A Question of Authenticity: Hungary’s Tokaj Wines

One of the treasured Hungaricums of my birth country is a special Tokaj wine called aszú, a sweet, topaz-colored wine. Aszú means “dried”, and the complex winemaking process uses botrytised (“nobly” rotten) grapes. This unique, special quality wine is cherished by millions all over the world, but I must confess, I never liked it. It is a bit too heavy, too sweet for my taste. I’m a long-time red wine drinker, nothing beats a good Merlot.

This year on the 17th of April guests lined up for the reopening of the Consular Mission of Hungary in Toronto. Mr. Szabolcs Takács, Deputy State Secretary of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry was there, Mr. Michael Coteau, Ontario’s provincial Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Mr. Dimitris Azemopoulos, Dean of Consular Corps in Toronto, and of course, no event is complete without Mr. László Pordány, then Ambassador of Hungary to Canada. The host of the ceremony was the newly minted Consul General, Ms. Stefánia Szabó.

Mr. Dániel Mendelényi also showed up in Toronto, he is travelling Ambassador for International Business Development of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry (Hungarians love long titles!), and representatives of Vinum Tokaj International, the importer were also present. They already had meetings with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to discuss the possibilities of importing Tokaj and other Hungarian wines into the province. Ontario is a dynamic part of Canada, it is also home of 150 thousand Hungarian Canadians who will be proud promoters and undoubtedly consumers of Tokaj wines.

There was only one issue.

North American wine lovers, beware! Can you spot the fake Tokaj? Photo: Zsolt Revicky, Népszabadság.

North American wine lovers, beware! Can you spot the fake Tokaj? Photo: Zsolt Revicky, Népszabadság.

Nobody knows if exported Tokaj wine is real Tokaj wine. Even the importer doesn’t know what is in the bottle! They suspect that Hungary is selling wine mixes labelled as Tokaj, and the suspected fraud already reached the courts in California. The battle is between American importer Vinum Tokaj International LLC and Hungary’s wine exporter Tokaj Kereskedőház Zrt. In Hungary, an independent audit has also confirmed large-scale “irregularities” at the company, which is the state-owned producer of Tokaj wines.

In 2011, Tokaj Kereskedőház Zrt. sold 250,000 bottles of special Tokaj wines in custom packaging to the American partners. A California discount chain (Costco) planned to sell them for $15-20 per bottle. The trouble started when the Americans realized that the wine was not what they ordered, it was mixed.

The exporter’s then-CEO, Mr. István Kiss, knew that the wine he sold was not right, but he did not have enough quality Tokaj to satisfy the shipment, so he decided to mix some. Business was so promising, that after exporting 250,000 bottles of “fake” wine, Mr. Kiss ordered the production of further 500,000 bottles. In that case, 2008 wines were labeled as 2001 vintage, but the delivery never got to the USA as the two parties were already in dispute.

In the meantime the Hungarians accused the American wholesaler of not selling the wines, the American importer, in defense, accused the Hungarian company of passing on fake vintage wines.

What a mess!

Today, nearly a quarter million bottles of disputed Tokaj wine is sitting unsold in a Southern California warehouse as the court battle continues.

Needless to say, the highly esteemed Tokaj brand is in danger, the high profile lawsuit might destroy international sales of Hungarian wine. Last year a Florida billionaire, William Koch, was awarded $12 million in a case, where he purchased expensive counterfeit bottles of Bordeaux. The jury felt that he deserves generous compensation.

If Tokaj wines do, in fact, make it into Canada in bulk, I wouldn’t be surprised if–along with hundreds of thousands of fraudulent Tokaj–this shipent also turned out to be “fake.”

Lázár György

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Hungarian Consul General Stefánia Szabó contacted the HFP shortly after this article appeared and noted that, in fact, Tokaj wine had not been served at the opening of the Hungarian consulate general’s offices in Toronto, nor had she promoted Tokaj wines at this event. The HFP article had used this piece from the Wine by Tokaj website as its source. Our article was amended accordingly, in order to reflect this information.

2 Comments

  1. “but I must confess, I never liked it.”

    Perhaps you tried it at wrong place, at a wrong time. 🙂

    It’s a fine wine. Or more precisely only used to be.
    Where I live, one of the biggest city in the world, all the reputable department stores sold Tokaj wine.

    Not any more. The labels on the bottles were confusing, they were different for the same wine even in the same shop on the same wine rack. Their content and their colors were also different even within the same category and label.

    Most department stores and food stores that specialize to import gods, and liqueur shops got them off the shelves and if any remained they fall in the category you have mentioned :

    “Nobody knows if exported Tokaj ………………….state-owned producer of Tokaj wines.”

    I don’t buy it any more. I know Tokaj wine pretty well as I loved it when I lived in Hungary (that was long ago) and I can tell it for sure that they are not Tokaj wines. It’s a scam.
    But I talked to a few liqueur importers, those who run smaller liqueur shops and a few representatives of retailers (they often come the shops and stores to help consumers with information) and I do not want to repeat what Mr. Lazar said but they sad the same thing, that they have no idea what the @@@@ they are, where they come from what is in the bottle.

    No way I would ever risk to try them. Not a sip.

    This article I think is fully trustworthy.

  2. Pingback: Letter to the Editor: Tokaj wines are unique and incomparable

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