Today Tokaji

Tokaji, Jancis Robinson once observed, is "one of the few wines that could justifiably be described as legendary." Yet few enophiles in America have given a thought, much less devoted a portion of their budget, to "the king of wines and the wine of kings." Not that Tokaj's late-20th-century reemergence has been entirely ignored in the American wine press. The list of big-name '90s investors alone has made it newsworthy: Jean-Michel Cazes, Michel Rolland, Jean-Michel Arcaute of Château Clinet, Hugh Johnson, and David Alvarez of Spain's Vega Sicilia are among the most famous. Yet little ink has been devoted to providing an overview of this region-in-flux or a key to understanding and appreciating its wines.

Three June days spent in the Tokaj Hills (for that is the region's official name: "Tokaj-Hegyalja"; the wine is spelled Tokaji-meaning "from Tokaj"-just as a wine from Bernkastel is referred to as Bernkasteler) convinced me not just of its breathtaking scenery but also of the special difficulties involved in understanding its wines. It's not just a matter of learning new categories, but of determining what's going on in the cellar and of having to constantly shift gears to appreciate many different styles. Few growing regions were more written about in the 18th or 19th centuries than Tokaj, so we know a lot of details about how the wine was once made. But the Second World War and its Communist aftermath shattered the living bonds with Tokaj's glorious traditions. Today the simultaneous rethinking of tradition and the employment of tools and methods new to the region seem to have led each winemaker and each proprietor to his or her own interpretation of the classic categories. As a result, I often had the feeling of tasting in different wine regions when in fact I was merely hopping from cellar to cellar.

Wine lovers who persevere in their tasting will be richly rewarded by the sheer diversity of fascinating wines already issuing from post-Communist Tokaj. And yet, today's quality is being wrought under difficult conditions inherited from decades of vineyard neglect, poor planting, and poor planning. My June visits to six large firms and three small growers also brought home that it won't be possible to cover this region so quickly the next time: easily half a dozen more international ventures are either building facilities, planting vines, or about to crush their first grapes. From the welter of styles and methods, the replanting of time-honored terroir, and the rough and tumble of the market jungle should emerge by a sort of Darwinian selection the Tokaji wines of the 21st century, beasts superior even to the greatest wines of today.

The Tokaj region represents over 50 miles of almost unbroken high hills in northeastern Hungary, shaped like a "J" or check mark, with the Tokaj Mount itself rising like a great island just beneath the crook in the J. At the foot of this landmark lies the town for which the region's wine is named. Tokaj village-for it is now little more than a small, picturesque village-sits at the confluence of the rivers Tisza and Bodrog, the latter running the length of the J. Mist and humidity rising from these frequently flooded waters and their oxbow lakes make for a relatively reliable incidence of botrytis, although there are often several years in a decade with little or no noble rot, just as in Sauternes. The Bodrog and Tisza are partly responsible for the present size of the town of Tokaj, having carried much of it (including its once-famous castle) downstream over the centuries.

But the Tokaj Hills have suffered more savage erosion of their human resources. The eviction and extermination of Hungarian Jews in the waning months of the Third Reich destroyed the merchant class that had been the main engine of the region's commercial success. Today, empty synagogues and overgrown cemeteries bear mute witness to this shameful era. Orthodox Greeks, another source of strength in the Tokaj wine business, fled the area before it became hemmed in by Communism and could only look east for its market. The result was a deadening of human initiative and a systematic debasement of Tokaj wine.

This was not the first time the region had hit bottom. In 1867, when the Viticultural Society of Tokaj published a report and vineyard map-still a valuable resource for understanding the region and its wines-its authors were at their commercial wits' end. Their largest remaining market, Poland, had recently been erased from the map of Europe. The vines were infected by root lice. "We must," the Society wrote, "find in western Europe a market which can compensate for that which we have lost . . . [an] undertaking rendered all the more difficult by the fact that French and Spanish wines are already the lords of this realm." Plus ça change . . . ! Yet ironically, when the denizens of Tokaj emerged from Communism in the early 1990s, it was the wealthy French and Spanish winery owners who queued up to invest in this fabled region.

The grapes. Furmint makes up over half the total surface area, harsleveu about a third, and sarga muskotaly (also known as muscat lunel or gelber muskateller) some 5%. There is also scant acreage of chardonnay, a variety that is (doubtless wisely) not allowed in any of the classic wines, plus one or two early-ripening crossings, a legacy of the Communist era. While statistically insignificant and not yet officially recognized, tiny experimental plantings of some of the dozen or more other grape varieties once present in Tokaj may revive a more interesting legacy. Not that names like sarga ortlobi, balafdut, or torok goher are any more apt to appear on wine labels than they are to trip off the American tongue!

Tokaj's acid-retentive muskotaly makes a pungent, resinous addition to any blend or an audacious go-it-alone wine. Single-cepage harslevel_ can be more ingratiating, featuring sweet floral perfume and a gentle palate impression. Furmint, the backbone of classic Tokaj, is a stubbornly acid-retentive, late-ripening variety whose tight bunches and thick skins make it both susceptible to and capable of nobly withstanding frequent infestations of botrytis. There is a natural sharpness and an aromatic pungency to furmint and a tactile intensity reminiscent of grüner veltliner. Typical aromas are of citrus rind and buckwheat flour. Ennobled by rot, furmint takes on the quince and honey notes we know from great, sweet chenins, plus a haunting smokiness.

Furmint is as mutable a variety as sangiovese, pinot gris or grüner veltliner. Today's vineyards support enough big berries and high bunch counts to drag down quality. Furthermore, most vines were trained for quantity and spaced, in one grower's words, "to the specifications of the Soviet tractor factory." Systematic replanting of the vineyards is therefore an imperative undertaking, and will dwarf the cost of even the most technologically elaborate and architecturally extravagant winemaking facilities. Firms that initially saw replanting as only a distant goal have come to the realization that it cannot be deferred. In keeping with modern theory, replanting is normally at high density, in short, erosion-resistant, low-trained rows. Trellising is pursued with scientific exactitude. With rare exceptions we are still several years away from seeing the positive effects of these new plantations. The nurseries are overtaxed and some growers, like Istvan Szepsy, are having second thoughts: "Perhaps it was a mistake to replant with any of the existing clones and we should have tried to do a mass selection from our few really old vineyards"-to culture the most desirable vines.

The replanting of vines, indeed almost all of the redevelopment of Tokaj, is complicated by the fact that, since 1994, only Hungarian citizens may be agricultural landowners. So most of the larger firms are investing in land owned not by them, but by any of Tokaj's more than 12,000 small proprietors. Much of the so-called Tokaj Renaissance is thus built on potentially shifting ground. There are adversarial as well as cooperative relations between investors and landholders, foreigners and natives. It goes without saying, though, that very few small growers, including ones who bottle wine and sell from their cellars, could afford to replant their vineyards or make other capital improvements.