Standing on a street in the village of Mád in the Tokaji wine region, I watched a silver Mercedes slink along the street and halt beside me. A window hummed down. ‘We’re looking for the cellars of István Szepsy….’
‘I am István Szepsy,’ replied my companion, a slight figure in a grey tweed jacket. My Hungarian wasn’t up to the ensuing conversation, but the body language wasn’t hard to decipher. They were rich Hungarians looking for wine from the best-regarded estate in Tokaj. Szepsy had to disappoint them: his production is tiny and swiftly snapped up on release.
Ten years ago this would have been inconceivable. Until 1989 the entire production of this 5,000-hectare (ha) region was controlled by a single organisation. Tokaj was degraded under the Communists, but it’s a double-edged tribute to the powerful personality of the wine that it has survived 40 years of maltreatment.
There are few wines so shrouded in legend, myth and plain falsehood as this noble sweet wine from eastern Hungary. Tokaj was associated with the royal courts of Europe, notably the Habsburgs, who owned many top vineyards, so it is not surprising that exaggerated claims were made for the wine, especially its alleged medicinal properties.
Even today, those myths are perpetuated. The Málev Hungarian Airlines in-flight magazine, which ought to know better, ran an article that confused the making of the regular botrytised wine, Tokaji Aszú, with the production method of the immensely rare Eszencia. On the other hand, these production methods are so bizarre that you can understand why even wine writers can become confused. The usual way of making a botrytis wine is to harvest the nobly rotten fruit, press the grapes and ferment the must. The high sugar content means the yeasts give up when the wine reaches a certain level of alcohol, and the remaining unfermented sugar gives the sweetness.
In Tokaj, however, the aszá (that is, botrytis affected) grapes are harvested but not pressed. Instead they are mushed into a paste and added either to must made by pressing healthy bunches or to a base wine made by fermenting unbotrytised must. The addition of the very sweet aszá grapes provokes a further fermentation, and, as with other sweet wines, the sugar content that fails to ferment remains in the wine as residual sugar.
What complicates the issue is that nobody really knows how authentic Tokaj, the wine so prized by French kings and Russian tsars, was made, even though the process only faded from memory during and after World War II, when the vineyards were nationalised.
Visiting Tokaj in the 1980s was easy enough. There was only one producer, and the State Farm controlled everything, from vineyards to wineries to cellars. All the same, many of the wines tasted in the dank, mould-encrusted tunnelled cellars of Tokaj were very good. Western visitors were not shown the awful wines shipped east to the sugar-hungry Russian market. Nor do I know anyone who managed to get inside the industrial-scale wineries where these wines were processed. Instead, the old stories about hods of aszá grapes being poured into small vats for fermentation were trundled out.
The reality was very different. What we did not know at that time was that alcohol was routinely added to the wines to stabilise them, must concentrate was used to sweeten them and they were flash-pasteurised, which arrested their development after bottling. Poor handling and ageing led to routine oxidation, which was then trumpeted as the authentic character of Tokaj wines. In the best wines that oxidative character, with its overtones of caramel and baked apples, could be appealing; lesser wines simply tasted stale and unclean.
Enter the new regime
After 1989, when the Communist regime was shown the door and Western investment was ushered in, some newcomers decided to start from scratch. The wines began to be made in a more reductive style: barrels were topped up (formerly they hadn’t been, which exposed the wine to premature oxidation), and the ageing period in wood was reduced from anywhere between five and 12 years to two or three. There followed a battle of the styles, which continues to this day. The oxidative style is vaunted as ‘traditional’; the iconoclastic newcomers insist that their more reductive wines, which are fresher and livelier, are nothing less than a return to ‘authentic’, pre-Communist Tokaj.
István Szepsy’s family has been making wine here for four centuries, and István himself is widely regarded as Tokaj’s finest producer. I first met him in 1990, when he ran the Mád cooperative and was associated with what became the Royal Tokaji Wine Company. When, many years later, he invited me to Tokaj to observe the harvest, I jumped at the chance.
I quizzed him closely. Surely there must be some octogenarians who remember how the wines were made before World War II? He shook his head. Numerous factors had wiped out that store of knowledge. The war itself had stripped Tokaj of many of its inhabitants, notably the Jewish merchants who had dominated the wine industry; nor were there ample stocks of older wines that might give a clue.
Adding alcohol had been permitted since the post-phylloxera replantings, although it had been exaggerated by the State Farm technicians. There are ancient bottles in some cellars. At a reception at the Kereszked haz estate (the successor to the State Farm), I enjoyed a splendid 1942 Six Puttonyos Aszá. It was certainly oxidative, almost tarry, but who could say whether that reflected the original style of the wine, or whether it was simply the effect of advanced age?
It is widely believed that 1999 will be a fine vintage for aszá wines, so I was able to observe the harvest closely. Without aszá grapes, sweet Tokaj is nothing, and it was reassuring to see that harvesters were picking the botrytised berries one by one. The precious crop was taken back to the winery and tipped into bins that resembled small skips.
After a few hours a shallow pool of Eszencia collects at the bottom of each bin, a nectar formed simply by the pressure of the berries stacked above. István Szepsy keeps the crop from each of his vineyards separate, and it was astonishing how varied all these Eszencias were as a consequence of different varietal blends (some vineyards are mostly Furmint, others mainly Hárslevel¸) or different vineyard characters.
At the Disznókö winery, which is owned by the AXA insurance company, I came across one Eszencia with 800g of residual sugar (500-600g is more usual). Such levels make the Eszencia tooth-achingly sweet and immensely viscous. Sometimes a small amount will be bottled and marketed at a price of several hundred pounds, but more often Eszencia is used to enrich the blends.
The vinification is the most mysterious part of the process. Szepsy was also harvesting healthy grapes, which he pressed fast and preserved in refrigerated tanks. Later he added aszá berries to the must and allowed fermentation to begin. Experience tells him the likeliest results – he rarely bothers with less than five puttonyos or Aszá Eszencia. If he has overestimated the richness of the final wine, he can add Eszencia. Then the wine is aged in barrels for two to four years before being bottled.
Add to a base wine
An alternative method is to ferment the aszá berries not with must but with an already fermented base wine. Thomas László at Ch‚teau Pajzos told me that in 1999 he ground the aszá berries into a paste, pumped the mash into a press, and macerated it for 36 hours with base wine, in this case a Muscat with 15 degrees of alcohol. ‘The end result was a wine with 350g of residual sugar, an Aszá Eszencia. I like to use a base wine with high alcohol. A wine with, say, only 11 degrees, consumes more of the sugars from the aszá berries. With 15 degrees, further fermentation is minimal, leaving most of the sweetness in the wine.’
At Disznókö, many experiments were conducted in the early 1990s to work out the best way to vinify Tokaji Aszá, and Disznókö made its research available to all. Dominique Arangoits, the manager here until 2000, told me there was still no hard and fast formula. The rule of thumb, however, was that in fine vintages they would ferment using must, but in difficult years, when there might be black rot, he preferred to use a base wine, as the extraction was less forceful, and any undesirable elements in the fruit would not be exaggerated in the final wine.
Szepsy stresses the importance of owning your own vineyards, and at two wineries I compared aszá berries from his own sites with those that had been purchased from smallholders. The difference in intensity and flavour was remarkable.
Szepsy also believes in low yields. In his vineyards one hectare yields only 1,000 bottles of Tokaji Aszá. Thomas László is less bothered and showed me high-yielding vines loaded with aszá berries. Szepsy comments: ‘That’s fine in very good years such as 1999, but not in difficult years. We should be able to make aszá wines every vintage, although quantities and quality will vary, but if your vines are overcropped, that’s not possible.’
As well as the initial fruit quality and fermentation methods, it’s the ageing process that defines the style of any producer’s Aszá. Some, including Oremus and Királyudvar, use Hungarian oak, but Disznókö uses three-year-old barriques from Sauternes, and Hétszölö also uses older Sauternes barrels. However, the length of ageing and the topping up of the barrels matters far more in creating the style of the wine than the origin of the container.
Nonetheless, the battle of the styles is set to dominate Tokaj over the next few years. Wines cannot be marketed until a tasting panel in Budapest, the OBB, approves samples. This panel is dominated by tasters who either worked for or admired the frankly oxidative style of the old State Farm wines. Some of the foreign wine companies, notably Royal Tokaji and Disznókö, don’t have too much trouble with the OBB, although their wines are made in a fresher and more vibrant style than those from Keresked haz. Other companies, including Szepsy, are furious that wines everyone agrees are outstanding are refused authorisation by the OBB.
There are now three tiers of producers in Tokaj. Some play safe by simply purchasing aszá grapes in top vintages. The second tier consists of producers such as Disznókö and Kereszked haz (now grandly reborn as the Crown Estates), who grow much of their own fruit but also buy in, and then create a single blend at each puttonyos level. Finally a few producers focus on single-vineyard wines. István Szepsy, as well as running his own property, is managing the fast-expanding Királyudvar estate in Tarcal. Királyudvar now owns more than 100ha of top sites and has its eye on more. Under Szepsy’s almost fanatical guidance, this is set to become one of Tokaj’s finest estates.
There is much more going on in Tokaj. A local family, now based in Germany, has created the Degenfeld estate (its first wines were middling, but it’s still early days), and Marta Wille-Baumkauff, another Hungarian resident in Germany, is making fine aszá wines from her seven hectares. Some estates are adding to the merriment by fashioning ‘late harvest’ styles, usually aged in tanks rather than oak. With the magnificent 2000 harvest now safely in, Tokaj is hoping for an ever greater interest in its unique wines.