One of the world’s oldest wine regions is trying to reinvent itself – but it is not proving to be very easy.
Near Castle Boldogkő, the sun’s last rays flow over the hills almost vertically, highlighting the ripe yellow-green that the grape leaves reach as the autumn harvest draws closer. There is little sound but the whistle of the wind and the few dog barks it brings. According to legend, the castle was built on the happiness of seven men who married the seven beautiful daughters of a fruit-dryer who had helped a Hungarian king hide from the Turks. The grateful king then gave the fruit-dryer land, provided that he help the men to build a fort against the Turks. The clever fruit-dryer offered the hands of his daughters to get the construction going – thus both father and sons-in-law earned their happiness. (Boldogkő means happy rock in Hungarian.) The striking colors, the vines, the hills and the view from the top of the romantic castle have been here in Hungary’s oldest wine region, Tokaj-Hegyalja for several hundred years. Now, however, they are increasingly put on display as well as other points of interest in the region as Tokaj tries to reinvent itself as a high-end tourist destination.
One of the most remarkable symbols of this is the Andrássy Residencia, a five-star wine & spa hotel. A former residence of the Andrássy family, the historic yet simple facade of the building hides a large swimming pool, various saunas, a colorfully lit cave bath with various types of jacuzzis, as well as a massage and wellness center. It also employs a chef who worked with the famous Brit Gordon Ramsay and formerly cooked for Hungary’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Costes. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but as a former country boy, I decided to risk it. I haven’t regretted it since,” Attila Nagy told us while flipping an omelet. According to the staff, many Slovakians drive across the border just for the spa. The hotel, which is owned by CIB Bank and managed by Accent Hotel Management, is trying to cooperate with wineries and restaurants in the region in order to raise the average number of guest nights. “If we want to raise our 1.8 average guest night to the ideal 2.2, the region needs to provide enough entertainment for a long weekend,” Imre Csordás, head of Accent Management said.
According to Csordás’ vision, the region could be turned into something similar to Austrian Wachau, a town that attracts connoisseurs and epicureans. For this to happen, the bicycle route infrastructure would need to be developed between wineries, the roads leading to the region would need to be improved and there should be a shuttle bus service for wine tasters as well. Also, the mentality of the towns involved would need to change. “Life stops here at 6 o’clock in the evening. Obviously, for city dwellers, this does not work,” he pointed out.
But even if the change of Tokaj into a high-end tourist destination is not very fast, there is little doubt that it is taking place. Ten years ago, tourists were mostly limited to kayakers and canoeists on the River Tokaj and the River Bodrog – they would stay in camping sites and find that there were very few open cellars and they would be selling third-rate wine. Winemaking was a completely different business, too. Factory workers or farmers from nearby would grow grapes for income to supplement their day job wages. It was good money in those days – a good harvest would buy a new car. “Of course, if you asked a grower back then about his grapes, then he would reply ‘It’s going to be a good harvest, there is a lot of fruit’,” as Zoltán Bihari, head of the Tokaji Borvidék Szőlészeti és Borászati Kutatóintézet, a wine research institute pointed out. (More high-quality growers would talk about the grapes’ sugar-content or other chemical attributes, as they only leave a few clusters of grapes on each plant, quantity is almost never an issue.)
Of course, Tokaj has a very long history of winemaking. It was a grape-growing region when the Magyars entered the area on their horses and it was the first site in the world where grape-growing areas were ranked. It is because of its largely unaltered role that UNESCO accepted it as a World Heritage site.
However, this millennium-long heritage also means that change is difficult. High-end wineries such as Disznókő, Oremus and Degenfeld, to name a few, are usually backed by foreign investors and are somewhat suspiciously viewed by the local winemakers. One cause of the undisplayed but nonetheless existing animosity towards them is that these wineries are financially strong enough to support making the best wines, even if they make a loss. Degenfeld, for example, has not had a profitable year since 2007 – while its revenues remain stagnant at below HUF 200 million, and several other big names are in a similar position. This would be untenable for small-scale wineries.
Of course, Tokaj wine is not necessarily bad business. A renowned Hungarian winery, Szepsy, had revenues of HUF 101 million, with a profit of HUF 68 million. Oremus drew in revenues of more than HUF 440 million last year with a profit of HUF 18 million. But for most winemakers, spending – or earning – this much is simply unimaginable, leading to a vastly different view of the region’s present and future needs.
High-paying tourists are at least seen by many as a good source of revenue. This is especially obvious if you compare the economy of Tokaj-Hegyalja with that of a much smaller wine region, Villány-Siklós. In Villány, Bock Borászat, one of the most well-known in the area, had revenues of a whopping HUF 840 million (a sixth of which is profit), rivaled in Tokaj only by Tokaji Kereskedőház Zrt. Villány’s Csányi Pincészet turned over even more, HUF 1.3 billion, though at a loss. Still, Tokaj does have something to offer that no other Hungarian wine region can: several hundred years old wines. In a wine museum that will be opened to the public soon, several hundred thousands of bottles of Tokaji have been stashed away by enthusiastic collectors throughout the ages. A sip of a 1972 Tokaji might not be a big treat in terms of a contemporary wine (it is past its peak), but it is an experience worth shelling out for all the same.
It is a taste of the past, with a somewhat murky, but interesting future – just like Tokaj itself.
Grapes affected by noble rot, i.e. botrytis, are selected then mixed with new wine, fermenting must or fermented must and pressed after 1–2 days. One butt (puttony) equals 20 kilograms of botrytis-affected grapes. There are 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-butt Aszú wines depending on the amount of botrytis-affected grapes, on which wine or must in the amount of a barrel from Gönc (136 liters) is poured. The leftover sugar content is different in the case of these wines, based on the number of butts:
3-butt Aszú – its leftover sugar content is 60–90 grams/liter, with a minimal dry matter (extract) content: 25 grams/liter
4-butt Aszú – its leftover sugar content is 90–120 grams/liter, with a minimal dry matter (extract) content: 30 grams/liter
5-butt Aszú – its leftover sugar content is 120-150 grams/liter, with a minimal dry matter (extract) content: 35 grams/liter
6-butt Aszú – its leftover sugar content is at least 150 grams/liter, with a minimal dry matter (extract) content: 40 grams/liter
Aszú wines are marketed after at least three years of ageing, two years of which is wooden-barrel ageing, usually in traditional barrels from Gönc (136 liters) or Szerednye (220–225 liters).
Aszú wines above the 6-butt are called Aszúeszencia. There are some bottles of Aszúeszencia on the market but this category is being phased out. According to previous regulations, Aszúeszencia had to have at least 180 grams/liter of leftover sugar content and 45 grams/liter dry matter content.
Eszencia, Natúr-eszencia or nectar
The liquid squeezed by the botrytis-affected grapes’ own weight, the sugar content of which is at least 450 g/liter, but in certain years it can reach 800–900 g/liter. Its alcoholic strength is minimal, 1–5%. In the past it was sold in pharmacies.
Botrytis-affected and healthy grapes are not separated, but processed together. The meaning of the name Szamorodni, as Polish merchants called this wine, indicates this method (“the way it was grown”). If the bunches hold less botrytis-affected grapes, usually dry Szamorodni is made with a sugar content under 10 g/l, while the sugar content of sweet Szamorodni starts at 30 g/l. Dry Szamorodni has another important feature, in that it is not aged in barrels filled to the brim, therefore a special yeast layer is created on the surface of the wine in the cellar of Tokaj that gives a typical fragrance and taste of mushrooms and sherry to the wine. Some sources mention sweet Szamorodni as the prime wine, and several wineries have started to use this expression once again. Both dry and sweet Szamorodni should be aged for two years before distribution, one year of which must be barrel-ageing.
Pouring wine or must on the Aszú dough which has already been pressed, but still contains a lot of valuable materials and is pressed again after soaking. Its sugar content is lower, and tannic acid content higher, than the Aszú wine made initially.
Pouring wine on the lees of Aszú that will absorb valuable materials. This wine type is very rare nowadays.
The content of this box was taken from the Budapest Business Journal’s annual cellar compendium, Wine in Hungary. The book is available at firstname.lastname@example.org