It’s not all luscious stickies in Tokaj – a new style of top-notch dry white is taking hold among leading producers, finds CAROLINE GILBY MW.
Arriving in the town of Tokaj after the long drive from Budapest, you feel as though you’ve stepped into Tolkien’s Middle-earth. This region of volcanic hills is dominated by the rivers Bodrog and Tisza, which meet in the small town of Tokaj itself, and the small arched cellars
that tunnel into the hillsides only add to the Tolkien-esque impression. The Tokaji vineyards cover around 5,500ha (hectares) and have long basked in the reputation of the region’s sweet wines, famously dubbed ‘king of wines and wine of kings’. There’s little doubt that today’s top producers of the luscious golden Aszú wines are making simply stunning wines, a world away from the dreary brown, oxidised stuff that dominated production under communism. These are wines that can hold their own among the world’s very best sweet wines. However, they will only ever appeal to a tiny part of the market – partly because they are enormously labour intensive and expensive to make, and partly because sweet wines are consumed in tiny volumes, usually only on significant occasions.
The last three to four years have seen a new wave of very modern and exciting dry wines emerge from Tokaj: serious, complex, with a real sense of place. These are wines that should appeal to a much wider audience and give new prominence to Hungary’s most famous region.
Dry wines have always existed in Tokaj, but were traditionally made with the leftovers from sweet wine production; grapes that failed to succumb to the transformation wrought by botrytis cinerea. The name for such dry wines in the past was ordinarium, which gives an indication of the scant respect they received. The region has a unique climate – protected from cold northerly winds by the Zemplén Hills. Altitude ranges from 150–300m, with vineyards ranging across the slopes of 400 extinct volcanoes. It’s the confluence of the two rivers at Tokaj that creates the foggy, humid air typical of autumn mornings, and vital for noble rot. Afternoons, meanwhile, tend to be dry and breezy, shrivelling the infected berries into Aszú grapes. What has changed recently is that top producers are no longer making dry wines with the remnants. They are deliberately working in sites with drier soils, well above the fog zone, and with good sun exposure to ensure high-quality fruit. Vineyard management is designed to produce healthy fruit by spraying to avoid botrytis and keeping vine canopies open for good air circulation.
The other change is one of mindset: producers are starting to recognise the huge potential of Furmint, the main grape in Tokaj. As Izabella Zwack, the glamorous owner of Tokaji Dobogó says: ‘Furmint is a really exceptional grape that, a bit like Riesling, goes from bone dry to unimaginably sweet.’ She adds: ‘People love the difference of it, the complexity, the freshness, the minerality and the depth.’ Zwack believes dry Furmint will appeal to wine lovers wanting a change and seeking alternative white grapes, in the same way that Austrian Grüner Veltliner has taken off.
Furmint covers about 60% of Tokaji’s vineyards, and comes in big, compact bunches which are prone to botrytis but also retain very good acidity. Inevitably, under communism, grape varieties were selected for high yield above all else, so it has taken time for leading producers to select and plant clones from old vineyards. Tokaji evangelist István Szepsy has spent several years selecting cuttings from ancient vines, with an emphasis on low yields and quality. ‘Furmint is a fantastic grape if perfectly ripe, but this is difficult to achieve as each bunch varies,’ he says. Szepsy was technical director of the local coop in the communist era, and then became involved in various joint ventures, taking sweet Tokaji to a new quality level. He admits he ‘didn’t believe in dry wines – they were a by product of sweet wines.’
However, in 2006 he changed his focus and decided to concentrate solely on his own family business. He wanted the freedom to express individual terroirs in a way that is not possible in a larger company. ‘I wanted to be able to work almost vine by vine; cutting part bunches if necessary to get even ripeness.’ The 2003 vintage had been Szepsy’s first release of dry wine under his own name. He reckons ‘it’s through dry wines that our region can prove its quality and show off terroir’. His stunning Szent Tamás 2003 sold so well he recently had to buy some back from his German importer, just so he could keep a few bottles to follow the evolution and ageing capacity of the wine. He reckons his 2005s are even better – he’s added another dry Furmint from the first growth Nyulászó and a single-vineyard Hárslevel˝u from the Király grand cru – and certainly all the structure, minerality and depth of flavour are already there in the glass. In 2006, he produced six different terroir wines from individual plots, which are already impressive but will repay keeping, allowing them to blossom. Szepsy also believes firmly that dry wines can help bring Tokaji to a wider audience: ‘Those who will drink a bottle of good dry wine with a meal are a bigger market than those who will sip a small glass with dessert.’
Royal Tokaji is another major producer that resisted producing anything but top Aszú wines until 2003, when its first impressive dry Furmint was produced. Now director Dr George Rasko is optimistic about the category. ‘They’ve helped improve the image of the region,’ he says, though within Hungary he reckons most of the population prefer drier wines. ‘They are superficially proud of Aszú as their heritage, but don’t actually drink much [partly because it’s quite expensive for Hungarians].’ One of my favourite dry Furmints is the Mandolás from Tokaj Oremus. This winery in Tolcsva is owned by the Alvarez family of Vega Sicilia and is claimed as the site where Aszú berries were first gathered separately. Winemaker András Bacsó is a committed believer in using new barrels for all his fermentations, dry and sweet. The oak is cut from the local Zemplén forest and aged for three years before being coopered locally. ‘Our dry wines have become much more important to us and we try to avoid any botrytis,’ says Bacsó.
The Mandolás is a selection, rather than a single-vineyard wine, but it is a lovely demonstration of Furmint’s ability to take to oak fermentation, adding another dimension to its classic, mineral characters. Patricius is a relatively new name in Tokaj but has already made a big impression with the sheer quality of its wines. The investment started in 2001 with vineyards, and then a winery was opened in 2005. Technical director Péter Molnár highlights that his wines are all about ‘showing terroir through vineyard selection’. His lovely dry Furmint 2005 comes from a dry, hilly vineyard, giving it an unusually soft and rounded texture, while partial oak fermentation adds depth. Another recent investment is the architecturally stunning Béres winery, where the dry wines are increasingly impressive, especially the single-vineyard L˝ocse Dry Furmint and Naparany Cuvee.
For Dobogó, partial oak fermentation is important for adding depth and texture to the dry Furmint. This tiny but charming winery has 5ha of 30-year-old vines in some of the best sites in the region, and only produced its first dry wine in 2003. Like many in the region, winemaker Attila Domokos has been learning what works with Furmint as a dry wine, and the 2006 release is Dobogó’s best yet, with real elegance and balance. The winery name is meant to echo the ‘clip-clop’ sound of horses’ hooves, and also the sound of a heartbeat.French-owned Disznók˝o also makes an appealing, fresh, simple but good-value dry Furmint without oak, stocked in the UK by the Wine Society. Disznók˝o is the first winery you see as you drive into Tokaj. Its name means ‘pig rock’, though there’s some debate as to whether this refers to the shape of the large rock in the centre of the vineyards, or the fact that it was too much of a ‘pig of a rock’ to remove. Either way, László Mészáros is guiding the production of a simply stunning range of wines in a very architecturally dramatic winery – even the tractor shed is a thing of beauty.
The new face of dry Tokaji is not just about Furmint. Hárslevel˝u is also used, appearing on its own and in blends like Béres’ Naparany cuvée. Sárga Muskotály, or yellow Muscat, is also widely grown in Tokaj, traditionally to add grapey perfume to the sweet wines, but it can also make delightfully pretty dry wines such as Chateau Megyer’s. This Frenchowned
winery has its vast network of cellars under the historic Rákóczi castle, dating back to the days when buildings above ground were heavily taxed. The vineyards are right at the northern tip of the region, on south-facing sites, and produce fine, crisp, elegant wines. There are many other up-and-coming names in Tokaj – too many to list here – but they include Pendits (which will become Tokaj’s first certified organic producer this year), Királyudvar, Degenfeld, Hétszo˝lo˝, Dereszla and Füleky.
The rise of dry wines, especially from Furmint, has given a new direction and focus on highlighting the unique volcanic terroir of the Tokaji region. It’s clear that Furmint is a grape that can offer a wide range of styles, sweet or dry, and with and without oak. It’s still a relatively new kid on the block, at least in terms of receiving serious attention as a dry wine, but there are already signs that dry Furmint is a genuine contender in the world of topquality dry wines.