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Wine: Tokaj sees a sparkling future

Hungary’s most famous wine region joins others in going bubbly.

With the dry wines of Tokaj approaching the finished article after more than a decade of trial and error, it is now the turn of sparkling wines to add extra color to the increasingly broad Tokaj palette. This was the subject of one of the masterclasses at last month’s Nagy Pezsgők Kóstoló at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest.

The Furmint grape, the cornerstone of Tokaji Aszú, one of the world’s finest sweet wines, has shown its versatility in making dry wine of serious pedigree. With its high acidity and somewhat neutral character – prized for conveying individual vineyard characteristics in dry wine rather than putting the grape itself in focus – Tokaj vintners, and also Kreibacher in Somló (more on this winery later), have cottoned on to the fact that it could be just the ticket for crafting sophisticated sparklers.

Now, anyone can just add bubbles via the bicycle pump method, which tends to escape soon after opening, and this is the method behind ZZ Furmint Habzó 2013 from Tállya Wines, from the exciting upcoming Tokaj town of the same name, which is a straight and pure wine with good acidity and savory character making up for the quickly dissipating bubbles.

However, the traditional method of sparkling winemaking is a much more intricate and detailed process, involving a second fermentation in the bottles with the developing wine interacting with the lees picking up a complex range of toasty, yeasty and brioche flavors as part of this process known as autolysis.

Dereszla, the Tokaj winery owned by the D’Aulan family from Champagne, is taking its fizz very seriously and has even built a winery exclusively dedicated to traditional method sparkling wine in the Henye vineyard. Despite its Champenoise connection, the Dereszla Sparkling Methode Traditionnelle, with its crispy green apple and citrus fruit notes actually reminded me more of the Spanish (mainly – but not exclusively – Catalan) Cava, but a classy one at that. It had a nice touch of yeastiness.

Significant investment

Zoltán Demeter is another who has made a significant investment to bottle traditional method sparkling wines at his winery. He believes that sparkling wine can play a similar role to dry wine in moving Tokaj onwards and upwards. His Brut Nature 2011 was linear, clean and serious with tight acidity and a bit of white bread crust yeastiness alongside the lime zest. What it lacks in complexity it makes up for in terms of structure. Perhaps a bit more lees contact could give it that extra bit of cojones to make it stunning. This is zero dosage, which means that it wasn’t sweetened with the addition of sugar syrup mixed with wine when the yeasty plug that gathered at the neck of the bottle was disgorged by slowly tipping the bottle

Gróf Degenfeld’s Furmint Pezsgő had probably the most in the way of Tokaj and Furmint character about it with the grape’s characteristic quince notes coming through on the nose and palate and certainly can’t be accused of trying to be something else. But there’s no harm in benchmarking yourself against the best.

Sauska’s Tokaj Pezsgő Extra Brut Rosé, a blend of Furmint, Hárslevelű, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir aged on the lees for nine months, dazzled with its energy and pristinely pure fruit. I find it hard to get excited about sparkling traditional method rosé, but this one has lots going on. The Pinot Noir element was added as red wine.

One notable absentee was Királyudvar, which had led the sparkling wine revolution in Tokaj, thanks in part to the great savoir-faire from the Loire region of Vouvray, where Királyudvar’s Anthony Hwang also owns Domaine Huet, whose Vouvray Petillant is a great and more reasonably priced alternative to vintage Champagne.

From Somló, one of the highlights of last year was the launch of Kreinbacher’s Future Classic quartet of traditional method sparkling wines, of which the Prestige Brut is the flag bearer. While many sparkling wines seek to impersonate champagne, few get anywhere close, but these wines at least conjure up the champagne experience with Furmint providing that über crispy, structure-building acidity you expect from Champagne, for a very reasonable HUF 3,200-4,300 price range. They are made with yeast from Champagne and have become my go-to traditional method sparklers.