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Tokaj’s Reinvention Marches On

The centerpiece tasting of Tokaji Március, which was held at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest on March 25, confirmed the progress being made by Hungary’s most famous wine region, as well as unleashing several new names on a wine-loving crowd.

The world-renowned region, situated in the country’s northeast, has had to reinvent itself due to demand for the sweet wine in which it excels being severely curtailed by changing tastes. Accordingly, the region’s vintners have gone in a dry direction, and while there has been much fanfare about dry Tokaj, led by the Furmint grape, a lot of the wines have, quite frankly, flattered to deceive. This is only to be expected given that the quality dry Tokaj movement only dates back to the millennium, and Rome certainly wasn’t built in a day. However, real progress is now being made as the winemakers are allowing the grapes to do the talking. This has been enabled particularly by reining in on the use of oak, with quite a number of dry Tokaj wines having seen no oak whatsoever. Indeed, dry wines made from the Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes generally possess enough substance and weight by themselves and hardly need propping up with wood, which if anything cancels out the fruit.

Expert use of oak was, however, evident in a masterclass at the Tokaji Március tasting given by László Szilágyi, winemaker of Gizella Pince, which featured wines from his partly-terraced Szil-völgy vineyards, located on the southern slopes of Tokaj Hill, next to the village of Tarcal. Since the 2013 vintage, Szilágyi has made Szil-völgy as a blend of Furmint and Hárslevelű (previously, he released the wines as single varietals). As the two grapes work in tandem to such devastatingly delicious effect in sweet wines, especially in Tokaji Aszú, you have to ask why more vintners aren’t pairing them together in dry wines.

Szilágyi stunned the local wine firmament last year when his Barát Hárslevelű 2015 claimed joint first place in Hungary’s “A 100 legjobb magyar bor” Top 100 wine contest, sharing the top spot with an Aszú from Dénes (the best wine is often an Aszú – Tokaj’s sweet wines are, and always will be, among the very best in the world). Despite being just 500 meters away from one another, the Hárslevelű wines that hail from the Szil-völgy and the deep loess of the Barát vineyards are worlds apart when tasted separately. The former comes from the rhyolite tuff that lies below the shallow layer of loess, and reveals a salty minerality, while the latter comes from deep loess and is exploding with tropical fruit. However, it’s more than a question of terroir, since the Szil-völgy is planted with Tarcal Hárslevelű clones. Meanwhile, those from Barát are the Pécs clone. Indeed, the clones can also be considered part of the terroir, especially the Tarcal clone. The 2016 Barát Hárslevelű, while still a baby, looks set to be another fine wine with lots of that delicious tropical fruit evident and a smooth, but not flabby, finish

Many wine lovers at the Tokaji Március tasting were talking about Tokaj Generation Y, not a reference to the band the Who, but a group of millennial Magyars making wine in Tokaj. All of the wines, made by Zsirai Kata, Dorka Homoky, Rémusz Dávid, László Kvaszinger and Ádám Varkoly, impressed. Dávid is also the winemaker at Erdőbénye’s exciting Budaházy-Fekete Kúria. Another emerging name to look out for from the picturesque village of Erdőbénye is Sanzon Tokaj. Not a member of the Tokaj Generation Y, but in his early 20s, Tomi Vincze dazzled with his fresh but focused dry wines from close to Sárospatak, which is home to several upcoming producers. In fact, excellent Tokaj wine is now coming from well beyond the original Tokaj strongholds, such as from Szerencs, which always served as a gateway to the region, but now is worth stopping off at for the likes of the Montium cellar.

The Cultural and Conference Center of Tokaj town itself will host the fifth Great Tokaj Wine Auction on April 22, which gives bidders the opportunity to snap up unique lots. These wines, which are not otherwise available on the market, are offered as barrel and half Gönci barrel lots (136 liters or 68 liters), which will be bottled with the special Confrérie Auction label. Participating wineries at this year’s Great Tokaj Wine Auction are: Barta, Demetervin, Disznókő, Grand Tokaj, Kvaszinger Winery, Holdvölgy, Márton Birtok, Myrtus Winery, Pajzos Tokaj, Samuel Tinon, Szent Benedek, Szepsy, Tokaj Hétszőlő, and Tokaj Kikelet. Lots range from dry Furmint and Hárslevelű to varietal Aszú and Eszencia, plus two selections by Tállya Wines and Tokaj Generation Y. There will be a blind tasting of auction lots in the morning preceding the auction itself, which will be held at 2 p.m. Last year, some 80 of the wines that went under the hammer found buyers, to the overall tune of EUR 68,000.

Here are two dry wines from the excellent 2015 vintage: 

Oremus Mandolás Furmint 2015 

Owned by legendary Spanish winery Vega Sicilia, this go-to Furmint gets more elegant and refined with every passing year. Once a rather oaky proposition, the wood is now firmly in the background with the formidable fruit and fresh floral character coming to the fore. Zesty, yet also complex.

HUF 3,450 from Bortársaság 

Gizella Szil-völgy 2015 

50% Furmint and 50% Hárslevelű, 80% used barrels and 20% new. A case of everything being in the right place. It combines both Furmint’s focused structure and tension with Hárslevelű’s florality and lusciousness. Medium-bodied and airy but with lots of depth, juicy stone fruit and considerable length.

HUF 6,350 from Bortársaság.