Glory days

The once glorious wines of Tokaj were all but destroyed by the communists, says Caroline Gilby MW. Nearly 30 years later, a new direction has emerged.

Szarvas vineyard, Grand Tokaj
Szarvas vineyard, Grand Tokaj

Tokaj — Tokaj is the place, Tokaji the wine — was the first region to classify vineyards, in the 1720s, and the first controlled appellation too. In 1737, a royal decree defined which villages were allowed to use the Tokaji wine name. The Aszú wines — sweet ones made from shrivelled and botrytis-affected berries — were first mentioned in 1571 and for centuries, Tokaji was enjoyed in royal courts across Europe, as it offered sweetness before crystal sugar became available. 

Communism brought this to a halt. “Damage during communism was huge, especially in the minds of people,” says István Szepsy of Szepsy Winery. Yield became the prime focus and wines were often deliberately oxidised, sweetened, fortified and pasteurised. Sadly, many still associate Tokaji with those thick brown liquids, not the golden luscious pre-war wines that made the region famous. 

Today, Tokaj is reinventing itself, with a combination of historic styles, modern methods and new styles.

The new Tokaj

Tokaj covers 5,747 ha. It’s a poor region, with little alternative employment, so wine plays a major social role. The Tokaj Council is establishing three contract winemaking sites for small growers, giving an alternative option to selling grapes at barely more than production cost. Tourism is also important in providing local jobs. The region’s dramatic volcanic landscape gained UNESCO status in 2002 and now has good road access plus a number of hotels, restaurants and guest houses. There are also several wine festivals and an annual Tokaj wine auction in April, now in its sixth year.

It’s the culmination of the work that began in the early 1990s, helped by the arrival of foreign investors, including AXA, Vega Sicilia, Hugh Johnson and others, and the sometimes controversial return to a non-oxidative style of Aszú wine. 

The combination of foggy mornings, which allow noble rot to take hold, and breezy sunny afternoons that shrivel the grapes mean that the grapes are too dry to simply squeeze for juice. Instead the Aszú berries are picked individually — a good worker can pick around 10kg per day — mashed into paste and soaked in fermenting juice for one to two days. The traditional Puttonyos measure counted the numbers of buckets [Puttonyos] of Aszú added to a traditional [gönci] barrel of must, though today, the classification is based on residual sugar. In 2013, Tokaj regulations changed significantly, removing the 3 and 4 Puttonyos categories. The minimum is now equivalent to 5 Puttonyos with 120g/l residual sugar. Bottling in the region became mandatory and additional sweetening was banned. 

History helps to build a wine region’s credibility, but what Tokaji can offer today is what matters to consumers. However good Aszú wines are — few would deny that they are among the best sweet wines in the world, though expensive because of the unique winemaking — they are treats for special occasions. Winemaker Zoltan Demeter says: “The most important wine in the Tokaj wine region is Aszú. Tokaji Aszú is also Hungary’s strongest marketing tool, even if it is difficult to sell.” 

For many producers, however, future prosperity will lie in dry expressions of the Furmint, one of the main grapes of the region.

A dry future

Dry wine has always existed in Tokaj — “ordinarium” was made where noble rot didn’t happen, according to Péter Molnár, chairman of Tokaj Hill Wine Growing Communities Council and general manager of Patricius Winery. The first notable switch to serious dry wine from selected vineyards and using barrels was pioneered by István Szepsy in 2000. The warm, dry vintage of 2003 brought wider change, along with a switch in mindset about viticulture — good dry wines need healthy grapes, not rotten ones, even if they are the noble sort. 

Higher sites above the fog zone, more open canopies and using appropriate vine treatments became important. Next, winemakers had to learn new approaches. Some early examples pursued high ripeness with generous oak and full malolactic, which is now reined back. Viticultural developments include lower-yielding clones selected from pre-communist vines, while Patricius has rescued several ancient Tokaj varieties. 

“There is an obvious increase of quality in general, although the region hasn’t yet eliminated cheap mass production of some very basic dry and semi-sweet wines,” says László Mészáros of Disznókő. “I see a quest for finesse and elegance; there are fewer wines with heavy oaky notes and high alcohol. The expression of terroir is also more and more important.” This is being increasingly expressed through single-site Dűlő wines.

“Tokaj is a small wine region and its greatest strength is the terroir. The only variety that can present it authentically is Furmint and if anyone has doubts, they have not tasted enough,” says István Szepsy Jnr of Szent Tamas Winery. “Sweet wine still takes prime position, but the quantity of dry wine increased by 4m bottles in the last five years.” This is based on data from wine bottle suppliers as nearly all dry Tokaji is now sold in the region’s unique embossed bottle. 

Charlie Mount, general manager of the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, agrees. “Dry wine is certainly the category where we see the greatest potential for growth in volumes,” he says. “It is a simple fact that the market for dry wine is many times larger than that for sweet wine. We believe that Furmint, combined with the volcanic soils of the region, has the potential for greatness. Sales of our estate wine are growing rapidly in mature wine markets and we are working on some extreme expressions to add to our existing single vineyard wines. The world may not be ready for a £100 Furmint but we might be soon.” 

Not everyone agrees about the focus on Furmint alone, though. Winemaker Zoltán Demeter says: “I would definitely not communicate dry wine as Furmint, rather as Tokaji.” He sees developing the region’s style as flexible and believes that a combination of 80 percent to 85 percent of Furmint with Hárslevelű making up the rest of the blend “is the winning pair with a touch of barrel and residual sugar” of four to five grams per litre. “I have tried everything in order to make dry wine elegant, smooth and well ageing.” 

Mészáros adds: “Furmint is still considered the most important variety for serious terroir-based dry wines but Hárslevelű is gaining popularity.” Given that the region is nearly 70 percent planted to Furmint and it offers quality, versatility, expresses terroir and is easy to pronounce, it’s likely that Furmint will remain a key focus. 

Other styles

In 2016, legislation changed to reduce obligatory oak ageing of Szamorodni to six months. One result is that this traditional category has gained more attention. It’s a Polish word meaning “as it comes” for wine made from whole bunches with varying amounts of noble rot (historically this was Főbor or Prime Wine). László Szilágyi, owner of Gizella winery, says: “I changed late harvest to Szamorodni since the legislation changed so I can keep more freshness.” 

One benefit is that he is allowed to use the traditional 0.5L Tokaji bottle, “so now my whole portfolio is presented in Tokaji bottles. That is a very powerful message in my opinion.” Mészáros agrees. “Édes [sweet] Szamorodni is becoming a more valuable and popular category, especially after the elimination of 3 and 4 Puttonyos Aszús. Some years ago producers focused on late harvest, today Édes Szamorodni offers a more serious and perhaps authentic alternative.” 

Mount, on the other hand, disagrees: “We are now producing Szamorodni but will adhere to the old ageing rules and will only ever produce very limited amounts for a very niche market. Late harvest as a category is far more broadly understood by consumers. Although perhaps considered less serious within the region, I believe that late harvest is our true alternative to Sauternes.” 

Sparkling wines are another recent development; from 2017, they must be bottle fermented. Zoltán Demeter was a pioneer and lobbied successfully for removal of a €100,000 ($116,635) customs bond, allowing many more producers to make sparkling wine. The market leader is Sauska, which made its first sparkling releases in 2011. Andi Sauska notes: “We are getting more and more into sparkling wine. We have never seen ourselves as a classic Tokaj winery. In the first blends, Chardonnay was more dominant as we had no knowledge of Furmint’s potential. Since then we learned to trust Furmint and all Sauska sparkling on the market has a strong Furmint backbone.” 

Molnár adds: “At Patricius, sparkling is a nice niche, a strong market trend in Hungary, but we don’t want to live by it.” 

Into the future

Based on harvest averages (Tokaj Council data) for the past five years, wine production is currently around 10 percent Aszú, 21 percent dry wines and the rest is semi-dry to semi-sweet, of which a significant amount is cheap wine destined for Hungary, Poland and Russia. Total production is around 30m bottles. For Mount at Royal Tokaji, markets divide broadly into mature (US, UK and Scandinavia) and less developed (Asia) wine markets. “The former are more willing to explore different varietals such as Furmint. For the latter our Aszú wine is a more attractive offer.” 

A spokesman for Lidl UK’s wine team said: “Furmint is still a relatively rare grape and not often seen on sale. Tokaji is an interesting talking point and Millennials especially want something not everyone else is drinking.” 

In summary, Tokaji has a lot going for it. It’s produced in a stunning landscape of extinct volcanoes, underscored by a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars. It has great grape in Furmint, which can produce world-class wines ranging from bone-dry to sweet and even sparkling, with Hárslevelű playing an able supporting role. There are still problems of impoverished growers and large volumes of poor-quality wine being sold at rock-bottom prices in Hungary, Poland and Russia, undermining the region’s quality ambitions. But overall, the picture is of a region heading back to take its place at the top table of wine regions.

Wine categories

Tokaji PDO — basic wine category, must be bottled in region since 2014. Also more specific categories of estate and village wines

Tokaji Dűlő — single-vineyard wines, from designated sites. Lower yields of 4 tonnes/ha
Late harvest (sometimes called cuvée) — usually relatively low proportion of Aszú berries and short, if any, oak ageing. Typically 90 to 110g/l, but can be much higher

Főbor — historic term for main or prime wine, used by a few producers

Szamorodni — made from whole bunches with varying proportion of Aszú berries. Since 2016, minimum oak ageing now six months, minimum sugar for sweet version is 45g/l. Also a rare dry flor-aged version

Fordítás — made from a second use of Aszú berries, usually more rustic and cheaper. 

Aszú — made from shrivelled and noble-rot affected berries, soaked in fermenting must or wine. At least 18 months oak ageing since 2013. Minimum sugar level is 120g/l. Option of labelling as 5 Puttonyos or 6 Puttonyos (minimum 150g/l)

Eszencia — syrupy free-run juice that trickles from Aszú berries. Usually over 450g/l of residual sugar so minimal fermentation in glass. Sometimes bottled and served by the spoonful.

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