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Hungary: a tale of Tokaji

Text and photographs © 2008, Tom Cannavan

This feature is in two parts. This is part one, focusing on Tokaji. Part II focuses on the Eger region and there is another link to part II at the bottom of this page.

I recently had the opportunity to visit two of Hungary's major wine regions for the first time, spending my first couple of days in Tokaji, the small region that hugs the Ukrainian and Slovakian borders, around three hours drive east from Budapest.

Once past the suburbs of the beautiful city of Budapest, conceived on a grand scale as a captial of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the drive skirts the Great Hungarian Plain, a flat, almost featureless landscape broken only by small villages and endless fields of sunflowers and sweetcorn. Distant glimpses of the Carpathian mountains offer some relief.

Nearing Tokaji, and the vineyards begin, just as the landscape begins to develop more creases and folds. Gently undulating slopes grow steeper and higher as they become the Zemplén hills, culminating in the hill of Tokaji, a volcanic cone that is the region's highest point, at around 514 metres.

   Here in the small town of Tokaji, it is the confluence of two rivers - the Bodrog and the Tisza - that creates the misty conditions essential for formation of Botrytis cinerea, so vital in creating the sweet Tokaji wines that have put the region on the map.

But Tokaji makes a range of wines, from bone-dry, through late-harvest, to the extraordinary Esszencia as well as the famous Tokaji Aszú at 3, 4, 5 or 6 Puttonyos.

A small group of indigenous grapes is responsible for all styles, the most important by far being Furmint, Hárslevelu and Yellow Muscatel, with Zéta, Kövérszolo and Kabar also in production.

the grapes of Tokaji

My visit to Tokaji coincided with the harvest, which offered a fascinating opportunity to see the way these grapes are used. All three of the Furmint grapes in the photograph were picked from the same bunch: some of the grapes being in perfect, ripe, juicy condition (ideal for dry wines and as a base wine for Aszú), some are partially shrivelled (perfect for semi-sweet 'Szamorodni' and late-harvest styles) whilst the fully rotted, Botrytis-affected grapes will end up as Aszú or even the rare Esszencia nectar.

Aszú and Esszencia

   My first visit of the trip, to the Disznóko estate, gave me the rare opportunity to taste some fresh Esszencia, straight from the tank, the rarest of all Tokaji wines. Indeed wine is an incorrect description, as this is 'nectar', traditionally sold as much for its curative properties as its astonishing flavour. Esszencia is the mollasses-thick, extraordinarily sweet juice that runs from a small vat of fully Botryised grapes, without pressing. It is only marginally alcoholic (somewhere between 0.5% and 6.0% alcohol) with fermentation by ambient yeasts. The precious liquid seeps drip by drip to be collected in demi-johns. Esszencia is composed of around 700g/l of sugar - sometimes up to 900g/l. That means 90% of the liquid is sugar, the remaining 10% being the most intense raisined flavour imaginable. Left: precious Esszencia at Disznóko.

The most familiar Tokajis are the Aszú wines, made in a process first recorded in 1630 by Szepsy Laczko. The sweet, three- to six-puttonyos wines are made by adding Botrytis berries to a base wine of healthy, Botrytis-free must. Up to three days of maceration extracts sugars, acidity, aroma and flavour from the aszú (Botrytised) grapes, and then the must is pressed before transferring to oak barrels for several years. The proportion of aszú grapes - measured as 'Puttonyos' - determines the sweetness and richness of the finished wine.


   Disznóko estate sits at the foot of a vine-clad hill, a group of 18th century buildings plus the striking press house and tractor garage, built by prize winning architect Dezso Ekler in 1995.

Owned by the French group Axa Millésimes (Pichon-Baron, Suiduiraut, Quinta Do Noval, etc), Disznóko's vineyards were declared as 'first class' in the 1772 classification of Tokaji, but in common with other estates, the period of Communist rule saw a steep decline in quality as production was turned over to making bulk wines, blended from regions across Hungary.

Axa Millésimes' purchase in 1992, after the fall of the old regime, saw the biggest investment ever in Tokaji, with new cellars and extensive replanting of the vineyards. A labyrinthine aging cellar was carved into the solid rock. Similar stories of rehabiliation took place across Tokaji, with Danish and English investment in the Royal Tokaji company, and the Oremus estate being taken over by the owners of Spain's Vega Sicilia.

Disznóko's soils are volcanic, which they believe gives minerality to the wines, with the hill of Tokaji changing more to loess (wind-blown, silty sediment). The most important grape of this estate is Furmint, which accounts for 60% of plantings. There is around 30% of Hárslevelu (Harsh-La-Velooh) and small quantites of other Tokaji varieties.

for tasting notes on six wines from Disznóko

Patricius Cellars

   This is another winery that has seen huge investment since the fall of communism, though this time by the Hungarian Kékessy family. The current generation made their money overseas, but the Kékessy's have been involved in viticulture in the region since the 18th century and say they have re-built this winery and vineyard "acre by acre and stone by stone."

There is evident attention to detail in vineyard and cellar, with harvesting into small, 15kg plastic bins, and all grapes selected by passing across a vibrating sorting table.

In common with most estates I visited, all barrels used are Hungarian - in this case oak from the local forests of the Zemplén hills. The barrels are very similar in size to Bordeaux's 'barriques' at 200 litres (as opposed to 227 litres for Bordeaux) though the barrels are shorter and more squat. For all Aszú wines fermentation is in barrel, with natural yeast.

for tasting notes on three wines from Patricius Cellars

Tokaji Renaissance

   The fall of the communist regime in 1989 meant state-controlled vineyards once more entered private ownership. By 1995 Tokaji Renaissance had been formed, now an association of 18 wineries whose stated aim is to protect and promote the 'great growths' of Tokaji, based on the authenticity of the vineyard terroirs and winemaking traditions. In practical terms this means organising tastings and exhibitions at home and abroad, and members must be estates with a legimitmate historical background as classfied vineyards.

The eight or so members of Tokaji Renaissance who assembled showed a range of wines, including dry table wines and sweet, traditional Aszú. But there was also a whole selection of sweet and semi-sweet wines that are breaking the Tokaji mould: traditionally, sweet Tokaji is an oxidised wine style, given long ageing - sometimes up to eight years - in barrel before release. Much like Italian Vin Santo or French Rivesaltes vieux ambrée, Tokaji Aszú wines aren't necessarily about prisitine freshness, but have a certain rancio character. These 'new' Tokajis are mostly made in a much more reductive style (excluding air, and thereby oxidation from the winemaking) and have a much brighter fruit character and cleaner, fresher finish.

for tasting notes on 18 wines from Tokaji Renaissance

go to
Part II - Eger region and 'Bull's Blood'.