Royal Tokaji
Royal Tokaji
Feature Article
Royal Tokaji building on memory
10 September 2014
By Margaret Rand, The World of Fine Wine.

After the collapse of Communism in 1990, Royal Tokaji was the first foreign-backed producer in a region with a glorious past but an uncertain future. Two decades on, Margaret Rand charts the challenges, setbacks, and triumphs of a company that has played a crucial role in both the reinvention and the restoration of a lost wine culture, through dry and late-harvest offerings, as well as sublime single-vineyard Aszús and Eszencias.

Royal Tokaji building on memory

It dawned only slowly, going around Royal Tokaji with managing director István Turóczi, that he has the most incredible memory. He can tell you exactly when the rain started in 2009 (October 12, and it hardly stopped for 50 days). He can tell you that in 2004, a wet year, there was 973mm (38in) of rain, and that one day in 2005 there was 125mm (5in) of rain in three quarters of an hour, and for 15 minutes of that there was hail; and when the rain stopped at 4:45pm, there was still 6cm (2.4 inches) of hail at the bottom of the hill.

Memory is important in Tokaj. Memory is what was lost during the long Communist winter: the memory not just of which sites were best, but why site mattered; the memory, sometimes, not just of how to select botrytized grapes, but why botrytis was a good thing; the memory, above all, of what Tokaji was. The loss of memory took hold in the 1960s, when the vineyards were replanted for mass production. From that followed the gradual decline of a classic wine. Concentrated must might be used for sweetening. Tanks might be heated to 104°F (40°C) to imitate the pungency of Tokaji-or perhaps that of Madeira. Fortification was possible, by special permission, as late as 1993, when the law was changed to ban it. In the early 1990s, the Tokaji Trading House (now Crown Estates), the successor to the old state monopoly, still oxidized the life out of some of its wines and swore that that was the right and traditional way to make Tokaji. It convinced many people in the West, too, that it was the sole repository of memory: Royal Tokaji's wines, when they appeared soon after the privatization door opened, were shocking in their novelty and freshness. The story of Royal Tokaji is the story of how memory has been retrieved, is still being retrieved, and is perhaps now becoming conquered.

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