UNESCO-listed Tokaj may be steeped in a history based on sublime sweet wines but time does not stand still, even for the wine region that was the first in the world to have its vineyards officially classified. With consumer palates progressively preferring dry wine to sweet, Tokaj’s terrific terroir is turning its hand to making dry wine with considerable aplomb. Nevertheless, the botrytised sweet Tokaji Aszú still remains the icing on the Tokaj cake. Tokaj will be one of excursions that will be part of the 10th International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC), which will be held April 10-11 in Budapest in collaboration with Premium Sponsor, The Hungarian Tourism Agency
With a little help from modern technology aside, Tokaji Aszú is largely made in the same way as it has been made for centuries, whereby botrytised grapes that were painstakingly picked berry by berry in several sweeps of the vineyard during a prolonged harvest season are added to a base wine. The grapes are afflicted by ‘noble rot’ that envelops the vineyards in the autumn, helped by the proximity of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers which actually meet in the town of Tokaj. This noble rot shrivels the berries and intensifies the flavours, the acidity and the sugars. However, thanks to the Furmint grape’s pronounced acidity, a good Aszú is never flabby or cloying, but rather unbelievably complex, layered and incredibly long.
This hilly region, located in the north-east of Hungary, is buzzing with vinous action whereby state-of-the-art wineries contrast with charming and ever so slightly spooky cellars that have stood proud for centuries. Now is a great time to visit Tokaj with artisanal producers popping up to provide delicious nibbles and local restaurants serving up some delectable and imaginative dishes to go with the ever-improving wine.
Tokaj also offers superb subterranean action with its never ending network of cellars where you will see a magic mould growing on the walls. This serves to keep the cellars clean so that the sweet wines can age for years in small, 136-litre gönci barrels that come from oak growing in the nearby Zemplén hills. Tokaj Oremus’ cellars run for a whopping 4km and descending the steps into the cellar is like entering another, much older world. Yet up top the winery is immaculately clean and modern. Vega Sicilia, the premium Spanish producer, combined a number of local cellars (including one once owned by the family of William Fox, founder of the Fox Film Corporation), when it got on the Tokaj train and founded Oremus in the early 90s. The fact that an investor as serious as Vega Sicilia, and there are other big foreign names involved in Tokaj, should choose this Hungarian region to set up its only foreign winery speaks volumes about how hallowed Tokaj terroir is.
While the Furmint grape’s pedigree in making Tokaji Aszú and other sweet late-harvest wines dates back centuries, it is only in this century that it has been making dry wines of serious breeding. The dry movement has been led by the likes of István Szepsy, the doyen of winemaking in the region, and indeed in all Hungary, and Oremus – the former pursuing more of a single-vineyard approach when the vintage allows and the latter going for a blend.
The transition to dry has not been a smooth one and for a long time, even wines from some of the biggest Tokaj names were often smothered in too much oak to allow the characteristics of the grape or the place of growth to come through. Then, the high alcohol and searing acidity would often finish your palate off. However, local vintners have for the most part now learnt they should rein back on the oak and the alcohol, allowing the Furmint grape to do the talking. Dry Furmint can be taut and linear, with racy acidity and quince, citrus fruit and hazelnut notes, although it is also an excellent articulator of terroir and does capture the nuances of different places of growth. A broad distinction can be drawn between the loess soils around the town of Tokaj that produce softer, rounder and fruitier wines, and the tenser and edgier wines from the cocktail of volcanic soils around the town of Mád where the soil composition can change every few metres. Not far from Mád, the volcanic vineyards around the village of Tállya are a new hotspot.
More attention has recently been going into getting the best out of Hárslevelű, the second most widely planted grape in Tokaj after number one Furmint, as a dry wine. It appears that it can also be a good articulator of terroir. Hárslevelű, although a mouthful to pronounce, can also have more generous aromas and flavours than Furmint, which deliciously merge fruit with florality, and it can also age very well. Some of the best dry wines are actually starting to be blends of these two grapes which have always worked so well together in sweet wines, as Tokaj confidently draws on the past to define its future.
Robert Smyth is a Budapest-based wine journalist, writer and communicator. He is the author of Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World (Blue Guides, 2015). He has been been covering wine for more than 15 years and writes on Hungarian and international wine for the Budapest Business Journal (BBJ), Winesofa.eu, VinCE Magazin and Wine Connoisseur, among others. He’s also served as deputy editor of the Circle of Wine Writer’s Update and edited David Copp’s Wines of Hungary and contributed to the same author’s Tokaj: a companion for the bibulous traveller. He holds the WSET Diploma and Advanced certificates from London’s Wine and Spirit Education Trust, run tastings for Tasting Table and also guide tours for Taste Hungary. He regularly judges at Hungarian and international competitions and also translates wine text from Hungarian to English.