Tokaj, at the dawn of a new era
By Florian Glemot – Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 18 January 2022
This historic wine region enjoyed its golden era from the 17th to the 19th century, before it was devastated by phylloxera, then undermined by 40 years of Soviet rule. Since 1990, Tokaj has recovered its prestige, not only thanks to the wines for which it is renowned, but also through innovative fine dry white and sparkling wines.
In the North-East of Hungary, not far from the borders with Ukraine and Slovakia, lies the country’s most famous wine region – Tokaj. The first wine region to be classified with growths in 1670, it would go on to secure the first appellation in history in 1737. At that time, Tokaj’s fine noble rot wines were very popular with Russian and European aristocrats.
Set in the foothills of the Zemplén Mountains, the vineyards now cover 5,800 hectares of poor, volcanic soils facing South-East and South to South-West. At the foot of these rolling hills run two rivers, the Bodrog and the Tisza, which help create the mantle of morning fog that emerges in September and the spread of the fungus Botrytis Cinerea. The rot pierces the grape skins and infects the fruit before being obliterated by the afternoon sunshine. The grapes are then gradually desiccated, take on brownish hues and develop concentrated aromas, sugars and acids to become Aszù, like the eponymous, storied noble rot wine of Tokaj.
Mirroring the trend for Sauternes, since the turn of the century Tokaj has borne the brunt of plummeting consumption of noble rot wines worldwide. So, without turning its back on its glorious past – and incredible showcase for the region across the globe – Tokaj has successfully reinvented itself by transitioning towards the production of dry white wines in barely a decade, and more recently towards sparkling wines. Our visit to seven estates, with the uber-knowledgeable Tokaj ambassador Gergely Somogyi as our guide (see box on page 7), gave us the opportunity to discover the outstanding quality and variety of styles of wines produced across the region.
Oremus, the custodian of tradition
Created in 1993 by the prestigious Spanish group Vega Sicilia, Oremus has remained focused on fine noble rot wines, which account for 60% of production from its 115 hectares under vine. Located on the edge of a labyrinth of underground galleries used for ageing the wines, the estate’s winery is built on three levels. The grapes are brought to the upper level, then undergo stringent sorting depending on their final destination. They are then transported by gravity to the different presses on the middle level where they are fermented. Once fermentation is over, the wines are then again transported by gravity to the lower level with its galleries hewn out of the volcanic rock to be matured in one of the estate’s 1,000 oak barrels. The oak comes from the Zemplén forests where the climate is harsh, producing very fine-grain wood. This unique feature provides reduced micro-oxygenation, which is ideal for the lengthy maturation period of Aszù wines that must last for at least 18 months. Aszù wines now come in two versions: 5 or 6 puttonyos, depending on the level of residual sugar. They are produced by macerating Aszù grapes in must or in dry white base wine for between 12 and 60 hours, depending on the desired style. Consequently, Aszù wine boasts the freshness of dry white wine, coupled with the rich aromatics and sweetness of Aszù grapes. The 2013 Aszù 5 puttonyos label is a sumptuous wine with notes of acacia, dried apricot, orange peel marmalade and pastry-like flavours of honey and gingerbread, supported by fat and sweetness on the palate which counterbalance its high acidity. The overall feeling beckons imbibers towards meditation.
Samuel Tinon, a Frenchman in Tokaj
Samuel moved to Tokaj over twenty years ago and is now one of the region’s most enthusiastic ambassadors. He produces the most profound Szamorodni wines we tasted. Szamorodni stems from Polish and means “as it comes”. The wines are fermented from grape clusters that have partial noble rot and are then matured for at least six months in oak casks. There are two distinctive styles of Szamorodni: a noble rot style called Edes, generally akin to the Aszù style with fresher, less sweet aromatics, making it the perfect dessert wine; and a dry wine matured biologically in an oxidative environment under a veil of flor in casks that are not topped up, which is very similar in style to Jura’s ‘vin jaune’. Maturing the wine under a veil of flor lends it distinctive aromatic notes of curry and fresh nuts which are entwined with the notes of dried apricot, honey and sweet spices typical of botrytis. This style of Szamorodni is called ‘Száraz’ and, whilst traditional, is only produced by a handful of winegrowers in Tokaj. This is probably due to the fact that the wines are very challenging to produce and can easily fail during the maturation phase. Also, its consumer base is restricted to a few well-informed enthusiasts looking for rare gems. Vinified with no added sulphites, the Szamorodni Száraz produced by Samuel Tinon are matured for 6 years. Showing remarkable intensity and precision, they encapsulate all the passion and huge amount of patience the winegrower has put into them.
Holdvolgy, rigorous precision
In the small, tranquil, picture-postcard village of Mád is an estate where rigour and precision are the rule. Just like in a high-tech laboratory, its owners – Natalia Demko and her brother Pascal – ferment single batches of the 6 permitted grape varieties from the property’s 25 blocks of vines in 6 growths, in a very sophisticated style. Their aim is to drill down and get a very precise understanding of the combinations of the grape varieties and vineyards they own in order to extract their quintessential characters. Overall production is therefore divided between myriad single-vineyard wines produced in minute amounts. One of their single-vineyard offerings is the Intuition n°3 range from the superb 2017 vintage – it is a remarkable rendition of the native Furmint grape variety. Numbered from 1 to 6, each label matches one of the 6 permitted grapes in Tokaj. The n°3 is dedicated to Furmint, the king of the region’s varietal range, which accounts for 67% of plantings. It is defined by its vertical acid structure which makes it the backbone of Tokaj fine wines and lends them substantial ageability. It can appear austere and not very aromatic when it is slightly under ripe or the yields are too high. But with controlled yields, the finest dülös – or Tokaj growths – can produce energetic and extremely refined wines. The Intuition n°3 offers up a crystalline nose recalling green apple, pear, passion fruit and delicate mineral notes. On the palate, the attack is clean and vibrant, followed by substantial aromatic richness combining the freshness of the fruit with the smoothness of the oak in which the wine was matured for 5 months. The mineral finish is supported by intense salinity which drives the gentle sourness typical of the variety over many long seconds.
Barta Pince, feminine elegance
In the same tiny village of Mád, the manor house at Domaine Barta is a splendid example of architecture harking back to the region’s golden era. Bought by the family in 2003, it has been restored in the purest local tradition and now welcomes visitors. The vineyards cover 27 hectares in the Király and Kövágó dülös. The Király dülö, or growth of kings, is without doubt the region’s most iconic. The upper part has been entirely restored and replanted with high-density staked vines since 2003. On this steep slope, Furmint delivers intense expression, offering up generous palate weight that is rare for this grape variety. Vivien Ujvari, the young winemaker who joined the estate in 2016, has successfully established her style – her wines yield convincing purity and elegance. She uses modern technology such as pneumatic pressing and temperature control for the various casks and tanks. Mindful to allow the region to fully express its potential, she delivers a superb iteration of Tokaj’s second major grape variety, Hárslevelü, which accounts for 20% of plantings. Highly aromatic, with a less radical structure than Furmint, it is traditionally used in blends of Aszù wines to bolster their perfume and floral characters. It is now frequently fermented as single-varietal dry white or blended with Furmint. The 2019 Hárslevelü label by Domaine Barta offers up a very aromatic nose suffused with notes of white flowers, white peach and fresh quince. The attack is fresh and opens up intensively to aromas of orange blossom, lemon peel, yellow peach and ginger. The fruity finish is precise and carried over substantial length by gentle sourness.
Erzsebet Pince, family spirit
At the foot of Mount Tokaj, in the small village of Tarcal, the Pracser family strives to craft fine terroir-driven wines. Established in 1990 but with roots in the village that pre-date the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the company boasts one of the oldest underground galleries that dates back to the 1600s. At that time, it was used by the Russian Court to store the finest bottles of Tokaj Aszù destined for the Emperor. Since 2009, the estate has been assisted by Hajni Pracser’s husband, Ronn Wiegand MW MS*, the first person ever to combine these two prestigious titles. The wines are all gifted with substantial aromatic and structural freshness.
The Pracser family owns 1 hectare of Furmint planted on the Király dülö, a prime site for the grape. The single-vineyard Király dülö offers magnificent site-expressiveness. The wine is fermented in Bordeaux oak casks then racked and transferred to Hungarian casks to be matured. The nose is highly expressive and recalls fresh, precise fruit with lots of elegance and sophistication. The oakiness is now perfectly integrated, underscoring the fruit with very pleasant, soft vanilla-like notes. The wine boasts a lengthy finish and superb balance which will undoubtedly lend it long ageability, although it already offers huge pleasure today.
*Master of Wine, Master Sommelier
Kikelet Pince, the realms of Hárslevelü
Stéphanie Berecz left her native Loire region in France in the early 1990s to settle in Tokaj. For a decade or so, she worked for the famous Disznókö estate, becoming head winemaker. In 2002, she decided to start up her own winery, called Kikelet, meaning ‘spring’ in Hungarian, with her husband Zsolt. Stéphanie handles winemaking whilst her husband manages the vineyards which extend over 5 hectares of volcanic soils covered with varying thicknesses of loess. This very porous, mineral soil delivers a more subdued and charming expression of the Hárslevelü grape variety, boasting an elegant acid structure.
In a bid to adapt to a very early harvest in 2013, then more systematically for the following vintages, Stéphanie produces a sparkling wine called Pezsgö in Tokaj – a blend of 70% Hárslevelü and 30% Furmint made using the traditional method and matured on the lees for 2 years. This is one of the rare examples of this style to be entirely estate-produced, from the base wine through to disgorgement. Very few producers have the expertise to do so in the region and most sparkling wines undergo their secondary fermentation and are disgorged by major specialist co-operatives. The results are all the more convincing. This 2017 Pezsgö brut displays great aromatic balance, halfway between white flowers, pear, apple and secondary brioche and toasted notes. This harmonious and compelling wine is a great showcase for the potential of sparkling wine in Tokaj that has yet to be fully explored.
Zoltan Demeter, a quest for excellence
“The old things are around me to fill me up with the spirit they preserve”.
This quote from Zoltan Demeter sums up his determination to take a long-term approach by painstakingly crafting his wines and perpetually seeking out perfection. This devotion won him the title of best Hungarian winegrower in 2007. Zoltan was born on the far eastern side of the Tokaj wine region, in the village of Sátoraljaújhely. He still owns a family vineyard that he is extremely attached to. After travelling to France, the USA and the UK, he began producing his own wines in 1996, whilst at the same time consulting for other wineries, then devoted himself entirely to his own winery in 2008. A dyed-in-the-wool visionary, he pioneered production of sparkling wine in Tokaj starting in 2009. He makes regular trips to Champagne to learn the correct protocol and now produces extremely complex wines grown on clay and tuff soils over the volcanic bedrock. The 2015 Pezsgö is matured for 58 months on the lees. Its characteristics are akin to those of a top vintage Champagne with distinctive notes of lemon, grapefruit, green apple and pear entwined with a chalky feel and gorgeous pastry notes. The attack is full of energy and the bubbles are creamy. Fruit-driven length lingers on and on suffused with more mineral notes on the finish. This gratifying, vinous, concentrated and elegant wine also paves the way for the advent of fine sparkling wines from Tokaj.
Drawing on 4 centuries of producing top noble rot wines, Tokaj is on the cusp of a new era focusing on fine dry whites and sparkling wines. With climate change afoot, Tokaj has many assets for securing a prime place in the world of fine wines. Hungary is home to a raft of macro-climates. Mirroring its top quality whites, it also excels in producing fine red wines, like those by the Jammertal estate in the Villány region, in the southern part of the country. Jointly run by winemaker Zsofia Kövesdi and viticulturist Zsolt Nagy, the estate has risen right to the top with its superlative quality wines, primarily the Koh-I-Noor range. Produced from international grape varieties, they were awarded first-rate scores in the Gilbert & Gaillard International Challenge which you can find at the end of this issue.
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