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Sweet Life: Tokaji’s Triumphant Return

 

t was another bone-chilling winter in
Northern Hungary, yet among the
winemakers of Tokaj this year, hearts were
warm and spirits ebullient. For deep in
their cellars, bubbled barrel upon barrel of
new wine. The 2013 harvest was glorious.
Climatic conditions in autumn proved ideal for noble
rot, yielding a bumper crop of aszú berries (shrivelled
grapes whose sugars are concentrated to ambrosial
levels by sun, wind and the Botrytis cinerea fungus),
essential for their inimitable sweet wines – Tokaji
Aszú, a nectar redolent of honey, spice and tropical
fruits once extolled by France’s Louis XIV as “The
Wine of Kings, the King of Wines”. The new vintage
brought as much delight as relief, for it was the
first time since 2009 that disastrous weather hadn’t
robbed many winemakers of their harvest. Such is
Tokaj, a place where men and women will annually
risk everything for the chance to create some of the
world’s most transcendent wine.
And yet, not long ago, Tokaj was all but forgotten,
the region having suffered an ignominious decline
during nearly a century of war and Communist rule.
Then, in the 1990s, several groups of visionary foreign
investors arrived. “There was this feeling that here
was this gem in the middle of nowhere, with such a
rich history,” recalls Ben Howkins, founding partner
of The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, the first private
winery in Tokaj post-Communism, formed in 1990
by British wine writer Hugh Johnson with Danish
investors and 63 local producers. The project, he
says, “was the most challenging thing that I’ve ever
done”. Indeed, their ambitions were bold: restoring
Tokaji to its former glory. Today, to hear the critical
praise for cuvées from myriad new wineries, it’s
clear these trailblazers not only helped repair
Tokaj’s reputation – they launched a renaissance.
Communism’s fall brought a wave of privatisation
of state-owned vineyards, beginning with the 150ha
Disznókö estate, purchased by AXA Millésimes
(wine arm of the French insurance group) in
1992. AXA invested massively, renovating 18thcentury
vineyard buildings, building an audaciously
modern winery, and carving new cellars into solid
rock. Similar investments revived other ancient
estates like Hétszölö (with French investor Michel
Reybier), Királyudvar (with American investor
Anthony Hwang) and Oremus (with Spain’s Vega
Sicilia winery). Finances indeed transformed the
landscape, but for Samuel Tinon – the first French
winemaker to settle in the region in 1991 – it took
something more to truly turn Tokaj around.
For decades, Tokaj was forced to produce banal
bulk wine, says Tinon. “When you get off track
for that long, you don’t know where the road is
anymore.” The new arrivals helped restore the
conviction that the region’s natural path was that of

“It was another bone-chilling winter in Northern Hungary, yet among the winemakers of Tokaj this year, hearts were warm and spirits ebullient. For deep in their cellars, bubbled barrel upon barrel of new wine. The 2013 harvest was glorious. Climatic conditions in autumn proved ideal for noble rot, yielding a bumper crop of aszú berries (shrivelled grapes whose sugars are concentrated to ambrosial levels by sun, wind and the Botrytis cinerea fungus), essential for their inimitable sweet wines – Tokaji Aszú, a nectar redolent of honey, spice and tropical fruits once extolled by France’s Louis XIV as ‘The Wine of Kings, the King of Wines’. The new vintage brought as much delight as relief, for it was the first time since 2009 that disastrous weather hadn’t robbed many winemakers of their harvest. Such is Tokaj, a place where men and women will annually risk everything for the chance to create some of the world’s most transcendent wine.

“And yet, not long ago, Tokaj was all but forgotten, the region having suffered an ignominious decline during nearly a century of war and Communist rule. Then, in the 1990s, several groups of visionary foreign investors arrived. ‘There was this feeling that here was this gem in the middle of nowhere, with such a rich history,’ recalls Ben Howkins, founding partner of The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, the first private winery in Tokaj post-Communism, formed in 1990 by British wine writer Hugh Johnson with Danish investors and 63 local producers. The project, he says, ‘was the most challenging thing that I’ve ever done’. Indeed, their ambitions were bold: restoring Tokaji to its former glory. Today, to hear the critical praise for cuvées from myriad new wineries, it’s clear these trailblazers not only helped repair Tokaj’s reputation – they launched a renaissance.

“Communism’s fall brought a wave of privatisation of state-owned vineyards, beginning with the 150ha Disznókö estate, purchased by AXA Millésimes (wine arm of the French insurance group) in 1992. AXA invested massively, renovating 18thcentury vineyard buildings, building an audaciously modern winery, and carving new cellars into solid rock. Similar investments revived other ancient estates like Hétszölö (with French investor Michel Reybier), Királyudvar (with American investor Anthony Hwang) and Oremus (with Spain’s Vega Sicilia winery). Finances indeed transformed the landscape, but for Samuel Tinon – the first French winemaker to settle in the region in 1991 – it took something more to truly turn Tokaj around.

“For decades, Tokaj was forced to produce banal bulk wine, says Tinon. ‘When you get off track for that long, you don’t know where the road is anymore.’ The new arrivals helped restore the conviction that the region’s natural path was that of excellence. ‘We are not going to teach them to make Tokaji,’ says Pablo Álvarez, head of Oremus and Vega Sicilia, perhaps Spain’s greatest estate. ‘But we can offer our philosophy, which is to try and make nothing less than the best wine possible.’ Today, draconian yields and painstaking grape-bygrape harvesting – keys to making opulent, old-style aszú wines – are again the norm in Tokaj. Centuries-old wines have been reborn, like Tinon’s astonishing dry Szamorodni, aged under a thin veil of yeast like Sherry or Jura wines, and, finally, Essencia, the ne plus ultra of Tokaji wines, made solely from free-run juice of botrytised grapes, epitomising the uncanny capacity of Tokaj’s furmint grape to balance lavish sweetness with delicate acidity. In 2013, Wine & Spirits named Royal Tokaji’s 2003 Essencia one of the year’s 100 best wines.

“A watershed year indeed, Royal Tokaji was also named one of Wine & Spirits’ Top 100 Wineries of 2013 – and they weren’t alone in the region. The winery of Hungarian István Szepsy also joined the Top 100 list, a potent reminder that Tokaj’s renaissance is no longer a primarily foreign-backed affair. Royal Tokaji may have pioneered the first single-vineyard aszú wines, but today growing numbers of wineries are probing the complexity of Tokaj’s volcanic terroirs, including celebrated Hungarian ventures like the Patricius and Beres estates. Local virtuoso winemakers Demeter Zoltán and Szepsy first showcased their talent working for Royal Tokaji and Királyudvar, but today focus on their own estates, creating the first single-vineyard dry Furmint bottlings – wines earning comparisons to the most expressive Côte d’Or Chardonnays. ‘Whether foreigner or Hungarian,’ says Tinon, ‘what we all share is the desire to use the roots of the past to create wines for today.’ Which certainly bodes well for Tokaj’s future.”

Jeffrey T. Iverson, March 2014
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Sweet Life: Tokaji’s Triumphant Return