades of state controlled grape and wine production, the focus was on the less demanding mass market of the Socialist block, mainly the Soviet market, and this deeply affected the quality of Tokaji wine as the question of quantity was paramount. The fame of Tokaji wine became merely historical, a memory of a glorious past. Following the change in political system in 1990 the wine region received a new historical opportunity. Privatisation began, people whose family lands had been appropriated were compensated and private wineries and estates both large and small were created once again. And with this, it is hoped that a new and more favourable historical period began in the Tokaj Wine Region.