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.
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.