The history of Tokaji Szamorodni

Sweet wines were f irst made in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea in ancient times. This technol­ogy arrived in Hungary from two directions, Italy and the Balkans, and put down roots in the Syrmian wine region in the late middle ages. The concept of főbor (prime wine) can be traced back to the mid-15th centu­ry. A Latin document pertaining to a legal case gives the three main wine categories: the great wine (vinum magnum) was most probably Syrmian Aszú wine, then the medium wine (vinum medium) which is the főbor category and then f inally the lower wine (vinum minor). The source shows that the last, the everyday wine, was produced in the greatest quantities.

This classif ication took root in the Tokaj Wine Region too. From the second half of the 15th century to the mid-16th century many wine growers and makers moved north ahead of the advancing Ottomans and brought their viticultural and vinicultural knowledge. Documents prove that sweet wines were already be­ing made in the region, for example a local convent’s tax records for 1468-1476 mention the church made sweet wines from its vines on Hangács, Mezőzombor, and that the harvest started between 15th and 20th October at the earliest. However, they do not def ine the style of wine made (prime wine or Aszú). In 1524 after examining the wines made from grapes grown in Tállya, Tarcal and Tokaj, the famous doctor and al­chemist Paracelsus gave a description which bears resemblance to the taste and aroma world of present Tokaji wines.

In the 16th century the Latin terms changed and we f ind the f irst reference to the prime wine főbor in a Nomenclatura dictionary written around 1570 and published in 1590. The Latin vinum primae notae gen­erosum literally means “the most outstanding quality wine” and is different from the vinum passum (literally wine made from dried grapes). For us this indicates that főbor existed alongside Aszú from the mid-16th century at the latest.

Let us clarify a legend which tells that Gróf György Graskovich, bishop of Pécs, offered főbor (vinum me­dium, vinum generosum) wine from Tállya to the Pope at the Council of Trent (1543−1565). This was believed to be the origin of the saying Talia vina omnem pontif­icem decent (“Such wine is suited for all popes) attrib­uted to Julius III. It transpired subsequently to be false and have been created by Sámuel Timon, Jesuit histori­an in the early 18th century. Draskovich was present at the Council and did own vineyards near Tállya but we have no evidence that he offered his wine to the pope.

The first reliable description of prime wine production is from a Polish wine merchant, Paul Keller and dates to 1726. It records that the Tokaji prime wine (German: Hauptwein) is made by treading and pressing green healthy grapes with the dried and shrivelled Aszú ber­ries. According to Keller the wine was not only more de­licious but also kept better than the everyday wines. It is important that this winemaking was known not only in Tokaj but also around Bratislava and in Transylvania.

From the mid-17th century prime wine slipped into the background and by the 18th century it had totally dis­appeared from the Hungarian language. Indeed it was almost forgotten as a category mainly for political rea­sons. A law passed in 1655 assured tax-free status of aszú berries, so these were removed from the bunches to make Aszú wine which was sold at a more favourable price than if they had been trodden into the common wine. Prime wine survived in other regions such as Tran­sylvania. Many vineyard estates and cellars changed ownership due to unfavourable political changes (failed uprisings against the Habsburgs, the Counter Reforma­tion) in the last third of the 17th century. Enforced ad­ministration often confused the concepts of prime and Aszú wine, and misunderstandings and carelessness meant the two styles were even exchanged sometimes. An example is the financial inspectors who recorded the influential Rákóczi family’s Oremus estates as produc­ing prime wine whereas the previous inventories clearly indicate Aszú wine production.

From the early 19th century prime wine began to spread again in the Tokaj Wine Region but under the name Szamorodni. This word has Slavic roots but debate con­tinues as to whether it has Polish or Ukrainian origins. It is certain that Polish Jewish wine merchants started to use the word which literally means “born of itself” or “as it grew”, referring to the wine made from the must of bunches from which the aszú berries are not removed.

The wine style increased in popularity due to the fact that around 1900 aszú berries lost their tax-free status and thus it was more economic to “process” the aszú berries into the wine in order to pay less/more favourable tax. Merchants of Slavic tongue showed great interest in this wine. We first find the word Szamorodni meaning főbor (prime wine) in a Krakow document dated 1815.


Updated: 2019.06.05.

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