Since Tom Cannavan’s last visit to Tokaj in 2011, the dry wines coming out of the region have gone from strength to strength as I found out on a trip there in spring of this year. Great sweet wines are still being produced, but it is the meteoric rise in quality of dry and traditional method sparkling wines which has really caught the eye. While an update on the sweet wines is included, the dry still wines are a good place to start with some world-class examples being made.
Some Like it Dry
These are principally single varietal Furmints, although excellent Hárslevelű is also made. Many of the former come from vineyards around the picturesque market town of Mad. The vineyards of the region were classified as many as 16 times between 1670 and 1803, but the six first-growths, still recognised as such in Mad, were pin-pointed in all 16 lists, just as the second and third growths remained in place. Mad’s council was far stricter than other towns in the regulation of its vineyards. The sextet in question is Betsek, Kiraly, Kovogo, Nyulaszo, Percze-Hegy and Szent Tamas. Equal in quality to the first growths are two other sites on the edge of Mad: Uragya (52 hectares, situated at 160-250 metres on rhyolite tufa soil) and Urban (45 hectares on similar soil but with some quartz). Respective historical mentions of each date back to 1565 and 1612.
Elsewhere in the region, notably around the town of Tokaj, are other outstanding single vineyard sites, or ‘dulos.’ A dulo is defined as a ‘geographically and climatically uniform growth place that is clearly demarcated and designated in VINGIS (Hungary’s viticultural geographical information system), and is registered for the purpose of grape-growing.’ These vary in size from 11 hectares (Lapis) to 165 hectares (Rany). Mad boasts 27 of the 44 registered dulos, wich spread across 27 towns and villages.
While dry Furmint from Tokaj is notable for its shrill acidity and lemon pith notes, as well as salty minerality from the region’s volcanic soils, Hárslevelű also possesses vibrant acidity along with strong citrus flavours. The two grapes are used for sparkling wines, on their own or in a blend. The use of 100% Furmint is favoured, with one of Tokaj’s most highly regarded winemakers, Zoltan Demeter, employing it for his superb Pezsgo 2017 which spent 60 months on the lees. Savage Selection stocks it with a retail price of £42.
Of the 5,300 hectares under vine in Tokaj, 64% is planted to Furmint, 19% to Hárslevelű, 11% to Yellow Muscat, and 6% to Koverszolo, Zeta and Kabar. The first three are the mainstay of Tokaj’s sweet wines, with Furmint particularly susceptible to noble rot and Hárslevelű offering delicate, honey-like aromas. Yellow Muscat provides elegance and spiciness. Some producers use small amounts of the others, though Royal Tokaji produces a sweet single varietal Kabar.
With 105 hectares under vine, Royal Tokaji is amongst the biggest producers in the region. Their wines are widely available in the UK. Mate Varga is head winemaker, and Peter Majoros in charge of viticulture, while the capable Charlie Mount, a Briton, presides as chief executive. “We love making the dry wines, where purity, finesse and precision is what we seek,” Mount told me, “but our number one focus is on Aszu berries.” He revealed that just over half of the company’s vineyards lie in the first growths of Szent Tamas, Betsek and Nyulaszo and in the ‘great’ first growth of Mezes Maly. Royal Tokaji produces dry Furmint and late harvest wines every year, but Azsu only in the very best years and the legendary Essencias in absolutely exceptional years. As much as 40kg of shrivelled Aszu berries is required for each 37.5cl bottle of Essencia. The 2009 Essencia (581 g/l RS, TA 11.83 g/l) was not bottled till August 2017 and came in at 2% abv.
Dobogo’s outstanding wines are imported into the UK by Liberty. Winemaker and co-owner Attila Domokos has five hectares around Mad – notably in Szent Tomas, Uragya and Betsek. He embraces biodynamic principles, using no insecticide and adding SO2 just prior to bottling. While he admits winemaking was a ‘hobby’ when he made his first vintage in 2003, he is now one of the region’s most dynamic winemakers. “We have easy or difficult vintages – not much in between,” he mused. “Extreme weather or too much rain like in 2015 when we lost 50% of the crop.” Best known for his botrytised Azsu 6 Puttonyos and ‘Mylitta’ noble late harvest labels, Domokos was the first to plant Pinot Noir in the region – in Uragya in 2005.