On a recent trip to Hungary, I had the pleasure of meeting István Szepsy, whose family has been making wine in Tokay since the Middle Ages, or, like Mr Szepsy said, “since always”. The region is best known for its sweet white wines and rare Eszencia, an elixir of botyrized grape juice that is not even technically a wine (2-3% alcohol); but since 2003, Szepsy has also been developing dry wines that match the legendary reputation of traditional sweet Tokaji. So what makes Tokaji so unique?
To understand Tokaji, we have to go back to the land, in this case, Tokajhegyalia, literally “Tokay Hills”, one of Hungary’s 22 wine-growing regions. Located on a small plateau on the country’s northeastern border with Ukraine, the Tokay region benefits from steep volcanic slopes studded with humidity-regulating zeolites, warm summer winds and river mist that spur the development of Botrytis cinerea, the famous noble rot that contributes to Tokaji’s intense combination of sweetness and acidity. István Szepsy and his family own 52-hectares of vineyards in the region near Mad village that produce 50,000 bottles a year. His dry white wines are made from Furmint grapes cultivated across several different parcels.
A wine fit for kings
Thanks to this perfect wine-growing geography, Tokaji and other Hungarian wines were known throughout northern and eastern Europe, and as far away as Russia, long before they seduced the French nobility in the 18th century. Northern European countries without vineyards of their own chased after the sweet, potent wines that reflected the warm Hungarian summers. The wine industry thrived throughout Hungry until 1526, when the Ottoman Turks swept in and imposed their rule. The Turks didn’t outlaw wine production, but it greatly diminished throughout the country.
The Tokaj region, however, held on and continued making celebrated wines, which played an essential role in diplomatic relations. Tokaji was the first sweet white wine in Europe, appearing two centuries before Sauternes. In 1703, Ferenc Rakoczi, Prince of Translyvania and a leading Tokaj’s winemaker, sent a shipment to Louis XIV in an effort to convince him to support the Hungarians in their fight against the invading Austrians. Louis fell under the spell of Tokaji, calling it, “The king of wines and the wine of kings.” Alas, even Tokaji couldn’t move him to help the Hungarians, and the Hapsburgs settled in for nearly 300 years of rule.
20th century decline… and renewal
The arrival of communism in Hungary was disastrous for the country’s wine; it’s part of the reason we stopped hearing about Hungarian wines for several decades. The majority of vineyards were confiscated under Communist rule and production was homogenized. Some winemakers, including István Szepsy’s father, managed to salvage a small bit of land and continue making wine independently until 1970. István Szepsy himself cultivated several hectares but was forced to give his production to the government.
When Communist rule ended in 1990, István Szepsy was ready to begin making wines in his own name. And thank goodness! Because his clean, careful method of making dry and sweet Tokaji produces some of the region’s—and the world’s—most celebrated wines.
That Tokaji is legendary goes without saying. But why? Like other wines, a combination of climate, soil, natural yeasts and of course, grapes, all contribute to its character. But Tokaji’s lies in a unique fermentation process and specific ageing conditions.
While the exact origins of Tokaji are unclear, legend has it that in the 13th century King Bela invited Italian and Flemish wine experts to help set up vineyards. They brought Furmint grapes, a late-harvest variety that, along with Hárslevelű and a bit of Muscat, still make up the modern Tokaji.
Furmint and Hárslevelű are particularly prone to Botrytis cinerea. This, along with the Tokaj region’s terroir, is what gives Tokaji its unique balance of sweetness and acidity. Grapes are harvested as they succumb to noble rot, shrivelling them on the vine. The rest of the grapes are left to ripen. Traditionally, the botrytized grapes—aszú, meaning ‘dry’ in Hungarian—are trampled into a paste that is then added to a base wine made with the normally ripe grapes. István Szepsy challenges the traditional process and lets the aszú grapes ferment directly in the base wine, leading to cleaner wines with less risk of oxidization.
Tokaji is aged in cool, damp cellars, where Cladosporium cellare mold proliferates, spreading in a soft, dry blanket over barrels of ageing wine, a sight worth seeing if you have the opportunity. Some vintners leave a little room in the barrels for the mould to enter and slowly consume the remaining oxygen, leading to complex flavours. Today, many Tokaji are aged for 3 to 5 years, but the best varieties can easily withstand 50 to 100 years—in the case of Eszencia, up to 200 years!
Not all Tokaji are created equal. The name ‘Tokaji’ simply means wine from the Tokay region. How the grapes are harvested and the sugar content determines the kind of Tokaji produced.
Szamorodni is Polish for “the way it was grown”. Rather than separate the aszú from the other grapes, everything is harvested and thrown into the vat together. The wines sweetness will vary, depending on the number of grapes with noble rot on the branches.
This is the sweet, white wine you probably think of when you hear ‘Tokay’. Traditionally, the sweetness of wine was defined by the number of puttonyos, the Hungarian word for a 25-kilogram basket of harvested aszú grapes, added to 135L of base wine. Today, sweetness is less romantically defined as the number of grams of sugar per litre, but still expressed in puttonyos. For an idea of scale, a 6-puttonyos wine must contain more than 150g of sugar per litre. Aszú-Eszencia is a 7 on the puttonyos scale.
The rarest and most expensive type of Tokaji, Eszencia is the pure juice that drips down from vats of aszú grapes as they are harvested. For centuries, it was believed that the incredibly concentrated Eszencia could cure nearly any ailment—even bring people back from the dead!—and many nobles kept a bottle diluted with brandy on hand, should they feel their spirits weakening. The juice’s incredibly high sugar content makes fermentation difficult, resulting in a very low alcohol percentage, never more than 6%. Traditionally used to make aszú wines, Eszencia may also be allowed to ferment separately and then bottled, a process which takes several years. The small quantities, long fermentation process and incredible flavour together explain the high price tag.