Tokaji, Tokay or Topaque? What's in a name?

Noble Rot wines of Hungary, France and Australia

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Noble Rot on Riesling grapes, Geelong, Victoria

Noble Rot on Riesling grapes, Geelong, Victoria [©Ian Hickinbotham]

Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky
Pfeiffer Wines, Rutherglen - Shiraz, Gamay and Topaque


Once Hungarian Tokay was the most expensive wine on earth –  before the advent of communism. Today, Hungarian winegrowers are regaining their rightful place in the world of wine, with their Tokaji, which we conveniently Anglicise to 'Tokay'.

Historically, the Russians imported and consumed much of their Tokay. However, in the West – because of the sad interlude – Sauternes and Auslesen wines have taken the Tokay mantle in the minds of most wine enthusiasts.

All owe their vaunted place to one facet –  the Noble Rot mould (Botrytis cinerea).  And they were all accidents of history and biology.

The beginnings of these Noble Rot wines (as they are loosely defined) is shrouded in romance.

In Germany, supposedly the Bishop of Trier's messenger dilly-dallied when en route delivering the message that vintage could begin. By the time the message arrived and picking started, the grapes were mouldy. A similar legend arose in Hungary, where it is said that the responsible 15th century priest delayed vintage because of the expected onset of war with the Turks. With so much romance and history about Noble Rot wines, its hardly a surprise that their science has been ill defined.

To the ancients, sweet wine was especially treasured, as usually they could not make it; sugar and sweet things were rare and expensive luxuries. In winemaking, they had no way of stopping the fermenting of the juice to wine by yeasts naturally occurring on the skins of their grapes, so their other wines were dry. Nowadays, an oenologist with good equipment can stop such fermentation, leaving the new wine with some residual grape sugar, but this was not possible centuries ago.

The essentials for development of the mould – at the right time, meaning near grape ripeness – are dependent on moisture and temperature. In Hungary the vineyards are surrounded by hills, so conditions are humid in the mornings. During the day, trapped warmth from the sun ensures that the temperature rises, drying the grapes, day after day. It has only recently been shown that the mycelia of the Noble Rot mould enter the grapes through the natural pores in their skins. Internal moisture is progressively removed, while importantly, sweet pleasant-tasting glycerine develops.

Further, some of the grape acid, especially harsh malic acid, is depleted. Then during fermentation, the yeasts have difficulty converting the grape sugar into alcohol and gas, so the sweet taste of some Tokays is not only due to the glycerine component, but to residual sugar. Some wines, universally bought in 500ml bottles (which tends to emphasise the cachet) are labelled Tokaji Furmint, thereby informing the identity of the grape. The local Harslevelu grape is also still very popular.

The degree of Noble Rot content in Tokay is uniquely expressed in units called 'puttonyos'. A wine of 5 or 6 puttonyos is the most expensive. Another odd emphasis of Tokay making lore concerns another mould growing on the walls of the tunnelled cellars, said to have been built originally as protection from marauding Turks. To anyone who has visited the sparkling wine tunnels at Great Western in Victoria, and seen the festoons of dark grey mould growing on the walls, it appears very similar.

The Australian and French wine industries have used the word 'Tokay' for some of their wines, particularly for Victoria's lovely Rutherglen wine made from Muscadelle grapes; the French one was Tokay d'Alsace. Like the French, the Australian wine industry has recently chosen to stop using the word 'Tokay'.

The great Rutherglen wine – epitomised by the consistently acclaimed Chamber’s version –  is now responsibly known as Topaque (which now may not be approved by the EU that controls our export opportunities to Europe). If we have to classify the wine, it could be likened to a top quality aged sweet Sherry (but that’s another name we can no longer use). Pfeiffer Wines sold the first bottle under the Topaque name in 2009.

Actually, muscadelle is an under-valued grape variety. About 50 years ago, in the days when there was only one Gold medal awarded to one wine of each Show class, a dry muscadelle wine beat the Clare and Eden Valley rieslings at the important Adelaide Show.

However, undoubtedly Australia’s consistently best Noble Rot wine (as such) is De Bortoli’s Noble One, made from semillon (as are the Sauternes of France, plus sauvignon blanc) grown in the Riverina. Strangely, the irrigation channels with their water provide the morning ‘dew’, the necessary dampness for mould development, then the hot Riverina summers do the necessary berry drying every day. This circumstance is more reliable than anywhere else in the world for the regular supply of Noble Rot wines.


Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related reviews below).


Editor's note: Topaque is delicious with coffee and chocolate by a roaring log fire, fruit such as apricots, over ice cream or on its own, in a spa or with a good book. This wine is truly one of Australia's national treasures and is a must-try for every Australian wine lover. Makes a fabulous gift for visiting wine-loving friends, too – you can be sure they won't find anything like it at home, that is unless they come from Hungary.

According to the Rutherglen region's brochure on Topaque: Dessert wines have been produced in the Rutherglen region for 150 years, with the long, warm autumn days providing ideal conditions for the Noble Rot to occur and the grapes to shrivel. The wines are fortified and left to mature, sometimes for generations – the process concentrates the wines and produces rich, complex flavours and deep golden tones.

The author points out that morning moisture is required for this to occur.



  • Rutherglen (VIC)

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May 15th, 2010
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