Tokay or Pinot Gris? What’s the difference?


For several centuries, Alsatian Pinot Gris wines carried the name Tokay d’Alsace. Legend has it that during the Middles Ages, the grape variety was introduced to the region by Hungarian merchants who come across it in Burgundy (a mutation of Pinot Noir, in its native region, it goes by the name “Pinot Beurot”).

At the time, Hungarian Tokaj was one of the most sought-after wines on the market – as Louis XIV famously called it, “the wine of kings and the king of wines” – and the name Tokay was probably adopted so as to give more prestige to Alsatian wines. However, the grape variety Pinot Gris has no relation whatsoever to Furmint, Hárslevelű and Orémus, the traditional varieties used for Tokaji.

When Alsace was annexed by the German Empire in 1871, laws were put in place that were unfavourable to Alsatian wines. Between 1871 and 1918, the region’s official language was German, and Tokay was known as “Grauer Tokayer”. The end of World War I, however, saw Alsace rejoin France, and “Tokay d’Alsace” made a reappearance.

In 1984, the European Commission gave Hungary exclusive rights to the Tokay appellation, a law which was not fully applied until 2007 following a 30-year transitional period. From 1st January 1994, the term Tokay d’Alsace was forbidden, replaced first of all by “Tokay Pinot Gris”, and then on 1st January 2007, this became “Pinot Gris”.

In reality, this was the result of 80 years of negotiations between the two countries, as an initial bipartisan agreement was reached in 1926, stipulating that French labels stop using the “Tokay” denomination. This agreement had never been applied, but Hungary’s entry into the European Union was an opportunity to reopen the debate. And to better understand the legal issue at the heart of this quarrel, it’s worth noting that the reputation of Tokaj wines had declined during the 20th century. It was only from the 1980s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and resulting investments from (mostly French) groups, that the vineyards of Tokaj reclaimed their position as one of the finest sweet wines in the world.

Pinot Gris: fine wines of Alsace

The surface area of Pinot Gris planted in Alsace has increased significantly since the 1960s. In 1969, 387 hectares (4% of the total region’s vineyards) were planted with Pinot Gris, whereas in 2016, this figure increased to more than 2,387 hectares (15.4%). Classic Alsatian Pinot Gris are characterised by varietal characteristics, with smoky, autumnal notes, of mushrooms, white fruits and citrusy notes. Delicious when young, they reach their finest expression after some years of aging.

Given that iDealwine handles bottles that predate the changes in the law, you may have already seen Tokay on our labels of Alsace Pinot Gris.

See all Alsace Pinot Gris wines currently for sale on iDealwine

See all Alsace wines on iDealwine

Tokaj, a gem of Hungary

With 5,500 hectares of vines to the north-east of Hungary, Tokaj is known for its sweet wines produced from grapes affected by noble rot. Six grape varieties are permitted in Tokaj wines: the star grapes are of course Furmint and Hárslevelű, with also Sárga Muskotály, Kövérszölö, and Zéta.

Legend has it that, in the early 17th century, Zsuzsanna Lórántffy (wife of Prince György Rákóczi I and owner of a plot of land in the region) and vineyard master László Máté Szepsi decided to postpone harvests in view of imminent invasion from the Turks. When they finally harvested the grapes, they grapes were completely shriveled and botrytised. They decided to use these grapes anyway, and Tokaj wine was born.

Interestingly, the Tokaj region is behind one of the first vineyard classification systems in the world. The 1700 classification organized vineyards into first, second and third growth with many of these vineyards being sought-after to this day.

Tokaj’s primary characteristic comes from the fact that the grapes aren’t vinified immediately after harvest. The botrytised grapes – known as aszú  grapes – are harvested over the course of several picking sessions in the vineyard. Stored elsewhere, they are then added to dry wine produced earlier in the season. This curious mix causes a second fermentation. The number of ‘hods’ of sweet botrytised grapes (known as puttonyos) added to each barrel determines its sugar concentration and the quality of the wine: three, four, five or six puttonyos, and finally the richest and most concentrated, aszu eszencia.

See our Tokaj wines currently for sale