Mád about Tokaj

Sweet wines seem to be a little of the bitten path today.

We are counting calories so much that we tend to be scared of this liquid sunshine famous for centuries. For those brave ones there is a whole world of sweet to discover or rediscover, but if you think wines of Tokaj are only sweet think twice.

When you travel to Tokaj – Mád is the place to be. This sleepy Hungarian village turned into food and wine destination in recent years mainly to one visionary István Szepsy. I have travelled there with a group of WSET Diploma students from Weinakademie Österreich while back and that was an eye opener for all of us. I loved it so much that I have decided to revisit Tokaj with a group of students of my wine school and members of Polish Women and Wine association.

We discovered that Tokaj started to produce dry wines in answer to the international market demand. Mád has been created on volcanic soil and that is precisely what makes a difference in styles of those wines. Historical volcanic Cru sites we had a chance to visit with the creator and spiritus movement behind brining Tokaj back to world scene István Szepsy Senior say it all. Úrágya, Király (kings Hills), Betsek just to name the few best sites, produce the most structured and full bodied  white wines with depth and spicy bite when young. When aged to my surprise they bring reminiscent of best white Burgundies.

There are 6 Tokaj grape verities among them Furmint, Hárslevelű, Yellow Muscat and Zeta are the  most important.

Furmint has typically high acidity and in best of the sites in Mád makes the most outstanding white wines. Szepsy believes this is the most important grape variety and after working with many international grapes he came back to Furmint at last. Hárslevelű gives body and aromatic component, made as monovariety at times but used in blends most often. Yellow Muscat adds aromatic component but it is an early ripener, not always regarded by best producers for aszú wines.

Furmint with its high acidity quality doesn’t only make sweet and still wines. Much to my surprise they make very good sparkling wines with Furmint using traditional method. We have tasted great sparkling from Demetervin made by young winemaker Endre Demeter, a strong follower of Szepsy, in its path of striving for quality. To follow the reputation of his last name Endre produces his wines according to organic wine production and is practicing with some biodynamic preparations.

However the most amazing lesson on vintage variation and quality of aszú wines I got there, not once but twice, was at Disznókö.  We have tasted 15 vintages of 5, 6 puttonyos and essencia of Tokaj Disznókö commented by head winemaker László Mészáros

Vertical of Disznókö wines simply shows differences in acidity, length, and complexity coming purely from weather condition in particular year.

Later that year I got another aszú lesson there. We arrived on the one and only day when Disznókö team is compering quality of essencias and aszú berries from each parcel of the vineyard rating it 1-3 point with 1 being the best. Best rated sites will be blened into Aszu wines of the vintage. Amazing lesson I got to say.

So you wonder what is aszú and what puttonyos are? Aszú are berries affected by noble rot, botrytis cinerea. Puttonyos traditionally it is a basket of 20 kg aszú grapes added to the 136 liter barrel of still wine called Gönci. Aszú berries is what each winemaker is praying for each year to set in their vineyards. We have arrived precisely at this time of the year to see how aszú berries develop and to understand the magic behind sweet Tokaji wines. Our guide was the man himself István Szepsy Senior. He told us upon arrival. I have two pieces of information  for you a good and a bad. I start with a bad one – he says – there will be no aszú picking today, the good one is that I will show you how aszú berries are growing – and so he did. The weather in Tokaj in a fall of 2016 was very difficult with rain almost every day and István has postponed his harvest, as the quality of the aszú berries was not good enough for his wines. When we arrived at his most famous site Úrágya he has shown us how you pick best quality aszú grapes. He only employs women to pick aszú as they are most gentle and caring for this work. I asked if I could take a bunch of grapes with me for my students in Poland. At first he agreed but after we went to the vineyard he said they are still not good enough, but I promise you if botrytis sets well I will send it to you to Poland – he said. That there show the amount of care for quality István Szapsy has. I was stunned.

Szespy explained to us his search for quality and how he came to conclusion of making three styles of wine only: dry, szamorodni and 6 puttonyos aszú.

The difference in production of szamorodni and aszú is that you make the first one with whole bunches, some of grapes affected by noble rot and some not, as botrytis sets unevenly. Aszú is picked by hand berry by berry over several weeks depending on weather conditions, separately from each parcel.

For those who are worried about sugar there is also szamorodni dry made traditionally in oxidized style, oozing with nuttiness, and dried fruit aromas, almost sherry like in the nose. It makes fantastic aperitif.

There is polish etymology to word – szamorodni it means, “as it comes” as the wines back in XVI were bought by Poles and travel to Cracow in barrels while still fermenting – this is a definition found in Poland. Hungarians however explain it that it is made as it comes from the vineyard meaning whole bunches instead of picking berries separately – interesting difference in view from different cultures.  Remember aszú wines are always sweet however szamorodni can be sweet (édes) or dry (száraz).

We have also visited Tokaj Women and Wine Association (Tokaji Borbarátnők Társasága) at their headquarters in the cnetre of Mád at Demetervin winery  where we stayed over the weekend. We had a tasting of impressive selection of wines made by female winemakers in the region and met with a president of association Edit Kulcsar there.

It is interesting that Tokaj made its reputation on rot but on the contrary to fighting with rot you will find one biodynamic producer here.  

A female winemaker Márta Wille Baumkauff from Pendits winery.

Her vineyards are well located midslope with southern exposure on Krakó  hill which makes biodynamic winemaking possible. She is the only one brave enough to work her land biodynamically surrounded buy rot, noble, but still a rot. Not an easy task. Pendits wines are the only wines in Hungary demeter certified. They are made in traditional a bit oxidative style and well worth a while to taste.

Her determination reminded me of one other person Alain Dejean from Domaine Rousset-Peyraguey in Sauternes who may years ago introduced me to biodynamic and made me a believer ever since.

Few new restaurant come to life in Mád with very exciting twist on traditional Hungarian cuisine making it even more worth a while. Percze, Gusteau and Első Mádi just to name the few. At Percze which is run by Kinga Szepsy you can find in menu beef from their own farm and mushrooms from Zempleni mountains –  fresh and local ingredients tasting absolutely great. We have paired our beef with Szepsy Úrágya wines – full body and dry – an amazing experience.

It is simply showing that Tokaj and especially Mád has is all the bubbles, dry still wines and the world class sweet wine in one place influenced by volcanic terroir, making the most amazing wines in the world just ready to discover. About the only thing that you will miss here is reds. It is a white madness here, and this is why I am mad about Tokaj.