It boasts the wine world’s oldest heritage, and has the most unique terroir. Yet sales of Tokaj’s famous sweet wines lag behind its international rivals. AMY WISLOCKI asks why
Speeding through the night across Hungary’s inky plains to Tokaj, in the country’s northeast corner, it seems a world away from the bustle of Budapest – a world away from anywhere, in fact. Tour the region in the day, and there’s a sense of quiet tradition, of unchanging, remote landscapes and stoic endurance. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Tokaj appellation is the wine world’s oldest, dating back to 1737.
But to take Tokaj at face value would be a mistake. Talk to its leading producers and you discover a region in the grip of change. Christian Seely, who oversees the Disznókö estate as part of AXA-Millésimes’ portfolio of properties, points out that wine production suffered a 50-year eclipse during the Communist era, and it’s only since the early 1990s that quality has begun to climb again.
It’s clear that Tokaj is capable of producing some of the greatest sweet wines in the world. What’s not so clear is how to get this across to consumers, and so increase sales. Every producer has a different philosophy about the route to success, and experimentation is still rife. ‘It’s not easy at the moment,’ says Seely, ‘and the short-term danger is that the market won’t grow as well as we’d like. But the long-term prospects are good, as the quality is there and the amount produced is relatively small.’
Disznókö is one of a wave of properties snapped up and transformed by foreign investors after the fall of Communism. It is also a member of the Tokaj Renaissance group, which brings together producers ‘united by a single passion: to restore the noble image of one of the most prestigious wines in the world’. Isn’t this a rather vague, woolly membership criterium? Yes, says Seely, ‘but it’s necessarily woolly as we believe in diversity, and a contribution to the region’s rebirth could take many forms. Experimentation is a symptom of the desire to make the greatest wine possible, and time will prove which ideas work best.’
If anyone had it sussed, you’d think it would be István Szepsy. Szepsy has been on Tokaj’s wine scene for 35 years, as a grower, winemaker and technical director of the Tokaj coop during Communism. Today he sells wine under three company names: Szepsy (the family-owned company); Királyudvar (a joint venture with US financier Anthony Hwang), and Zemplén Hegyhát (targeted at the lower end of the market). The Szepsy wines are among the region’s most sought-after and successful, and yet even he is feeling the pinch. ‘The biggest challenge for me now is to make Királyudvar self-financing. I’ve no problem selling Szepsy wines, which have a long-standing reputation, and no problem selling Zemplén Hegyhát at the lower end, but Királyudvar is a relatively new brand, selling at a high price.’
Szepsy is convinced that in order for the region to prosper, producers must consider categories outside the traditional aszu wines, a view that he has come round to only in the past five or six years. ‘In the beginning I believed only in sweet wines,’ he said. ‘I didn’t believe it was possible to make interesting dry wines here. But the reality is that people are not drinking enough naturally sweet wines. We need to develop sales of more drinkable categories, like dry wines.’
Having decided back in 1999 that dry wines were key to future success, Szepsy set about experimenting to find the right formula. ‘I stumbled on it by chance,’ he recalls. ‘The secret is a combination of terroir (stony, heavy red clay), old vines (more than 40 years old), old clones of Furmint (smaller bunches of grapes than younger clones and a spicy, mineral character), low yields (around 18–20hl/ha), strict selection, severe green harvesting and natural yeasts.
‘There are even more possibilities here for dry white than there are somewhere like Burgundy,’ he claims. ‘There are so many types of bedrock, caused by 400 different volcanoes. And the terroir shines through in dry wines, unobscured by sweetness.’ Surely dry wine from Tokaj is an even more difficult sell than sweet? Not according to Szepsy: ‘If you have a name that wine lovers and sommeliers trust, you’ll be able to sell dry wines. My two single-vineyard whites were the most expensive Hungarian dry whites ever produced and they sold immediately.’
Life is sweet
Back at Disznókö, Seely doesn’t agree that dry whites are an important part of the way forward, and he certainly doesn’t agree that terroir is better expressed through dry wines – unsurprisingly, as the AXA portfolio also includes Sauternes first growth Château Suduiraut. ‘There are some lovely dry and late-harvest wines made here, but ultimately aszu is what the place is about,’ he says firmly.
Of the aszu wines produced, the five puttonyos category (minimum residual sugar level 120g/litre) is without doubt the most important to Tokaj as a region. Taste through different producers’ ranges, and you’ll see why – I would go for five puttonyos every time. There’s a magical equilibrium about these wines, a balance between opulence and freshness. And from a line-up of vintages, 1999 has to be first choice. This was a truly fantastic, classic vintage in Tokaj, and is the first where all the improvements made in the region post-Communism are displayed to full advantage. Disznókö’s 1999 Aszu Five Puttonyos is delicious, and embodies the precise, fresh, focused mineral style that the company aims for as its hallmark.
Szepsy also has a clear idea of the style he is aiming for with his aszu wines. Significantly, both he and Vega Sicilia-owned Oremus have moved to a fresher style of aszu from 2000 onwards. Owned by the cult Spanish winery since 1993, the Oremus estate has 100ha of vines – 25% of which was planted in the last three years. As well as aiming for a more aromatic, fresh style of aszu, the strategy here has been to simplify the range, says general manager András Bacsó. ‘We usually make one dry white and one late-harvest wine,’ he explains. ‘But we don’t make single-vineyard wines, and we no longer make szamarodni (part botrytised, and vinified either sweet or dry) wines.
‘We were selling 80% of our szamarodni wines domestically, and production costs were rising. It costs almost the same to make a szamarodni wine as it does an aszu – but they’re a much harder sell.’
The Tokaj Renaissance group has invested money in trials since it was formed in 1995, but in the current tough climate there isn’t much money to go around. But this is not stopping individual producers from experimenting, and pushing forward with their individual philosophies. Even if categories like szamarodni are taking a short-term hit, in a region with the wealth of history and tradition Tokaj has – and where even its most established producers, like Szepsy, admit they are still learning – the long-term future for the wines of Tokaj looks bright.