What happens to a wine region that once outshined France, producing wine demanded by royalty across Europe and Asia, which was then destroyed by war and communist control? Added to the fact that the region’s wine is some of the most labor intensive wines in the world to produce and thus carries a hefty price tag, which many are unwilling to pay. In the case of the Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region in Hungary, one finds a stunningly beautiful wine region, producing rich and majestic wines, that are strongly neglected and underappreciated. More still, the producers all seem to share a common identity — A deep and genuine passion for terroir and drive for perfection, and a pure and humble attitude toward their trade. Certainly most all wine aficionados and professional critics collectively consider Tokaj to be part of the holy trinity, comprising the best and most sought after sweet wines in the world – German late harvest Riesling, Sauternes Semillon, and Tokaji Aszú. However, wine tourism in Hungary and international Tokaj sales have a long way to go before the typical wine consumer will consider Tokaj a common part of their wine repertoire. So visit Tokaj, taste its delicious wines, and help the region regain its worldwide prominence, which it truly deserves.
This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to visit with three Tokaji wine producers – Disznókő, Alana Tokaj, and Pendits. This will be a four-part post due to the mass of information accumulated and wine drunk during the trip, so lemme summarize the whole experience in just a few sentences. There were three major lessons that I learned from my trip to Tokaj. The first two I already knew superficially and was pleased to personally confirm, and the third was an unexpected and pleasant surprise. One, as I already mentioned, don’t overlook this region. It belongs among the rankings of the world’s greatest wine and will only continue to improve in quality. Two, with respect to the aszú wines, other than the obvious botrytised nuance, the most distinctive characteristics that came out time and time again, were the crisp minerality and the vibrant acidity, which very mysteriously tended to increase as the sweetness level increased. Three, if you’re under the misconception that Tokaj is all about sweet botrytised wine, it’s just that, a misconception. In fact the production of dry wine in greater than sweet wine. And moreover the quality level is anywhere from good to excellent. The same minerality and acidity showed very nicely and I would most closely compare dry Tokaji to a French Alsace.
A quick history …
Before I go into the details, other than information obtained directly from the wineries, my number one source for this post was David Copp’s book “Tokaj: a Companion for the Bibulous Traveller”, recommended to me by Wink Lorch, Founder and Editor of the Wine Travel Guide. It’s a quick, easy and informative 153-page read … a perfect companion to anyone planning to travel to the region.
Tokaj is located in Northwest Hungary and its winemaking history dates back to the 1500s when landowners discovered that the region was perfect for making sweet wine. However, in the beginning winemakers had problems stabilizing their wines since the high residual sugars triggered a late starting secondary fermentation. It was the discovery of botrytis cinerea or Noble Rot that changed everything and kicked off the production of quality Hungarian sweet wine. Formerly the grapes diseased by this fungus, known as aszú in Hungarian, were discarded. However when some aszú grapes were used in the must it was discovered that the fungus actually imparted desirable characteristics and structure to the wine. More importantly, the increased residual sugars halted the secondary fermentation. Problem solved!
The Rákóczi royal family became synonymous with Tokaj in the late 1500s and on through the 1600s, as they realized the diplomatic importance of the aszú wines. Nobles, princes and kings from all over demanded Tokaj wine. Ferenc Rákóczi II is considered to have played the most crucial and beneficial role in the development of Tokaji Aszú. He inherited vast holdings of the finest Tokaj vineyards and worked hard to expand and modernize them. His biggest claim to fame came in 1700 when he collaborated with other prominent landowners to create the classification of the Tokaji vineyards. This is believed to be the first ever recorded terroir classification in the world, 155 years before France’s Bordeaux Medoc classification. The classification system was based on the quality of botrytised berries produced by each vineyard. The Rákóczi left two other important legacies. One, the importance of skilled vineyard workers was recognized and respected in Tokaj. In fact the region attracted some of the best vineyard workers in all of Europe. Two, due to the labor intensive method of wine making and high skill required, Tokaj produced a long line of world-class oenologists.
However the golden age of Tokaj would soon end. Unfortunately all the hard work and success was confronted by rough times, including the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of Prussia. Plus competition in sweet wine grew, with quality production coming out of Sauternes in Bordeaux and the Rhine and Mosel in Germany. As a fewer blow, after the Second World War, the Nazis drove the Jewish merchants out of Hungary. The Jewish merchants were the most active and influential component of the Tokaji wine trade. Their absence, doubly affected by Communist rule, essentially removed Tokaji wine from the map, at least until the end of the 20th century.
The rebirth of Tokaji wine was not until 1990 when the first democratically elected government came to power and began decentralizing and privatizing the wine industry in Hungary. It is estimated that 250 million euros were invested in state of the art wineries. Although many key players were active in the Tokaj wine industry, the following three were probably the most important.
One, the Royal Tokaji Wine Company was the first major producer to sprout up, even before democratization. Royal Tokaji was founded in 1989 between key investor and world renowned wine writer Hugh Johnson and a partnership of 62 growers. Each grower agreed to provide one hectare from their classified vineyard in exchange for shares in the new company. Royal Tokaji is credited as the first producer to reintroduce the single-vineyard concept, dating back to the post-communist period. Still today Royal Tokaji is probably the most internationally known Tokaji producer.
Two, another name which is synonymous with Tokaji wine is István Szepsy. As one of the 62 growers who initially invested in The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, he was hired as their first winemaker. He quickly decided to branch off and in 1991 he launched his own label. Today Istvan is honored by the President of Hungary for his contributions to wine and he is recognized locally and internationally as the single most influential winemaker in Tokaj. Some of his wines command upwards of 500 dollars.
Three, in 1995 the Tokaj Renaissance was created by eight of the top producers in Tokaj. They were quickly joined by ten other producers. Their mission is to restore the Tokaji name and ensure the highest standards of wine production as well as assist in international marketing of Tokaji wine.
Background on vinification …
Even before Burgundy, terroir in Tokaj was deeply studied and considered critical to the wines. The three key soil types that make up the Tokaj terroir are clay, clay mixed with broken rock or nyirok, and loess (a loamy soil). The clay soils produce full-bodied wines. The nyirok produces a wine with very fine acids and a distinctive character. The loess produces more refined and elegant wines with a characteristic honeyed aroma. The key characteristic of Tokaj’s climate is its long sunny autumns, which allow the grapes to ripen long into October and November. And certainly the number one distinguishing factor of Tokaj is that it’s proved to be the perfect microclimate for producing the ever so essential botrytised grapes.
There are roughly six grape varieties grown in Tokaj – Furmint, Hárslevelű, Yellow Muscat, Zéta, Kövérszőlő, and Kabar. Unquestionably, Furmint is the premier grape of Tokaji wine. It’s considered a perfect match for the Tokaj microclimate, giving great structure and backbone to the wines, and imparting fine natural acids. Furmint ripens late and splits easily when exposed to humidity, making it the ideal grape for botrytis formation. Hárslevelű is also quite prominent and can stand alone to make varietal wine or serve as a blending grape along side Furmint. Hárslevelű has characteristic linen-flower and honey aromas and imparts elegant acids, warmth and fragrance. Yellow Muscat, also known as Muscat Lunel or Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, is the oldest grape variety and probably the third most prevalent in Tokaji wine. It’s also vinified both as a varietal wine or a blend and produces great acidity and a rich aroma and body. Zéta is a cross between Furmint and Bouvier. It ripens early and forms good botrytis; however, its rapidly declining acidity means that it is virtually only used as a blending grape. Kövérszőlő is supposedly making a come back after being nearly extinct due to phylloxera; however, I didn’t come across it during my time in Tokaj. It botrytises well and produces fine acids and smooth flavors, which is why it is thought to make a good single varietal wine. Kabar, authorized for use in Tokaji wine in 2007, is a cross between Hárslevelű and Bouvier. Time will tell what its real role will be in Tokaji wine.
Regarding winemaking, there are about 5 principle styles of Tokaji wine produced – dry and semi-dry varietal, szamorodni, late harvest, aszú, and eszencia. Dry and semi-dry varietal wines typically get little to no barrel ageing; however, some producers, Alana Tokaj included, are barrel ageing their dry varietal wines for up to two years, and with good results. Aged or not, the wines show well with a crisp acidity, great minerality and good aromatics. Late harvest wines are produced from bunches of botrytised grapes that are macerated in fresh must and fermented quickly. They receive only about six months of barrel ageing. Szamorodni, Polish for “as it comes”, is similar to late harvest wine in that it is produced from bunches of grapes containing variable proportions of botrytised and non-botrytised berries. However, the grapes are gently pressed and left to macerate on their skins, after which they are lightly pressed again. Then the wine receives at least two years of barrel ageing, imparting characteristic raisin and nutty flavors.
The gem of Tokaj is of course the aszú and eszencia wines. Aszú wines are broken down into five styles, based on increasing levels of residual sugars (listed in parentheses) – 3 puttonyos (60-90 g/l), 4 puttonyos (90-120 g/l), 5 puttonyos (120-150 g/l), 6 puttonyos (150-180 g/l), and Aszú Eszencia (180+ g/l), which is anything above 6puttonyos. Pure Eszencia has over 240 g/l of residual sugars and can reach as high as 900! That’s straight up honey. Traditionally the word puttonyos referred to the number of harvest buckets or “puttonyos” that were mixed in with the base wine. In making aszú wine individual botrytised berries are picked by hand, certainly a very labor intensive effort. The grapes are pressed gently under their own weight and the first run juice is referred to as eszencia. This juice can be set aside to make the eszencia wine. The aszú berries are then very gently pressed and macerated with a base wine made from ripe but non-botrytised grapes. The wine is aged in barrels for a minimum of two years. In the traditional method, still practiced by the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, oxidation is key. Barrels are not topped off and the wine is left to slowly oxidize with the yeasts and bacteria. However, most wineries today practice the reductive method where barrels are topped off and more attention is given to protecting the wine from over oxidation.
Aszú Eszencia is made by the same method described above; however, it is made from only the first run juice, and thus is the most concentrated and sweet of the aszú wines. That is until you step in to the nearly unapproachable realm of pure eszencia, which is really set aside as a category all by itself. Eszencia is made by fermenting the first run juice without any base wine mixed in. The sugar concentration is so high that the fermentation is extremely slow, taking anywhere from 5 to 10 years and rarely reaching an alcohol level of more than five degrees. Eszencia became legendary, believed to have healing powers, and was demanded by the likes of Louis XIV, King Gustav III, Napoleon III, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Frederick the Great.
Part two, featuring Disznókő winery, to be continued tomorrow …