Tuesday, November 28

Mysterious Origins of the Italian Wine Formerly Known as Tocai

DNA researchers have found connections to a lost French grape, but it is far more complicated than that.

Vineyards in Collio, FVG (Aurellio Candido/Flickr)

By Mike Madaio

The Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (FVG) grape Tocai Friulano is probably most widely known for its part in the multi-decade legal battle by Hungary to prevent the word “Tocai” from being used in Italy, because of its similarity to their own famous Tokaji wine. From 2008, when the Council for the European Union finally ruled in the Hungarians’ favor, Italian wine labels could no longer use the controversial term, and are now labeled just Friulano. Strangely, the grape is still officially called Tocai Friulano, at least according to Italy’s National Catalog of Grape Varieties. So, while in English most people now refer to it as simply Friulano, technically that’s the wine name, not the grape name. (And wineries that make varietal wines from this grape outside of Europe — such as Channing Daughters in New York — can still call it Tocai Friulano.)

Though long thought to be an indigenous Italian grape, or perhaps — with the Tokaji association — an import from Hungary, recent vine research has raised questions about Tocai Friulano’s origins. When I first started looking into this, it was merely as additional insight for a Friulano tasting I was conducting to better understand these wines. As I began this journey, however, I found myself falling into a rabbit hole of the grape’s origin story, which is anything but crystal clear. What to make of Italian references to Tokay from the 1100s? Or the idea that it is an old rejected Bordeaux variety? The more I dug, the more confusing things got.

In a delusion of grandeur, I wondered if, based on my experience with historical research, perhaps I could be the one to settle this matter once and for all. Definitively. For all eternity.


While I’m not sure I was able to do all that, I do think I was able to add some interesting clarity to this issue. So read on, and let me know if I was successful.

The Vinciguerra Vexation

In his seminal work Native Grapes of Italy, author and wine expert Ian D’Agata included a tantalizing tidbit about Tocai’s history in FVG. Documents from the twelfth century, he wrote, show that the Abbot Giacomo Vinciguerra from Collalto owned “a wonderful vineyard of Tokay in San Salvatore.”¹

This fact, if true, would be monumental in making the case for Italian origin of the word Tokay/Tokai/Toccai/Tocai/Tokaj (I’ll use these variations interchangeably) to describe grapes or wines, because the town in Hungary — Tokaj, which would eventually give its name to the famous wines from the broader Hegyalja region — wasn’t documented until 1353. (Several online sources also note a reference to Tokaj wine from 1067, but this claim is without valid sourcing and seems dubious for several reasons,² which is perhaps another rabbit hole for another time.)

Unfortunately, further research into the aforementioned document from Vinciguerra of Collalto finds several sources showing he was Abbot of Nervesa and Count of Collalto in the 1700s, and that the reference to his vineyard of Tokay was made in 1771.³ (Also, that the very first Vinciguerra di Collalto was born in 1441.⁴) These later dates, though disappointing from an Italian perspective, align better with the idea that the Italians’ usage of the word Tokay was a piggyback on the success of the Hungarian wine, which started to become famous in European high society in the 1500s. But this only begins to scratch the surface of the Italian-Hungarian Tokay connection.

Remains of Vinceguerra’s Abbey of Sant’Eustachio at Nervesa (Wikicommons)

The Furmint Fluctuation

Legend has long told of an Italian origin for Furmint, the main grape in the Hungarian Tokaji blend, even if indisputable proof of this has never quite been presented. It is certainly true that following the Tatar invasion of 1241–42, when King Béla IV of Hungary looked to rebuild the region, he “sought people with vineyard skills,”⁵ many of whom ended up coming from what we know today as Italy.

“The Italians occupy a relatively well-known place in Tokaji’s history,” wrote Miles Lambert-Gócs in Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition. “From around 1250 to 1450, there was an Italian cultural presence in the small towns and lowlands of the western Upper Tisza region… [and] Italian settlement in the 13th century apparently occurred all along the north-to-south length of the [Hegyalja] region.”⁶

“The Italian influence on agriculture must have been extensive,” Lambert-Gócs continued. “Notably, the Italians were the first skilled gardeners to inhabit the area… [and] likely introduced wine-growing in some areas… also, because of their stone masonry skills, early Italians might have suggested methods for separating and enclosing vineyard parcels, which in the course of time became the basis for vineyard classification in Hegyalja.”⁷

While perhaps interesting to the Hungarian wine lover, this detour is only relevant to FVG because of the possibility that the original Friulian wine named Tokai may have been made from Furmint. In an essay on the history of Tocai in the 2009 book Il Risveglio del Tocai (The Awakening of Tocai), Antonio Calò provided several examples that help support this hypothesis. “Mondini in his work of 1903,” he wrote, as one, “reminds us that Furmint had been introduced in Italy during the 19th century and particularly in the Veneto.”⁸

A vine scholar named Sannino — also referenced by Calò — certainly seemed to believe that the grape used in Venetian Tokai was Hungarian in origin. In 1901, he wrote, for example, “The white grape whose bunches and leaves I have favored is fairly extensively cultivated in the provinces of Venice and Treviso under the name of Tokai. It is undoubtedly a Hungarian variety, imported into the Veneto around 50 years ago. I will start research to find out the original name of the variety, which seems to me to be the right answer for the abundance of the product and also for the good quality.” In 1920, Sannino mentioned this again, asserting that these vines had been brought by Hungarian horse traders who frequented the markets of the Veneto.⁹

German Hermann Goethe, in the Ampelographisches Worterbuch of 1876, mentioned Furmint as the most common variety used in wines called Tokai in a number of European countries, though he also listed several other grapes that might have been passed off as authentic Tokai.¹⁰ Which is, in fact, probably the most likely story here: without the strong naming regulations that exist today, anybody could call any wine made with any grapes Tokai, so they probably did just that. Illustrating another intriguing possibility. Calò included multiple references — ranging in date from the 1870s to the 1930s — that pointed to Pinot Grigio as the main grape of Italian Tokai.¹¹ (Before its name was banned in the aforementioned EU ruling, France’s Tokay d’Alsace was also made with Pinot Grigio/Gris.)

All that said, this belief that Friulian Tocai was once Furmint has carried through to modern day, at least somewhat. In the great book of the early 2000s, Vino Italiano, for example, Giulio Colomba of Italy’s Slow Food organization told the book’s authors that early Tocai was most likely made from the Hungarian grape.¹²

In Wine Grapes, Robinson et al. stood strongly against this, stating that “Furmint has never been observed in Italy,” which at first comes across as a dubious claim, based on the above evidence. However, they went on to point out that Furmint “has no genetic link with any other Italian varieties,¹³ which seems like a far stronger argument here.

1595 drawing of Tokay village (Wikicommons)

The Toccai Theorems

Another prominent hypothesis for the derivation of Furmint can be traced to documents from 1632, when Aurora Formentini, a Friulian noblewoman, brought to Hungary 300 “vitti di Toccai” (Tocai vines) as part of her dowry when marrying Hungarian Count Adam Batthyany.¹⁴ As the name Furmint is awfully close to the surname Formentini, Italian logic suggests this cannot merely be coincidence. The timing here, however, seems improbable, since the first documentation of Furmint — according to Wine Grapes — was from 1571, with the variety name first recorded in 1611.¹⁵

Robinson et al. used this same evidence to reject the somewhat similar legend of the Friulian soldier who went by the nickname “fromento” (Italian for wheat), who supposedly brought the grape to Hungary during the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) by moving the timing of his story to the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), long after the grape name was established.¹⁶ (Even after the dates are resolved, however, this particular story still reeks of apocrypha.)

None of this inherently contradicts the idea that Furmint may have come from Italy in the 1200s, but the lack of genetic evidence — as pointed out in Wine Grapes — is compelling. And the idea that the Tokai moniker was used, indiscriminately, in different areas for different grapes certainly seems logical at this point in history.

Coming back to the Toccai spelling variant used in 1632, there were also, apparently — in documents from 1811 — mentions of a stream and/or a hill called Toccai in the San Lorenzo Isontino area, which borders Gorizia, in prime Friulano country. And, in an 1837 register from the same area, there appears a listing of 47 vineyard owners from Toccai.¹⁷ At the very least, this — along with additional examples presented by Calò¹⁸ — establishes that the name Toccai was used for several centuries in the FVG region prior to a more concrete classification appearing in the early 1900s.

In 1933, Giovanni Dalmasso — a prominent ampelographer and vine researcher of the early 20th century — wrote significantly about Tocai, helping to establish a distinct identity for the Tocai Friulano grape variety for what was likely the first time. “Since an excellent white vine under this name has been cultivated for some time in Friuli (a vine that has some vague resemblance to Sauvignon, but which differs perfectly from it),” he wrote, “they decided to adopt the Italian spelling, to mitigate, if not completely avoid, the confusion of it with the Hungarian vines that give the Tokai wine, and which are completely different from the aforementioned Friulian grape. To avoid even better misunderstandings with other pseudo-Tokai grown in Italy, I would prefer it to be called Tocai Friulano even though today it is also grown in the neighboring provinces.”¹⁹

“At this point,” wrote Calò, “the ampelographic question seemed resolved: the Tocai Friulano was considered an independent vine, not to be confused with others. Cosmo reiterated it in 1936 and then Montanari and Ceccarelli in 1950, then there was the ampelographic monograph by Cosmo, Polsinelli, Hugues in 1952, and then in 1969 it was officially registered, with [the name Tocai Friulano], in the Italian Registry of vine varieties at no. 253.”²⁰

It seems safe to say, then, that, prior to the 1930s, Tocai/Toccai/Tokai may have referred to a variety of different grapes (or blends, even) in FVG and Veneto. Starting around the time of Dalmasso’s declaration, however, the idea of Tocai began to standardize around this unique grape Tocai Friulano, one that had some similarities to Sauvignon Blanc but otherwise was not known by any other names in the region.

A cluster of the Tocai Friulano grape variety (Ursula Brühl / Wikicommons)

The Sauvignonasse Substitution

Not long after Dalmasso’s Friulano addition to Italian Tocai, French ampelographers began to notice a certain resemblance between the Italian grape and a lesser-known French variety called Sauvignonasse.²¹ Similar observations were made in the 1980s at UC Davis vineyards, followed by a formal test conducted at the institute for grape research at Conegliano in Veneto, where vines of Tocai Friulano and Sauvignonasse vines were harvested together to determine their relationship. “The results of the ampelographic, ampelometric, phenological, productive and isoenzymic analyses performed in 1989–91,” wrote Calò and Costacurta of the experiment, “lead to the conclusion that Tocai friulano and Sauvignonasse are the same variety.”²² DNA results published in 2003 further confirmed these findings.²³

Of course, as soon as these results were established, the opinion emerged among some Italian winemakers that this grape still originated in Veneto or FVG — it was documented back to the 1600s — and must have later been brought to France, where it eventually became known as Sauvignonasse. The problem with this hypothesis being, of course, that Italian Toccai wine of the 17th and 18th centuries could have been made from any number of different grapes.

As in Italy, confusion in France between Sauvignonasse and Sauvignon Blanc only muddied the waters in terms of the origins of the former grape, as it was likely planted among Sauv Blanc vines and thought to be the same variety (or a related one) for many years. In addition, various synonyms existed — including Sauvignon de la Corrèze (after the department in central France), Sauvignon à Gros Grains and, maybe, Sauvignon Vert — which added difficulty in determining the grape’s true origins.

In the 1990s, it was discovered in Chile that as many as one in five vines of what was believed to be Sauvignon Blanc was actually Sauvignonasse, or, as it was called there, Sauvignon Vert.²⁴ This, however, opened up another confounding tangent to the story, as to whether Sauvignon Vert is actually a valid synonym of Sauvignonasse.

A Chilean blend of Semillon and “Sauvignon Vert” (JA Jofré)

The Vert Vortex

Starting with work of Alexandre-Pierre Odart, the most prominent French ampelographer of the 1800s, and continuing through to writings of today, the accuracy of using Sauvignon Vert as a Sauvignonasse synonym seems to remain unresolved. This type of quandary, of course, is not uncommon when researching old names of grapes from any old world region, but becomes even more perplexing when dealing with not only multiple regions but multiple countries.

In 1845, in his famous text Ampélographie, Odart spoke of three types of Sauvignon: le vert, le jaune, et le rose (green, yellow, and pink). “The first two varieties,” he wrote, “the yellow and the green, are therefore particularly the only which we deal with … They make up a notable part of the best vineyards in the Gironde, Sauternes, Barsac, etc., renowned for their white wines.” (This passage is often cited, probably incorrectly, as proof that Sauvignonasse is from the Gironde.) In this 1845 edition, Odart also mentioned having recently acquired a grape called Sauvignon à Gros Grains Ronds, from Tarn (in south-central France), although he provided little detail, stating that more research was needed.²⁵

In the 4th edition of Ampélographie, published 1859, after reiterating his 1845 notes about the yellow and green types of Sauvignon, Odart added a new entry for “Sauvignon de la Corrèze o Sauvignon à Gros Grains.” He wrote, notably, that he only placed this grape in the Sauvignon section of his text because of its name, while pointing out that “it has none of the characteristics of this tribe, neither the peeling and tense leaves, nor the shape of the grains, nor the flavor specific to the Surins … The grains are round, and are only large relative to those of real Sauvignons.”²⁶ Although he did not specify whether this was the same as the Sauvignon à Gros Grains Ronds from Tarn included in his 1845 text, the fact that they were both from central France, labeled Gros Grains and described as ronds (round) makes it seem likely.

To reemphasize, Odart was saying, quite clearly, that Sauvignon Vert and Sauvignon de la Corrèze were two distinct grapes, the former belonging in the Sauvignon family and the latter, while somewhat similar, having no relation.

The name Sauvignonasse — which translates roughly to Sauvignon-like, a sensible choice considering the confusion here — first appeared in print in 1899, in a work associated with Pierre Viàla, Inspecteur Général de la Viticulture, which featured the specific caveat that Sauvignonnasse was “a variety that should not be confused with yellow and green Sauvignons.”²⁷ In 1901, another Viàla-directed publication further clarified that Sauvignonasse and Sauvignon à Gros Grains from Corrèze were one and the same.²⁸

These texts also further distinguished Sauvignon Vert, or Gros Sauvignon, as it was now also referred, as a distinct variety from Sauvignon Jaune — now called Petit Sauvignon — the latter of which had by this point become the main white Sauvignon variety in France.²⁹ More importantly, however, was the emphasis that this Sauvignon Gros/Vert was not considered the same grape as Sauvignonasse.

Much later, a 1997 edition of Larousse’s Vins e Vignobles de France maintained that Sauvignonasse is indeed the same as Sauvignon de la Corrèze and Sauvignon à Gros Grains, while also mentioning that Sauvignon Vert had been used as a synonym in the Allier region of central France, but not in the Gironde.³⁰

In my research, I also came across a website called Les Cepages (the grapes) that looks like it was designed in 1999 — frames, Times New Roman and all — that went so far as to say that one who uses Sauvignon Vert as a Sauvignonasse synonym does so “à tort,”³¹ or, in English, mistakenly. Based on all the evidence above, and despite this website’s lack of modern design sense, I can’t help but agree. Sauvignon Vert was clearly believed to be a Gironde variety also known as Gros Sauvignon, and never believed to be Sauvignonasse.

(Incidentally, the grape known as Sauvignon Vert in California has been proven to be Muscadelle, deepening the confusion around the green name.)

The only thing still confounding me is the Chilean aspect; if it was indeed Sauvignonasse that was imported west of the Andes with Sauvignon Blanc, why the heck was it called Vert when this was discovered? I see two possibilities:

  1. Odart, Viàla, etc. were incorrect, and Sauvignon Vert and Sauvignon de la Corrèze are indeed the same variety.
  2. At some point, the records were misinterpreted and it was mistakenly assumed Sauvignon Vert and Sauvignon de la Corrèze are the same variety.

Without additional evidence, the latter seems far more likely, considering how well documented these grapes were in the late 18 and early 1900s, with no data suggesting Odart’s Gros/Vert has ever been the same as what we know call Sauvignonasse.

Alexandre-Pierre Odart (unknown artist)

The Procreation Principle

In recent years, Sauvignonasse has been demonstrated to be the parents of two French grapes with long histories, further validating the hypothesis that the grape is — sorry FVG — French in origin.

In 2013, vine scientist Thierry Lacombe suggested that the variety Saint-Pierre Doré, long grown in the Allier region, is in fact the offspring of Sauvignonasse and Gouais Blanc.³² (The latter, btw, which has been virtually extinct since phylloxera, is arguably the most important grape parent that’s been forgotten by most wine lovers, but that’s another rabbit hole for another time.)

Viàla et al’s Ampelographie text, released around 1901, reported that Saint-Pierre Doré “has been cultivated for a very long time around Vichy” and that “from time immemorial it has been the white grape variety of this region, just as Mondeuse is the red grape variety.”³³ Does the fact that Saint-Pierre Doré is believed to be indigenous to the Allier region in central France, then, further substantiate the hypothesis that Sauvignonasse is also from that region, either Corrèze or somewhere in the general Auvergne? It certainly would seem so.

In 2019 —in a shocking twist — Jean-Michel Boursiquot (a Professor of Ampelography at Montpellier) told the International Congress of Chenin Blanc that he had, at long last, found the missing parent to Chenin: Sauvignonasse.³⁴ (It has long been known that the other parent was Savagnin.) This finding certainly seems to make a stronger case for French origins of Sauvignonasse! Although — while this certainly reverberates more due to Chenin’s stature — in fact it is hard to find indisputable references to Chenin before the 1500s, which leaves us at about the same place from a timeline perspective. (Many have posited that references to white grapes in the Loire from even earlier must be Chenin,³⁵ but — as with Toccai in Italy — this is difficult to substantiate with any certainty.)

All that said, Sauvignonasse’s role in creating other important French grapes — and the lack of any similar procreations in Italy — does lend even more credence to the idea that it originated in France.

Two progeny of Sauvignonasse: Saint-Pierre Doré and Chenin Blanc (Jules Troncy)

The Definitive Determination

At this point, I feel confident stating that the origins of Sauvignonasse are, in all probability, French. Is this indisputable? No, and it would never be surprising if additional data emerged that changed this belief. But based on what is currently available, it seems relatively certain that it hails from either Corrèze or nearby central France (Auvergne/Allier). It is probably not from the Gironde, and is not the same as Gros Sauvignon / Sauvignon Vert. (Barring the emergence of a connection that I have missed, I’d go so far as to say that Sauvignon Vert should be retired as an accepted synonym for Sauvignonasse.)

Assuming then, that Sauvignonasse was indeed growing in France long before it came to Italy, it would make logical sense that it was brought to Friuli during the late 1800s, alongside the post-phylloxera introduction of other French grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Timing-wise, this aligns with the idea that the “new” Tocai Friulano was formally identified in the 1930s. Calò and Costacurta also included two sources from around 1870 that seem to suggest a perhaps new, but certainly different, variety of Tokai that stood out from the more broad usage of the term prior to this timeframe.³⁶

If we can agree on a French origin, then, does that make Friulano made in FVG today less Italian? Not necessarily. As Calò wrote so eloquently, it is “a noble vine, forgotten in France: cared for, disseminated and understood by us.”³⁷ Over the course of 150 years, this vine has had the time to adapt to its new location, and clearly makes superior wine in Italy than it did in its homeland. I find particular similarity with Pinot Bianco, which may hail originally from Burgundy but is certainly far better suited to Alto Adige in Italy today. These grapes may be immigrants, but clearly they have now found a more suitable home, and they are thriving.


[1] Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy (United States: University of California Press, 2014).
[2] Online research suggested this came from a Hungarian historical text called the Gesta Hungarorum, and I was able to find the full text for this online, but Tokaj wine was not mentioned. (Further research is needed here.)
[3] Multiple sources, including
– Antonio Calò, “Il Tocai Friulano e La Sua Storia,” Il risveglio del Tocai: Le ragioni produttive e di mercato per il rilancio del prodotto, (Italy: Franco Angeli Edizioni, 2009).
– “Nel regno dei Collalto,” Bel Composto, accessed August 8, 2023, http://www.belcomposto.net/pdf/2018Quaderno2Collalto.pdf.
[4] “Nel regno dei Collalto.”
[5] Miles Lambert-Gócs, Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition (United States: Ambeli Press, 2010).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Calò, “Il Tocai Friulano e La Sua Storia.”
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, (United States: Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed, 2012).
[13] Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz, Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours, (United States: HarperCollins, 2013).
[14] “Tocai,” Vinopedia, accessed August 8, 2023, https://vinopedia.hr/tocai/.
[15] Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz, Wine Grapes.
[16] Ibid.
[17] “Tocai,” Vinopedia.
[18] Calò, “Il Tocai Friulano e La Sua Storia.”
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Société Centrale d’Agriculture de l’Aude, “Bulletin Mensuel,” July 30, 1859, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bd6t51045564g/.
[22] A. Calo and A. Costacurta, “Tocai friulano e Sauvignonasse: un unico vitigno,” Rivista di Viticoltura e di Enologia, 45(3):31–40, 1992.
[23] Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz, Wine Grapes.
[24] Jancis Robinson, Vines, Grapes, and Wines, (United States: Knopf, 1986).
[25] Alexandre-Pierre Odart, Ampélographie, ou Traité des cépages les plus estimés dans tous les vignobles de quelque renom, (Paris: 1845), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k28936s
[26] Alexandre-Pierre Odart, Ampélographie, ou Traité des cépages les plus estimés dans tous les vignobles de quelque renom (4e édition), (Paris: 1859), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3052155w.
[27] G. Cazeaux-Cazalet, “Le Sauvignon,” Revue de Viticulture, June 1, 1899, https://www.retronews.fr/journal/revue-de-viticulture/01-juillet-1899/1855/3581711/70. (Emphasis Added)
[28] Ampélographie: traité général de viticulture. Tome 2 / publiée sous la direction de P. Viala,…, V. Vermorel,… ; avec la collaboration de A. Bacon, A. Barbier, A. Berget… [et al.], (Paris: Masson et Cie, 1901–1910), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6532842z.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Vins et Vignobles de France, (France: Larousse, 1997).
[31] “la Sauvignonasse,” Les Cepages, accessed August 8, 2023, http://lescepages.free.fr/sauvignonasse.html.
[32] “le Saint Pierre doré,” Les Cepages, accessed August 8, 2023, http://lescepages.free.fr/st_pierre_dore.html.
[33] Ampélographie: traité général de viticulture. Tome 4 / publiée sous la direction de P. Viala,…, V. Vermorel,… ; avec la collaboration de A. Bacon, A. Barbier, A. Berget… [et al.], (Paris: Masson et Cie, 1901–1910), https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6532260t. (Emphasis Added)
[34] “1er Congrès International du Chenin Blanc + La Paulée d’Anjou (30th June 2019) — tasting,” Les 5 du Vin, July 9, 2019, https://les5duvin.wordpress.com/2019/07/09/1er-congres-international-du-chenin-blanc-la-paulee-danjou-30th-june-2019-tasting/
[35] Multiple sources, including
– Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz, Wine Grapes.
Wikipedia,“Chenin Blanc,” May 30, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chenin_blanc
[36] Calo and Costacurta, “Tocai friulano e Sauvignonasse: un unico vitigno.”
[37] Calò, “Il Tocai Friulano e La Sua Storia.”

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