Hungary's 21st-Century Tokajis

In the not too distant future, a tasting tour of the most important villages and hillside sites of the Tokaj region in northeastern Hungary is likely to be a voyage of terroir discovery in much the same way that cellar visits along Burgundy's Route des Grands Crus are today.  I don't know if that will be 20 or 50 years from now, but in either case it will qualify as a minor miracle, as the production of high-quality dry wines in Tokaj--especially those from favored named vineyards--is barely 15 years old.

I had the chance to visit a number of the top producers in the Tokaj region in May of 2013 after serving as a judge at the Pannon Wine Challenge at the thousand-year-old Benedictine abbey in Pannonhalma, west of Budapest.  I followed up by tasting another hundred or so samples shipped to me in New York late this winter (including some from producers who are not yet represented in the U.S. market), as well as many more samples of current releases sent by their American importers in recent weeks.  (I have taken advantage of both sets of notes in writing this article.)  Although the region's sweet wines are as good as ever--and cleaner than ever before, I was particularly intrigued by the best dry wines of Tokaj.  They are well worth seeking out.

A quick history of the region.  Tokaj-Hegyalja ("hegyalja" means foothills in Hungarian) is one of the oldest and most famous wine regions in the world (it actually extends into the largely Hungarian-inhabited section of southeastern Slovakia), It is also the source of the world's first great botrytis wines:  its sweet aszú wines were already famous in the 1600s, and in 1737 Tokaj was the second wine region in Europe (after Chianti) to have its best vineyard sites classified, with an unpublished version completed even earlier than that.  The region suffered dramatically from phylloxera during the last 15 years of the 19th century and virtually all its vineyards had to be replanted.  The Treaty of Trianon following World War I was another serious blow to Tokaj as Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and access to much of its domestic market.

Tokaj then suffered a dismal decline under four decades of Communist rule, when quality was subservient to mechanical farming and mass production.  The best steep hillside sites could not be worked with tractors and so were largely abandoned.  Most wines during that period were standardized blends from multiple vineyards; there was little interest in investigating differences between sites.
The fall of Communism resulted in the privatization of state-owned vineyards and attracted a wave of foreign investors who believed that this legendary area's potential was still largely untapped.  The Royal Tokaji Wine Company was the region's first private company, founded in 1990 by the English wine writer Hugh Johnson with Danish investors and a number of local Hungarian producer partners.  Then in 1992, AXA Millésime, the wine arm of the huge French insurance company, purchased and invested heavily in the historic Disznókő estate. Other early investors included American businessman Anthony Hwang (Királyudvar) and Spain's Vega Sicilia winery (Oremus); Michel Reybier, who owns Chateau Cos d'Estournel, purchased Hétszőlő in 2009 from a previous foreign investor.

It did not take long for these new investors to realize that they could only survive by crafting distinctive wines of quality from the region's volcanic terroirs, rather than the bulk wine that had been produced during previous decades.  They began making the renowned aszú wines from sharply lower crop yields and under much cleaner cellar conditions, using higher-quality oak barrels.  Two great vintages of the 1990s--'93 and '99--gave this category a needed shot in the arm.

But by the turn of the new century, it was becoming clear to many well-traveled producers in Hungary that they couldn't prosper on extremely sweet, heavily botrytized aszú wines alone.  After all, there were just two or three very good aszú vintages a decade and these wines are not released until at least four years after the harvest.  Plus, sweet wines from nearly everywhere in the world were being relegated to special-occasion status as they were increasingly out of step with the way people eat in the 21st century.

Prior to 2000, dry wines in the region were practically an afterthought.  "They were originally made from the berries that were left after we picked for sweet wines," noted István Szepsy, whose family has been involved in making sweet wines in the Tokaj region since the late 16th century.  That fruit might have included underripe, overripe or botrytized grapes, which could produce wines topheavy with alcohol as well as those that oxidized quickly.  It's no coincidence that most growers prior to the year 2000 saw no great potential in dry wines.  But that view has changed radically in just the past 15 years, thanks to better farming and winemaking, the practice of picking specifically--and earlier--to make dry wines, and the realization that many single vineyards in the Tokaj region are ideal for producing dry wines.

I would go even farther than that.  Certain top sites show highly distinctive terroir character, and no doubt in the future there will be more sites that prove their mettle for making soil- and mineral-driven dry wines.  (There are actually more than 400 named sites and consequently thousands of micro-terroirs in Tokaj-Hegyalja.)  The best of these wines, aged mostly in oak barrels and without the presence of botrytized berries, are already as distinctive and terroir-driven as wines from some of Burgundy's best crus and are clearly built for aging.  With alcohol levels typically between 13% and 14.5%, they are every bit as dense and rich.  There is also a commercially important category of fresher, lighter white wines made entirely in stainless steel and intended for early drinking, and some of these wines offer terrific value.
On the subject of the top sites--that is, those at the quality level of grand or premier crus--the recent proliferation of dry white wines from fruit picked much earlier than grapes used for sweet wine has introduced a totally new variable.  There has probably been closer attention paid to the soils and distinct terroir character of the region's better vineyards in the past ten years than there was in the previous hundred, even though some of the best south-facing sites have been famous literally for centuries. I thought IWC readers would be interested in seeing brief comments on this subject by Richard Nemes, director of Terra Hungarica, an initiative promoting authentic wines, and the former head of Wines of Hungary.  I asked him for his opinion on the top sites in the region.

"Honestly, it's hard to say.  Can we follow old books? I don't think so.  Many things have changed since then:  technology, climate, culture, taste, etc. Can we judge based on 15 years of experience? The first remarkable dry furmint came from the Úrágya in vintage 2000 (Szepsy worked at Királyudvar at that time); then after a while other interesting single-vineyard wines began to be made from Kakas, Betsek and Lapis.  Now some people are going mad about sites in Mád (like Szent Tamás, Nyúlászó and Percze), but just lately they started discovering new, supposedly brilliant areas in the vicinity of Tállya, a village that has been almost ignored in the last two decades. So it is really early to say, but I hope to find out more before I pass away!  If we look at this as a question of potential, I share the opinion of many that Lapis is excellent for late-harvest and sweet wines (with perfect exposure to fog and therefore to botrytis).  As for dry wines, now I think that, among others, Percze, Betsek, Szent Tamás, Nyúlászó, Csontos and Kakas can be fantastic.

"As far as making a distinction between aszú and dry wines in selecting the top sites, it's only about exposure to moisture and botrytis.  When it comes to aszús, I have only tasted a few examples where the distinctive terroir really shines through the great sweetness, such as Kapi from Disznókő and Lapis from Királyudvar.  It's clear to me that for aszú wines to demonstrate site specificity, the aszú berries and the base wine should come from the same vineyard."

Geography and geology.  The Tokaj region, volcanic in origin and roughly the size of Burgundy's Cote d'Or, consists of 28 named villages and more than 11,000 hectares of classified vineyards, of which about half are currently planted.  Soils are mostly clay or loess over volcanic subsoil.  The region is essentially a plateau dotted by low hills (the remnants of volcanic activity during the Miocene era) on the northern edge of the great Hungarian plain, protected by the Carpathian Mountains to the north and east.  The climate is typically cool and dry during spring and hot in summer, with early autumn rainy spells typically followed by extended Indian summers that allow for a very long ripening period.  Proximity to the mist and humidity provided by the Tisza and Bodrog rivers is conducive to the proliferation of botrytis cinerea (noble rot).

Higher hillside sites typically feature mineral-rich volcanic clay soil while lower-altitude vineyards have more loess and sedimentary soil over bedrock.  Sandier soils are more common closer to the banks of the Bodrog, which flows along the eastern boundary of the Tokaj region.  And the Tokaj hill, the youngest volcano in the region, located on its southern border, is covered by a thick layer of white loess.

The Tokaj area benefits from hundreds of deep, damp cellars cut into the rock, many of them dating back to the 15th century and literally extending for kilometers.  Very high humidity minimizes loss of alcohol during extended barrel aging, and the cellar walls are coated with a thick layer of black fuzz (cladosporium mold) that serves roughly the same beneficial purpose as flor does in Spain's sherry production.  I recall buying rare aszú wines in the 1980s that proudly came with the black mold coating the bottles.

Grape types and wine categories in Tokaj.  Only white wines are made in Tokaj and only six grape varieties can be used:  furmint, which accounts for about 60% of total vineyard acreage in the region (it's typically high in acidity and prone to noble rot), hárslevelû (a lower-acid variety that accounts for nearly 30% of vineyard acreage), sárga muscotály (yellow muscat; 5%), and the rest zéta, kövérszõlõ and kabar.  The thick-skinned furmint, with its density of texture, aromas and flavors of pear, lime, smoke, linden flower, and pronounced saline minerality, is the undisputed king of grapes in Tokaj, while the softer hárslevelû, characterized by notes of lime leaf, spices and flowers and also capable of producing full-bodied wines, is the queen.

Dry wines are typically labeled száraz (or dry or sec); édes means sweet.  Aszú wines, made with individually picked and selected botrytized berries, are typically categorized by puttonyos level.  Historically, producers would put their aszú berries into a puttony, a wooden trough that held about 20 to 25 kilograms, crush them to a paste, and then add a certain number of puttonyos' worth to a base wine (either a new wine or fermenting must) waiting in a gönci, the region's traditional 136-liter wooden cask, and left to macerate.  The number of puttonyos--historically 3 to 6--gives an idea of the resulting wine's level of sweetness and intensity.  At the top of the aszú hierarchy is Tokaji essencia (eszencia in Hungarian), or nectar, made entirely from the free-run juice from botrytized berries.  These extremely sweet and unctuous wines, which were long thought to have health benefits and are capable of aging for many decades, can have anywhere from 400 to an astounding 800 grams per liter of residual sugar (i.e., 40% to 80% sugar) and finish their long fermentations at very low alcohol levels.  They are made in tiny quantities and are extremely expensive.  Wines labeled Tokaji Aszú-Eszencia must have at least 180 g/l r.s. and 45 g/l dry extract.

But the puttony has not been used for decades.  Today the puttonyos level is essentially defined by grams per liter of sugar and extract.  And, as Zoltán Demeter, who previously made wine for Gróf Degenfeld and Királyudvar before starting his own venture, points out, those factors don't necessarily have much to do with the quality of the final wine.  There are variables having to do with selection and vintage; with the varieties used in the aszú and in the base wine in which the aszú berries macerate; with whether that base is unfermented, half-fermented or completely fermented wine; and with how hard the mixture is pressed and how long and in what vessel the wine rests, among other factors.  It's not simply a matter of the sweeter the better, as these wines are first and foremost about balance.  Too much sugar without enough acidity can result in a cloying wine, which defeats the purpose of aszú bottlings, which tend to be fresher and easier to drink than Sauternes due to their significantly lower alcohol levels--typically 10% to 11%--and less-obvious new oak influence.

Incidentally, earlier this year the Hungarian Tokaji Council abolished 3- and 4-puttonyos wines, the lowest levels of aszú bottlings, in an attempt to raise the quality of Tokaj.  So from now on there will only be 5- and 6-puttonyos bottlings, with the new minimum being 130 grams per liter of residual sugar.  But this step also has a downside, as many consumers enjoyed the less-expensive and lighter-styled 3- and 4-puttonyos bottlings, which can be easier to drink.

Szamorodni wines (a term of Polish origin meaning "as it comes" or "the way it was grown") are made from a blend of healthy and botrytized berries harvested and vinified together.  These wines can be dry or sweet, depending on the percentage of botrytized berries in the mix and on vinification decisions.  The dry versions are often nutty and full-bodied, with strong acidity and sherry-like notes.  The sweet ones, normally bottled with between 50 and 100 g/l r.s., are rarely as sweet, viscous or complex as aszú wines but they can be easier to drink and more food-friendly.  For many years these wines had fallen out of favor as they were typically made from whatever fruit was left after the best bunches had been pulled to make aszú wines, but today a new generation of growers is focusing on this category.

There are also many other late-harvest wines made in Tokaj today.  These can range from off-dry to very rich and concentrated, and often are made at least partly from shriveled grapes (but not from noble rot).  They can be from a single variety or a blend.  Unlike aszú wines, they get less barrel aging so as to preserve their fresh fruit character.  As with szamorodnis, these late-harvest wines are made from pressed rather than crushed grapes.  The more extractive vinification used to make aszú wines, as well as longer aging, help to give these latter wines their greater density of texture and complexity.

Incidentally, Tokaj became a protected name in 2007, at which point the EU also required producers in Alsace to label wines previously called tokay-pinot gris simply as pinot gris.  Friuli also had to drop the name tocai friulano.

A brief word on recent vintages.  Tokaj has actually been short on noble rot in recent years--until 2013, that is, when botrytis returned in all its glory.  But the best of these wines won't be on the market for at least a few years.  István Szepsy, one of Tokaj's top winemakers, noted that 2005 through 2008 were good years for aszú wines but not 2009 through 2012, although it should be noted that these are generalizations. 

Vintage 2012 witnessed a very hot, dry summer in which alcohol levels in the grapes reached very high levels, so there are many topheavy or blurry dry wines from this growing season, as well as some made from grapes that were picked short of phenolic ripeness owing to skyrocketing potential alcohol levels.  Vintage 2011, on the other hand, was an excellent vintage for dry wines, yielding many beautifully balanced, clean, aromatically complex and dense wines with good structure and elegance. Thanks in part to the quick learning curve of white-winemaking, 2011 is one of the finest vintages to date for distinctive single-vineyard bottlings, and many of these wines are in the marketplace now. 

Two thousand ten was a consistently rainy year that yielded a tiny crop and is generally a vintage to be avoided; some producers consider it the worst vintage since 1974.  However, a few managed to make wines with racy acidity and saline minerality, but it was a challenge to eliminate the grapes affected by grey rot, noble rot's evil twin.

Two thousand nine generally yielded very ripe, high-extract wines that will require time to shed some of their baby fat and harmonize in bottle.  August and September were extremely dry, and rain did not arrive until October, at which point there was a fairly narrow window for harvesting before a damaging frost at the end of October.  The cooler 2008 vintage yielded round, fully ripe wines with very good balancing acidity and soil character.  It's generally a more consistent vintage for dry wines than it is for aszú bottlings, with alcohol levels higher than average but supported by the powerful structure of the wines.  But cooler weather and some rainfall in late September and October allowed some estates to harvest high-quality aszú berries and make very aromatic wines.  Producers are quite split on the merits of this vintage.

The extremely hot summer of 2007 led to a harvest nearly a month earlier than usual and produced a huge crop. With a high percentage of the grapes coming in in a rush, some growers had trouble with the harvest and the vinifications.  Acidity levels were generally lower than average, but some very intense aszú wines were made, since by the time the botrytis arrived, the grapes were very ripe.  But as in 2009, there was at least as much passerillage as noble rot.

Two thousand six produced grapes with high sugars and high acidity, as a dry, cool summer permitted slow, steady ripening of the grapes, and Indian summer conditions in early November extended overripening of the grapes that still remained on the vines following a damaging frost at the end of October.

A fairly wet and cold growing season in 2005 was saved by Indian summer conditions in September and October, which helped the fruit ripen, and foggy conditions stimulated the spread of botrytis.  But the window for picking grapes for sweet-wine production was shortened by the arrival of snow and ice in November.

A cool, rainy summer followed by a wet, cold autumn in 2004 prevented most fruit from ripening properly.  The grapes swelled and grey rot was widespread.

Finally, 2003 combined the high ripeness levels of 2000 with brisk acidity, and is widely considered to be an outstanding year.  The summer was hot and ripening was even.  Botrytis arrived late and was spread by rainy spells in October.

Previous excellent vintages include 2000, 1999 and 1993, the latter two among the greatest years for aszú wines in decades.