Originally published in November 2016
Chris Boiling is a winemaker and wine and travel writer. You can find his work at JancisRobinson.com, VinCE magazine and of course WTM, where he wants to share his passion for the wines and wine regions of Central and Eastern Europe.
Chris Boiling sees how Hungary’s most famous region is changing.
If only all history lessons could be like this. I’m sitting in the basement of a London restaurant, comparing 20 vintages of luscious Tokaji dessert wines ranging from the latest release, the 2013 vintage, back to the much darker 1993, which marks the start of the revival of Hungary’s most famous wine region.
The differences, some subtle, some pronounced, are due to both aging and the conditions leading up to the harvest. Until this tasting, I’d thought of the Tokaji aszú wines as the perfect way to finish a meal, sometimes choosing this wine instead of a dessert, but with every mouthful I was beginning to understand these are terroir wines. Each silky sip was taking me to the place where they were made and the year they were created.
All of the wines came from Disznókő, one of the region’s top producers. It’s also one of the first wineries you come across if you drive to this part of northeast Hungary from the capital, Budapest (about two hours away). It’s on road 37 near the first turning that leads to Tokaj hill and Tokaj town, the historic trading center that gives the region its name. The first impressive building you see on the land, a ‘First Growth’ site since 1732, is the tractor shed. It’s probably the world’s most impressive tractor shed. I thought it was some kind of a domed amphitheatre at first. Behind it is the winery and historic cellars. Like most of the historic cellars in the region, the walls are lined with a very special fluffy black mold, Cladosporium cellare, which lives off the alcohol evaporating from the barrels.
A little further along the road is the estate’s restaurant, Sárga Borház (Yellow House), one of the best in the area. I was here, sipping Tokaji’s sweetest wine, Eszencia, from a tiny ‘angel-shaped’ glass, while the internet was abuzz with ‘news’ that Donald Trump’s new hotel in Washington DC is selling a crystal spoonful of 2007 Royal Tokaji Essencia for $140. In Sárga Borház, the treat costs only €8.
Tokaji aszús are never cheap wines, but they do represent good value when you consider how they are made. The shrivelled, raisin-like grapes are hand-picked, berry by berry, with the most skilled harvesters averaging a mere 6-10 kilograms a day. These berries, which may or may not have been affected by ‘noble rot’, are stored in vats until the harvest is over. The juice that gathers naturally at the bottom is released to make Eszencia, which can have 600-900 grams per liter of sugar. The berries are then soaked in fermenting must or new wine, depending on the requirements of the vintage, for 12-60 hours, with pump-overs to increase the skin contact. The grapey-paste that forms is pressed and the wine is allowed to ferment until it reaches the desired balance of sugar, acidity and alcohol. Then it is aged for at least three years, two of which must be in oak barrels.
The first aszú at the vintage tasting, the 2013, was bottled in July. It is a very different wine to the 2012, due to the weather conditions and the way the noble rot (botrytis cinera) developed. That’s the key to all the vintages: sometimes the botrytis develops more slowly, sometimes the grapes are only lightly botrytised, sometimes the aromas of dried fruits are more pronounced, and sometimes it doesn’t affect all of the permitted grape varieties in the right way. The 2012, 2011 and 2009 wines were made from only affected Furmint berries, while the base wine was made from Furmint and Hárslevelű. Most of the other vintages are made using all of Disznókő’s three main grape varieties – typically 55-75% Furmint, 10-40% Zéta, and 5-30% Hárslevelű.
These varieties also reflect the makeup of the vineyards that you will see on the rolling hills as you drive along road 37 towards Sátoraljaújhely, near the border with Slovakia. Furmint accounts for about 70% of the region’s 13,590 acres of vines. Hárslevelű accounts for about 18%, with the rest made up of the minority grapes that are allowed in Tokaji wines: Sárgamuskotály (Yellow Muscat), Zéta, Kövérszőlő, and Kabar.
As we taste back through the years, it seems that Laszlo Meszaros, the director at Disznókő since 2000, hasn’t had the same conditions for any wine. The variability of the all-important botrytis has led other producers to offer a wider range of wines. On a three-day trip to the region earlier this year I tasted dry versions of most of the permitted varieties, off-dry versions of some, classic-method sparkling wines featuring Furmint, Hárslevelű and Sárgamuskotály, and the most comprehensive range of sweet wines from any region – from late harvest and the slightly sweeter Édes Szamorodni to two levels of aszú (5 and 6 puttonyos*), and the richest and sweetest of them all, Eszencia.
At the French-owned Disznókő winery they make a good dry Furmint but concentrate on the aszú wines. “The long-term focus is Tokaji aszús,” confirms Laszlo. “Eighty percent of our production is dedicated to sweet wines.”
The Spanish-owned Oremus winery also concentrates on modern-style aszús: balanced, pure, complex, fruit-forward expressions. If you visit the area and only have time for one cellar, make it the Oremus one in Tolcsva. Candelabras light the way to a hexagonal tasting area, where a chandelier dangles and the the walls are covered in the unearthly black mold. Aside from the tasting room, the winery is also impressive because it is modern and so well designed.
I also visited Château Dereszla, owned by former Champagne producer Patrick D’Aulan. Its new four-level winery, which started processing grapes in 2015, is massive. It covers a total floor area of 7,000 square meters and is capable of producing more than one million bottles a year. But it won’t be producing any aszú wines. This facility is for dry, off-dry and sparkling wines only.
Other wineries worth a visit include Gróf Degenfeld, Holdvölgy, Patricius, and the region’s largest producer, the state-owned Grand Tokaj (formerly Tokaj Kereskedőház). It is investing HUF 17.1bn on upgrading its facilities. There is a massive new tank hall in the back, with enough shiny stainless steel and new oak barrels to store 110,000 hectoliters. In front is a new bottling plant. Back on road 37, a new tourist center and museum is being built at the head of the company’s 5.3 kilometer long cellars, dug in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Although the Grand Tokaj is a massive state-owned company, the wines taste surprisingly good. Winemaker Károly Áts, who made his name at Royal Tokaji, wants Grand Tokaj to set the standard for the region. Judging by the wines I’ve tasted over the past couple of years, he is well on his way. I particularly like the dry Furmint from the company’s top site in Mád (Kővágó), its ‘modern-style’ semi-dry Muscat, and its single-vineyard (Szarvas) 6 puttonyos aszú.
The Hungarian government is also investing in the region, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is ploughing €100m into a community winemaking project, which will see three large-capacity wineries being built around the region to provide local winemakers with access to modern equipment. The underlying aim of the Community Winemaking Infrastructure Project, which should be complete in time for the 2017 harvest, is to retard the ‘youth drain’ from the area.
In recent years there has also been an improvement in facilities for tourists, with new hotels and restaurants sprouting up. Good places to eat include the Szepsy family’s bistro-style Első Mádi Borház in Mád and the fine-dining Gusteau Kulinaris Elmenymuhely, also in Mád. Between the Oremus and Grand Tokaj wineries in Tolcsva is Os Kaján, a restaurant owned by a French couple who are reinventing traditional Hungarian dishes. The A Boros wine bar in Sárospatak is another good place to wine and dine as it has wines from the less popular northeast of the region as well as from its own winery, Naár Családi.
For a coffee break try the Tokaj Coffee Roasting Co coffee house in Tokaj. It belongs to the Erzsébet family, whose nearby cellar was built in the 1700s to provide wine for Russian royalty, including Tsarina Elizabeth. “Our passion from wine extended to a passion of great coffee,” Hajnalka Pracser told me. You can also taste their wines there.
Hajnalka and brother Miklós are part of the new generation of winemakers inspired by local legends such as István Szepsy, János Árvay and Zoltán Demeter. Other young winemakers to look out for include the brother and sister behind the wines at Dereszla, István and Edit Bai, who have their own boutique winery, Carpinus, and László Kvaszinger, who has recently taken over the Kvaszinger winery from his father. His cellar in Olaszliszka is right on the River Bodrog and in a street called Burgundia. He has an outstanding range of bargain-priced Furmints that display the variety’s apple, pear and quince flavours, refreshing acidity and subtle spiciness.
During my tour I discovered that many of the top wines came from vineyards selected as the best sites when they were first classified in the 18th century, including Disznókő, Szerelmi, Hétszőlő, Betsek, Szent Tamás, Oremus, Király, Nyulászó and Bányász. So, despite phylloxera, being on the losing side in two world wars and more than 40 years of Communist rule, some things have not changed.
I’m reflecting on all of this as I sip the 2011 Disznókő Kapi Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos. It’s a concentrated and elegant expression of botrytised Furmint from a special parcel of land (called Kapi), which is in the upper part of the south-facing slopes of Disznókő. Laszlo explains that the harvest started on August 25 that year and finished on November 30 and that this wine is only made in exceptional years (1999, 2005 and 2011). The 2005 follows and is another sublime wine. The surprise is I’m tasting these two sweet wines with my main course.
After the vertical tasting at the 28-50 Wine Workshop & Kitchen in London, I had a four-course lunch in which each course was paired with an aszú wine. The celeriac and pear soup came with a 2012 and one of my favorites of all the aszú winess, the 2007. The main course of quail, parsnips and pickled raisins was paired with the two wines from the Kapi vineyard. The cheese course came with the 2002 and 2000 6 puttonyos and the apple tarte tatin was accompanied by Eszencias from 1999 and 1997. No wonder French king Louis XIV called Tokaji the “wine of kings, the king of wines.” Long live the king in all its guises.
Note: The larger wineries with shops are open to tourists without an appointment but the rest require an appointment. I was shown around by local expert Gergely ‘Greg’ Somogyi from tokajwinetours.com.
*Puttonyos is a measuring system based on the number of baskets of aszú (dry) grapes that are mixed with the base wine, with 5 being 50:50. The system used to include 3 and 4 puttonyos but now all aszú wines have to be at least a 5.
Where to stay
Tarcal has two of the best hotels: the four-star Gróf Degenfeld Castle Hotel (in a former wine school) and the five-star Andrássy Rezidencia Wine & Spa. Mád has the Szepsy family’s Botrytis Hotel and Barta’s recently renovated suites.