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.
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.