Tokaji is undoubtedly the best known of Hungary's wine regions, and it has also seen the most international investment and interest. The communist era was particularly painful for Tokaj, with well regarded vineyards on the steeper slopes being abandoned due to difficulties working them mechanically and the rest of the vineyards being adapted to 4 metre wide rows to accommodate the Soviet tractors. The communal farm units were producing wines of low quality designed to satisfy the eastern bloc markets and quality was a word that quietly lost and concept or meaning. The fall of communism allowed the more forward thinking members of the cooperatives to lay the foundations for a rebirth, people like Andras Bajo, who successfully transformed his cooperative into the Oremus winery, complete with the cream of the older vintages, and a desire to go back to what he believed Tokaji was before it had been so thoroughly debased. Hugh Johnson, the British wine writer corralled a group of investors to create the Royal Tokaji winery and AXA Millesimes, the wine branch of the French investment company arrived to create Disnoko, bringing with them the belief that Tokaji could be made in a different style. That it didn't have to be oxidised and nutty when young, that it could be fresh and extremely fruity at birth with the understanding, born of long experience in Sauternes, that the complex tertiary aromas of age would indeed arrive with age.
The ten years or so following the new wave of investment brought bitter arguments over what people though was the soul of Tokaji, long evenings were spent debating whether the Aszu berries should be macerated in must, in freshly made wine or wine of the previous vintage. All this while money kept on being poured in, and now a visit to Tokaj will find any number of dazzling high tech wineries. Patricius, currently heading the Renaissance group and financed entirely domestically, Beres, Alana, and Pajoz. But this wasn't to be the end of the changes.
Andras Bajo had envisaged Oremus as being like a Bordeaux Chateau, releasing a grand vin, followed by a decending ladder of second wines. However, due to the scattered nature of the Tokaj vineyards and the piecemeal ownership of land, the analogy that suits them best is of a Burgundian negotiant in the early 20th century and indeed the big boys do buy a lot of grapes, they couldn't do otherwise.
Back in Mad, Istvan Szepsy was working away, possessed of an inherent curiosity and a genius for wine making, he became the lightning rod around which progressive ideas fomented. The Mad boys as they became known were looking at the soils, thinking tirelessly about where they wanted their wines to be going. Wine makers such as Gabor Oroz and Samuel Tinon, both making small amounts of extremely high quality Aszus had found their feet and their niches. Up in Abaujaszanto Marto Wille-Baumkauff was tending to her beautiful hillside vines, initially going organic and then later fully biodynamic, her concept of Tokaji production was resolutely against the grain, minimal intervention with natural yeast and a definite aim of letting the terroir speak for iteslf.
What she was doing didn't go unnoticed and she is now a member of the Tokaji Bormivelok Tarsasaga (Tokaj company of wine producers, though in a very archaic agricultural sort of way, I guess it resonates if you're one of the 12 people who speak Hungarian outside of the country, but never the less it's very catchy, rolling off the tongue nice Szamorodni, or not). They were showing a selection of their dry wines at the wine festival. A large and detailed vineyard map showing all the crus set out their intentions. All their wines are single vineyard bottlings, and to anyone au fait with the more natural end of French wine making will make perfect sense.
Karadi-Berger, Palandor 08 – This is from a cru (Palandor) vineyard quite close to the town of Olaszliska, the terroir is decomposed slate and it shows a vibrant nose of slightly lifted (bit volatile) pears and ripe quince, the palette had a sort of electrified acidity with loads of pear fruit.
Bott, Csondos 08 – The Csondos cru is on the next hill side north and east of Palandor and has much more volcanic soil. The nose is very mineral with some apricot notes, on the palette there is a hint of something herbal, but this is all about the minerality.
Kiss Janos, Nagy Palant 08 – As if to emphasise how small scale some of these wines are, this is one of 1199 bottles produced, the cru is close to Bodrogkisfalud and has cold brown forest soils and rhyolitic tufa, a wild yeast ferment was folloowed by 18 months in large old oak, 12 of which were on the fine lees. A slighly stalky nose with bitter citrus accents led onto a rich and powerful palette, though I felt the alcohol was a bit evident.
Az Nektar Pince, Vioka 08 – This was one of two wines from Sátoraljaújhely (pronounced shat a rye you ee hay, for those that don't speak Magyar), a town in the northern part of the region just before the Slovakian boarder. The cru is one of the higher in Tokaj at 390 metres from sea level, again the soils are volcanic. This had a slightly lifted appley nose with some nice dill like herbal notes, a small amount of residual sugar gave the prominent acidity a little bit of padding. I though it was excellent.
Doragy, Elohegy 08 – A cru very close to the town of Tarcal, this had a lovely smoky, savoury almost salty nose, on the palette apple and pear fruits dominated, again excellent.
Erzsebet Pince, Zafir dulo 08 – This is from the cru next to Mezes-Maly (owned by Grof Degenfeld and Royal Tokaji who make a single vineyard Aszu from it), it's in between the towns of Tokaj and Mad. It's a blend of 66% FurmintThe wine was showing pear and white flowers, very fruity on the palette it finished with a nice leesy earthiness.
Tokaji Nobilis, Hars 08 – From the cru of Barakonyi dulo outside the village of Bodrogkeresztur. Tokaji Nobilis is the winery of Bardos Sarolta (surnames come first in Hungarian), who is the wife of Peter Molnar, president of Tokaji Renaissance and head of Patricius. The wine shows lovely honeyed white flowers with a steely mineral heart.
Kikelet, Lonyai dulo 09 – From just outside of Tarcal, this is a very fresh citrus dominated HVLU with apples, lime and some perfumed white pepper notes.
Az Nektar, Kacsard 09 – Again from the north of the region near Sátoraljaújhely this is slightly off dry and showed creamy pears, some floral notes and a nicely mineral finish.
Finally Pendits Dry Muscat from near to Abaujszanto. As mentioned earler Marta Wille-Baumfauff is one of the regions most interesting personalities, the first wine grower to be certified organic and now biodynamic, she passionately loves her vines and seems to be forever restless always looking for new ways to help the region and her fellow growers. Her Muscat is very different from the norm, always showing a sort of sweaty florality, but matched to a medium bodied palette with excellent length. What is so lovely about it is that if you taste the grapes, then the must followed by a couple of vintages, it is clear that there is a real consistency of flavour capture. Well worth seeking out.
For me this was a real eye opener of a tasting, showing that outside of the larger growers and houses there is a real groundswell of smaller producers who are making dry wines that really speak of the crus from whence they come. Sadly over a very wet weekend in Budapest it is clear that 2010 is going to be a terrible vintage, with growers telling me that mildew has ripped through the vineyards far faster than they can spray to combat it. Obviously for those that are organic this is even more of a problem. Yields will undoubtedly be very much down from previous years with some crus not producing anything. For the larger houses I doubt this will be a huge problem as many have large stocks of wine and good funding, but I fear greatly for the smaller growers as a year like this will no doubt put great strain on finances. Fingers crossed and they'll all survive, as it would be a tragedy if the hail of the early summer and the rain that has finished it damaged this beautiful flowering of individuality.