Szepsy Pince

Tokaji Myths | by Tara Q. Thomas

István Szepsy

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.

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.



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