I make wine in one of the most complex wine regions in the world – it’s always a challenge,’ says Kata Zsirai of the family-owned Zsirai winery. The cool, continental, northern climate is prone to weather extremes, and has incredibly diverse volcanic soils, varying between, and even within, vineyards. The range of wine styles adds further complexity: from sparkling to gorgeous, sweet Aszú and Szamorodni, by way of a new generation of quality dry wines.
Kata is winemaker at the 19-hectare estate, and she oversees every step of her wines’ journey from grape to bottle. ‘I’m thankful to my family that I can do this. It is more a passion than a job for me.’
‘Harvest is the most challenging time because everything depends on well- chosen, precise timing,’ explains Kata. Earlier decisions in the winemaking year are about which vineyard, and even which plots, are destined for dry wines. This impacts on different vineyard management because dry wines need perfectly healthy berries (free of rot, noble or otherwise).
The aim for a wine such as Tokaj Dry by Zsirai is fruitiness, balanced by the region’s hallmark vivid freshness, whether from vibrant Furmint or fruity-mineral Hárslevelű. Zsirai owns several top dűlő (cru vineyards) where the highest and sunniest sections produce healthy grapes with the concentration and structure needed for barrel fermentation, such as in wines like the single-vineyard Középhegy Furmint.
The challenge in Tokaj is not just about ripening healthy fruit, but also about having the proper weather conditions at the right time for Botrytis. The bunches are left on the vines in September hoping for the noble rot to appear for its almost magical transformation of grapes into the shrivelled, noble-rotted Aszú berries needed for the top sweet wines. This depends on exactly the right combination of humidity (from the region’s typical foggy autumn mornings) to allow the fungus to grow, then sunny breezy afternoons that dry the berries.
This doesn’t happen every year and indeed Kata says that ‘we thought we wouldn’t be able to make Aszú in 2022 because of the hot dry season.’ However, rains in September eventually allowed grapes to be affected by botrytis.’We then had to wait patiently for good weather so that the berries could shrivel healthily,’ she adds. ‘It is a gamble every year.’ Luckily, Zsirai did pick some top quality berries for their Aszú wines, and were able to produce concentrated Szamorodni as well.
Wine in Tokaj has so many complex faces and variables. ‘Thanks to the diverse soils and the different styles of wines, it is always a good challenge to make wines here,’ says Kata.
Zsirai winery produces traditional method sparkling wines, Tokaj Dry, single vineyard Furmints and Hárslevelű, Szamorodni and Aszú.
Most are available in the UK from Jascots.
Discover more about Zsirai here