Tokaj’s New Golden Age. The SOMM Journal October issue


To visit Tokaj is to pull back the curtain on an extraordinary place, an ancient place that, at first glance, appears frozen in time even as the region embraces change. Storybook houses cluster together, defining this village from that; only the town church spire rises above a jumbled roofline, glinting pale gold in the early morning light. The warm hue of the terracotta roof tiles echoes the Venetian red volcanic soils that are common in many of Tokaj's Grand Crus. These, I explore with my guide, István Szepsy Jr.

István is an 18th-generation winemaker. He speaks carefully and thoughtfully, like his father. He's armed with technology, while steeped in old knowledge—the mutual evolution of generations of winegrowers and autochtonous grapes over centuries.  For me, this place is a reference point, a means of understanding the purest expression of terroir. István takes us through the back roads, which in the village of Mád begin abruptly—there are scarcely more than 2500 inhabitants according to the most recent census.

Our first stop is a local quarry; it's en route to a new planting of Furmint tucked farther up in the densely forested foothills. We stop to explore a deep cutaway in the hillside; the exposed subsoil layers are orangey red and honeyed cream. István shows us how burrowing roots can penetrate deeply, in some cases 20 meters, through the jumbled layers. He breaks loose a chunk of pure kaolin clay; it crumbles in my hand.

Earlier that morning, I'd spent time with István's father, István Szepsy Sr., introduced to me as the "the Aszú king." He's made it his life's work to understand the complex soils of the Tokaj-Hegyalia. "I wanted to understand what was here and why," declares Mr. Szepsy. He's more animated than his son, at least, while discussing the local geology. A fleeting smile betrays his enthusiasm as he points to a weathered map dated 1865. "The whole region was filled with water, trapped by the Carpathian Mountain range; after 20 million years the water finally cut through the mountains. At the line of Bodrog River a tectonic crack emerged, and two plates were in friction; one was sinking, and one was rising."

Volcanic eruptions over millennia and hydrothermal activity, some of which took place while Hungary was still submerged underwater, created cycles of heating and cooling that are responsible, in part, for the permeability of these soils. The Zemplén mountain chain, which forms the backbone of the region contain, the remnant cones of some 411 formerly active volcanoes; in Mád alone there are 29 peaks.

"This combination of soils can be found nowhere else in the world. This is why the sweet wines are drinkable in Tokaj: not because of their acidity, but because of the soils,” Mr. Szepsy says. Pauses his history lesson long enough to pour me the István Szepsy 2015 Betsek Furmint. It's minerally and structured, especially on the back palate; a crushed stone and calcareous base lie well below musky notes of mango, orange creme, granulated honey and smoke that emerge as the wine warms up. “We started to buy parcels on those slopes where I knew or suspected that these layers exist,” says Szepsy. Sites surrounding Mád are predominantly a mix of andesite and rhyolitic tuff (pronounced toof). But there are pockets—entire slopes—of pure perlite and porous zeolite and others with more weighty soils like kaolin clay, bentonite or loess.

Mád itself lies within a basin, and vineyards form a semi-circle around it. Crus at lower elevations sit beneath the fog line. Morning fog created by the confluence of the nearby Bogrog and Tisza rivers are critical for the formation of the botrytis necessary in the production of Aszú. The new site that István Szepsy Jr. planted over the summer is perched well above the fog line, planted in Furmint clones slated to make the dry style of wine that will come to dominate the region. As we stand amid the healthy young vines, King's Vineyard is visible below, one of the most prized blocks devoted to the production of Aszú.

"I've spent my life in the vineyards, and you see that one vine behaves differently from the other, and some are not so fat, and some leaves are smaller, the nodes are shorter and the flowering earlier. The question was and still is, how can we identify those parcels where the grapes and the vine will have the aroma and structure we're looking for? In the end, we selected 24 terroirs; most are on the hilltops. We have 62 hectares, and another 15 we're for preparing for planting."

Mr. Szepsy then pours the 2015 Furmint from the Uragya, more linear and acid-driven than the Betsek, resplendent with notes of almond, lemon curd, linden blossom and wild mint. Uragya, he says, was the vineyard that convinced him of the potential of a dry-style Furmint. “In 2000, something happened. We made some dry wine for another winery; the two brands were parallel. This dry wine was astonishing; it was from a late harvest, and it was very, very complex. This was the moment when I thought, why not? We made our first dry wines in 2003 under the Szepsy label. Now we are harvesting much earlier. This was the most drastic change in 2015; we start harvest in early September for the sparkling wines and dry Furmint.

The introductions of dry-style white wine, mostly Furmint and some a blend of Furmint and Hárslevelű mark a significant change for Tokaj; they are ushering in a new era—a second golden age. Tokaj has survived the ravages of phylloxera, war (Hungary was four times larger than it is now, following World War I) economic crisis and nearly five decades of Communism; these took a toll on smallholders' vineyards and all but eradicated wine quality. István and his son have worked tirelessly to restore both vineyards and quality of the wines. Certainly, following my meeting with the family, I not only understood why Mr. Szepsy is the Aszú king, I also understood why this new dry wine style, with all of its integrity, complexity and mineral crispness, is poised to make an entrance on the world's stage.

In addition to the Szepsy label, István Szepsy Jr. makes elegant dry Furmints under the Szent Tamás and MÁD labels.  The wines are imported by Vinum Tokaj International.

MÁD Furmint: Innovation Meets Heritage

Coming from a family that always made history - the first Aszú wine was produced by Lackó Máté Szepsy in the Middle Ages, the first vineyard selected dry Furmint wine was produced by his father, István Szepsy Jr. has created since 2011 the first village-level dry Furmint of the region – the MÁD. The strictly controlled vineyards of the integrated area are cultivated by more than hundred local families to provide the finest grapes.

Preserving old wines, strict yield control, carefully selected Furmint clones and manually picked, healthy grapes – these factors provide fine fruits to arrive to the winery where the gentle pressing and the temperature controlled fermentation preserve fresh and lively character in the MÁD Furmint.

István Szepsy Jr. is creating wines which tell the story of the historic village and of the Furmint variety and has the chance to become soon Mr. FURMINT.

Breaking news: Mád Furmint 2015 was just awarded Gold medal at the 2016 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition.

by Christine Havens

SOMM Journal November 2016/January 2018

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