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.
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.
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.