On tour - Tokaj, Hungary - Oct 2016
After a 3 hour overnight at Hungary's second city of Debrecen (just 3 hours..courtesy of the famously efficient WhizzAir), we headed for Tokaj, eating up the miles of flat Danubian plain in our Romanian rental car. Hungary may not be everyone's first stop on the wine map, however vines have been grown on the scattered slopes of Central European plain for millennia. Tokaj has been famous for its sweet elixirs since the 16th Century. Indeed, the wine was served at Versailles by Louis XIV, helping it to earn its title as Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum "Wine of Kings, King of Wines".
For much of the second half of the 20th Century, Hungary's winemaking was under the control of the communist monopoly, Borkombinat. With a lack of investment, and the focus on huge volume exports to the Soviet Union, Tokaj stagnated and its wines hardly resembled their legendary ancestors. This all began to change with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Hungarian communism in 1989-90. Wine production was returned to private enterprises and, more importantly, the region opened up to much needed foreign investment and winemakers, who brought their modern techniques and a dedication to quality wine production. Over the past three decades, Tokaj's wines have gone from strength to strength. Initially, by focusing on restoring their reputation for incredibly intense, richly spiced sweet white wines, but has since broadened to include many fine dry white wine styles too.
Despite being the standard barer for Hungarian viticulture, Tokaj's 6,000 hectares of vineyard constitute just 9% of the country's area under vine. Soils are very diverse, based on ancient weathered volcanic rocks, the most common are an Iron-laden red clay called Nyirok and a clay and sand loess named Yellow Earth. Six white grape varieties may be used in Tokaj: Furmint, Hárslevelű, Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), Zéta, Kövérszőlő and Kabar. However the vast majority of plantings are from Furmint (60% of vineyard area) and Hárslevelű (30% of vineyard area). Dry wines tend to be single varietal whereas the sweet wines are typically a blend. These sweet wines are usually predominantly Furmint (used for its very high acidity and sugar), supplemented with Hárslevelű (used for its spicy aromatics) and Sárgamuskotály (used for its floral character).
Tokaj Aszu is the region's most famous sweet style of white wine. Aszu, originally meaning 'dried', refers to a very particular winemaking method involving the use of shriveled Azsu grapes. These rather unappealing moldy raisins (see above) are hand-selected in the vineyard for their 'noble rot', a grape infection caused by the Botrytis Cinerea fruit fungus. Botrytis grows on the skin of the grapes, piercing the surface, and leading to water loss from inside the berry. This dries the fruit and concentrates the remaining sugars, flavours and aromas. The fungus also imparts certain 'Botrytis aromas' to the wine; often described as saffron, honey, marmalade and even mushroom. This infection is also key to the production of other noble sweet wines such as Sauternes and certain German Rieslings. However, it requires very specific conditions for development, and the Botrytis fungus more commonly causes 'grey rot' and complete fruit spoilage. During the Autumn ripening period, a particular microclimate of humid mornings and warm dry afternoons is required to encourage noble, rather than grey, rot. In Tokaj, these conditions are created by the combination of long dry Autumns under the shelter of the Carpathian Mountains, and humid air from the confluence of two rivers; the Tisza and the Bodrog.
The highlight of our visit were the 3 hours spent in the under-house-cellar of István Szepsy. A true legend of the Hungarian wine industry, Szepsy was head of the Tokaj Producers' Cooperative under Communist rule, before joining Royal Tokaj in 1989; the first international venture in the region after the fall of Communism. Since 2003 Szepsy has gone solo, buying up the best single vineyards around the region with a focus on the historic 'Grand Cru' sites which were initially classified in the 17th Century. He is an extremely passionate man, with a healthy obsession for rocks, minerals and the soils they produce. Szepsy makes very fine sweet wines, however he is famous for his pioneering efforts to bring great quality and identity to the region's dry white wines, in particular those from Furmint. He admits this was done out of financial necessity, as much as curiosity, given the ongoing global lack of demand for sweet wine. In an amazingly short period Szepsy has shown that dry Furmint, with its particular smoky and peppery edge, can rival the nobility of great White Burgundy as well as the finesse of fine dry German Riesling.
The estate constitutes 52 hectares of plantings, but just 50,000 bottles are made per year with a paltry average of just 15 hectolitres per hectare - less than half that typical for fine Burgundy! This is due to aggressive crop thinning, in which fruit is removed from the vine to reduce yields and improve quality, and a commitment to sell off all but the finest of his grapes. Whilst I enjoyed his sweet Szamordni and Aszu wines, the dry Furmints were EPIC. With these wines, Szepsy is on a mission to explore and exploit the very precise and diverse character of his individual vineyards. His 5 different dry single vineyard wines (Úrágya, Szent Tamás, Betsek, Urbán and Király) were fascinating; showing startling individualism between the bottlings and illustrating the huge potential of the Furmint grape. The wines, as a rule, are barrel fermented and matured but don't undergo malolactic conversion (which would lower the perceived acidity). It was truly thrilling to taste through 15 different expressions of his Furmint, including the 2016s from barrel! The wines showed a common acid intensity, reaching through layers of smoky stony fruit.
- 2003 Úrágya Furmint (dry) - A historic wine! His first dry Furmint vintage. Stunning evolution on the nose and palate. Citrus peel, vanilla - then reminicent of aged Riesling with rubber and honey on the minutes long fininsh. Beautiful. 9.25/10
- 2008 Szent Tamás Furmint (dry) - Oak matured with 9 months on its lees and (unusually for Szepsy) went through malolactic conversion. Burgundian and elegant in style with high acidity tempered by its creaminess. 8/10
- 2013 Szent Tamás Furmint (dry) - Richer than the rest, with 7g/l of residual sugar to help combat the piercing acidity. Lovely almond and bees wax notes. 8/10
- 2015 Úrágya Furmint (dry) - Smokey, still very young with the new oak yet to fully integrate. 7.5/10
- 2011 Urbán Furmint (dry) - Bracing mineral acidity, textbook smokiness. 7.5/10
- 2015 Estate Furmint (dry) - Multi-vineyard blend, benchmark dry furmint, more approachable in youth than his single vineyard wines. 7/10
- 2015 Betsek Furmint (dry) - Young and still dominated by the new oak. 7/10
The Oremus estate was another brilliant visit. Wine has been produced on the site since the 17th Century, however its modern history started in 1993 when Spanish investors, headed by the owners of Vega Sicilia, acquired the property. Modern in style, the wines show great balance and elegance. Oremus produce the full spectrum of Tokaj wine: from dry to Eszencia - the world's sweetest wine with up to 800g/l of sugar! We had a brilliant guide around their facilities in the form of Szabolcs Újfalussy, Oremus's extremely knowledgeable winemaker. It was incredible to explore some of the miles of dank cellar under the vineyards, filled with thousands of bottles of gently maturing Tokaj.
- 1999 Aszú 5 Puttonyos - Great acidity here, lots of botrytis character with mushroom and marmalade. Spicely apple and ginger with great evolution in the form of walnut, caramel and toffee. Beautiful balance and clearly capable of running another decade or two. 8.75/10
- 2006 Aszú 6 Puttonyos - Vanilla, honey and raisined fruit, accented with spicy marmalade. Well executed. 7.25/10
- 2007 Aszú 5 Puttonyos - Vanilla, marmelade and caramel with spice and raisined fruit. Felt slightly flabby due to insufficient acid for its 148g/l of sugar. 6.75/10
- 2012 Szamorodni - Aromatic with peach, orange blossom and elderflower. Some marmalade botrytis character. 6.75/10
- 2007 Mandolás, dry Furmint - More evolved, showing cheese, nuts and honey alongside dried druit. 6.5/10
- 1988 Aszú 5 Puttonyos - Communist era wine! Fortified, olorosso (sherry) like character with walnuts. A novelity. 6/10
- 2014 Mandolás, dry Furmint - Apple, peach, mineral vanilla and honey. Fairly tart. 6/10
Disznókő was our third visit, situated on a pretty South-facing hillside near the Bodrog river. Similarly to Oremus, Disznókő was aquired by foriegn investors in 1993 - in this case the French insurance group Axa. This is a large estate, with 104 hectares under vine in one single tract around the winery. Whilst the wines were enjoyable, the quality felt one notch down from the dizzy heights we had expereienced at both Szepsy and Oremus.
- 2015 Hárslevelű (dry) - Very appealing with green apple, spicy white pepper and honey. Some vanilla from its 6 months on oak and a herbal basil note. Great varietal expression here. 7/10
- 2008 Aszú 5 Puttonyos - Hazelnut, caramel with spiced marmalade. 140g/l sugar. 7/10
- 2002 Aszú 6 Puttonyos - Earthly, almond. 180g/l sugar. 7/10
- 2015 Furmint (dry) - Unoaked, refreshing high acidity and aromatic richness with green apple on the palate. Very clean. 6.75/10
- 2015 Late Harvest Muscat - Aromatic and typically Muscat but not very exciting. 5.5/10