Tokaji Myths | by Tara Q. Thomas

The reemergence of Tokaji has often been presented as a resurrection, pulling a cultural icon out of the rubble left after decades of Communism and setting about to make it glorious once again. The effort sparked hot debates as to what was and what should be the definition of Tokaji, the wine, but there were several points of general agreement: It was sweet, botrytized and based on furmint, its value measured in puttonyos.

Now, two decades later, that’s completely changed. Driven by a new generation of winemakers, the goal is not so much a resurrection as a redefinition, a range of styles asserting the region’s varied terroir. This might mean showcasing furmint in a sparkling form, or in a bottling as dry as stone. It could mean arvesting before the grapes are shriveled, bottling the clear, honey-sweet juice as a late-harvest wine, or aging a botrytized wine under flor, as in Jerez. A contemporary Tokaji might even bypass furmint for more obscure varieties: It might be solely hárslevelü, or sárgamuskotály or another local grape.
    I found all of those variations last spring, on a visit to a region where the historical myths are unraveling in any number of creative directions.

myth #1  All Tokaji is sweet. 

It takes only moments to get out of Budapest, past the museum district with its grand facades. Heading east into the countryside, the landscape reminds me of Ohio: It’s as flat as a plate and covered with grains. This is the Great Hungarian Plain, a gentle incline covering close to two and a half million acres. So it’s a shock when Tokaj comes into view a few hours later, a range of low, irregular hills rising along the left bank of the Bodrog.
    These are the remnants of 400-some volcanoes that blew up millions of years ago, in the Miocene epoch, and they define Tokaj, the place, a 23-mile strip of land jagging southwest to northeast, between the Zemplen Mountains and the Bodrog river. But unlike several other volcanic wine regions— San­torini with its chalk-white tufa, or Etna with its black pumice—the color of these hills changes from one crest to another, one yellow, another red, still another chalk white, with dozens of variations in between.
    István Szepsy’s front porch is covered with stones he’s gathered from local vineyards. Szepsy is legendary in Tokaj: He was intimately involved in the renaissance of the region as the first managing director of Royal Tokaj, and later launched Királyudvar with Anthony Hwang of Domaine Huet in the Loire, all the while tending small parcels of vines he collected over time—some of which he’d planted himself back when he was working for the state, at the cooperative in Mád. Now he’s solely devoted to his own winery, launched commercially in 1995.
    Szepsy bends down among the rocks and begins pointing, rattling off names. “When the volcanoes erupted, the Pannonian sea rose and the land sank, and the action created geysers everywhere,” he explains. “The water worked its way through the cracks in the rocks, bringing quartz and minerals to the surface.” The geological chaos, he says, resulted in some 368 distinct terroirs within the regions’ 27 villages, “sixty of which were mentioned as premiers or grands crus in early classifications,” he says. “All of them died under Communism.”
    Why, then, would anyone expect that all of this land would—or should—produce the same sort of wine? Dry wine, in fact, has always been produced here, but it was viewed only as a means to an end, that end being Tokaji Aszú, as wine made from botrytized grapes. “For dry wine, it’s much more complicated than sweet when it comes to deciding when to harvest,” Szepsy says. To make sophisticated dry furmint, “you have to pick only the completely ripe bunches—completely yellow on both sides,” he says. “But even more important is the flavor of the skin—how smooth the tannins or acids are. Even if you have a little bit of residual sugar, it will not hide high acids. Sometimes we start later than we should because of my worrying that there is some green taste in the wine.”
    That sort of care wasn’t common before winemakers started to focus on dry furmint; instead, the wine might have included anything that wasn’t used in an Aszú wine, whether unripe, overripe or botrytized—characteristics that made for some rough and alcoholic wines that oxidized readily as well. The results convinced most people that dry wine wasn’t worth spending much energy on, but Szepsy and winemaker Zoltán Demeter, working together at Királyudvar in the late 1990s, disagreed. And their Királyudvar 2000 Urágya Vineyard Tokaji—a dry, single-vineyard, 100 percent furmint—completely changed the conversation: People began looking at dry Tokaji as a wine that could be compelling, and competitive on the world market.
    Szepsy has continued to tweak the formula for great dry Tokaji, he says, pouring a 2008 from the Szt. Tamás vineyard which went through malolactic fermentation. “The volatility goes up, the fruit aromas evaporate, but the result is a better structure,” he says of its unintended voyage through malolactic. Sure enough, it’s a big, rich wine but completely supported by its acidity, the flavors touching on roast apricots, spice and walnut skins.
    “In the future I will make Tokaji with a blend of varieties,” he says, adding that he’s already blended one 2011 dry wine with furmint, hárslevelü and muscat. “More and more important will be the vineyard rather than the grape variety: This is the future, because terroir is the strongest base of Tokaji, and the terroir must dominate in the wine.”
    That said, Szepsy isn’t ready to discount the importance of sweet wines in the region, but, he says, “The market for sweet wine is not large enough, and there is too much technological sweet wine in the world; it is impossible for us to compete. Dry wines are not a choice for us; we must make them.”

myth #2  Tokaji is furmint. 

To know the terroir means to know history, says Péter Molnár at Patricius. Molnár is from Eger but has become so obsessed with Tokaji since he arrived in 1995 that he’s widely referred to as “The Historian.” He leads me to a vineyard to the side of the winery, 16 rows of vines of varying hues. One vine has leaves the size of a dinner plate. “That’s körvérsolo,” he tells me. “The wine is as big—very fat, very wide wine. My mouth is not wide enough for the körvérsolo,” he says, smiling. “Five to ten percent in a cuvée is plenty, but I love it. It used to be the second most common variety after furmint.”
     Before phylloxera, there were at least 20 different varieties being grown here, he says. “We don’t know why these varieties disappeared. It used to be that knowledge was passed down through the family; it was accumulated and enriched over time. All that was cut off by the Socialist period.”
    Back in the winery, he pours a Tokaji made from 100 percent sárgamuskotály—yellow muscat, better known as muscat à petits grains. It’s a revelation, completely dry, nearly crunchy, the fruit is so fresh—like a peach pulled slightly early, juicy but very firm. The minerality sticks like salt on the lips, a dry, savory flavor to balance the rose, lime and spice. “People like to push these beautiful wines into a box,” he says. “Sárgamuskotály—people think it’s a wine you drink now and forget it, a party wine.”
    Then he pours a hárslevelü vinified dry, also with a salinity that lines the lips and sets off the linden scents that give the variety its name. The grape is typically a bit player, 10 or 15 percent blended into a Tokaji Aszú to add some charm to the furmint. He tells me his wife, Sarlota Bárdos at Tokaj Nobilis, held a vertical tasting of hárslevelü bottlings going back nearly 20 years. Her single-vineyard version, Hárs, is widely cited as one of the region’s most exciting wines; there are great examples coming from Stéphanie Berecz at Holdvölgy and Kikelet (two new wineries), and from Judit Bott at Bott Pince. Bárdos, Molnár tells me, makes a körvérsolo as well.
    “This wine region only opened in 1990,” Molnár says. “First we concentrated on sweet wines; then in 2000, we started with dry [furmint]; now we are doing the hárslevelü, sárgamuskotály—we’re just beginning to explore what else is here, standing up, pulling our shoulders back.”

myth #3  The more puttonyos, the better. 

“I don’t agree with puttonyos numbers, even if they are part of a thousand-year-old culture,” says Zoltán Demeter. A meaty guy with a spiky, if slightly receding, crew cut, Demeter was once the winemaker at Királyudvar. He’s now focused solely on the eccentrically decorated winery he set up in an old Soviet-era bakery in 1996. s
    The puttonyos number is a curious thing, a term that harks back to the days when vintners would put their aszú berries—aszú meaning noble (botrytized)—into a puttony, a wooden trough that holds about 20 to 25 kilograms, and add a certain numbr of puttonyos’ worth to a base wine waiting in a gönci, the region’s traditional 136-liter wooden cask; the number of puttonyos gave an estimate as to the resulting wine’s sweetness and intensity.
    No one has used a puttony in decades; today the terms are defined by grams per liter of sugar, extract and acidity. And, Demeter points out, those factors have little to do with the quality of the final wine. There’s the question of selection and of vintage; the varieties used in the aszú and in the base in which the aszú berries macerate; whether that base is unfermented, half-fermented or completely fermented wine; how hard the mixture is pressed and how long and in what vessel the wine rests.
    As it turns out, his current release is a 6 puttonyos from 2007, but it hadn’t been his intention. “That vintage, I went out to Szerelmi [vineyard] planning to harvest dry wine,” he recalls, “but I saw too many aszú berries in the bunches, and the workers started to separate it. I could see easily we’d make no dry wine; we made forty liters of sweet instead.
    “Tokaji is one of the most important wine cultures in the world, so the aszú is one of the most important wines in the world,” he says. “I don’t think we should be making differences with the sugar levels. So many human decisions go into the making; [Aszú wines] should be all the knowledge, all the best grapes, all the best qualities put into one wine.”

myth #4  Szamorodni is dead. 

Whether or not it’s true, the prevailing attitude is the more puttonyos the better. The flip side of that trend is that Szamorodni wines have fallen out of favor. Szamorodni (“as it comes”) are wines made from a mix of ripe, overripe and botrytized grapes—typically whatever was left after the vineyard workers had pulled the best bunches for the Aszú.
    And yet, I’ve seen quite a few since I arrived, most filling a spot between the non-botrytised late-harvest wines (a fairly new category here) and the Aszú wines. But the sort of Szamorodni Samuel Tinon has just poured me I’ve only read about in books. It’s as dry as bone and was aged under flor, giving it a yeastiness that fills out the texture and draws out an intense minerality.
    Tinon grew up in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, a town known for its sweet wines across the Garonne from Sauternes; he came to Tokaj in 1991 as a consultant at Oremus. When he decided to make his own wines, he took a page from the Bordelais and sold the first vintage—2000—en primeur. Now he has two hectares of 90-year-old vines and a winery devoted solely to Aszú wines—and the Szamorodni. Of the sweet version, he explains, “Szamorodni can be understood as a second wine, after Aszú. It’s an easy aperitif, and also has the characteristics of classic Tokaji.”
    It also allows him flexibility. “I have long-term relationships with ten different producers, not all in my village, and I want to keep this tradition,” he says. “So if some barrels of wine do not fit into the blend for an Aszú, then they can go to the Szamorodni: I cannot afford to not sell a single barrel.”
    As for the dry 2003, a pale yellow Szamo­rodni with the green highlights of a Manzanilla and nutty, yeasty flavors, Tinon explains that his motivation by way of a question: “Where else in the world can people make such wines? Jerez, Jura...and here,” he says, explaining that his style is closer to Jura. “Puffeney is my direction. I don't want to be above 15 percent; I want that yellow taste, that Sherry taste.” But his wine doesn’t taste like a Jura, nor a Jerez. It smells like everything but fruit (spice, leather, nail polish, nuts, yeast) and tastes like hazelnuts, the flavors getting livelier as they last. It’s mouthwatering, and the most interesting interpretation of Tokaji I’ve tasted to date.

myth #5  Tokaji is for dessert. 

“When I first moved to Tokaj, there was one hotel,” says Lázsló Mészáros, who joined Disznókö in 1995 and is now the director. “When Jean-Michel Cazes came to town,” he says, “it was really hard to find some place for him to stay. There was one restaurant, and it wasn’t really of Western quality. It was a place where, if you had to make a phone call to the airport to change a flight, you’d sometimes have to wait for three hours to get a line.”
    While he’s telling me this, we’re sipping chilled Tokaji Aszú with goose liver pâté at the Sárga Borház, the restaurant Disznókö opened in the 19th-century yellow (sárga) wine-house (borház) on its land. We stick with Tokaji for the main course as well. He has a pork cutlet, pounded thin, breaded and fried crisp; I have the pork knuckle, a mess of meltingly rich meat coddled in onions, all cooked in Tokaji Aszú. The wine permeates the dish with a light sweetness, but more notable is the depth of flavor, a deep, mellow, earthy richness.
    Earlier, I’d lunched at Gusteau, a new, haute Hungarian restaurant from the Szent Tamás winery, where the duck comes rolled in silky pasta tubes napped in paprika-laced broth; last night, dinner was braised duck legs over polenta cooked by Zoltán Demeter’s wife. While I marveled at how well the duck matched the sweet Tokaji in my glass, Demeter told me, “I have one condition when I sell my wines to a restaurant: They have to open a bottle so they can serve it by the glass.”
    His point is well taken—I never would have ordered a bottle of Tokaji Aszú for my main course—but it’s about the fourth or fifth meal I’ve drunk nothing but, from appetizer through the cheese course. I remember a story Péter Molnár at Patricius told me: “I visited a chef friend and brought a very fat wine,” he said, “and he created a nice steak for it. With the spices he used and good fat marbling, it was out of this world. We need to get [Tokaji] out of the box,” he said. “It’s not simply a dessert wine; it’s a category.”
    At Sárga Borház, Mészáros asks the waiter for some cheese, and we receive a plate of three small triangles of blue. “It’s from Dobogó,” Mészáros explains, referring to a small local estate. “Attila Domokos makes it in the Alto Adige with Tokaji Aszú must, ages it in caves there, and brings back two wheels at a time.” It’s made from goat’s milk, so it’s creamy and light, with a wicked tang; a tiny bite makes my tongue vibrate. Earlier in the day, we’d walked though the farmers’ market Disznókö hosts in its parking lot the second Sunday of every month, and tasted some great local cheeses. I wonder out loud how it would taste with one of those, and Mészáros considers it for a moment. “I don’t know,” he says, “but now it’s a possibility.”