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Assessing the wine scene in Hungary's Tokaj.

In late August of 1993, I was invited to visit Tokaj, Hungary, as a viticultural and winemaking consultant. I went as a representative of Volunteers for Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA), which is a private non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. VOCA was founded in 1970 to provide organizational and technical assistance to cooperatives and private farmers, particularly in emerging democracies. Volunteers work in developing countries in such places as Africa, Asia and Latin America. Since the fall of Communism volunteers have been sent to Eastern and Central Europe, and the independent states of the Soviet Union, as well.

The presidents of seven village cooperatives in the Tokaj region had requested two consultants, one with technical expertise and one with business organizational skills. I shared the assignment with the former C.E.O. of a Midwest grain cooperative, who acted as the business consultant. The cooperatives represented the villages of Tarcal, Tokaj, Tallya, Mad, Hercegkut, Olaszliszka and Erdobenye. They wanted help to form an umbrella organization to promote their wines, expand their domestic market and develop a market in the West. These cooperatives comprise 1,022 members and about 1,800 acres. The individual vineyards range from 0.5 to 6.5 acres. Their 1992 total production, if bottled, would be about 280,000 cases.

Tokaj, which is 180 miles northeast of Budapest on the border with Slovakia, was already in vines when Magyars conquered Hungary in the ninth century. Vineyards had been established there by the Romans as early as the third century. Tokaj's location at 45.5 to 48.5 North latitude puts it on northern limit for viticulture. The average temperature during the growing season is 51F! But as is often the case in viticulture, where ripening is least able to be counted on, some of the world's greatest wines are made.

Although most of Hungary is under 200 meters in elevation, the Tokaj hill (Tokaj Hegyalja) is 400-500 meters high. The vineyards are planted on the south and southeasterly slopes. Tokaj is protected on north, west and east by the Carpathian Mountains, and exposed to warm southerly air from the Great Plains. The humidity is high from the evaporation of the local Bodrog and Tisza rivers. Heaviest rainfall months are June through August, with lighter rain in October. The main soil types are: "Nyirok", a clay loam with high iron content, mixed with rocks of volcanic origin; loess, which is silt loam deposited by wind, and "brown forest soil", the fertile soil characteristic of the flats. It's a matter of dispute among the villages which soil, Nyirok or loess, produces better quality wine. All agree that brown forest soil is the lowest quality.

The fortuitous combination of alternating overcast/cool/moist, with clear/warm/dry weather, and the well-drained soils makes Tokaj ideal for the development of Botrvtis cinerea, the"noble rot". In 1650, the first aszu was made, the sweet, thick and rich wine for which Tokaj is famous. Aszu is a botrytised wine, similar in some respects to Sauternes. It is known as the "wine of kings and the king of wines. "The story goes that harvest was delayed because of an impending invasion by the Turks. By the time the grapes were picked, the noble rot had done its magic and the rest is history. Tokaj wine has figured prominently in wars and treaties, and royalty throughout Europe have coveted it.

In 1798, a viticulturist named Antal Szirmay created the original Tokaj delineation. All vineyards in the 30 or so villages comprising Zemplen County were rated first, second or third class. This classification continues to be relevant today, despite the fact that the vineyards had to be replanted after phylloxera destroyed them in 1875, because it was made based on soil type and individual microclimate best suited to the development of superior aszu wines.

In 1908, national legislation officially cleared the boundaries of the Tokaj appellation. (Two of the original 30 villages ended up in Slovakia as a result of border changes after World War I). Also in 1908, the official Tokaj varieties were established: Furmint, which now makes up approximately 70% of the planted acreage, Harslevelu ("Linden Leaf") which makes up about 25%, and Muscat Lunel (Yellow Muscat), about 5%. In 1959, four more villages were added by Slovak legislation, three of which had been mentioned in 1798.

Some sources say that Furmint was introduced by Italians who settled in Tokaj in the 1200s, although the growers of Tokaj maintain that Furmint is a Hungarian variety. The Yellow Muscat is no doubt related to the White Muscat, which according to Pierre Galet originated in Greece, and was brought to France, and perhaps Hungary, by the Romans. Harslevelu appears to be an indigenous variety; I have been unable to find it in Galet, and the shape of its leaves and clusters is completely unlike anything I've ever seen.

All Hungarian property was nationalized when the Communists came to power after World War II. The state winery (Borkombinat), which had controlled all wine production during the years of the Communist regime, began to fall apart in 1989. The Soviet Union, which had collapsed, ceased to purchase its customary 70-80% of production, and the Kombinat fell quickly into debt. The current value of this debt is reported to exceed 2 billion forints (100 forints equal approximately 1 U.S. dollar). Because of this debt and excess wine stocks, the Kombinat reduced its grape and juice purchases from the Tokaj village cellars in 1990, and by the 1992 harvest, all business dealings between the Kombinat and the village cellars had come to a halt. This left 18,000 growers with the 1992 vintage on their hands, and no way to stabilize, filter, bottle, label or market their wine.

Eighteen cooperatives were formed in Tokaj in September, 1992. They formed, said our host Gyorgy Toth, the president of the Erdobenye cooperative, not out of inspiration but out of necessity. The government agreed to turn over the village-based cellars and equipment to the villages and village residents. No money exchanged hands. In some cases the capital was given outright; in others, the state retained one share in the cooperative. As Gyorgy pointed out, the state didn't do the growers any great favor, because the property was in much better condition before it was nationalized. To make matters even more difficult, the co-ops don't have title to the property (the state property agency does), and can't use it as collateral to borrow money unless they pay the state for it. Needless to say, the growers have no money, and therefore are stuck in a vicious circle: they can't bottle their wine without equipment, and they have no money to purchase equipment because their only commodity, wine, is not marketable because it's not bottled. There currently is no effective regulation to oversee viticultural or winemaking practices, no organization to represent growers and no marketing organization.

During my three-week stay in Tokaj, I spent many hours in the coop vineyards and cellars. Following are my observations on some of the historical and current viticultural and winemaking practices in Tokaj.

The Tokaj vineyards were replanted after phylloxera with the aforementioned three varieties, grafted to Teleki 5B and 5BB rootstock. The vines were apparently head trained and spur pruned, in what the Hungarians call the "stick" system. The vines were 1 meter apart both within and between the rows. Cultivation was done by horses pulling implements and all other operations were by hand.

Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, the state "modernized" many of the vineyards with the intention of mechanizing all possible operations. Many vineyards were ripped out. Between row spacing was widened to 2.2m. Trellising was installed and the new vines were trained to bilateral cordons. The vines were also trained higher. Previously the average head height was 40-50 cm; now most vineyards were 80 cm-1.2 m. About 5% of the vineyards were trained to the Geneva Double Curtain (GDC): 1.7m high, with rows 4.4m apart.

The new vineyards were grafted to 5C, which was found to be better for ripening on the higher and wider training systems. A few vineyards were grafted with Riparia Gloire (which is called Portalis in Tokaj) and St. George.

The growers discovered early on that the new training systems delayed ripening and chaptalization was required almost every vintage. In the marginal climate of Tokaj, warmth radiated from the soil is at least as, if not more, important than sun exposure through the canopy. The GDC system, particularly, resulted in unbalanced wines with too high acid. And the promised "total mechanization" never came to pass!

The Soviets were not known for their discrimination; quantity, not quality was their prime interest. As the viticulturist from Tallya told me, "The old way was to have many small vines, low yields and wait as long as possible for perfect ripening. The Russian modern way was to have a few big vines, high yields, harvest early and add sugar." The harvest had traditionally begun on October 28; the state now harvested in September. Now that the regime has collapsed, most growers wish they could return to the old stick system. However, they recognize that they have to use some mechanization, and those vineyards which have been replanted are trained to a medium high cordon at 80 cm, 1 meter between vines and 2.2 meters between rows.

Despite the lack of concern for quality displayed by the Soviets, the growers of Tokaj continued their viti-cultural and winemaking traditions in the home vineyards and cellars they were allowed to have for their own private use. Recently published reports to the contrary, the traditions of Tokaj did not die during the Soviet regime. All the growers of Tokaj need to resume production of classic Tokaj on a commercial scale is money. The expertise has always been, and continues to be, there in abundance.

Some vineyards have reservoirs and movable surface pipes for irrigation, which was needed infrequently until 1989, the beginning of a four-year drought. Unfortunately, the collapse coincided with the drought, and there is no money in Tokaj for irrigation. Yields are down and in some vineyards a potassium deficiency is showing up. The state stopped support for fertilization programs several years ago.

The growers in Tokaj spray for downy and powdery mildew and Eutypa. Pests include mites and some Lepidoptera species. Helicopters were used for most spraying operations in the past, but now there is no money.

Most vineyards were disked regularly before the collapse. Now many are allowing the natural vegetation to grow. Other cultural activities practiced are shoot positioning, and hedging when shoots are 1 meter above the wire.

Three types of wine have traditionally been made in Tokaj: Szamorodni, Eszencia and Aszu. Szamorodni is made from randomly-picking vineyard blocks without selection or regard for the degree of Botrytis. These wines are either dry or sweet (2-3% sugar) depending on the characteristics of the particular vintage. They resemble sherry and display yeasty, caramel aromas and flavors. Some of the dry Szamorodnis have a touch of bitterness in the finish.

Eszencia and Aszu can be made in appreciable quantities only one out of every four or five vintages. Vineyards are selectively picked for Botrytis-affected berries, with a sugar concentration of approximately 40-60 Brix. (The non-Botrytis affected berries are 19-22 Brix at harvest). The hand-picked grapes are put into tubs. The juice that is drained from them by gravity alone is called "Eszencia". It barely ferments, due to the extraordinarily high sugar content, and has an aroma, flavor and texture almost impossible to describe. It is unbelievably rich, like drinking something between a liquid and a solid. Now it is rarely seen outside of Tokaj, but in ages past wondrous medicinal properties were attributed to it, and doctors prescribed it for their ailing, wealthy patients.

Aszu is made by pouring a base wine of 13-15% alcohol over the Aszu berries, which have been trodden or crushed after the Eszencia has drained (usually after about a month). The crushed fruit is now called Aszu "dough", and it steeps in the base wine for 24 to 36 hours. The base wine (like the Szamorodni) is made from nonselected fruit crushed and pressed in field houses, transported to the cellar and fermented in concrete tanks or neutral casks. Fermentation is natural; no commercial yeasts are added to the juice.

Aszu is classified by "puttonyos". A puttonyo is 20 kilograms of Aszu "dough". Three puttonyos Aszu is made by pouring 136 L (36 gal) Gonc cask of base wine over 3 x 20 kilograms, or 60 kilograms, Aszu dough. Aszu is made in 3,4,5 and 6 puttonyos. After pressing the wine is transferred to cask (15 to 30 year old, neutral Hungarian oak) and aged three years plus one year for each puttonyo. Aged Aszu has a high concentration of aldehydes such as hydroxymethylfurfurals, high amino acids and is high in iron. Frequent sensory descriptors used for Aszu are: honey, bread, almonds, and chocolate.

The cellars in Tokaj were built between 1400 and 1600 A. D. Some of them are 30 feet or more underground. They are naturally cool (10-12 C) and covered with a characteristic mold, Clodosporium cell are, which feeds off the alcohol evaporated during aging and keeps the humidity in the range of 85-90%. The mold looks like white or gray cotton candy when alive; if wine is not kept in the cellar, the mold eventually dies, dries out and turns black. Casks are topped monthly but bunged loosely; the wines are not protected from oxygen, since oxidation is one of the "trademarks" of both Szamorodni and Aszu. SO2 use is kept to a minimum.

Tokaj wines are often difficult to clarify and heat stabilize, due to the high protein and iron content. Both bentonite, tannin plus gelatin and complexed compounds specifically to remove iron are used. In the past, the state froze and pasteurized the wine prior to pad filtration, which was followed by membrane filtration on the way to the bottle.

Small quantities of dry wines have been made in Tokaj during the past few years. Previous VOCA volunteers had suggested they make varietal wines in a style to compete with Chardonnay. Most often these have been Furmint or Furmint/Harslevelu blends. These wines have been varietal-labeled, and occasionally have found their way to the U. S. Unfortunately, they are usually so oxidized as to be almost undrinkable.

I was therefore quite astonished to taste the cooperatives' 1992 vintage, which is still in tank and barrel due to lack of bottling facilities. 1992 was not a vintage conducive to Aszu development, and most of the growers' wines are dry and have been relatively protected from oxygen. The wines are reminiscent of white Rhones (a more apt comparison than Chardonnay); they have an intense, flowery perfume on the nose and are rich yet dry on the palate, with substantial body and structure. They are not wines which require new oak to be attractive or stylish. I believe if dry Tokaj wines, just as they are, could be properly finished, bottled and transported to the U. S., there would be a market for them here.

After three weeks of daily visits to the vineyards, cellars and business offices, we held a general meeting to present our recommendations. My major suggestions were as follows:

1. Dedicate vineyard blocks which are unsatisfactory for Aszu development to the making of dry wines, and use cultural practices which will prevent Botrytis and encourage earlier ripening. These practices might include: more open trellising, leaf pulling, shoot thinning and crop thinning.

2. Stop helicopter spraying (which apparently they can't afford anyway) and use tractors and backpack spraying (in the rows that are too narrow for tractors). Stop spraying for Eutypa and paint pruning wounds instead.

3. Be extremely selective during picking when making dry wines, keep SO2 levels at 20-30 ppm free, barrel ferment as much of the juice as possible (since their tanks lack refrigeration), top regularly and bung tightly. I described sur lies aging and stirring, which they were very interested in and will probably experiment with next vintage.

4. At the moment, the Wine Law prevents them from calling any wine "Tokaj" if it is made from varieties other than the "Big Three". However, since they were interested, I suggested that Pinot gris might make a fine, delicate wine in their climate. Apparently it had been experimented with in the past, but the yield was very poor.

5. Pool resources and invest in a mobile bottling line and storage facility. Or investigate purchase of the Kombinat's bottling line, which is for sale.

6. Create a marketing staff to write a plan, make a budget and a calendar of events. Assign someone to export, specifically.

7. Have maps, brochures and business cards printed up with the new organization's logo. Start distributing them at festivals, fairs and other regional events. Develop links with restaurants, hotels, theatres, ballet, opera in Budapest. Advertise in wine journals.

Since the collapse, an estimated 4,000 (out of an approximate total of 19,000) acres of vineyard have been either removed or abandoned, and almost 2,000 acres were not pruned in 1992. Many of the abandoned vineyards are those which have been returned to their original owners as part of the land restitution process. Because these are often the oldest vineyards, their owners are too elderly or poor to care for them. Unfortunately, these vineyards have the best elevation, slope and exposure, having been too costly to "modernize" in the 1960s and 1970s because of their inaccessibility and steepness.

Some of the oldest, best and most treasured vineyards and cellars have been purchased by foreign investors. Two such vineyards are Disnoko near Mad and Hetszolo in Tokaj, both purchased by the French. Despite the government's restriction that such investment must be in the form of a "joint venture", in most cases the Hungarian share is the minority. The presidents and members of the cooperatives we worked with are 100% Hungarian, and proud of it. They recognize that assistance from outside Hungary is a mixed blessing, but they are on the verge of despair.
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Title Annotation:Tokaj, Hungary
Author:Taines, Carole
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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