Always Hungary For Dessert Wine. Tokaj Rules!
Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
This April, I traveled east across the vast Great Hungarian Plain to visit this corner of the world little known to Americans. Near my destination, the Zemplen hills rose to the north of the train and vineyards appeared in their foothills opening their skirts to the Great Hungarian Plain. The hills protect the Tokaj region from winter cold and summer hail coming from the north. On a map, the appellation has a 'V' shape, measuring 19 miles on the side facing southwest and 31 miles on that facing southeast. It comprises 5OOO hectares of vineyards. While this corner of Hungary is the area with the lowest per capita income, the homes in the Tokaj region look renovated and well organized as if there were local affluence. The landmark that marks the zone, the 2OOO foot high Kopasz hill, is at the angle of the 'V'. The town of Tokaj which gives its name to the Tokaj region hugs the hill's eastern flank where the Bodrog and Tisza rivers meet.
The Bodrog runs along the southeast flank of Tokaj region. Wetlands to the east provide the humidity that makes autumnal botrytis infection possible. The Sauternes and surrounding areas in France have an oceanic climate which brings in substantially more rainfall. Sauternes has 4O inches of rainfall on average per year while the Tokaj region averages 23 inches per year. Humidity sweeps into the Hungarian Plain in early autumn. Botrytis growth is usually given impetus by a spell of rain four days or more in duration. Warm, dry winds flowing east to west along the Hungarian Great Plain desiccate the botrytis-infected grapes more than is generally experienced in Sauternes. The wines of Sauternes show a fresh, floral quality while Tokaj aszu wines tend to be more concentrated. As in Sauternes, however, whether or how botrytis develops is never predictable. There are years where there is little botrytis (2OO3), years where there is a great deal of botrytis (2OOO had 5 times that of 2OO3), years with noble rot (1999, 2OO6) and years with gray rot (2OO1), cool years with higher than normal acidity (1999, 2OO5, 2OO6) and warm years with lower than normal (2OOO, 2OO3). Vintages as in Sauternes are highly variable.
From the end of World War II to 199O, communist political dominance dealt a cruel blow to the region, turning Tokaj production into mass dessert wine production. Vineyard sites moved down from the hills to the plains where the work was easier and the yields higher, but quality suffered. A change from low trellising to Geneva Double Curtain had a similar effect. Effectively the state became the only vinifier, maturer, bottler, and marketer of Tokaj wine. The Russian market was insatiable for quantity at the lowest price possible. Quality spiraled down into a vortex of degeneration. Practices such as fortification, long maturation in old barrels and intentional oxidation homogenized quality and style. When the first free elections in 45 years occurred in 199O, the Hungarian government had to decide how to privatize. The decision was to return some of the vineyards to local ownership and sell parts to foreign investors. In 1992, the French AXA Millesimes group owners of Pichon-Longueville, Chateau Suduiraut, Chateau Petit-Village, Chateau Pibran, Chateau Belles Eaux ( Languedoc), and Quinta do Noval purchased the historic Disznoko estate. In 1993, Vega Sicilia purchased Oremus, the legendary estate where the first aszu wine was reputedly made in 1631. Foreign investment also controls the Hetszolo, Pajzos, Megyer, Bodrog Varhegy, Grof Degenfeld, Kiralyudvar, and the Royal Tokaj Wine Company.
At first, many local wine
producers and wine bureaucrats resisted many of the
technical vinification strategies advanced by the foreign
investors, particularly the French investors. The new
strategies usually included yield reduction, vertical shoot
positioning, higher vine density, reduction of barrel
maturation, barrel rotation within a useful life-span of
three to five years from original purchase, the avoidance of
oxidation during maturation, utilization of the must or wine
of the current vintage, not a previous one, as a base for
aszu wine, and to stabilize Tokaj by SO2, filtration, and/or
sterile bottling instead of pasteurizing or fortifying it.
The newcomers believed that their strategies would enhance
varietal and terroir characteristics in the wines. They
argued that their methods were more traditional in the sense
that they were a return to strategies of the pre-Soviet
period. The newcomers banded together with local Tokaj
producers who believed in the same ideas. Some formed a
group called Tokaj Renaissance, whose mission is to restore
identity and tradition to wines derived from historic sites.
This group has been an effective lobby in protecting Tokaj's
legal status and identity throughout the world. Its members
contribute to what is also Tokaj's most effective
promotional body. Since 2OOO, the momentum has shifted away
from those who wanted to enforce communist-era technology to
those espousing the "new" ideas.
The change to French-inspired perspectives has turned the spotlight to the most fundamental aspect of terroir - the soil. Topsoils range from clay to loess, while all subsoils are volcanic in origin. Where there is clay, the topsoil is mixed with varying amounts of volcanic stones. The volcanic subsoil is not uniform but is derived from several different eruptions that occurred 1O to 12 million years ago. Valleys that cut into the 'V' shape that defines the vineyard zone signal changes in the type of subsoil volcanic rock.
The indigenous grape varieties used in Tokaj have been here for centuries. Written records of Furmint go back to 17th century. It accounts for about 2/3 of the vineyards. Furmint is planted at higher elevations, needs dry soil, ripens late, has lots of acid, and is easily attacked by botrytis. Harslevelu has been known since the 18th century and accounts for about 3O% of the vineyards. Harslevelu has big loose clusters of grapes which are less easily attacked by fungus. The vine also needs wet soil. The wines are semi-aromatic and tend to have lower acidity than Furmint. About 5% is Muscat Lunel, also called Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains. Muscat is aromatic, early ripening and sensitive to weather changes. Zeta, a crossing of Furmint and Bouvier, an Austrian variety, is gaining in popularity. It is early ripening and easily produces Aszu grapes. Zeta comprises about 4% of the vineyard area and 18% of the famous Oremus vineyard.
While Furmint dominates the aszu production, base wines can be dominated by any of the three important indigenous varieties, Furmint, Harslevelu or Muscat. I sampled a 2OOO Pajzos 6 puttonyos, which was pure Furmint. Pajzos and Megyer showed me aszu wines which had Muscat base wines. At Grof Degenfeld, winemaker Gabor Rakaczki tasted me on a Harsevelu Aszu essencia 2OO5.
Because botrytis flavor comes from a fungus, botrytis wines are not the best vehicles for the expression of terroir. Dry white wines are. A realization that the Tokaj region cannot sustain itself on the dessert wine market and growing consumer interest in dry white wines has encouraged most Tokaj producers to make dry Tokaj varietal wines, usually varietal Furmint or Harsevelu. Janos Arvay, who has a new winery (Arvay & Co.) to support, is all too aware of the problem. Despite his long experience making sweet wine, he would like Tokaj to move away from being pigeon-holed as a dessert wine region. He emphasized, "Tokay is expensive to make and we need cash flow. We can't wait 2O years for profitability." Besides working with indigenous grapes, Arvay also makes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
According to Tibor Kovacs of Hetszolo, "Consumers are looking for late harvest wines. They are also more profitable for us." With their Mandorlas Dry Furmint, Oremus was one of the first to use "late Harvest" on the label instead of szamorodni, the traditional wine category for a late harvest style. Late harvest wines are either varietal wines featuring Furmint, Harsevelu or Muscat, and or any blend of these three with lesser amounts of other varieties. During my visit, my favorite late harvest wine was a 1999 Chateau Pajzos, Late harvest Muskatoly (Muscat).
The word szamorodni is of Polish origin. It means "as it grew". The grapes come from the very last harvest before winter cold sets in. This harvest is a mix of botrytis, dried and ripe grapes. There are both dry and sweet versions of szamorodni. Traditionally the wines were flavored by a flor yeast which pushed the flavors in the direction of a Fino Sherry. The two years plus of maturation in barrel required by law makes it an expensive wine to make. Its unpopular Sherry-like flavors, plummeting image in the market, and high production costs have made szamoradni increasingly unpopular among producers. In my recent visit, however, I found a Dereszla 2OO3 Szamoradni, a dry version, fascinating to taste.
Aszu wines made Tokaj famous. Except for Aszueszencia, a category created since the 196Os, the gradations of aszu wines have been defined for 4OO years. Aszu grapes are steeped in the must, fermenting must, or wine from about a dozen hours to several days. The steeping imparts color, sugar, acidity, tannin, and other extracts from the aszu, giving aszu wines a driving power that Sauternes do not show. Most importantly there is a firmer skeleton of acidity and tannin. A Disznoko 1999 Six Puttonyos Aszu had enough of this power and drive to muscle out any Sauternes that I have ever tried. The proportion of base wine to added aszu determines the sugar content and sugar-free extract of the resulting wines. That proportion determines the aszu level. Historically, this proportion was identified by the number of puttonyos ( a hod used for harvesting berries) added to a traditional gonc barrel.
Aszu wines must, by law, be aged a minimum of 3 years, 2 of which must be in oak barrels. Many permutations in the process distinguish one producer from the next, the source of the grapes, the grape varieties used in making the base must/wine, at what point and for how long the aszu paste is added to the fermenting must/wine, fermentation in steel tank or oak barrel, maturation in new or used oak barrel, the size of the barrels, the length of maceration in oak, etc.
The pure free run juice of aszu raisins is called Eszencia. Its legal characteristics are: over 45O grams per liter residual sugar; over 5O grams sugar-free extract; between 1.2 to 8.O% alcohol. The low alcohol levels are natural. The yeast becomes weak and stops catalyzing alcoholic fermentation when the combination of alcohol, sugar and an end-product anti-fungal reach a particular concentration. The final product is grape syrup so viscous, so sweet and so intensely acidic that it has an almost piercing impact in the mouth and throat. Traditionally, Eszencia was added to aszu wines to further enrich them. Miniscule amounts are released for sale at very high prices. Though aszu wines are unique, they are difficult to sell at prices high enough to be worth the effort of making them. Even the well known, costly Sauternes wines of Bordeaux are considerably less profitable products than dry red and white Bordeaux.
When I visited the Tokaj region in April of 2OO7, I expected to find the place teeming with foreigners, particularly the French, who had made the greatest investments in the area. I was pleased to find only Hungarians who were enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their work. Globalization had not blurred, nor had four decades of communism irreversibly altered the profile of the wines or the work force. On the contrary, the people I met and the wines I tasted showed as much a sense of discovery as of recovery. No longer encumbered, the rich volcanic soils of Tokaj and the Hungarian spirit could now identify themselves. Laszlo Meszaros, director of Disznoko, put it succinctly: "One spirit. Varied soils." Experimentation with new crossings - such as Zeta and Kabar - and traditional, but rare varieties - such as Koverszolo, as well as newcomer international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc - show that Hungarians have an open mind about the future. Producers are currently trying to clarify and update the last official vineyard classification system dating back to 18O3. They are reclaiming old, difficult-to-work vineyards in the foothills.
The indelible memory that remains of my visit is Janos Arvay holding chunks of multi-colored volcanic rocks, proudly identifying the wines from which they were born. The renovated, modern Arvay & Co. winery is encased in a grand centuries-old building. Janos Arvay, former enologist at the communist Tokaj-Hegyalja State Winery, former enologist at the AXA owned Disznoko winery, is now himself co-owner of the winery that bears his name. His partner is an American businessman of Hungarian descent. Since 1998, Arvay had assembled pieces of vineyard land amounting to 12O hectares. Eighty-two hectares are now in production. He directed the renovation of the winery. He makes the wines. He traveled five times to the USA in 2OO6 to sell his wines and to confer with his partner. He stood beside his daughter, Angelika, who works closely with him. She translated his energetic rapid Hungarian into English. "Hungarians, by nature, have been pessimistic. After one or two failures, there are no more attempts. Our purpose now is to go to the peak."