Tokaj Tasting Notes – Kikelet


The history of Tokaj wine has been influenced quite significantly by non-Hungarian people over time. Not just commercially, with Tokaj being a celebrated and hugely exported wine, particularly to Poland, Russia and elsewhere, from quite early on, but also in terms of viticulture and winemaking. Major contributions were made by French / Walloon and Italian immigrants in centuries past. The post-communist era has also seen very significant foreign investment and influx of foreign, well-educated winemakers and consultants. France has been a notable leader in that respect, and of the nine producers that I visited on my scouting trip in April 2019, two were French, both having started with some of the large foreign investments in the area. The first one, Samuel Tinon, I wrote about in a previous post, and the second one, Stéphanie Berecz, is the object of this post.

Stéphanie arrived in the Tokaj area in 1994. She is from the Loire area of France, so no stranger to botrytised wine. Stéphanie started work at one of the major international investments in the area, during which she met her husband, Zsolt Berecz, who was a viticulturist at one of the major foreign undertakings. Together, they founded Kikelet in 2002. Stéphanie now devotes 100% of her time to Kikelet, while Zsolt still does viticultural consulting to a number of producers.

Kikelet currently owns some 4.5 hectares of vineyard, mostly in Tarcal, on the way from Tokaj Hill towards Mád. Soils are mostly loess, with sporadic volcanic intrusions. Vineyard names include Lónyai and Váti, which have now been well-established by Kikelet as excellent sources of quality wine.

Winemaking and ageing takes place in the couple’s refurbished 250-year-old house in Tarcal. This comes complete with lovely underground cellars excavated from the hill, which seem to have multiplied by way of budding over the centuries. As a result, the cellars are labyrinthine, and it is cumbersome to produce the wine there, but this is quite clearly not an obstacle to quality. The house also features a large, cosy tasting room and roof terrace with views over the surrounding countryside, including some of the estate vineyards, and room for major tastings and dinners.

Winemaking is deliberately simple, using indigenous yeasts and few, if any, enological tricks. Most wines undergo oak barrel ageing, but being French, Stéphanie is expert at it, and I detected no heavy-handed oak usage across the range. Alcohol tends to be restrained, but not by way of leaving residual sweetness in the dry wines, as these came across as quite dry.

Viticulture and winemaking are hard physical work, and when I arrived at the house, both Stéphanie and Zsolt were coming off hard and lengthy stints. Despite exhaustion, Stéphanie graciously showed me around the facilities, and we then repaired to the roof terrace to sample the wines.

It is, of course, a cliché that dogs resemble their owners (or vice versa), and I hesitate to apply that cliché to wine, but, nonetheless, at least in this case, there was a strong resemblance between Stéphanie and her wines. Stéphanie is very much the Frenchwoman, elegant, refined, gracious, but clearly with a strong backbone and a sense of place, of provenance; those exact same descriptors can be used for Kikelet’s wines.

This rooftop terrace tasting was a true joy, and left an impression of a deeply terroir-conscious, very high-quality producer. According to Stéphanie, work is still ongoing to properly define the character of the grape varieties and their interaction with the terroir and the seasons, but if you ask me, Kikelet has already arrived, with a portfolio of very accomplished wines that I do not hesitate to call world class.

 

My tasting notes follow. As usual, no colour notes, and no points scoring. They wouldn’t tell you anything relevant anyway. There is not much data on the wines. Like the other Frenchman, Samuel Tinon, Stéphanie tends to value the truth in the glass more than what the laboratory tells her. I can’t fault that. The wines are listed in the order in which we tasted them, as decided by Stéphanie. The order might seem paradoxical, but Stéphanie had a clear thought behind this, which was to show the different characters of the vintages while trying to tell me something about the underlying terroir variations. This was highly instructive.

 

Tasting notes:

Tokaji Furmint Birtok (estate) 2017

Alcohol 12%.

Rounded, somewhat neutral nose, with a bit of oak spice (not in any way overdone), lightly floral. Vinous acidity, dry, juicy, almost salty minerality. Good length. Very young still.

Tokaji Hárslevelü Lónyai 2017

Alcohol 12,5%.

Delicious, appley nose, lightly perfumed with flowers and citrus, tiny hint of hydrocarbon minerality. Juicy, minerally, fresh, broadens towards the end. Long, repeating the aromas from the nose.

Tokaji Hárslevelü Váti 2017

Alcohol 12%.

Barely ripe peach and rounded minerality on the nose. Quite powerful, rounded and dry, with vinous acidity. Excellent length, slightly reductive, with aromas of peach, sweet herbs and strong minerality.

Tokaji Dry Váti 2017

From the Váti vineyard. 80% Furmint, 20% Hárslevelü. Alcohol 12.5%.

Somewhat neutral nose, with minerality, hints of dry apple and dry spice. Very juicy / fresh / tight, slender, minerally. Very long, with scintillating minerality, fading away with shimmers of fresh citrus. Absolutely delicious.

Tokaji Furmint Birtok (estate) 2018

No data given, except that it had been very recently bottled.

Nose tending towards sweet peach, with florality and a yeasty-clayey character, minerality in the background. Fruity, juicy, dry, OK acidity, tending more towards fruity than tight. OK length, repeating the nose.

Tokaji Furmint Lónyai 2018

No data given, but presumably also very recently bottled.

Dry appley, slightly vegetal nose, quite intense, with hints of clay / yeast and minerals. Quite broad, much extract, very light residual sweetness. Long, rather intense and complex, with dry herbal hints.

Tokaji Hárslevelü Lónyai 2018

No data given, but presumably very recently bottled.

Peach, flowers, citrus, bright minerality; charming. Fresh, slender, juicy and elegant, very minerally. Long aftertaste fades away slowly, with aromas as per the nose. Delicious, elegant and charming wine.

Kikelet Pezsgö 2015

Hárslevelü 60-70%, the rest Furmint. Sparkling wine.

Nose of dry, slightly waxy apple, then hits you with great freshness and a hint of herbs. Dry, light, with mouthwatering, salty minerality. Good length, with flowers and minerality. Stylish, of the terroir.

Tokaji Late Harvest 2011

Hárslevelü 55%, Furmint 25%, Zeta 17%, Sárgamuskotály 3%. 5-6 months in oak barrels.

Big hit of fresh botrytis on the nose, with citrus, peach and mountain brook minerality. Quite dry, much extract, excellent acidity. Long, repeating the nose, with added powerful dry spiciness.

Tokaji Late Harvest 2017

Presumably same grape varieties and procedure as the 2011. Bottle had been open for quite a while.

Quite closed nose with hints of peach, light spiciness, light botrytis. Wonderfully fresh and creamy, with a hint of dryness. Length difficult to determine when the wine is closed down like this, but has dry spiciness.

Tokaji Szamorodni 2012

Same grape varieties as the Late Harvest, percentages not given. 2 years in oak barrels.

Delicious nose with peach, apricot, ripe citrus, fresh botrytis and minerality. Fresh, quite juicy, creamy, sweetness balanced by excellent acidity. Very long, repeats the nose + powerful hit of minerality.

Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2013

Little data given. Spent 2½ years in oak barrels. 151 grammes of residual sugar per litre.

Caramelly, creamy nose with dried apricots, botrytis and mild minerality. The mouth is fresh, including in terms of the fruitiness and sweetness, with excellent acidity to balance high sweetness. Great length, with slightly drying spice, repeating aromas from the nose + orange peel. Very well-balanced wine.

 

This was a highly involving and highly convincing tasting, showing the differences between the cooler, more slender 2017 vintage vs. the warmer, broader 2018 vintage, as well as the tighter, more volcanic Váti vineyard vs. the broader, rounder, more loess-y Lónyai vineyard.

Very impressive wines. Highly recommended.

 

Declaration of Interest: Apart from writing about wine, I am also a wine merchant. I do not at the point of writing import or sell wines from Kikelet.

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Tokaj Tasting Notes – Tokaj Nobilis


My research on producers of Tokaj wines prior to my trip to the area in April of 2019 turned up quite a good number of candidates to visit. In narrowing down the number, necessary because of time constraints, I relied much on the advice of leading Hungarian wine writer – and friend – Daniel Ercsey. Among the producers Daniel advised to visit was Tokaj Nobilis, and this was further reinforced by that name cropping up in several other lists. So, a visit was called for.

Tokaj Nobilis is at home in Bodrogkeresztur, sort of just around the corner of the hill from Tokaj town itself. Winemaking and -ageing takes place partly in spanking new facilities and partly in ancient cellars dug into the hillside. The family runs a B&B on the property, and have a stylish new winetasting facility across the road from it.

Tokaj Nobilis is a family business, owned and operated by Sarolta Bárdos and husband Péter Molnar. They are both well-known characters within the recent history of Tokaj wine, Sarolta having worked for large producers Degenfeld and Béres, and Péter being the managing director of large producer Patricius.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this makes Tokaj Nobilis a hobby project on the side for the busy couple, but this is a very serious, high-quality undertaking in its own right. Production is around 20,000 bottles / year in a good year, from 7 hectares of organically farmed property. There are several of the big-name vineyards in the portfolio.

Winemaking is simple, clean, quite modern, using stainless steel vats for fermentation, selected yeasts and preferably used oak barrels where oak ageing is employed. The aim is to produce clean, elegant, vertical wines that reflect their terroir as much as possible.

I have discussed elsewhere the merits of using neutral selected yeasts to bring out a consistent vineyard character over time. I think that this is a valid approach, and it is being used to good effect here.

I sometimes come across opinion pieces by wine writers about the relative merits of producers that make “nose” wines vs. “mouth” wines, the notion being that in making wine one must choose whether to go for the wine’s potential aromatic qualities or for the potential mouthfeel and structure. I don’t necessarily agree that this is such a clear-cut choice, but in the case of Tokaj Nobilis one could actually talk about a producer whose wines have it more in the mouth than on the nose. I am not implying that the wines do not have aromatic qualities, because they certainly do, as you will see from my tasting notes, but they really shine in the mouth.

The wines come across as very stylish, lithe, elegant, much like Sarolta herself, in fact, with racy acidity and a lean, minerally intensity that prolongs the aftertaste significantly. The balance between acidity and sweetness is towards the dry side in these wines, with rather low residual sweetness numbers except where wines are made deliberately sweet; I like that a lot.

I rarely comment on label design etc., because I am much more into the contents, but the bottles and labels here are also very stylish and elegant.

 

My tasting notes follow. As usual, no colour notes, and no points scoring. They wouldn’t tell you anything relevant anyway.

 

Tasting notes:

Tokaji Furmint 2018

100% Furmint. Sourced from estate vineyards. Aged 5 months, half in steel vats, half in 6-7-years-old oak barrels. Residual sugar 3-4 grammes per litre, acidity 6 grammes per litre. Alcohol 12.5%.

Sweet apple with sweet spice and sweet florality. Juicy, slender, high acidity, very minerally. Good length, lightly spicy aromas somewhat toned down compared to the nose.

Tokaji Furmint Barakonyi 2017

100% Furmint. From single vineyard Barakonyi. Fermented and aged for 5 months in 6-7-years-old oak barrels. Residual sugar 2-3 grammes per litre, acidity 7 grammes per litre. Alcohol 14%.

Somewhat neutral nose with dry apple, mineral and a touch of smoke. Medium full, excellent acidity, super juicy, quite tense. Long, vertical and super minerally. Volcanic. Intense.

Tokaji Hárslevelü Barakonyi “Hárs” 2017

100% Hárslevelü. Fermented and aged for 5 months in old oak barrels. Residual sugar 2-3 grammes per litre, acidity 7 grammes per litre. Alcohol 13.5%.

Barely ripe peach, flowers and hints of smoke and clay on the nose. Juicy-tight, delicious, zingy, minerally, with a hint of sweet fruit. Long, clean and beautiful, lightly floral.

Tokaji Sárgamuskotály 2018

100% Sárgamuskotály. Fermented and aged in steel vats. Further data escaped me, except that it was deliberately made slightly sweet.

Fresh and charming, floral, aromatic, lightly spicy nose with hints of nectarine and lightly bitter herbs; tiny bit of reduction. Lightly sweet in the mouth, very fresh, with good acidity. Good length, elegant, freshly aromatic.

Tokaji Late Harvest “Amicus” 2013

100% Furmint. Fermented and aged in old oak barrels for 6 months. Residual sugar 120 grammes per litre, acidity 7.5 grammes per litre. Alcohol 12.5%.

Delicious, fresh nose of apricots, botrytis, bright minerals and flowers. Considerably sweet, offset by fresh acidity and towering minerality; great freshness to this all-out sweet wine. Lingers for very long, repeating the aromas from the nose.

 

This winery exudes style, elegance, clean lines and freshness, both in appearance and in the bottle, without in any way sacrificing terroir. That is an impressive balance to strike. Highly recommended.

 

Declaration of Interest: Apart from writing about wine, I am also a wine merchant. I do not at the point of writing import or sell wines from Tokaj Nobilis.

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Tokaj Tasting Notes – Samuel Tinon


When I was planning my trip to the Tokaj area in April of 2019, several independent sources – writer friends, web sites and books – told me that Samuel Tinon was a must-visit producer, so I obviously made an appointment.

Now, Samuel Tinon does not exactly sound Hungarian, which is no coincidence, as Samuel is French. Samuel was, in fact, born and grew up near the city of Bordeaux, in the botrytised sweet wine-producing area of Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, where his family owns a wine estate. Samuel also went to wine school in Bordeaux, but upon leaving wine school at the age of 22, he went straight to the Tokaj area, where he started working at the Royal Tokaji estate. So Samuel has been an integral part of the post-communist history of the Tokaj wine area basically since the very beginning.

At Royal Tokaji, which is a major foreign investment, he spent some formative years, working, among others, with the great Tokaj pioneer István Szepsy. After Royal Tokaji, Samuel joined another large foreign investment in Tokaj, Oremus. During his years at Royal Tokaji and Oremus, he undertook several study tours, among them, and importantly, to Jerez, where he studied Sherry-making.

In 2000, Samuel took the plunge and started his family winery in Tokaj, in the village of Olaszliszka. The Olaszliszka village lies on the Bodrog river, with Tokaj vineyards stretching from the relatively flat land along the river up into the hills to the west. Samuel has vineyards in Olaszliszka and elsewhere, with several parcels in highly-rated vineyards among them.

The wine is produced in the sprawling family house and facilities in Olaszliszka, and the entire operation has a very handmade, family feel to it.

It looks obvious, of course, considering his family roots, upbringing, schooling and work experience, that Samuel has taken a deep interest in the action of various micro-organisms upon wine. All of that could have given him a rebellious wish to do otherwise, but luckily he chose to just dig deeper. The botrytis fungus is the obvious one, Tokaj being richly endowed with the opportunity to make botrytised wines, but his studies have gone further than that. One organism that has a long history in Tokaj, and which is quite special to the area, is the cellar fungus cladosporium cellare, which inhabits almost all cellars there, where it feeds off the barrel fumes escaping during the ageing of wines in wood. In contrast to other cellar fungi, cladosporium cellare does not impart off smells or unwanted humidity to the cellar environment, and cellars in Tokaj generally have a fresh, clean air about them. Another organism studied is the yeast that forms a layer or film on top of wines that are aged in barrels that are not completely topped up, known as flor in the Jerez area, and also from the Jura mountains of France and the island of Sardinia.

Samuel is widely celebrated for his work with the actions of these micro-organisms upon wine, and particularly for his revival of an almost extinct type of wine, namely dry Tokaji Szamorodni. According to Samuel, dry Szamorodni is the only wine to be made with all three of those micro-organisms, and thus unique in the world. It was therefore with much positive anticipation that I travelled to the house in Olaszliszka.

Once settled at the Tinons’ kitchen table, tasting and conversation started. This was one of the most interesting tastings of my life, obviously because of the excellent wines, but at least in equal measure because of the highly illuminating conversation with Samuel. Samuel comes across as highly thoughtful and philosophical in the choices that he makes. He shies away from clichés, preferring instead to dig deep into detailed knowledge and scientifically illuminated experience, and very much to explore avenues of thought through open conversation.

Samuel’s approach to winemaking is quite simple, although it often leads to highly complex results: The wines are mostly left to do what they will, so, for example, if a Szamorodni decides to stop fermentation, it will be bottled as sweet, but if it decides to ferment to dryness, then it remains dry. He is a relative newcomer to the new dry table wines in Tokaj, but also approaches these in a thoughtful and balanced manner. Overall, his wines exude a living, breathing character. They are deeply faithful to the terroir, even when they have been subjected to the actions of various micro-organisms, and often very intense and complex, but only as a result of natural processes. These wines make up a useful and instructive counterpoint to some of the highly technological wines of the area, and are absolutely world class.

 

My tasting notes follow. As usual, no colour notes, and no points scoring. They wouldn’t tell you anything relevant anyway.

 

Tasting notes:

Tokaji Hárslevelü 2018

100% Hárslevelü. Vineyards in Olaszliszka only. Fermented and aged 6 months in old oak barrels. Residual sugar 12 grammes per litre, acidity 7 grammes per litre. Alcohol 13%. The wine is deliberately lightly sweet, made as an “apéritif wine”.

Highly minerally nose with touches of dry apple, hay and slightly aromatic greenery. Juicy, excellent acidity and minerality, slight residual sweetness. Quite long, floral and minerally.

Tokaji Furmint Birtok (estate) 2016

100% Furmint. Vineyards across the Tokaj area. No further data, but clearly low residual sweetness and good acidity.

Very handsome and rather intense nose of hay / grass, with herbs, dry apple, wax and big minerality. Slender, juicy, dry, excellent acidity and minerality. Very long and minerally; very pure Furmint character. Uncompromising wine, exciting.

Tokaji Szamorodni 2009

90% Furmint, 10% Hárslevelü. Very high level of botrytis in the bunches. Fermented in old oak barrels, and aged for 6 years in not-fully-topped-up old oak barrels, with flor forming. Dry. Alcohol 14.5%. According to Samuel, the major part of the character of this wine is due to botrytis, not to flor.

Huge, highly complex nose with nutty / yeasty flor, nettle-y botrytis, peach, high minerality, lovely notes of greenery and spice. Elegant, fresh, almost slender. Complex aromatics as per nose, long and beautiful. Powerfully intense and complex, insanely interesting. Wow!

This is not a wine for everyone, given the somewhat Sherry-like notes, but I would suggest that for those who have an interest in this type of wine, this is a must-try. Absolute world class.

Tokaji Szamorodni 2011

Grape mix and vineyard provenance not given. Fermented for 1-2 years in old oak barrels. Alcohol 13%. Sweet wine.

Delicious, intense nose with apricot, botrytis, minerals, dried citrus peel and raisin. Intense sweetness is kept delicious by high acidity and minerality. Fresh, quite light despite intensity, and long, notes as per the nose.

Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2008

No data given (our conversation had strayed into other territory by this time), but clearly a sweet wine.

Deeply raisiny, caramelly nose with honey, apricot, minerals, touches of smoke, exotic wood, spice and quince; complex and intense. Sweet, searingly intense, fresh, acidic, juicy, minerally. Goes on and on with aromas as per the nose + botrytis. Bowled over. Fantastic wine.

 

The family winery of Samuel Tinon is a very personal project, and the wines that emerge from it are highly personal as a result. But – rather than personal preferences and wishes to make a mark by sweeping provenance and typicity aside – the personal project of Samuel emphasizes, even exalts, the character and typicity of his wines. These are highly accomplished wines, and among the best of their kind. Highly recommended.

 

Declaration of Interest: Apart from writing about wine, I am also a wine merchant. I do not at the point of writing import or sell wines from Samuel Tinon.

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Tokaj Tasting Notes – Árpád-Hegy


When approaching the Tokaj area on the way from Budapest, the first town you encounter within the Tokaj denomination, the gateway to Tokaj, as it were, is Szerencs; this is marked by a stylized gateway in a central roundabout in Szerencs. The town itself is on flat land, but hills start on the outskirts, and the Tokaj wine from these hills once enjoyed a good reputation. Old wine cellars are excavated into the hills; they are mostly in private use these days, but the Varkolys of Árpád-Hegy have revived several of them and are using them for making and storing wine. Thanks to Árpád-Hegy, Szerencs is now back on the map of great winemaking.

Árpád-Hegy is owned by father-and-son team István and Ádám Varkoly. They are from a family with long roots in the area and a long involvement with wine. István himself has been a viticulturist for the larger producers in Tokaj for many years now, with a long stint, for example, at Degenfeld. Young Ádám is also a viticulturist by education, and before returning to the Tokaj area spent a few years working abroad, the longest stay being in New Zealand; apart from running the family winery, he also works as a viticulturist for others. There is a strong love of nature and the great outdoors running through the family, and it is obvious that growing stuff with respect for the environment takes priority. Indoors activities are only undertaken in case of need.

The Varkolys have a total of 13 hectares under vine in the Tokaj area, some of which are in Szerencs, but others also in renowned vineyards elsewhere, including Király, Betsek and Veresek in Mád, Sajgó in Bodrogkeresztúr and Zafir + Mézes Mály in Tarcal. Adam’s experience abroad has given him some excellent tools in terms of canopy management that are already showing interesting results, and which will no doubt stand Árpád-Hegy in good stead in this uncertain future of climate change.

Production is normally around 10,000 bottles/year, with a maximum of around 15,000. This is not much by most standards, and extremely low when the acreage is considered. While some grapes are sold off, such low production numbers are actually not that uncommon in the Tokaj area, where yields are typically low.

Árpád-Hegy’s cellars and tasting facilities in Szerencs are old and dug into the hillside, with a two-storey house fronting them. They have an interesting old history, having served as a bar with a brothel on top for many years, wine being made in the cellars behind the house. There are pictures and writings to prove it all. The Varkolys frequently open the facilities, which are not yet fully restored and functional, for parties and feasts.

Based on my tastings with Ádám in Szerencs, I would venture that the house style is very deliberate, driven by decisions in the vineyard as to acidity and sugar levels, and hence picking times. The dry wines are slender, vertical, very clean, very precise, with low alcohol, beautiful minerality and mouthwatering, excellently judged acidity; all of this without sacrificing intensity and impact. Much the same can be said of the sweet wines, which have wonderful freshness and drinkability allied to the concentration and body that comes with great ripeness and high sugar levels. Árpád-Hegy is without a doubt one of the reference producers of Tokaj today.

 

My tasting notes follow. As usual, no colour notes, and no points scoring. They wouldn’t tell you anything relevant anyway.

 

Tasting notes:

Tokaji Furmint Estate 2018

100% Furmint. Vineyards in Szerencs only, vines planted in 1974. Fermented in old oak barrels, then aged 6 months in steel tanks. Residual sugar 4 grammes per litre, acidity 6.3 grammes per litre. Alcohol 12%.

Stylish nose of discreet peach, very pure minerality, slight hint of spice. Delicious fruit wraps itself around a skeleton of acidity and minerality. Slender and very good.

Tokaji Furmint Zafir 2017

100% Furmint. 60% fermented old oak barrels, the rest in steel tanks; aged 6 months in old oak barrels. Residual sugar 7 grammes per litre, acidity 7.6 grammes per litre. Alcohol 12%. Zafir is a vineyard in Tarcal with mainly loess soils; the vines for this wine are 20 years old.

Weighty nose with apple, hint of clay, rounded minerality and a hint of spice. Medium full, quite broad for a Furmint (loess does that), tiny hint of residual sweetness, all of it balanced by glittering acidity. Very long, slender, minerally. Lovely.

Tokaji Furmint Veresek 2017

100% Furmint. Fermented and aged for 6 months in old 500-litre oak barrels. Residual sugar 7.5 grammes per litre, acidity 8.6 grammes per litre. Alcohol 12%. Veresek is a vineyard in Mád with a few volcanic intrusions.

Rounded, intense nose of peach, light spice and rounded minerality. In the mouth intense acidity and concentration, very long and complete, with a slight hint of botrytis at the end. Wow.

Tokaji Furmint Király 2018

100% Furmint. Fermented and aged for 6 months in 1- and 2-year-old 500-litre oak barrels. Residual sugar 3 grammes per litre, acidity 6.1 grammes per litre. Alcohol 12.5%. Király is a vineyard in Mád with strongly volcanic soils.

Broad, peachy nose with light spice, towering minerality and a hint of soft herbs. Quite broad in the mouth, intense and powerful. Very long, with huge volcanics. Very young, fantastic future.

Tokaji Hárslevelü Estate 2017

100% Hárslevelü. Fermented and aged for 6 months in steel tanks. Residual sugar 7 grammes per litre, acidity 6 grammes per litre. Alcohol 12%. Inspired by his time in New Zealand, particularly in terms of the management of Sauvignon Blanc, Ádám Varkoly has changed the canopy management of his Hárslevelü such that the grape bunches have more foliage and shade, which provides slower ripening and a higher level of aromatic, leafy compounds. Hárslevelü is a semi-aromatic variety, like Sauvignon Blanc, but the aromatics tend to be in the floral and spicy department more than the leafiness of Sauvignon Blanc, and Ádám’s idea is to round out and freshen the aromatics of the variety in this way. On the basis of this single wine, he has already succeeded spectacularly.

Full-on aromatics, with flowers, peaches, citrus fruits, green herbs and minerality. Quite soft, fresh, minerally and slender. Good length, mirroring the nose. Deeply charming, a very accomplished wine.

Tokaji Sárgamuskotály 2018

100% Sárgamuskotály. Fermented and aged for 6 months in steel tanks. Residual sugar 9 grammes per litre, acidity 6 grammes per litre. Alcohol 12%. This is deliberately made semi-dry.

Very fresh and slender nose with hints of citrus, flowers and fresh green herbs. Quite light in the mouth, lightly fruity, with a hint of residual sweetness, but ends on a rather dry/phenolic note. Not quite balanced, and the only non-stellar wine tasted at Árpád-Hegy.

Tokaji Hárslevelü Late Harvest 2016

100% Hárslevelü. Fermented and aged for 6 months in steelk tank. Residual sugar 140 grammes per litre, acidity 8.2 grammes per litre. Alcohol 11%. This is actually from the Zafir vineyard, but not stated on the label.

Bright honey, botrytis, smoke and soft herbs on the nose. Fresh, amazingly light on its feet for such a sweet wine, very well balanced between sugar and acidity. Rather long, mirroring the nose + citrus. Good stuff.

Tokaji Szamorodni 2013

100% Hárslevelü. Fermented and aged for 1 year in second use oak barrels. Residual sugar 170 grammes per litre, acidity 8.4 grammes per litre. Alcohol 10%. This is actually from the Király vineyard, but not stated on the label.

Beautiful, intense nose of citrus, botrytis/nettle, honey, soft herbs and hint of wood spice. Surprisingly fresh, light on its feet and balanced for such a sweet wine, with only a hint of wood tannin.

Tokaji Szamorodni 2017

100% Furmint. Fermented and aged for 1½ years in second and third use oak barrels. Residual sugar 110 grammes per litre, acidity 8.4 grammes per litre. Alcohol 10.5%. This is actually from the Király vineyard, but not stated on the label.

Somewhat reticent/young nose, broadly fruity, with hints of wax, minerals and light spice. Tight and juicy in the mouth, with great acidity and much extract. Very long and hugely minerally. Very young still, needs much time, but will develop into something spectacular.

Tokaji Ászu 6 Puttonyos 1997

75% Hárslevelü, 25% Furmint. Fermented and aged 5 years in 20-25-years-old oak barrels. Residual sugar 200 grammes per litre, acidity 9 grammes per litre. Alcohol 10%. This comes from the Király and Veresek vineyards in Mád, but not stated on label.

Tremendous and complex nose with botrytis, honey, caramel, smoke, minerals and exotic wood. Slender and fresh (incredibly), very intense. Huge length, complex as per the nose with intense minerality. Immortal wine.

 

The fact that Ádám Varkoly is still young tempts one to say that Árpád-Hegy is a promising, up-and-coming house, but that would be a mistake. The Varkolys are at the very top already, and while they may develop further, these wines can already be firmly recommended to anyone wanting to taste the excellence of Tokaji production today. World class available here, get there before everyone else.

 

Declaration of Interest: Apart from writing about wine, I am also a wine merchant. I do not at the point of writing import or sell wines from Árpád-Hegy.

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Tokaj Tasting Notes – Gizella Pince


When I went to Tokaj in April 2019, my friend, the great Hungarian wine writer Daniel Ercsey, had recommended that I visit László Szilágyi, the owner of Tokaj producer Gizella. One cannot reject advice from that source, so of course I made an appointment.

The gentle giant Lászlo comes from a family that has been active in wine in Tokaj for generations, but struck out for himself in 2005, when he founded the Gizella Pince winery. Gizella has holdings in a number of excellent vineyards, such as Bomboly, Szil-völgy, Barát, Szent Tamás, Medve and Kastély. A range of single-vineyard wines has historically been made from these vineyards, but Lászlo has decided to slim down the range, for reasons of being able to offer a consistently good Estate product, and to not confuse the consumer with too much variety. When looking at other producers and their frequently large ranges of wines, I think this makes a lot of commercial sense.

Production is about 20.000 bottles/year, with a possibility to grow it up to possibly 30,000 bottles/year. Lászlo thinks he will need to keep it at or below that level in order to be able to deliver consistent quality.

While Gizella is headquartered in Tokaj, the wine is actually made in the communal winemaking facilities at Hercegkút. Lászlo is very intent on making a clean, consistent, drinkable product, so the modern steel tanks and bottling facility there suit him very well. Once grapes enter the facility, they are immediately pressed, and only the first pressing is used, in order to minimize bitter phenolics (Furmint, in particular, can exhibit a relatively elevated level of phenolics). Wines are fermented using selected yeasts, and are aged on the fine lees for a few months before bottling, parts in used oak barrels, but the majority in steel tanks.

In keeping with the stated philosophy of presenting fewer wines to the public, the tasting consisted of four wines only. While this is not a huge number from which to draw conclusions, I will venture some anyway. The first one is that Lászlo’s philosophy of cleanness and consistency in the wines clearly comes through in the wines; they are upright, vertical and have admirable consistency from nose to mouth to aftertaste. Secondly, the excellent vineyards shine through in the wines; there is depth, complexity and a beautiful vein of minerality on that upright background. And finally, yes, these wines are highly drinkable and easily understandable, in a non-banal and terroir-faithful way. These wines strike an admirable balance.

 

My tasting notes follow. As usual, no colour notes, and no points scoring. They wouldn’t tell you anything relevant anyway.

 

Tasting notes:

Tokaji Hárslevelü Barát 2018

100% Hárslevelü. Fermented in stainless steel, aged 6 months in used oak barrels (20%) and steel tanks (80%). Residual sugar 8 grammes per litre, acidity 7.2 grammes per litre. Barát is a loess vineyard in Tarcal, on the side of Tokaj Hill. This wine has been made since 2006.

Lovely nose of peach with shimmering citrus and a touch of clay. Juicy, fresh and lively in the mouth, with a fruity-fleshy feel. Long and very minerally, ending on the same notes as the nose. Delicious!

Tokaji Furmint 2018

85% Furmint, 15% Hárslevelü. Fermented in steel tanks and aged 6 months in new oak barrels (10%) and steel tanks (90%). Residual sugar 3.8 grammes per litre, acidity 6.1 grammes per litre. This is the Estate wine, mixed from a variety of vineyards.

Quite deep and intense nose, mildly fruity with dry minerality and a hint of florality from the Hárslevelü. Lovely acidity, fruit and minerality and a long aftertaste mirroring the nose, with a hint of citrus, conspire to make this a juicy, fresh, delicious and very drinkable wine. To be downed by the bucketful.

Tokaji Furmint Bomboly 2017

100% Furmint, fermented in steel. Aged 6 months in oak barrels (50%) and steel tanks (50%). Residual sugar 8 grammes per litre, acidity 6.3 grammes per litre. Bomboly is a single vineyard.

Quite broad, impactful nose with dry apple and big hit of minerality; little hint of oak ageing. Intense, fat, yet vertical and elegant, wine that seems dry from big extract coupled with oak ageing. Long, with scintillating minerality. Rather good.

Tokaji Szamorodni 2017

45% Furmint, 45% Hárslevelü, 10% Sárgámuskotály. Fermented and aged 6 months in oak barrels. Residual sugar 143 grammes per litre, acidity 7.8 grammes per litre. This is obviously a sweet Szamorodni, with enough residual sugar to classify it is an Aszú wine.

Flattering, lightly floral nose with scents of peach, citrus, fresh minerality, hints of nettle-y botrytis and oak spice. Clean, fresh sweetness fills the mouth and is balanced by lovely acidity. Very long, mirroring the nose, with fresh minerality. Gorgeous. Yummy!

 

I enjoyed this tasting greatly, both for the warm hospitality and lucid vision of Lászlo Szilágyi and for the sheer quality of the wines we tasted. I have much time for his vision of an uncluttered, people-friendly version of great terroir wine. And make no mistake: Lászlo’s wines are not simple quaffers. Their drinkability and enjoyment factor spring from their innate freshness, elegance and liveliness, coupled with their faithfulness to a great terroir and great grape varieties, not from a levelling or filing down of those characteristics. Lovely wines, in other words, highly recommended.

 

Declaration of Interest: Apart from writing about wine, I am also a wine merchant. I do not at the point of writing import or sell wines from Gizella.

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Tokaj Tasting Notes – Barta Pince


As I researched for my April 2019 tour of Tokaj, one of the producer names that surfaced frequently was Barta Pince. It was obvious that a visit was in order.

Barta is a family-owned operation, but slightly unusually so. The owner is business tycoon Károly Barta, who divides his time between his many pursuits. Daily operation in Tokaj is therefore undertaken by the staff there.

The winery, with B&B quarters, tasting room, exhibition room and so forth, is in the beautifully renovated 16th century Rákóczi-Aspremont mansion in Mád. While many places and businesses in Hungary have borrowed the famous Rákócsi name, this mansion was actually historically owned by the Rákócsis, although they, too, seem to have been mostly absentee landlords.

Barta relies predominantly on their Öreg Király (“old king”) vineyard for their grape material. Öreg Király is not an actual vineyard name, but the name Barta use for their section of the actual Király vineyard. The 10-hectare Barta section is the very highest, steepest part of Király. That section is a dramatically terraced, south-south-west-facing vineyard that was acquired by Barta in 2003. It had been abandoned, cleared of vines, since 1959, and was cleared and replanted at great cost in 2004-5. The communist era, in general, was not kind to quality viticulture, but may have been particularly deadly for the Király vineyard, parts of which were actually converted into a kaolin mine in 1960!

Barta also own 17 hectares of the adjacent Kövágó (stone cutter) vineyard, most of which lie fallow at present, with only 3.5 hectares under vine.

Both vineyards have volcanic soils, with rhyolite subsoils and obsidian and other volcanic intrusions.

Viticulture is basically organic, although not certified, and Barta say that one of the advantages of their Öreg Király having been abandoned in 1959 is that it was never subjected to the heavy chemical regimen otherwise applied during the communist era. The wines are fermented using ambient yeasts, and fermentations these days mostly take place in steel tanks, while ageing may take place in steel tanks and/or large-format oak barrels.

Barta’s winemaker used to be the legendary Attila Homonna, who has been described to me by someone in the know as “probably the greatest living Hungarian winemaker”. Homonna is said to have made wines in a round, structured, somewhat oaky style that emphasized ripeness, power and impact. This was borne out by the Homonna era wines I tasted.

New winemaker is the young and promising Vivien Ujvári, who after her Hungarian education did stints in Napa Valley, New Zealand and Australia before returning to Hungary. Ujvári has worked in the Tokaj area since 2013, and has been the winemaker at Barta since 2016. Ujvári’s style is quite different to Homonna’s. While the underlying power from the great vineyards is undeniable, the dry Barta wines these days are leaner, more vertical, emphasizing minerality, acidity and precision, and oak influence has been significantly reduced. I personally welcome that development.

Quality is high throughout the range of wines, testament to the great vineyards, of course, but also to the excellent people who are working with them. If I had to have one objection it would be that prices seem a bit high, but I am sure that is a deliberate choice on the part of Barta. It should be noted that since “Öreg Király” is not a designated vineyard name, it can be used freely, as a sort of trademark, and, indeed, all Barta wine labels sport that name.

 

On my visit to Barta in late April 2019, I was hosted by Gergely (Greg) Somogyi. Gergely is a wine writer, wine guide and consultant, extremely knowledgeable about all things Tokaj, a great host, and – to boot – sports the finest moustache and the nicest hat I have ever seen. A very elegant apparition. Gergely shared his enormous knowledge enthusiastically, and thus deepened my knowledge of the area and its wines immeasurably. I am deeply grateful for that.

 

My tasting notes follow. As usual, no colour notes, and no points scoring. They wouldn’t tell you anything relevant anyway.

 

Tasting notes:

Tokaji Öreg Király Furmint 2013

100% Furmint, fermented and aged 8 months in oak barrels, some of which new. Residual sugar 8 grammes per litre, acidity 8 grammes per litre. Made by Attila Homonna.

Very minerally nose, with slightly bruised apple going on furniture polish, hint of clay. Full, quite powerful, seemingly dry, much extract, good acidity, slightly hollow mid-palate. Ends quite long, on the same notes as the nose.

Tokaji Öreg Király Furmint 2015

100% Furmint, fermented and aged 8 months in oak barrels, some of which new. Residual sugar 7.7 grammes per litre, acidity 6.8 grammes per litre. Made by Attila Homonna.

Dry apple, dark minerals and light oak on the nose. Juicy, firm, seemingly dry, with measured acidity, quite round and soft. Good length, as nose.

Tokaji Öreg Király Furmint 2016

100% Furmint, fermented and aged 3 months in oak barrels, none new. Residual sugar 8.9 grammes per litre, acidity 6.9 grammes per litre. Made by Vivien Ujvári.

Attractive nose with apple, soft green herbs and light smoke. Rounded, very faint residual sweetness, fresh acidity seems slightly lower than the preceding wine. Long, fresh, with a dry hint at the end that balances the wine and makes it very drinkable.

Tokaji Öreg Király Furmint 2017

100% Furmint, fermented and aged 4 months in large oak barrels. Residual sugar 7.1 grammes per litre, acidity 7.7 grammes per litre. Made by Vivien Ujvári.

Rounded, fruity nose, balanced by strong dry minerality. Juicy, intense, with lovely scintillating acidity. Long, with appetizingly dry finish. Excellent example of the new style. Delicious.

Tokaji Öreg Király Hárslevelü 2017

100% Hárslevelü. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. Residual sugar 6.9 grammes per litre, acidity 8 grammes per litre. Maximum 500 bottles/year.

Peachy, floral, minerally, delicious nose. Juicy, well-rounded, balanced by excellent acidity. Long, with an appetizing dry note and big hit of minerality.

Tokaji Öreg Kiraly Furmint Late Harvest 2017

100% Furmint, fermented partly in oak barrels, partly in steel tank, aged for 4 months in oak barrels. Residual sugar 96 grammes per litre, acidity 6.7 grammes per litre.

Expressive nose of peach, honey, minerals and a hint of botrytis. Sweet and luscious, delicious because balanced by good acidity. Long and fresh, with notes replicating the nose. Delicious.

Tokaji Öreg Király Szamorodni 2013

100% Furmint. Fermented and aged in 18 months in oak barrels. Residual sugar 115 grammes per litre, acidity 6.7 grammes per litre. From the Homonna era.

Very expressive, slightly meaty nose with botrytis, herbs and spices. While this is clearly sweet, it seems slightly dry, obviously because of good acidity, but also because of the oak influence and age eating into the sweetness. Long and intense, notes as per the nose.

Tokaji Öreg Király Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2013

100% Furmint. Fermented and aged 3 years in oak barrels. Residual sugar 246 grammes per litre, acidity 7 grammes per litre. From the Homonna era.

Lovely, slightly toned-down nose with honey, minerals and botrytis. Sweet, but seemingly quite light, with excellent freshness and high minerality of the mountain brook variety. Good length. I was actually looking for a bit more personality, but I think this is in a youthful, closed-down phase at the moment.

Möbius 2008

100% Furmint. This cannot be labelled Tokaji wine, as it has undergone a somewhat unusual procedure. Fermentation was extremely slow, and lasted until 2013, with several refreshments along the way. The entire period of fermentation was in oak barrel. At the end, 28 grammes per litre of residual sugar remained. Very interesting, once-only experiment.

Very expressive, ligtly oaky nose with hints of oxidation and exotic wood. Intense and expressive in the mouth, light sweetness balanced by acidity and oak astringency. Very long and complex, with a final note of walnut. Very unusual and very interesting.

 

This was a highly interesting tasting of wines from a house that clearly has always produced high quality, but has changed style along the way. While the old style is impressive and powerful, I confess that I rather prefer the newer, fresher, more vertical style, which I think suits both the vineyard expression and Furmint (in particular) really well. Barta dry wines obviously have the stuffing to improve in bottle, and I think the new style should be conducive to that.

 

Declaration of Interest: Apart from writing about wine, I am also a wine merchant. I do not at the point of writing import or sell wines from Barta.

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Tokaj Tasting Notes – Erzsébet Pince


On my scouting trip to Tokaj, Hungary, in April 2019, I visited one of the producers recommended strongly to me by several sources: Erzsébet Pince.

This was a revelatory visit. I obviously knew about, had tasted and had read up on Tokaj and its wines, but I had not tasted Erzsébet’s wines before. I was not prepared for just how good dry white Tokaj had become, so Erzsébet’s wines had a huge impact.

But more on that later. First, an introduction to the winery and the people.

 

Erzsébet Pince is owned by the Prácser family. Pater familias, Miklós Prácser Sr., and his wife Erzsébet, arrived in the Tokaj area in 1974, working for the state farm. As early as 1989, during the fall of communism in Hungary, Miklós started his own winery. Within short, he also became estate director for the large Degenfeld winery in the Tokaj area, and remained so for 17 years. During the same period, Erzsébet worked for several of the other large foreign investments in Tokaj, and among other things planted many of large producer Oremus’ vineyards. I think it would be reasonable to say that few other families would be able to match the Prácser family when it comes to sheer experience in making Tokaj.

Over the years, the Prácsers’ knowledge and acumen allowed them to pick up parcels in some of the greatest Tokaj vineyards. Total holdings currently stand at 15 hectares, of which 12 are in production. Vineyards include such hallowed names as Sajgó, Veresek, Betsek, Király and Zafir. They also have holdings in the Pécsi vineyard on the southeastern slope of Tokaj Hill, and the Betsek parcel is in the steep, terraced Burja subplot at the very top.

From the 12 hectares in production, the Prácsers produce around 10,000 bottles per year. While that is partially the result of selling grapes to others, that is still astonishingly little, and is testament to the singular quality focus at Erzsébet. Yields are kept very low, and even then, only the best grapes are kept for themselves. It is no coincidence that Erzsébet have won recognition, medals and prizes galore.

Current winemaker is Miklós Sr.’s son, Miklós Jr., who uses high-quality Hungarian and French oak barrels for the majority of the production. Production is state of the art, and the cellars are absolutely spotless. Non-aromatic selected yeasts are used for the entirety of the production, as Erzsébet want maximum consistency, to allow the terroir and vintage – and not whatever spontaneous microorganisms might appear – to come through every year. Some would say that ultimate terroir fidelity requires you to use ambient yeasts, but I have a lot of time for those that say that if you actually want to be able to consistently taste the difference between different vineyards and different vintages, you should provide as neutral a fermentation background as possible. And I would dare anyone to say that Erzsébet’s wines lack terroir transparency or fidelity.

Marketing and public relations are done by daughter Hajni, and it was Hajni I met during my visit. To my relief, Hajni spoke excellent English (I believe her husband is English…), and so conversation flowed effortlessly. Hajni came across as precise, extremely knowledgeable and with an undercurrent of deep passion for Tokaj, its wines and the family mission.

The name Erzsébet obviously derives from the mother, but also has another significance: The beautiful 18th century cellars in the centre of Tokaj town that form the backbone of the Prácsers’ enterprise once were the fermenting and ageing cellars of the Russian Wine Trading Company, which supplied the court of the Russian Tsars. So, since Erzsébet means Elisabeth, it was also obvious to use the name as a reference to famous Tsarina Elisabeth.

 

The Erzsébet house style is precise, elegant, lithe and fresh, but with great intensity and depth, even in the Estate wines. Terroir variation comes through strongly in the wines, in particular with a sense of scintillating minerality throughout the range. I get the feeling that I could never tire of these wines, their freshness, quality and sheer drinkability.

 

My tasting notes follow. As usual, no colour notes, and no points scoring. They wouldn’t tell you anything relevant anyway.

 

Tasting notes:

Tokaji Furmint Estate 2017

100% Furmint, fermented and aged in 80% Hungarian oak and 20% steel tank.

Delicious, elegant nose with notes of apple, fresh and minerally, lightly floral. Again, delicious and elegant in the mouth, excellent acidity balanced by very slight residual sugar (no sense of sweetness). Intense, long and super delicious. And this is only entry level!

Tokaji Furmint Estate 2018

100% Furmint, fermented and aged in 80% Hungarian oak and 20% steel tank.

Fresh, delicious, ripely fruity nose, lightly floral. Medium full, great acidity is slightly less than 2017, lovely sense of fatness. Long, minerally, handsome.

Tokaji Zafir 2016

90% Furmint, 10% Hárslevelü. The Zafir vineyard in Tarcal is mainly loess, but with some clay and volcanic rock intruding. Fermented and aged in oak.

Broad, almost meaty nose with peach, sweet green herbs and light honey. Slender in the mouth, the taste borne by scintillating acidity. Long and beautifully minerally. Glittering, beautiful.

Tokaji Zafir 2017

90% Furmint, 10% Hárslevelü. The Zafir vineyard in Tarcal is mainly loess, but with some clay and volcanic rock intruding. Fermented and aged in oak.

Open nose with peach, wax, clay and the sort of soft greenery you get from loess soils. Beautifully enveloping fruit around a core of beautiful acidity. Looooong and soft and dry. Great. Give it time.

Tokaji Betsek 2017

80% Furmint, 20% Kabar. Fermented and aged for 6 months in oak. 900 bottles/year.

Sweetly fruity, broad nose with an undercurrent of minerality, light oak spice and a smoky hint. Very intense, broad, dry, with extract supporting sweet apple fruit and spice. Extends into great length. Still very young.

Tokaji Betsek 2018

80% Furmint, 10% Hárslevelü, 10% Kabar. Fermented and aged for 6 months in oak. 900 bottles/year.

Slender, aromatic apple on the nose, mountain brook minerality and hint of spice. Slender, intense, much extract, excellent minerality, slight hint of sweet alcohol and fine, sweet spice. Very long. Great future.

Tokaji Király 2016

100% Furmint. Fermented and aged in 100% new French oak for 6 months. Király (“king”) is a heavily volcano-influenced vineyard, with a subsoil of rhyolite and with obsidian intrusions. 600-900 bottles/year.

Sweetly green nose with clay, light exotic spice and wax. Scintillating acidity takes charge and gives you a vertical, mouthwatering, fresh, gigantically minerally wine. Long-long-long and intense. Super delicious.

Tokaji Király 2017

100% Furmint. Fermented and aged in 100% new French oak for 6 months. Király (“king”) is a heavily volcano-influenced vineyard, with a subsoil of rhyolite and with obsidian intrusions. 600-900 bottles/year.

Minerally nose with greenish hints, touch of wax and anise; still young and closed. Tight, mouthwatering, vertical, super-minerally, with glittering acidity. Very long, super delicious.

Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2010

100% Furmint. 170 grammes per litre of residual sugar. 10 grammes per litre of acidity. Very few bottles made.

Nose with honey, stinging nettle, malt drops, minerals, spice, hugely complex, but still fresh and young; full-on botrytis aromas develop with time in the glass. Great sweetness is balanced by amazing acidity and great extract. Very long and intense, with cool minerality. Still very young, will last and even improve for a long time.

Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2013

100% Furmint. 210 grammes per litre of residual sugar. 8 grammes per litre of acidity. Very few bottles made. 2013 is said to be a fantastic botrytis vintage.

Fantastic nose with peach, apricot, powerful bright minerality, great freshness and nettle-y botrytis. Great sweetness, almost liquid honey viscosity, but balanced by beautiful acidity. Extremely long and complex, repeating the impressions from the nose. Immortal. Wow!

 

We did not taste older dry wines at this sitting, but given the concentration, intensity, acidity and balance I expect enormous longevity and a staggering development in bottle, particularly for the single-vineyard bottlings. The dry wines should essentially develop like great dry Rieslings, which can be nigh-om immortal. By that, I also mean that complexity and minerality should increase significantly in bottle, even if from an already high level.

Tokaj sweet wines are obviously famous and have a long and glorious history, but the two Aszú wines tasted on this occasion were levels above what I had ever tried before, both in terms of intensity and in terms of freshness and cleanliness.

 

Erzsébet presented an extremely convincing flight of wines on this occasion. It is quite obvious that this was not a fluke, but the result of long experience and an ambition to reach the highest highs. This is a highly recommended, world-class producer.

 

Declaration of Interest: Apart from writing about wine, I am also a wine merchant. I do not at the point of writing import or sell wines from Erzsébet. However, given the quality on offer here, I will not at all rule out that I will try my hand at that later on, if they’ll let me.

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Tokaj Tasting Notes – Paulay Borház


When I went to the Tokaj area, Hungary, in late April 2019, my friend Daniel Ercsey had recommended Paulay Borház as a good place to stay. What he did not stress was that Péter Hudák, proprietor of Paulay, also makes wine, but that became apparent when I checked Paulay out on the net. As far as I am concerned, with Paulay’s convenient situation in the very centre of Tokaj town, with easy access to restaurants, cafés and other wine producers, that made it a perfect choice to stay on a scouting trip of the area.

Paulay Borház traces its activity back to the 18th century, but resurfaced in its modern incarnation in 2008. The building that houses its B&B activity, as well as the family home, dates back to the 1950’ies, but was completely restored, enlarged and modernized in 2010-11. I found the B&B to be very convenient, modern and simple, clean and wonderfully quiet. Hospitality is excellent, warm and welcoming, but not intrusive, and good English is spoken. I strongly recommend it is a place to stay if you’re going to Tokaj.

The house sits on top of the cellar where wine is made and aged. The cellar has a bar and a couple of cosy rooms where you can sit and taste the wines made in-house. I was told that the Hudák family can also do traditional Hungarian dinners if ordered in due time.

Paulay is a tiny wine producer, making wine from just under 1.5 hectares of vineyard, which yield an annual production of around 3,500 bottles. Vineyards are all in and around Tokaj Hill, meaning that soils are loess, with no or little volcanic influence. Paulay has holdings in Nyesti (0,35 hectares), Melegoldal (0,5 hectares) and Verebes (0,55 hectares) vineyards. Verebes is Paulay’s top vineyard.

Of the grape varieties officially sanctioned for Tokaj production, Paulay grows Furmint, Hárslevelü, Sárgamuskotály, Köverszölö and Kabar. But it is a glorious fact that Péter Hudák is an irrepressible experimenter, and as a result has taken it upon himself to grow small volumes of some of the varieties that were grown in profusion prior to the arrival of phylloxera in the 1880’ies (and, I suspect, a few later arrivals). Péter’s pre-phylloxera selection is made up of Lisztesfehér, Bakator, Járdovány, Polyhos, Sárfehér, Sárga Ortliebi, Budai Gohér, Török Gohér and Piros Lisztes.

Péter’s experiments are not limited to growing rare grape varieties. With such limited vineyard holdings, Paulay is extremely affected by the individual vintage, and so not every possible wine is made every year. Péter therefore resorts to making the wines that make sense in a given year, with a few experiments thrown in here and there, including making varietally pure wines from minor and old varieties. The result is a rather great profusion of different wines from different vintages, and that makes a tasting in the Paulay cellar a very entertaining and interesting exercise.

With such tiny volumes and constant experimentation, Paulay cannot be counted among the best Tokaj producers, on the simple basis that it is impossible to establish a track record. However, the wines are well made, never less than interesting, with great personality and seem to have good ageing capacity. I can only recommend trying out Paulay if you are in the area.

 

My tasting notes follow. As usual, no colour notes, and no points scoring. They wouldn’t tell you anything relevant anyway.

 

Tasting notes:

Tokaji Sárgamuskotály 2015

This was fermented and aged in steel tank, using selected yeasts. It would be released during the spring of 2020.

Typically aromatic nose, fresh and lightly minerally. Soft and fresh in the mouth, ending on a minerally note. Good, not great.

Tokaji Cuvée Paulay Borház 2016

Made from 70% Furmint, 30% Hárslevelü. Fermented in 5-6 years old oak barrels, using ambient yeasts. Bottled shortly after fermentation finished.

Nose of peach skin, yeast and light minerality. The body is light, yet firm and with the round feel you get from loess soils. Good acidity ensures length, with quite strong minerality.

Tokaji Furmint 2015

100% Furmint. 2/3 fermented in acacia barrel, 1/3 fermented in steel tank, using ambient yeast. Unfiltered.

Nose of light honey, barely ripe peach, light spice. Good body, loess roundness makes it feel not quite dry (but it has very low residual sugar), very fruity and excellent freshness. Ends on an appetizing, slightly bitter note of peach skin. Long and intense.

Tokaji Furmint “Bitangjó” 2016

This hails from the single vineyard of Verebes on the eastern side of the Tokaj Hill. The vineyard parcel is very steep and terraced, and vines are around 50 years old. Fermented and aged for 6 months in 2-3 years old oak barrels using ambient yeast.

Quite intense nose of peach, sweet grass, with a slightly waxy element. Quite fat and intense, with handsome acidity giving backbone. Long and minerally, with lightly bitter peach skin and hint of musk.

Tokaji Hárslevelü 2015

Fermented and aged in used oak barrels using ambient yeast.

Delicious nose of ripe apple, peach, apricot, with a hint of well-integrated warm spice from the oak. The same notes in the mouth, lovely acidity balancing with medium body and very slight residual sugar. Long, with minerals and spice.

Tokaji Szamorodni 2014

This is a dry Szamorodni. Lightly botrytized bunches of grapes were harvested, pressed and then fermented and aged for three years in oak barrel. Fermentation using ambient yeast, ageing in partially filled barrels under a layer of flor. No sulphur added at any point, and no fortification.

Complex nose reminiscent of Fino Sherry, with the addition of green nuts and barely ripe peach. Quite powerful in the mouth, round fruit balanced by excellent acidity. Long, with notes walnut, exotic wood, light fruit and cool minerality. Very interesting.

Tokaji Sárgamuskotály 2017

This is a sweet Muscat, fermented and aged in steel tank.

Sweet, grapey nose with lovely elderflower aromatics and hints of sweet green herbs and mineral. Light, not very intense, with a fresh sweetness. A deliberately simple wine, easy to drink.

Tokaji Köverszölö 2018

This was a tank sample; not yet released. Fermented and aged for 4 months in used oak barrels using ambient yeast. 80 grammes per litre of residual sugar, so sweet.

Nose of white peach, fresh minerals, citrus peel and sweet / dry / woody spice. Fresh, light, mild, lightly sweet. Long aftertaste of citrus peel and spice.

Tokaji Furmint Hárslevelü Köverszölö 2016

This is a deliberately sweet wine with 44 grammes per litre of residual sugar. Made from 40% Furmint, 40% Hárslevelü and 20% Köverszölö. Fermented and aged in oak, using ambient yeast.

Nose of woody spice, peachy and floral hints. Feels slightly sweeter than semi-sweet, the sugar being balanced by acidity and extract. Long, with notes of woody spice, honey, green herbs and mineral. This feels slightly disharmonic at present, but has lots of interesting notes, so give it time.

“Nyarhajú” Cuvée 2016

This is a 100% Lisztesfehér, so cannot call itself Tokaji wine. Fermented in oak barrel, using ambient yeast, aged in steel tank. 60 grammes per litre of residual sugar.

Somewhat neutral but minerally nose with hints of light honey. Good body, yet very fine and fresh, with excellent acidity; sweetness seems low compared to the number. Long, with a strong mineral lift.

“Arborétum” Cuvée 2017

This is a mix of all of the grape varieties grown by Paulay. This means that many non-compliant varieties are part of it, so cannot call itself Tokaji wine. Fermented in oak barrel, using ambient yeast, aged in steel tank. The grapes are late harvest, with no botrytis, 80 grammes per litre of residual sugar.

Intriguing honeyed nose with light peach fruit and sweet green herbs. Quite sweet, but fresh, with a markedly honeyed touch and the round body that comes from loess soils. Long and quite aromatic.

Édes Verebes 2017

Late harvest wine from the Verebes vineyard. 50% Hárslevelü, 35% Köverszölö, 15% Sárgamuskotály. Fermented and aged 4 months in oak, using ambient yeast. 121 grammes per litre of residual sugar.

Markedly minerally nose, followed up by the strongly woody notes from Köverszölö. Full-on sweet, with excellent acidity lending freshness. Long and minerally, with Köverszölö woody spice.

Tokaji Szamorodni 2012

This is a sweet Szamorodni, made from partially botrytized bunches of 50% Furmint, 50% Hárslevelü. Fermented and aged for 2 years in oak barrels, using ambient yeast. The barrels were kept topped up, avoiding the development of flor. 94 grammes per litre of residual sugar.

Waxy nose with slight VA, peach skin and some sweet herbs. Wonderfully spicy, honeyed mouth, with sweetness and acidity in perfect balance, fat and round, yet fresh. Long and spicy. Delicious.

Tokaji Fordítás 2013

Fordítás is a “second wine” made from the Aszú dough that has already been used once for Aszú wine. The base wine used was 100% Hárslevelü, and the Aszú berries were from all of the allowed varieties grown. Fermented and aged 4 years in oak barrels, using ambient yeast. 88 grammes per litre of residual sugar.

Quite neutral nose with a hint of furniture polish. In the mouth, sweetness is balanced by light VA and some woody notes. Good length and good freshness, with a slight hint of bitterness.

Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2013

The Aszú berries were from all of the allowed varieties grown, and the Aszú dough was macerated in fermenting Hárslevelü base wine for one day. Fermented and aged 4 years in oak barrels, using ambient yeast. 158 grammes per litre of residual sugar, 9.5 grammes per litre of acidity.

Waxy, round, appley, almost meaty nose with light spice and hints of botrytis (nettle), flowers and nuts. Intense and fresh, with great sweetness balanced by high acidity. Very long, with hints of honey, intriguing spice and a hint of balancing bitterness.

 

End Note

The range and quality of the wines at Paulay Borház are quite staggering, given the tiny volumes produced. You have to commend Péter Hudák for the work he does, and in particular for his commitment to the old varieties. Definitely worth a visit, particularly if you, like me, are a nerd that has great fun tasting rare and unusual things.

 

Declaration of Interest: Apart from writing about wine, I am also a wine merchant. I do not at the point of writing import or sell wines from Paulay Borház.

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Tokaj – A Triumph of Terroir and Minerality


As you approach the Tokaj hills from the slightly undulating Hungarian plains to the south-west, you get the sense that this place is OLD. Millions of years have torn and polished those hills into soft peaks that are still dramatic against the background. Bedrock punches through sediments here and there, layering of formations is evident and soil colour and texture change constantly. It feels strong and wild, yet well-groomed; youthfully vigorous, yet old and wise; brooding, yet bright with vibration; it has a heavy presence – a there-ness – that is impossible to ignore. It draws you in, as, indeed, you think, it must have drawn in humans through time immemorial.

And so it is and so it has.

 

Tokaj, the Place and the History

The Tokaj hills are essentially a string of ancient volcanos, long extinct, but with evidence of 20 million years of volcanic activity. The long volcanic history means that the subsoil is mainly volcanic tuff, with a host of other volcanic or volcanic-derived substances present in the overlying vineyard soils, among which rhyolite, andesite, dacite, bentonite, zeolite, kaolin, opal and obsidian. Over time, the overlying vineyard soils that have been deposited in the area are windblown loess, clays from weathering and what Hungarians call “brown forest soil”, i.e. a humus-rich sedimentary soil. Iron and lime are present in relatively high concentrations in many vineyards. The notion of ancientness with a youthful vibration is geologically justified.

Evidence of human occupation in the Tokaj hills stretches almost as far back as there have been humans in Europe. The presence of obsidian, in particular, means that the hills were a regional centre of quarrying as far back as the late palaeolithic period from about 21,000 years before present. Obsidian from the Tokaj hills has been found as far away as 600 kilometres, with evidence that heavy nodules (not finished blades) have been carried that far. Obsidian is normally a very dark grey rock, but in the Tokaj area you may also find the much rarer green and milky white obsidian types, which surely must have been items of prestige trade over great distances.

So, the production of high quality has been a feature of this unique area for millennia, and it stands to reason that once wine became a thing, the potential of the area was explored. Written evidence of winemaking dates as far back as the 12th century CE, but archaeological evidence would indicate that the domesticated vine has been present in the area as far back as the 3rd century CE, with speculation that it may even have been present as far back as Celtic times, i.e. during the centuries BCE.

However, Tokaj’s road towards vinous stardom likely did not really start until the confluence of two unrelated events. The first event was the invitation by Hungarian kings for Latin peoples (likely Walloons, but possibly Italians) during the 12th and 13th centuries to settle in the area. It is highly likely that the Latin peoples brought with them a relatively advanced knowledge of winemaking. During the same period, and for centuries thereafter, the Ottoman Turkish expansion meant that previously prestigious winemaking areas in the southern part of what is now Hungary came under muslim (and so alcohol-forsaking) rule. The Tokaj area remained outside Turkish rule for the duration, and thus could supply the wine-thirsty Hungarians with much-desired wine.

It is not well-known what types of wine were made, from what grape varieties, until the 17th century. Around 1620, a newly-arrived French (Walloon) winemaker by the name of Duvont arrived at the invitation of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, and over the years Duvont developed the method for which Tokaj became (and remains) world-famous, namely that of making sweet, botrytized Aszú wine. Essentially, the unique location of the Tokaj area, at the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, coupled with mainly south-facing slopes along the hills, means that every autumn high humidity dominates in the morning, but gets burnt away by the sun during the day, thus providing a reliably perfect natural environment for the development of so-called noble rot. The first Aszú wine is normally attributed to Laczkó Máté Szepsi, who is supposed to have made the first such wine in 1630, but the first mention of Aszú wine predates this by some 59 years. At any rate, using the structured method developed by Duvont, and benefitting from the very particular environment, Tokaj became the first area in the world to deliberately and continually produce botrytized sweet wines, and in short order the Tokaj wines became world famous.

With booming exports, notably to Poland and Russia, counterfeit wine was unavoidable, and so in 1757 legislation was introduced to safeguard genuine Tokaj wine, with delimitation of the area and rules for making the wine. Tokaj was only the second area in the world to be legislated for in this manner, Chianti and Carmignano in Tuscany having been circumscribed by a bando in 1716. Work to document an already existing notion of vineyard classification began around 1730 and was largely finalized during the 1760’ies / 1770’ies. Tokaj Aszú then enjoyed a heady golden age until the end of the 18th century.

Then, disaster struck, not once, but four times. First, Poland was divided in 1795, and customs duties were introduced, meaning a very significant reduction of Tokaj’s most important export market. Then, in 1885, phylloxera struck and laid the vineyards to waste. And then, post-WWI, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon saw Hungary cede a very significant part of its previous territory, basically more than halving Tokaj’s domestic market. To add insult to injury, post-WWII, communism’s deliberate and all-encompassing focus on quantity over quality meant a steep decline in the quality of Tokaj wine. Horror stories are told about simple, sweet wine being imported from Romania and relabeled as Tokaj in vintages where the area could not live up to its planned volumes.

During the 1990’ies, Hungary finally emerged from under the communist yoke, new investment poured in, and among the first investments were projects in the Tokaj area. In short order, sweet Tokaj of superb quality began to be made again, only to encounter a world market that had increasingly fallen out of love with sweet wines.

One would think that the great people of Tokaj, having faced so many defeats by forces beyond their control, would be about to give up and start farming (excellent) potatoes. But no such thing. There is something in the strength and vitality of those hills that bids them continue to explore the quality potential. So, since the late-1990’ies / early-2000’s, an initially small, but now large, group of excellent producers has started making dry white wines. They all still say that they are in the early phases of experimentation, and that much is yet to be learnt, but, on the evidence of my recent visit there, there is now a very wide quality front, with dry white wines of absolutely world-beating, scintillating quality being made. The mind boggles at how great these wines will become if this is only an initial stage of development.

The glorious history of the Tokaj area, in conjunction with the equally glorious current situation, has meant that the UNESCO has accorded it the status of World Heritage Site. Much deserved, if you ask me.

 

Tokaj, the Vineyards

Now, I do know that the concepts of terroir and minerality are controversial, for related reasons. Firstly, scientists will tell you that the vine does not necessarily pick up any aromatic precursors – that subsequently are transformed into what we can smell and taste in wine – from the soil. The precursors, they tell us, are a result of photosynthesis in the leaves. So, apparently, the aromatic characteristics of a wine are independent of the mineral composition of the soil the vine stands in, with the soil and the aspect of the vineyard having the primary function of drainage (or not) and nutrition. Besides, they tell us, minerals are generally inert (i.e. not volatile) and/or below the sensory threshold of humans, so we can’t really smell or taste them anyway. On this background, some are of the opinion that terroir and minerality concepts as commonly used in wine are wrong and should be discontinued.

I am not one to argue with science, but would like to emphasize that the term “minerality” was never meant to be a descriptor of an actual compound found in wine, and which had been transferred from the soil to the vine. Nor was the term “terroir”, despite the obviousness of its name, ever meant to state that it is the soil that is the main contributor to a wine’s character. Rather, “minerality” denotes those sensory characteristics that one might associate with compounds that are generally sensed when you find yourself in a mineral context or in the presence of something that is of mineral extraction. A good example is the “minerality” of a great Riesling. We often say that a great Riesling is very minerally, by which many mean the very obvious, hydrocarbon-like scent molecules that we do sense and describe as “petroleum”. Hydrocarbons are produced from rock formations, and if you ever come close to a rock formation that contains hydrocarbons (slate being one), you will note a distinct hydrocarbon smell. Further, “terroir” should be taken to mean the ensemble of soil, aspect, drainage, climate, vineyard management practices, winemaking practices etc. that conspire to give certain wine types from a certain area a typical frame of smell and taste.

Why this intro, you might ask? Well, once you arrive in the Tokaj area, you will note that the area is divided into a myriad vineyard parcels, all of which have different names. Much like in Burgundy, but later in development, centuries of experience have come together to delineate these parcels in the Tokaj area. And upon tasting the wines from the various parcels, it is immediately apparent that there are clear and recognizable “terroir” differences between the individual parcels. It is also immediately clear that the wines of Tokaj are hugely minerally, and also that the type of minerality differs from site to site.

The concept that wines smell and taste differently from site to site is not a new one. The ancient Greeks developed a notion of that, and the ancient Romans followed up on that. The monks of Burgundy refined the concept during centuries of painstaking work and experience in the vineyards there. And so, Tokaj is not the first area to have a delineation of terroirs, but it is certainly among the first regions to have a highly detailed and well-documented conception and legal definition of them.

As mentioned above, the work to fully document the classification of vineyards in the Tokaj area was finalized during the 1760’ies / 1770’ies. At the time, some 11,149 hectares of vineyard were delineated and classified into three quality levels, with 76 vineyards classified as first class (of which two, Szarvas and Mézes Mály, were given the status of Great First Class), 59 as second class and 38 as third class. Currently, some 5,500 hectares of Tokaj vineyard exist in Hungary, with some 900 hectares in the Slovakian portion of Tokaj.

It is still being discussed, with quite some emotion, whether the primary basis for the classification was outright quality potential for any type of wine, or whether the classification only relates to the potential for producing high-quality Aszú (sweet) wine. Most sources I have consulted state that it is the sweet wine potential that was originally rated, but I wonder whether, in accepting that statement, we are not guilty of the general tendency to think that people in days gone by were more stupid, less sophisticated and less sensorially gifted than we are today. Taking a hint from the monks of Burgundy, we can certainly see that they developed an extremely acute and detailed sensory knowledge, and I am convinced that this depth of sensory experience and sophistication would also have existed among the people of the Tokaj region. After all, these people would have worked the vineyards for centuries. So, while on the surface there might be reason to say that it was the sweet wine potential that was rated, I think it likely that a general conception of high sensory quality would have been at least a part of the evaluation, too. While based on only brief – and therefore highly fallible – exposure on the ground, I developed a clear notion that when you taste the dry wines from first class vineyards they do indeed have greater depth, power and expressivity than wines from lesser vineyards. So, if anything, the original classification seems to have stood the test of time, despite changes in wine fashion. That, for me, is the hallmark of a well-thought-out classification.

The name for “vineyard” in Tokaj is Dülö, so, for example, “Szarvas vineyard” is “Szarvas Dülö”. You are only allowed to use the Dülö nomination for vineyards that are officially classified as such, so whenever you come across it, you can be assured that the vineyard named is actually a classified one. There is a tendency to only put first class vineyards on the label, but nothing is to stop you from naming the other classes on labels.

The vineyard soils in Tokaj are extremely varied, so it is difficult to come up with general indications of what types of soil are found where in the area. However, if you arm yourself with a map of the Hungarian part of the Tokaj area and follow me, let me try to make a fool of myself by attempting a very generalized rule about topsoils anyway. In general, then, you will find few volcanic traces in the vineyards of the south-eastern part of the area, on or around the mighty Tokaj hill. Instead, the topsoil here is loess, sometimes to considerable depth. As you move westward and slightly northward, from Tarcal to Mád, the volcanic component of the topsoil becomes more marked, to the point of finding actual obsidian and other volcanic rock outcroppings in certain Mád vineyards. The picture is highly heterogeneous, because there are many different ages of volcanism, and because sedimentation over time has also contributed, unevenly, to topsoils. Moving north and east from Mád, towards and beyond Olaszliszka and Erdöbénye, you will find traces of volcanism in the higher-lying vineyards, but on the lower parts towards the Bodrog river the topsoils become more sedimentary, with few volcanic compounds. Again, very generally, the character of the wines changes from loess / sedimentary soils to the more volcanic-derived soils, with the former giving broader, rounder, bigger, more spicy wines and the latter providing slimmer, tighter, more focused and more overtly minerally wines. All of this with a huge grain of salt, please.

The people of the Tokaj area have been working vineyards and vines for centuries, and that is very apparent when in the area. The vineyards are for the most part extremely well-kept, orderly and neat-looking. Because so many wine styles are possible, and desired, viticulture is, of necessity, very detailed and painstaking. These people know how to do quality vineyard work, which is also borne out by the very low yields obtained. The low yields are not just a function of a significant percentage of the grapes being subjected to noble rot and ending up in Aszú wine, but also simply because the Furmint variety, in particular, is very sensitive to yields, producing insipid wine if left to provide high yields. Further, because noble rot is wanted, there is actually little spraying going on, as that would prevent botrytis from attacking the grapes, so even if few producers are working organically, few fungicides, herbicides etc. are used.

My short stay in the Tokaj area really does not allow me to speak with much authority about individual vineyard character and differences between individual vineyards, but it was very clear from my tastings that, very much like in Burgundy, even vineyards that are immediately adjacent to each other can exhibit markedly different characters, to the point of there being individual subplots within larger vineyards with different characters. It was also quite clear that the Tokaj area’s terroirs are very strong, and will assert themselves over, or punch through, any choice of grape varieties grown in them.

It so happened that several of the producers that I visited had holdings in the mighty Királyi (“King”) vineyard near Mád, and that allowed me to begin forming an idea about the terroir of that specific place. Királyi is a steep, terraced, south-west-facing vineyard with mainly volcanic-derived soils. Being difficult to work, it was more or less abandoned during the communist era, but has been the object of massive clearing and replanting from the 1990’ies onwards. While specific winemaking choices did mean that the wines were not identical between the producers, looking back over my tasting notes, I feel that the character of the Királyi vineyard as it comes through in the wines is strongly dominated by its volcanic character. This primarily meant a powerful, dark, “ashy” mineral character across nose and palate. Supporting and consistent notes were a leafy / green / soft herbal touch and a spicy note reminiscent of anise. Structure was broad-shouldered, but elegant, with racy acidity and great intensity, irrespective of the choice of grape varieties. The Királyi wines were consistently exhilarating, testament to a great terroir.

 

Tokaj, the Grape Varieties

Historically, many different grape varieties were grown to make the Tokaj white wines. Over the years, Furmint was gradually singled out as the main grape variety, with Hárslevelü a firm runner-up, but until the advent of phylloxera during the 1880’ies vineyards were still planted promiscuously to many different varieties. In the aftermath of phylloxera, new plantings were “rationalized”, and a much smaller selection of varieties was preferred. Several previously well-regarded varieties were lost.

Today, Tokaj can only be legally made from 6 varieties: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Sárgamuskotály, Köverszölö, Kabar and Zeta. Brief descriptions of the varieties follow.

Furmint

The undisputed king of Tokaj vineyards, making up some 60% of all plantings. When it arrived in Tokaj is uncertain, with some claiming 12th or 13th century, but first written mention is in the 17th century.

Its origin is unknown, but it is genetically likely to be the offspring of Gouais Blanc, making it a sibling of Chardonnay and Riesling, among others.

Furmint is a late ripener that maintains high acidity even when very ripe. Coupled with its high extract and thin skin, which makes it susceptible to botrytis, this makes it ideal for making perfectly balanced, non-cloying, powerful sweet wines. However, it is now also coming along strongly as a high-quality variety for dry white wines.

This is a fairly neutral, non-aromatic variety, which makes it a great conduit for terroir expression. While the basic aromatic characteristics of the variety are in the apple-peach spectrum, with hints of green herbs and always strong minerality, the broad range of expression that the wines take is first and foremost a terroir phenomenon. Picking timing and winemaking choices, including whether oak is employed, do make a substantial difference, but the place always comes through strongly in Furmint.

Hárslevelü (Feuille de Tilleul, Lindenblättriger)

Literally “Linden Leaf”, because of the shape of its leaves, Hárslevelü is an offspring of Furmint. It makes up about 30% of plantings in the Tokaj area.

This may be a native of the Tokaj area, with first written mention during the 18th century.

Like Furmint, it ripens quite late, maintains high acidity and has much extract. While the skins are thicker, it is still quite susceptible to botrytis.

Hárslevelü is a semi-aromatic variety, with fruitiness in the quince-ripe peach-apricot spectrum and delightful floral (particularly elderflower), citrus, spice and green herbs aromatics. Although this makes for a more directly grape-derived personality, based on my tastings it still changes quite significantly from vineyard to vineyard, with one site enhancing, for example, a broad and powerful palate, another site floral and citrusy aromas, and a third site leafy green notes.

Sárgamuskotàly (Yellow Muscat, Muscat Lunel)

Muscat Lunel is, of course, a well-known variety that you may find in many places around the world. It is well-known for its exuberant aromatics. Together with a majority of Furmint and a good splash of Hárslevelü, Sárgamuskotály forms the classic trinity that makes up many Tokaji Aszú wines, to which it lends its powerful floral and citrusy aromatics and tendency to high sugar levels.

Quite a number of producers are now also using it to make varietal dry wines, which from the Tokaj terroir tend to be quite light, with good acidity and bright aromatics.

Köverszölö (Grasa de Cotnari, Resertraube)

This is the Romanian grape Grasa de Cotnari (“fat one from Cotnari”). It is a decidedly minor variety in the grape mix in Tokaj, but is quite distinctive with its ripe peachy fruitiness, warm/sweet/woody spiciness and touch of citrus. Very little is being made as varietally pure wine, but on the evidence of my tastings can be quite interesting.

Kabar (Hárslevelü x Bouvier)

This is one of two recent crossings that have been introduced into the Tokaj vineyards, probably for agronomical reasons. It ripens early, with high acidity and high sugar, and so one can see how this might provide “insurance” against vintages where later-ripening varieties may fare less well. I did not taste any varietally pure Kabar, so cannot with any certainty deduce a character, but working from subtraction in wines containing some Kabar, it would seem that it has broad fruitiness and some oriental spiciness to add.

Zéta (Furmint x Bouvier)

The other crossing, seemingly also introduced for agronomical reasons. This also ripens early, and its main attraction would seem to be this, as well as it being prone to botrytis. I did not taste any wines that would allow me to deduce a character for Zéta.

 

There are still a few plantings in the Tokaj area of some of the pre-phylloxera varieties. Two such, which are not (yet) allowed to carry the Tokaj denomination, but which are attracting some interest on quality grounds, are Lisztesféhér and Gohér. I had the good fortune of being able to taste a pure Lisztesféhér wine, and so can report at least what that tasted like. See my tasting notes for the Paulay Borház winery in an upcoming blog post.

What with climate change in full swing, perhaps a useful way of ensuring the continued production and high quality in the Tokaj area could be to investigate the old varieties and see if some of those might provide good “insurance” against warmer temperatures, greater rainfall or whatever other ills might befall.

 

Tokaj, the Wines

“Tokaj” was once as much a winemaking method and a resultant wine-type classification as it was a place. Being the first consistently produced botrytized sweet wine, it attracted great fame and – inevitably – imitation. So, Tokaj, or any variation of spelling such as Tocai and Tokay, quickly came to stand for sweet wines produced elsewhere (such as Australia’s erstwhile fortified Tokay, produced from Muscadelle, and now mostly called Topaque), as well as for grape varieties with which one could produce interesting sweet wines. Examples of the latter, now banned, are Tocai Friulano (now Friulano) and Tokay Pinot Gris (now Pinot Gris).

After having joined the European Union, Hungary went on the warpath and essentially managed to ban all of the diverse Tokaj-Tocai-Tokay names. As far as I am concerned, this was not entirely uncontroversial, mainly because some of the other names could not meaningfully be confused with the real Tokaj wine, while having well-established, centuries-old reputations for themselves, but the end result was strong protection for the place name Tokaj, and since place is king in my wine world, that is not a bad thing after all.

The legislation surrounding Tokaj wines has been significantly updated and EU-streamlined. While a good measure of simplification was achieved, notably by getting rid of the Puttonyos levels (see below) for the sweet Aszú wines, a bewildering array of wines is still possible. The following is an attempt at a short (!) overview of the various wine categories being made in the area today and carrying the Tokaj denomination.

First, though, an important note: Tokaj, while being a place name, can be used only for white wines. There is a tiny bit of red wine being made in the area, but it is not allowed to carry the Tokaj name.

Pézsgö (sparkling wines)

Since the main Tokaj grape varieties of Furmint and Hárslevelü both have very healthy acidity levels, and given that the world is moving away from sweet wines and over towards sparkling wines, the idea of producing sparkling wines in the Tokaj area is a logical one. So, recently, quite a number of producers has started experimenting with sparkling wines, both using Charmat and classic (as in Champagne) methods.

Given that this is still in its infancy, one would expect this to be a bit of a hit-and-miss category, but I found that the examples I tasted were rather good. The terroir and the varieties lend themselves well to being transformed into sparkling wine, while maintaining a good sense of terroir, and this is a category to watch for the future.

Száraz (dry wine)

It seems incredible, but dry wine from Tokaj is basically an emergency category that has arisen out of the difficulty of selling the sweet wines the area has been famous for for centuries. Incredible, because the dry wines of Tokaj these days is a highly accomplished category producing some of the most interesting white wines in the world. Getting to such a level normally requires generations of work and experience, but the combination of a powerful terroir and centuries of experience growing grapes has meant that the people of Tokaj have reached a very high level in very short time.

Now, Furmint and Hárslevelü both have rather high acidity, so in making dry wines many producers deliberately keep a bit of residual sweetness to balance out the acidity. This is very much along the same lines as what German producers might do for Riesling, which, of course, is another high-acidity variety. I find that I am often in opposition to a too-deliberate use of residual sweetness in wines to make them palatable to a greater audience. I think that the sweetness often masks a sense of place, and also muddles the wine, making it less transparent, more confused and possibly also lends them a shorter bottle life. Essentially, I think that for the most part this is a method used by large, industrial producers making wines to certain schemes and price points. However, I must also admit that there are many great Rieslings being made with a hint of residual sweetness, and throughout my tastings of dry Tokaj wines I did not at any point come across a wine that I thought had too much of it. Having said that, I must also admit that I am a great lover of high acidity in wines, and I, for one, would not mind in the least if producers started fermenting their dry wines to complete dryness. The wines might become a tad more austere in youth, but I think would probably repay it in the long run.

At any rate, the final expression of the dry wines of Tokaj is a result of a highly complex interplay of viticulture and winemaking choices, balancing between canopy management vs. picking times vs. acidity vs. sugar levels vs. phenolic ripeness vs. residual sweetness vs. full fermentation vs. oak vs. stainless steel vs. lees contact etc. etc. What with normal vintage variation and climate change, this is not a simple, one-size-fits-all equation, and the discussion around the choices cannot and should not be reduced to just one of the factors.

In terms of the dry wines, many producers have a two-tier system, with one or more entry-level, estate (“birtok”) wines, for instance one Furmint, one Hárslevelü and one Sárgamuskotály, and several single-vineyard (Dülö) wines. The Dülö wines are normally only made from Furmint and/or Hárslevelü, but the other varieties can appear in minor roles. The estate wines will often be made for earlier consumption, but one should not mistake them for simple quaffing wines for that reason. Many of them are supremely elegant, stylish and intense, with nerve and great personality. Dülö wines may eclipse them for sheer power and terroir expression, but they can certainly be great wines in their own right.

The use of oak barrels for fermenting and ageing wines is quite widespread in Tokaj. This has several reasons, one being that the famous oak forests in Zemplén are just around the corner, another that oak ageing for the sweet wines has centuries of tradition in the area, and yet another could be that producers wish to give their wines the extra oomph and longevity that can be the result of oak barrel ageing. While I had read that oak ageing was sometimes clumsily and heavy-handedly done in the early years of dry wine experimentation, during my tastings I did not come across a single Tokaj wine that had been ruined by excessive oak treatment. This is yet another testament to how far the producers of Tokay have come in such short time with their dry wines.

The great power, acidity, body and extract of dry Tokaj wines made from Furmint, in particular, ought to lend them great longevity, on a par with great Riesling and great Chardonnay. While the producers still say that they don’t know if this is the case, because serious dry wines have only been made for such short time, I have no doubt that this is the case.

Kései Szüret (Late Harvest)

Late Harvest is a relatively new category of Tokaj wine, which started to surface during the 1990’ies. The wines are made from selected, late-harvested, but not necessarily botrytized grapes. As there are no ageing requirements for this category, it is a bit of a playground for the producers, but most of them use the category for making quite fresh, easily drinkable sweet wines that they can market within a year or two of the harvest.

Szamorodni

It might be too much to describe Szamorodni as a schizophrenic category of wine, but it certainly can turn out in several ways.

The name is derived from a Polish word that means something like “as it was born” or “as it came”, which reflects that Szamorodni is made from whole bunches of grapes (not individually selected berries), some of which will be botrytized. It used to be called Föbor (“main wine”), which may refer to it being the category once made in greatest volume, as opposed to Aszú wines, but changed its name to the Polish word as a result of Poland being the largest export market for Tokaj wines.

Szamorodni comes in two overall categories: sweet and dry. The sweet (Edes) category is by far the more frequently made wine; it requires 6 months of barrel ageing and a minimum of 12% alcohol. The dry (Száraz) category is one of the world’s utterly unique wines, being a botrytized wine fermented to dryness and then aged for a minimum of 6 months in barrel under a layer of flor, like Sherry; unfortunately, little of this is made anymore, but it if you come across it, try it, because it will never be less than interesting, and may even be utterly great.

Aszú

“Aszú” means something like “dried” or “shriveled” and refers to berries that have been attacked by botrytis and have shriveled to almost raisins. The berries are picked late and individually and are then ground into a paste, called “Aszú dough”, which is then macerated with a base wine for up to two days. The resulting must is fermented, and then aged in traditional 136-litre Gönci oak barrels for a minimum of 18 months, with a total required ageing of two years before it can be marketed.

The sweetness of Aszú wines used to be stated by way of Puttonyos. Puttonyos were the traditional harvesting containers for Aszú berries, and the number of Puttonyos stated would be the number of Puttonyos that went into one Gönci barrel. This would then give a rough estimate of how sweet the wine would be, because the highly-concentrated Aszú berries would add considerable sugar. Puttonyos as the legal sweetness indicator has been discontinued (although, confusingly, producers are still allowed to state Puttonyos on labels), and a simpler, more rational minimum level of 120 grammes of residual sugar in the wine is now the limit for when a Tokaj wine may be called Aszú (corresponding to 5 Puttonyos under the old system). Many Aszú wines go considerably higher than that.

Aszú has historically had a couple of derivative wines, Fordítás and Máslás. The latter, being a fermentation of base wine on the lees of Aszú wine, has been outlawed, while the former, which is a reuse of the Aszú dough after the first soaking in base wine, remains in use, although is not common anymore.

Tokaji Aszú is truly one of the world’s great sweet wines. When it is at its best, it is a wine of unrivalled complexity, balance and intensity. Its origin in the very special terroir of Tokaj gives it an incredible range of aromas and flavours, and the acidity, sweetness and concentration make it one of the most longevous wines on Earth. You cannot call yourself a winelover and not have tried it at least once.

Eszencia

“Essence” really is what it says. It is the result of the free-run, treacly juice from Aszú berries, without the addition of any base wine. The minuscule quantities of Eszencia juice is put in demijohns and fermented, often for years. Because of the osmotic pressure from the sugary juice, which can have 800 grams per litre of sugar, and sometimes more, fermentation is extremely slow and interrupted. Since the alcohol level never reaches beyond 3-4 degrees, Eszencia cannot be called wine.

As you might imagine, Eszencia is in short supply, and very expensive. Few ever get to experience it. I have had the great luck to have tried it in a couple of occasions, and can report that it is an overwhelming experience. The incredible sweetness not only makes the drink very viscous, but in combination with incredible acidity also gives it a searingly powerful attack in the mouth. I can’t say that I have ever been left with the impression of great complexity, because the sugar is so overwhelming, but for a liquid that has barely fermented, nor would I expect that.

The people of Tokaj have been using Eszencia for centuries as a tonic and cure-all, doled out by the teaspoonful, and it remains in use as a sort of preventive dietary supplement.

 

Tokaji Aszú by law is sold in a distinctive, traditional bottle shape containing 500 ml. After the advent of dry Tokaj wines, this shape has been developed into an equally distinctive, and rather good-looking, 750 ml dark glass bottle. Further, famous glassmaker Riedel has developed a glass specifically for Furmint. So, all of the paraphernalia around Tokaj wines are also in place.

 

You must like – or be able to tolerate – powerful acidity and minerality in wines in order to love Tokaj wines. But if you do, these are some of the greatest white wines anywhere in the world.

 

Tastings

I went, under my own steam, on a visit to the Hungarian part of Tokaj during end-April 2019. Guided by the extremely useful advice of my friend, the great Hungarian wine journalist Daniel Ercsey, to whom I am most grateful, I visited eight of the best producers of Tokaj wines. I will be putting up separate blog posts about each of those visits, with tasting notes, so here is only a list of those visited:

  • Paulay Borház (this is also a B&B in the centre of Tokaj town; I stayed there myself and highly recommend it)
  • Erzsebet
  • Barta
  • Gizella
  • Arpád-Hegy
  • Samuel Tinon
  • Tokaj Nobilis
  • Kikelet

Tokaj experts are likely to agree that these are generally among the area’s great producers, but might add that a few of the area’s best, most famous and/or largest producers are not on that list. This is mostly deliberate, because my request to Daniel Ercsey for advice mentioned that I wished to visit small, local, family-owned enterprises with a strong dedication to their own vineyards and terroirs. Large enterprises were less relevant, and worldwide fame unimportant. I basically wanted an insider’s tips to where I might find positive surprises. And Daniel delivered in spades.

But since I was in the area anyway, I obviously took the opportunity to taste a few other producers’ wines when dining. So, for completeness’ sake, here are some very basic impressions of those producers:

  • István Szepsy: Szepsy is probably the greatest hero of the modern return to quality winemaking in Tokaj. He was the first to develop high-quality dry Tokaj, and his wines are famous and highly sought-after. I tasted a couple of his dry Furmints, and found them excellent. They were quite powerful, balanced by high acidity and scintillating minerality.
  • Bott: This is a mid-sized, family-owned winery, well known for high quality. I tasted a handful of dry wines from Bott, and found them to be very good. The house style is relatively soft, with wines that are rounded and very drinkable. If you would like to taste good Tokaj wines, but are unhappy about the frequently searing acidity, this might be your go-to producer (although never expect LOW acidity from Tokaj).
  • Zoltán Demeter: Along with István Szepsy, Demeter is one of the first and greatest pioneers of the new era in Tokaj. By all accounts a strong-willed, opinionated and controversial figure, he was also among the first to put great dry Tokaj onto the market. I tasted a dry Furmint and a sweet wine from Demeter. I found the wines very powerful, broad, with almost visceral impact. Spicy, with peachy fruit and dark, brooding volcanic minerality.

 

End note:

The visit I undertook to Tokaj was one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, visits to any wine region I have ever been on. The style and quality of the wines I tasted were fantastic, and the level among the producers I visited consistently high. The area still needs to develop further in terms of wine tourism, even if good accommodation and food certainly is available, but it has what it takes to become one of the greatest wine destinations in the world, namely absolute world-class terroirs, the grape varieties to express the terroirs and the intelligent, quality-conscious producers to interpret them.

Tokaj has experienced a golden age, but it is a long time ago. On the strength of the wines I tasted, it is about to experience another golden age. The terroir is just so irrepressibly strong that it will come through, eventually.

In the words of the great pioneer Zoltán Demeter: “We must simply clearly, honestly believe in the magnificence Tokaj-Hegyalja is able to give us with the unique characteristics of its growing site. The experience so far is very encouraging. It seems Tokaj really knows it all.” (Interview in Mandiner.bor portal, March 2016)

Prepare, world, for Tokaj has regrouped and is coming back, with a vengeance!

 

Interest declaration

I am, of course, now also a wine merchant. I do not at the time of writing import any of the producers’ wines, but based on this brief foray into Tokaj, I basically want to import them all. While that would be commercial folly, you should fully expect that I will start importing wines from one or more of the producers in future.

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Epicurus and the Good Life – Other than Hedonism


It never rains but it pours. So two posts in the same day.

I came across this oldie-but-goodie article at The Economist’s 1843 site. Apart from explaining the injustice done to the memory of Epicurus, it also sets out salient parts of Epicurus’ down-to-earth and wise philosophy. Very good stuff to think about and incorporate, I think.

https://www.1843magazine.com/story/a-practitioners-guide-to-hedonism

Surely, much of what’s wrong with today’s societies, much of what makes so many people unhappy, continues to be driven by an excess of unlivable, dour and life-disparaging schools of thought, with contorted, impossible ideals and morals that are impossible to live up to. Why not go for something that affirms life and the simple pursuit of happiness? And don’t forget wine along the wine. It might even help…

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