Movies, Tokaji and an 18th century wine tour

Your favourite wine movie; do you have one? Let me know if you do.

To help you decide there’s a recent story about film world luminaries drawn to wine growing and Brian Miller’s tremendously entertaining piece on wine at the movies in Winestate.

I have several favourite wine movies but top of my list at present is not mentioned in either of these reports. It’s Dean Spanley, a clever and poignant meditation on fathers, sons and mortality with a subtle reference to the magic of wine.

Dean Spanley features Peter O’Toole as a witty, goggle-eyed old curmudgeon who has become increasingly rigid in his habits since the death of his eldest son at war, and then his wife from a broken heart. Jeremy Northam plays his son; increasingly exasperated with his father’s refusal to express grief and desperate to make sense of the injustice of his brother’s death. In his search for solace, son takes father to a public lecture on reincarnation by an Indian prince who is hilariously uninterested in the idea of future lives since he’s content with his present wealth. His next life could not possibly compare!

At the lecture, father and son encounter an irreverent, resourceful fixer (Bryan Brown) and Dean Spanley, an edgy, enigmatic clergyman (Sam Neill; a film world wine grower who owns Two Paddocks in New Zealand).

It’s gradually revealed that when the Dean drinks Tokaji he’s transported to a past life as a dog. I won’t say more than this about the story except that Neill’s performance is deliciously canine.

But I would like to say a little more about Tokaji.

What is Tokaji (pron. Tok-aye)? It’s a sweet, honey-like Hungarian wine made from combinations of wine from late harvested grapes and botrytised grapes.  That is: infected with noble rot which produces lovely viscous juice for fermenting into a dessert wine. The natural sweetness of Tokaji represented liquid gold in the late eighteenth century when it was the most expensive wine in Europe and had a reputation for prolonging the life of the nobles who drank it.

I first encountered Tokaji as Tokay, one of the grape varieties trialled during the first twenty years of British colonisation in New South Wales.  A colleague who’s researching political resistance among Hungarian wine growers, political scientist Rob Imre, explained to me that Tokay as I knew it was actually Tokaji: king of wines.

The first known importation to Australia of grapes to make Tokay wines was in 1800 and 1824. Several decades of experimentation followed.  At the Paris Exhibition of 1855 – one of the first international expos – Tokay from New South Wales was declared better than the best Tokaji from Hungary. I can’t imagine the New South Wales wine actually was better at all but the Paris judgement significantly encouraged New South Wales wine growers. In the 1850s these growers were still struggling to accurately identify all of the grape varieties they used and certainly had not yet created a substantial market for their wines in the Australian colonies, in Britain or in the wider empire such as British India; though they hoped they eventually would.

Just recently I discovered too that back in the 1790s, a British colonist who would later migrate to New South Wales and join its earliest fraternity of wine squires had toured the wine region of Tokaji.  This fellow, Dr Robert Townson, was a scholar who tried to earn repute by participating in the same sort of travelogue scientific exploration and observation which voyaging chaps such as Joseph Banks are still  famous for. Banks, James Cook and others made their names as great adventurers through publication of their journals about parts of the world newly traversed by Europeans. Early colonial Australian officials like Watkin Tench contributed to books which sped off printing presses in London as soon as news was received from New South Wales. (And Tench mentioned early colonial wine growing!).

But, by the time Townson hoped to add a tome of his own to the growing number of accounts on peoples, lands, plants and animals new to Europeans, he had missed out on visiting exotic parts, particularly India, and was left to choose from places within reach of his work at a university in Germany.

So he selected Hungary.

Townson seems to have been a little miffed that this was his only fair choice of destination and there is an innate sense for him of the inferiority of the country compared with his own. His Travels in Hungary (1792) is not especially complimentary. He was surprised to find, for example, that the balance of trade between Hungary and Britain was in favour of the former, largely due to the purchase of wool and wine by the British.

You can read Townson on Tokaji – the wine and the place – on Google books.

What really puts the sparkle in the wine glass about Townson’s talk of Tokaji is his part in the story of early Australian colonists who made tours of wine regions just like wine makers and wine drinkers do today. Until I found Townson’s book I thought the earliest wine tour relating to colonial Australia was John Macarthur’s in France and Switzerland in 1815-16.

Of course there was a chance for officials (certainly not convicts though) to tour vineyards and wineries at the Cape of Good Hope – the First Fleet’s last landfall before the ‘wilds’ of Botany Bay in late 1787 and a stopover for subsequent voyages to Australia – but, Townson’s peregrination around Hungary represents the first published wine tour by an early Australian colonist, even if he didn’t know when he was in Hungary that he would migrate to Australia.

Tokaji had largely fallen out of western European memory during Hungary’s communist years.  Now that it’s back in wider circulation its producers are no more pleased to find New World imitations than Old World wine growers such as the French who have cracked down on Australian wines being named as Burgundies, Champagnes and so on.

Brian Miller of the movies story in Winestate mentioned above, told me over lunch just a few weeks ago that Australian Tokay style wine -which must be called by the newly created name Topaque – is made from Muscadelle. In the  colonial era it was similarly produced from Muscat varieties, one of which was traditionally used in Tokaji.

When I imagine the mystique of Tokaji in that earlier era it seems very strange to see Imperial Tokaji on the shelf in my friendly but non-aristocratic local bottle shop beside Canadian ice wine and Australian botrytised beauties like De Bortoli’s Noble One. But there it is. And I’m working up to parting with close to $100 for a small bottle of this royal treasure; a living artefact of the wine past. It will be a fitting accompaniment to a re-reading of Townson’s tour. Or another viewing of Dean Spanley.

In fact, a traditional Tokaji and an Australian Topaque would, I think, one after the other, provide the perfect blend of  journeys and reincarnations in my wine glass.

PS: Take Brian’s wine at the movies quiz at this link.


About @DrJulieMcIntyre

Historian of nature/culture through studies of wine production, trade and consumption. Also trans-imperialism, migration, mobilities and business. Budding connoisseur of Semillon and Riesling.
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One Response to Movies, Tokaji and an 18th century wine tour

  1. You are more than welcome to visit Tokaj Hungary to widen your knowledge on this matter – there are more Tokajis out there to be called Tokaji than the one i guess the Aszu you mentioned!
    Greetings from a Tokaji


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