The Forecast for Tokaj

by David Schildknecht
Tokaj is a region ripe for rediscovery. From this V-shaped, 50-mile stretch of vineyards in the geologically complex Carpathian foothills of northeastern Hungary, alternately swept by breezes and shrouded in fog and mist from the Bodrog and Tisza rivers, have issued four centuries' worth of history most renowned botrytis wines. (For historical and geographical details, please consult IWC Issue 86.) The ravages of phylloxera, war, depression and almost five decades of Communism brought this celebrated region to its knees. With the advent of privatization in 1991, an astonishingly rapid period of rebuilding and replanting commenced, spearheaded by a wave of foreign investors. The best known of these were France's AXA Insurance Group (Disnoko), Grandes Millesimes de France (Hetzolo), Jean-Michel Arcaute (Pajzos), Spain's Vega Sicilia (Oremus), and the Danish-English collaboration known as "The Royal Tokaji Wine Company" that included Peter Vinding-Diers and later Hugh Johnson.

In 1994, Hungary instituted legislation prohibiting foreign ownership of vineyards. But this did not, nor was it intended to, halt new investments. A second wave of investment consisted of collaborations between Hungarians (holding the land) and foreigners (holding the capital) and also entailed the return to Tokaj of families living abroad whose ancestors had been prominent landholders. Grof Degenfeld is the best known of these returnees.

The pace of Tokaj development seems if anything to have quickened since my visit two years ago, with new wineries and real estate transactions almost monthly. When Peter Molnar, a talented young enologist at Oremus who had acted as my guide in 1999, told me he had just given notice and signed on with a major new investment project, I could not repress the thought: "How many wineries will be too many?" Only an incurable optimist could overlook the already uphill battle on the part of some of the region's best estates to find a worldwide modern audience for their unique sweet wines. At the same time, they struggle to regain market share in traditional middle and eastern European markets plagued by economic uncertainty and flooded with inexpensive, if uninspiring Tokaji from less scrupulous sources.

To understand this latest rush of incorporation and land acquisition, one must appreciate that Hungary is pinning its larger economic hopes on an invitation to join the European Community. When that happens, possibly in a very few years, the viticultural landscape will be radically altered. Under EC law, it will no longer be permissible to plant new vineyards, no matter how highly their locations may have been rated in Tokaj's 18th-century vineyard classification. Expansion will be possible only if an equal acreage of vines is pulled. Today, nearly a third of the region's classified vineyards lie fallow, including some of the most celebrated but steepest and least accessible. Many of these returned to scrub or forest as much as a century ago. A race is on to see how many can be reclaimed.

Given the rapid pace of recent development, the number of spanking-new winemaking facilities may outpace the number of estates where vineyards replanted to superior clones and managed for low yields are actually in production. The cost of replanting dwarfs the initial investments in land and facilities (huge though these were), nurseries have long waiting lists for quality vines, and of course the lag time from land-clearing to first crop is four years. Exciting as the best new Tokajis are, we can therefore expect better in the future as top sites are reclaimed and replanted. Furthermore, the numerous vinous successes scored in Tokaj cellars from 1995 through 1998, many of them reported on below, seem to have come as much despite as because of the weather.

What was most needed when I visited this beautiful region in June 1999 was something over which investors, growers and lawmakers have no control: great weather. This, it turns out, nature was in the process of supplying. Nineteen ninety?nine brought an almost perfect dusting of botrytis to already ripe, partially shriveled fruit. Sporadic summer and early-autumn precipitation kept the vines refreshed and built high extract in the grapes. The window of sunny autumn opportunity was not terribly long, but was long enough for those with a plan and even a minimum of luck. The fruit retained ample acidity and achieved high levels of sugar and extract. All grape varieties were capable of yielding high-quality shriveled Aszu berries in this vintage. The best wines are rich and deep, and ring with a bell-clear expression of pure fruit, suffused with vibrant acidity, noble rot and noble terroir. Adding to this good news is the volume in which outstanding wine was rendered. As an example, while Oremus will bottle just over 1,000 cases of Tokaji Aszu in each of vintages '97 and '98, they have declared 18,000 cases of '99 as meriting the Tokaji Aszu designation.

Vintage 2000 was freakish. The flowering in Tokaj was among the earliest on record. Searingly hot, dry weather from late July into September stressed the vines, and sporadic shutdown eroded some of the early lead in ripeness. Vines planted on loess were especially hard-hit. Picking of muscat and even of healthy furmint grapes began early with good ripeness but low acidity. While the low acids promised pleasing dry wines, they were a worrisome sign to growers with hopes set on late harvesting and noble rot. In the event, moderate October precipitation stimulated botrytis, after which the skies cleared and fruit came in at record-shattering sugar levels. Even some healthy grapes reached 19% potential alcohol. In general, only furmint yielded satisfactory Aszu berries in this vintage. Cooler, more water-retentive sites (those at higher elevation and with higher clay content) were most successful, and at least some growers can claim to have had a second straight great vintage. Elsewhere, lack of acid threatens on occasion to almost literally take the edge off of quality, although growers reported pH levels blessedly and surprisingly low considering the low acidity.

For detailed information on the grapes of Tokaj and on the categories of Tokaji wine ("Tokaj" is the name of the region, taken from its most famous village, while "Tokaji" is the wine), I ask readers to consult Issue 86. While many growers express increased interest in a potentially precious residue of obscure traditional grape varieties hidden away in old vineyards or under observation in nurseries, at present only four grapes are officially utilized in producing Tokaji wine. Three of these have been the mainstays of the area since phylloxera. Furmint, an acid-retentive, late-ripener whose personality blossoms under the influence of noble rot, makes up half the regional surface area. This variety is subject to enormous clonal variation, and large-berried or generally high-yielding strains of furmint share blame for the lackluster quality of so much post-war Tokaji. The harslevelu grape is low in acid but at its best exudes a sweet florality and oily richness. A small but growing acreage is devoted to the pungent sarga muskotaly (a.k.a. "muscat lunel," "gelber muskateller" or "yellow muscat"). Detractors scorn this grape's increasing popularity as due to its very obvious and intense flavors (of apricot, resin, green herbs and spice). But its relatively early ripening also lends it to use as base wine in which shriveled, botrytized (Aszu) berries will then be macerated. Each of these three major varieties is vinified on its own in dry and sweet versions. For Tokaji Azsu, they are generally blended. The fourth grape, zeta, is an early-ripening cross between furmint and bouvier and is more commonly but no longer officially known as oremus.

Both to emphasize fresh fruit character and to improve cash flow, an increasing number of Tokaji wines, even those gleaned by selective harvest of botrytis-affected berries, are being bottled earlier than the two years required for recognition as Tokaji Aszu. To enhance international intelligibility, such wines are often labeled in English "dry" or "late harvest" rather than "szaraz" or "kesoi szuretelesu." A corollary of earlier bottling is the waning of the traditional style known as Tokaji Szamorodni, wine vinified from mixed pickings of healthy and nobly rotten fruit, then given two or more years in barrel.

To be released as Tokaji Aszu, a wine must be approved by an official committee. This group has notoriously resisted the attempts of many of the region's quality-conscious estates to market as "Aszu" wines free of significant oxidation. But times are changing, and I was delighted to learn that after a period of stalling by the bureaucrats and lobbying by the estates, many wines refused at the time I tasted them two years ago were at last approved for release as Tokaji Aszu. The level of concentration in Tokaji Aszu is signified by a number (from three to six) of "puttonyos." The putton, a traditional wooden tub, represents a standard volume of hand-selected, shriveled botrytis berries added per 136 liters of base wine or must. The latter volume is based on the traditional size of barrel crafted in the town of Gonc from the local Zemplen Hills oak. In practice, the number of puttonyos on the label is determined by minimum levels of residual sugar and dry extract set for each category.

Wines labeled "Tokaji Eszencia," in effect an Aszu of seven or more puttonyos, must spend five years in cask, a requirement that discourages many estates from declaring wine in this category. The superconcentrated and indeed legendary Eszencia itself, free-run juice from the tubs of botrytized berries, seldom if ever crosses the 4.5% alcohol threshold to legally become wine. It is sometimes bottled in minute quantities, but its regular use is to adjust the sweetness and flavor of Tokaji Aszu. To produce Tokaji Aszu, the shriveled Aszu berries may be thoroughly pasted, lightly mashed, or left intact before being macerated for extraction in a base of either fermenting must or of fully fermented wine. Thus, a wide range of extraction methods is available. The relative merits of these alternatives are hotly debated, as are so many details in this region struggling both to recover and to redefine its traditions. Some insist that the genuine Tokaji was macerated in a wine of the previous vintage, but this approach is now officially proscribed. Clearly, the quality of the base must or base wine is a vital determinant of flavor. Often it is mono-cepage, sometimes it represents a blend. It can vary widely in ripeness and itself be more or less marked by the presence of botrytized grapes, depending on the strategy of the grower, the vicissitudes of vintage, and the stage of fermentation at which extraction is set to occur. A tub of Aszu berries is remarkably inert and, particularly in a cold cellar or a refrigerated room, may be safely held for months prior to extraction, all the while yielding up precious droplets of Eszencia. But if one believes in extracting with an actively fermenting must, one's window of opportunity is narrowed accordingly.

If the quality of base must or wine is critical, that of the precious, hand-picked Aszu berries can be no less important. I was thus more than a little surprised to discover that nearly every Tokaj estate legally and at times liberally supplements its supply of Aszu with purchased berries whose varietal mix and vineyards of origin can seldom be authenticated. If it were not for this practice, there would significantly less Tokaji Aszu wine on offer from the top producers. Whether what would then be produced would more genuinely reflect the terroir can be debated. Many owners and enologists told me they look forward to the day when their Tokaji Aszu will be 100% from fruit they control in their own vineyards. For the moment, the market for Aszu berries is highly competitive and represents for many small farmers their one lucrative outlet.

In the report that follows, I have covered alphabetically the front-running estates, nearly all of them members of the marketing and quality-promoting organization "Tokaj Renaissance." Among the numerous other estates I visited but on which I have not reported in detail in the following pages (none currently export to the U.S.), several deserve at least brief mention. Aureum Vinum a 1998 Israeli-Hungarian startup whose 2000s taste promising, is rapidly expanding its choice vineyard holdings in Mad and breaking ground for a new winery. Tamas Dusoczky returned to the region after 35 years in Switzerland and the United States, and is making rather old-style wines from his vineyard in Szegi. Along with other expatriates, Dusoczky has acquired some choice unplanted acreage, including the upper reaches of Mad's class A Kovago vineyard, a site already registered under King Steven in 1271. Peter Varhelyi's Himesudvar winery in the center of the town of Tokaj is also the world's only one-stop retail dispensary for Tokaji wine from the best producers. Marta Wille-Baumkauff in Abaujszanto (or MWB, as it's usually and official known) is the expanding estate of another returning expatriate where young winemaker Istvan Dorogi is demonstrating serious intentions.

Special thanks are due Andras Egyedi of Tokaj Renaissance for helping to plan my visits, and for translating where no combination of English, French and German would avail. I wish also to thank Laszlo Alkonyi, although I have never met him. Alkonyi's just-published book Tokaji: The Wine of Freedom and his numerous articles, although translated into sometimes imperfect English, are a rich source of insights and inspiration. (Alkonyi's reports, as well as information on his book, may be found in Hungary's on-line wine journal: Enterprising U.S. importers should take note that several of this region's most exciting growers still have no American agent.

My detailed notes cover just over half of the wines I tasted in mid-June at the estates. Those sampled from barrel (or tank) are so-designated, and, where described as "Tokaji Aszu," are still subject to official recognition of that status. U.S. retail prices are for Tokaj's traditional 500 ml. bottles unless otherwise noted. In Hungarian, placing family before given name is the rule, not just common practice as in Italy or eastern Austria. I have, however, reverted to the American positioning of "first name" in all cases, including the naming of wineries. Except in rare instances where it clarified my explanations, I have listed the wines in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them. Wines designated with "1 star" were particularly impressive. "2 stars" signifies a wine of clearly profound complexity, in this instance on a par with any of the world's other greatest sweet wines. But these shorthand "ratings," based on a single tasting, should not be considered in isolation from my complete tasting notes.