Dispute ferments over Tokaji history


Known as “the king of wines and the wine of kings,” Tokaji may be losing some of its regal bearing.

Tokaji, pronounced “toe-koy,” is produced exclusively in the Tokaji-Hegvalja region of Hungary primarily from Furmint grapes. There are six grape varieties officially approved for Tokaji wine production, but Furmint accounts for about 60 percent of all plantings, with Hárslevelű taking another 30 percent of the vineyard allocation; the other four varieties make up the remainder.

Wine from Furmint can be produced in a variety of styles ranging from bone dry to extremely sweet, with its most famous sweet expression being the “aszú” style of Tokaji (The word means dried in Hungarian, but the term denotes the type of wine made with botrytised grapes). Furmint begins with a thick skin which thins to near translucency as it matures, during which the grape’s internal water content evaporates considerably, concentrating the sugars and flavors. If allowed to develop botrytis, or noble rot, the grapes will be become partially dried out and can impart a racy, honey-like flavor.

With the end of the Cold War, new investment was encouraged. Many of the finest Tokaji properties were sold to foreign investors, like the Royal Tokaji Co.


According to a recent story in The Forward by Nathan Guttman, Royal Tokaji’s headquarters in the village of Mád are in the former home of the Zimmerman family, prominent local winemakers before World War II. The house and lands were confiscated. Most of the family perished in the Shoah, but one daughter, Susy Oster, survived and made it to the United States.

Recently, members of her family came upon a picture of the Royal Tokaji winery and recognized it as their matriarch’s home. While Oster is not interested in revenge or compensation, her family is seeking recognition of the role of her family in Tokaji winemaking and the vineyards.

Unfortunately, the interaction between the family and Royal Tokaji has become acrimonious with accusations of rude behavior and threats to involve human rights groups. Royal Tokaji officials state that they “completely abhor the family’s awful and horrendous experience during the Holocaust,” but note that their requests for the family to provide ownership documentation have been denied.

It seems likely that some accommodation will be made, as the family is not seeking financial compensation. Sadly, there has not been a kosher Tokaji imported to the United States for some time now. In consideration of all this, we drink a toast with one of our favorite botrytis dessert wines to honor the role of the Zimmermans and other Jewish families in the wine business.

The kosher version of Château Guiraud Sauternes 2001 ($150) is creamy, honeyed and full-bodied with butterscotch, apple and vanilla aromas that mingle within lush layers of apricot, peach, baking spices and orange citrus. The sweetness, concentrated flavors and ideal balance last throughout the extended finish, making this one of the finest kosher dessert wines.

Spirits-wise, we are not aware of any current, worthwhile, kosher Hungarian hooch, so we thought we’d settle in with a bracing shot of Slivovitz. Here are two lovely and refined American-made options we rather enjoy:

Clear Creek Distillery Slivovitz Blue Plum Brandy (certified kosher for Passover by Oregon Kosher; 40 percent abv; $30; 375ml bottle): Made from Oregon-grown Italian blue plums, this smooth, slightly off-dry, complex brandy offers notes of fresh, sweet, ripe plums and a little distinct pepperiness, with an absorbing, warm finish.

Mosby Kosher Plum Brandy Slivovitz (certified kosher for Passover by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Los Angeles;
43.3 percent abv; $55): With heady aromas of pure plum, more subtle notes of vanilla pudding, marzipan and overripe melon, plus a little pepperiness to tickle the palate, this Slivovitz is fruity, floral, medium-to-full bodied and surprisingly complex. The finish is a tad hot, but satisfyingly so. L’Chaim!

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