“There is no Hungarian village without a cellar”. This is a good summary of the wine culture in Hungary, anchored in history since ancient times and the conquest of the southern bank of the Danube by the Romans.
Having suffered under Communism until the end of the 1990s – like many eastern European countries – the Hungarian vineyards are gradually restructuring, with a progressive return to quality wines. The country now has some 150,000 hectares of vines(1), spread over 22 wine regions.
From east to west, we focus on two of them : Tokaj and Etyek-Buda.
Arriving from Budapest, the road is a succession of green fields. Then, suddenly, small mountains in the form of domes, emerge on the horizon like mushrooms from the ground. On these hills, vines are planted on the hillsides.
Welcome to Tokaj, the 3rd largest Hungarian appellation with 5,500 hectares planted(2). An ancient volcanic area on the foothills of the Carpathians, which has been classified as a World Heritage Site since 2002, where there were once more than 400 active volcanoes.
Here people speak “aszú“ and “puttonyos“. Stuck between the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, the Tokaj vineyard enjoys ideal conditions for the development of the famous Botrytis cinerea. The grapes touched by noble rot are harvested berry by berry !, it is these units of measurement that determine the level of sugar and the concentration of the wines(3). These wines are aged at least three years in traditional stone cellars, where a black fungus, Cladosporium Cellare, develops on the walls, helping the wine to age.
We visited with admiration the natural 1km tunnels that form the cellar of Château Dereszla, where no less than 1,000 barrels lovingly look after a part of Tokaj’s liquid gold, at a constant humidity of 90%.
The Tokaj region is not only a great region of sweet wines. On the contrary, the production of high quality dry white wines is booming. “The production of the last Aszu wines goes back to 2010 in the region. Since then, climatic conditions have impeded the production of sweet wines ; or sometimes only a production of extremely small quantities were possible. And small estates that only make sweet wines are currently in danger”, László Kalocsai, director of Château Dereszla explained, during an exciting tasting of dry white took from different tanks (for the assemblages).
Moreover, the region remains the poorest in Hungary(4) with 4/5 of the vineyard managed by farmers who have less than one hectare of vines and can’t make a living from it. A government program has been put in place to develop tourism in the Tokaj region. With a budget of € 300 million, which extends from 2013 to 2020, it is assumed that priority will be given to small family estates(5).
Samuel Tinon was born in the vineyards of Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, another beautiful region of sweet wines(7). He was 21 years old when he arrived in Hungary in 1991. Samuel learned Hungarian on the spot and quickly became the director of the Royal Tokaj Wine Company, the first joint venture between East and West, created in 1989. He already had gold in his fingers. In 1999, he created his vineyard of 5 hectares in the Tokaj appellation.
With his wife Mathilde Hulot – a correspondent for numerous wine-producing magazines and co-author of reference wine books(6) – they settled in the town of Olaszliszka in 1998, in the center of the Hatari grand cru.
Samuel cultivates two varieties: Furmint and Harslevelu, planted on clay and loess soils on the Zemplén hillsides (slope between 30 and 40% facing south). Among his wines – which, I must admit, are all delicious – one was my Hungarian favorite wine : his Dry Szamorodni. A wine – or rather a base method by name – which means “as it comes” in Polish, at a time when workers picked up whole botrytised clusters (not individual berries).
Samuel makes a dry version from it with fermentation in open tank sous voile (under the veil). A unique wine in the world and which to this day is part of the great Wine Explorers’ discoveries, both for its complexity and for the emotion it has given us. A pure moment of meditation.
The region of Etyek has been known for wine for 200 years; especially for its chalk soils and its production of sparkling wines. However, it is not always a favorite when talking about Hungarian wines. Wrongly…
The Etyeki Kúria estate is a great example of its success. Started in 1996, it has made a name for itself thanks to its production of red wines; making great Pinot Noir and Kékfrankos wines. In 2009 Sára Matolcsy, the owner, enrolled Sándor Mérész – one of the country’s best oenologists – to manage the 26 hectares estate (plus 17 hectares in the Sopron region).
Together, this sympathetic binomial makes Etyeki Kúria one of the jewels of the region.
Conclusion (unavoidable) on the Eszencia, a very rare nectar that we had the pleasure of discovering at Château Dereszla and which is a must to taste at least once in one’s life, as this sweet wine is an explosion of perfumes and flavors. Why? Imagine a grape syrup in reality, made from the best botrytis grapes harvested berry by berry, sometimes fermenting more than twenty years in small oak barrels, with more than 600g/L of sugar, less than 3 degrees of alcohol and 17g/L of acidity… There, all is said.
Thank you to Château Dereszla, Grof Degenfeld, Erzsébet Pince, Demeter Zoltán, Samuel Tinon, Abraham Pince, Tokaj-Hétszőlő and Etyeki Kúria for their warm welcome.
Thanks to Gergely Somogyi, publisher at Tokaj Today, for having guided us so well in our wine wanderings in Tokaj.
(1) Source : Sommeliers International
(2) Of the 11 000 hectares of Tokaj appellation in Hungary, only 5,500 hectares are planted.
(3) A unit of aszú is equivalent to 25 kg. After maceration, the wine is filtered and again put in oak barrel to age for at least two years. Then it is bottled and remains in the cellar for at least three years, two of which are in oak barrels. The wine thus obtained, called “Tokaji Aszú”, is marketed in bottles of 50 cl. Thus, 4 puttonyos means a minimum of 90 g/L, 5 Puttonyos minimum 120 g/L, 6 Puttonyos minimum 150 g/L and Aszú Eszencia minimum 180 g/L.
(4) Before the Second World War, more than 25% of the population were Jewish. Many of them have been deported and the region has become industrialized and mechanized, resulting in unemployment and poverty.
(5) According to a government calculation, an average of 10 hectares is required for a producer to make a living from his production. => A person who would come to settle in the region would receive 10 hectares, free over 30 years (already planted) + 30K€ + 60K€ for a loan with interest at 1.9% over 20 years + wine marketing programs for the promotion of Tokaj.
(6) Some reference wine books co-written by Mathilde Hulot : Le petit Larousse des Vins : Connaître, choisir, déguster, 1900-2000 : Un siècle de millésimes, Visages de Vignerons-Figures du Vin, Voyage au-dessus des vignobles de France or Les 100 vins cultes. For more information on Mathilde Hulot : http://mathildehulot.com.
(7) The sainte-croix-du-mont, or sainte-croix-du-mont appellation, refers to a French wine with a registered designation of origin produced in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont. Together with the appellations Cadillac and Loupiac, they form a small region producing sweet wines in the vineyard of Entre-deux-Mers, in the Bordeaux region. The AOC sainte-croix-du-mont is extending over 500 hectares planted with the varieties Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.