That's Tokay for You - Tocai, Tokaji and Tokay

By Craig Camp
Tuesday, December 9, 2003

IN EASTERN Hungary small groups of rolling hills give birth to one of the world's great dessert wines. The luscious, dark golden wines of Tokay are among the most historic of the world's great wines. They were sought after by Europe's royal houses long before many of today's classics were known. During the Communist era, this area of Hungary fell on hard times. But following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent growth of the European Union, foreign investment has reversed the neglect. Once again Tokay wines are taking their rightful place on elegant wine lists and in serious wine cellars.

That's the problem.

The re-entry of Tokay into the world wine market coupled with the increased regulation of food and wine names by the EU has created an identity crisis for two of Europe's other fine white wines: Alsace's Tokay d'Alsace and Italy's Tocai Friulano.

While all three of these wines go by the name, Tokay, there are many differences. They are spelled differently: Tokaji in Hungary (often labeled Tokay outside of the country), Tokay in France and Tocai in Italy. They are made from different grapes: Furmint in Hungary, Pinot Gris (pinot grigio) in France and Tocai Friulano in Italy. So to simplify the situation: Tokay in Alsace is made from pinot gris, which is called pinot grigio in Italy. But Tokay in Hungary is made primarily from a grape called furmint which is not related to pinot gris or the pinot grigio in Italy. Furmint in Hungary and tocai friulano in Italy may or may not be related and each country argues that they used the name first. The tocai friulano in Italy is in no way related to the Tokay of Alsace which is made from what they call pinot grigio in Friuli. No need to clear that up.

The EU bureaucracy decided years ago that the name Tokay belonged only to the wines produced in those rolling hills of eastern Hungary. They ruled that by 2006 the French and the Italians must give the Hungarians exclusive right to the name Tokay. But the debate goes on, appeals continue and the outcome remains in doubt.

The French went to work right away and began hyphenating the old name, Tokay d'Alsace, with the new name, Pinot Gris. But after years of "Tokay d'Alsace-Pinot Gris" crowding their labels, they are now dropping the old name and today everyone is accustomed to seeing only pinot gris on the label. Meanwhile, the Italians did nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. In one way they have been quite busy. A small group of producers in Friuli, willing to cut yields, have elevated tocai friulano into a competitor for Italy's best white wine varietal. Unfortunately, their right to use this name in the future is running out.

Although the exact reason for the use of the name Tocai is lost in history, it seems probable that at one point the Tocai wines of Friuli were actually made from furmint, the same grape variety that produces Hungary's Tokay. But some time after the turn of the 20th Century, furmint was replaced by sauvignon vert in the vineyards but winemakers still bottled under the old name. This change most likely was a consequence of the replanting forced by the devastating attack of the phylloxera root louse during this period. The sauvignon vert offered a more productive and hardy alternative. Whether the furmint vine and the Tokay name moved from Italy to Hungary or the other way around probably depends on the nationality of the historian!

The tocai friulano is the same vine that the French call sauvignon vert or muscadelle. It is widely planted in South America where it is commonly (accidentally I'm sure) mislabeled and sold as sauvignon blanc. Like so many other varietals, this vine only seems to produce great wines in one region of the world while yielding uninteresting results on the rest of the planet. Tasting a wine like the Borgo Dan Danielle Tocai Friulano from the Collio region will convince you that, indeed, this varietal is capable of greatness -- if only in Friuli.

Friuli has now established it leadership among the Italian regions when it comes to producing exceptional white wines. Tocai, along with Ribolla Gialla, produces the most interesting white wines of the area. Commercial attention focuses on pinot grigio (or is that Tokay d'Alsace?), chardonnay and the various "super-white" blends of varieties created by winemakers as personal creative statements. But time after time, if you taste through a producer's wines, it's the tocai friulano that sticks out in your mind.

If you are looking for a varietal descriptor of tocai friulano it is pears. Ripe, luscious pear flavors carried by a refreshing mineral flavor and zesty acidity that mixed together create an exceptional wine to enhance food.

Now that they have figured out how to make it, they must figure out what to call it.

Some tocai friulano wines recently tasted and recommended:

-Alberice, Tocai Friulano, 2002 Tenute Aleandri, Corno di Rosazzo, Colli Orientali del Friuli

Bright pale gold with lively hints of green when caught by the light. Very floral perfume that reminds one of apple blossoms and acacia. The floral notes are rounded out by mineral hints with just a touch of butterscotch. The floral characteristics continue on the palate, but are well balanced by bittersweet almond flavors with just a slight touch of lime in the finish. This wine has a round mouthfeel but carries all this fruit and flowers on a firm backbone of acid. The finish is long and firm and there is not a touch of fruit sweetness: just clean mineral flavors with just the right finishing tang of acid.

-Villa Russiz, Tocai Friulano, Collio, 2002

Bright, very light gold. Racy, perfect pear aromas with underlying notes of hazelnuts. Very fresh. Concentrated pear essence on the palate followed by firm mineral and nutty components. Absolutely mouthwatering on the palate, but not a simple light wine. The crisp acids and clean firm fruit flavors carry the substantial 13.5% alcohol effortlessly. Seafood anyone?

-Torre Rosazza, Tocai Friulano, Colli Orientale del Friuli, 2002

Bright, sparking light gold. Full and rich in the nose. Firm mineral and tart pear aromas open into apricot and licorice notes. Broad rich poached spiced pear flavors expand into apricots with a touch of lime. The finish is expansive and complex with both fruit and minerals and with lovely light and lingering citrus flavors.

-Livon, Tocai Friulano, Ronc di Zorz, Collio, 2002

Bright light gold. Full aromas loaded with fresh pears, lime and butterscotch. Fresh and racy on the palate, but not light. Crisp, mouthwatering acids broaden into spiced pears with firm mineral notes. The finish is balance, long and refreshing. The lightness and balance on the palate makes the hefty 13% alcohol almost imperceptible.

Other top producers include: Miani (oaky style), Roncus (elegant, structured), Russiz Superiore, Schiopetto (classic, racy), Paolo Rodaro, Borgo del Tiglio (dramatic), Borgo San Danielle, Livio Felluga, Edi Keber (intense, concentrated), Dario Raccaro, Ronco dei Tassi, Ronco del Gelso (dramtic fruit extraction).