By | September 3 2014
After the collapse of Communism in 1990, Royal Tokaji was the first foreign-backed producer in a region with a glorious past but an uncertain future. Two decades on, Margaret Rand charts the challenges, setbacks, and triumphs of a company that has played a crucial role in both the reinvention and the restoration of a lost wine culture, through dry and late-harvest offerings, as well as sublime single-vineyard Aszús and Eszencias.
It dawned only slowly, going around Royal Tokaji with managing director István Turóczi, that he has the most incredible memory. He can tell you exactly when the rain started in 2009 (October 12, and it hardly stopped for 50 days). He can tell you that in 2004, a wet year, there was 973mm (38in) of rain, and that one day in 2005 there was 125mm (5in) of rain in three quarters of an hour, and for 15 minutes of that there was hail; and when the rain stopped at 4:45pm, there was still 6cm (2.4 inches) of hail at the bottom of the hill.
Memory is important in Tokaj. Memory is what was lost during the long Communist winter: the memory not just of which sites were best, but why site mattered; the memory, sometimes, not just of how to select botrytized grapes, but why botrytis was a good thing; the memory, above all, of what Tokaji was. The loss of memory took hold in the 1960s, when the vineyards were replanted for mass production. From that followed the gradual decline of a classic wine. Concentrated must might be used for sweetening. Tanks might be heated to 104°F (40°C) to imitate the pungency of Tokaji-or perhaps that of Madeira. Fortification was possible, by special permission, as late as 1993, when the law was changed to ban it. In the early 1990s, the Tokaji Trading House (now Crown Estates), the successor to the old state monopoly, still oxidized the life out of some of its wines and swore that that was the right and traditional way to make Tokaji. It convinced many people in the West, too, that it was the sole repository of memory: Royal Tokaji’s wines, when they appeared soon after the privatization door opened, were shocking in their novelty and freshness. The story of Royal Tokaji is the story of how memory has been retrieved, is still being retrieved, and is perhaps now becoming conquered.
Wine in the medieval cellars, under centuries of cotton-like mold
Recovering the memory
There were two directions in which memory had to be sought: one was vineyards; the other, winemaking. The current classification of vineyards dates back to 1968-not the most glorious era in the history of Tokaji. If you go back to 1730, you find a different classification, according to which ("and according to our opinion, too" adds Turóczi) most of the sites classified as Second Class in 1968 "were not worth planting […]. The 1730 classification is mostly still pretty sensible. Most of the top sites in Mád are still planted, though there are still good sites in Tokaj to plant. There have been attempts to have a new classification, but they’ve always failed because of lack of money." Given the amount of money that would be soaked up in legal actions if the producers were to follow the Bordeaux pattern, they’re probably quite wise not to begin.
Then there are vines; 40 to 60 different varieties seem to have been grown here before phylloxera, including red vines: Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Aligoté, Cirfandl, Gamay Teinturier, Leanykia, Médoc Noir, Melon, Muscadelle, Muscat Frontignan Rouge, Pinot Blanc, Rizling, Rizlingsilváni, and one, Petrezselyem, the Parsley Grape, named for the shape of its leaf, that (thrillingly) does not appear to be in the mammoth Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz. (Of course, it might not be a wine grape. Google it and one of the first English-language sites that comes up relates to capital punishment in the USA.) Death by Parsley Grape aside, it’s clear why a lot of those vines would have been weeded out; they were probably only present in small numbers anyway. But Oremus and Köversölö also nearly disappeared, either after phylloxera or later. During Communism, the losses mattered rather more. Turóczi relates that there used to be two vine research stations, one in the Tokaj region and one at Pécs, near the Serbian border. The former "had a great collection of vines, and one day they just got rid of them all. They all went." The latter "developed a lovely Furmint clone, P26, which developed perfect botrytis. It almost disappeared, though-because it was susceptible to botrytis…" Because only three or four years in a decade are good aszú years, most small growers didn’t want to risk waiting for botrytis. A clone that got it so easily was not universally popular.
A bottle of Birsalmás ("Quince Orchard")
Finding the money
This collective lack of memory was what greeted Royal Tokaji in 1990, when some Danish investors and Hugh Johnson felt (perhaps) like some watchers of the skies / When a new planet swims into their ken, and "look’d at each other with a wild surmise-Silent, upon a peak in Darien." Apologies to Keats-but he knew what he was talking about. The view from the top of the Tokaj hill might as well have been of the Pacific, so startling was it.
They were first off the blocks when the Hungarian government opened the doors to foreign investment. Hugh Johnson should explain how it came about. "Peter Vinding Diers was the inspiration behind it. I’d talked to Peter about Tokaji since ages back, and he set up the first meeting. We got together with the co-op in Mád, with the idea of offering its members shares in a company. If they put in their parcels of land-one third of a hectare each, which was the most anyone could own-we’d do the rest. We had a public meeting in the schoolhouse in Mád, with Peter and a blackboard and two translators, one each side of the stage. Accountants Arthur Andersen had done some figures, and all the growers were there. They cottoned on instantly and loved it. This was in April 1990. The meeting ended, and we asked them to subscribe their names if they were interested and to elect a representative to speak for them. We moved into the square, and people were sitting on the pavement, it was so full-they were all very keen. István Szepsy became the manager of the new company-he had gorgeous wine." Szepsy was one of a number of growers who continued to remember the best of the past and make his wines accordingly. "He was terrific and warned of the pitfalls and told us we shouldn’t trust anyone.
"I never became a director; I was just thrilled to be involved. I put up a bit of money, but not as much as the others. We had to buy our first wines, and they were beautiful wines. Our first proper vintage was 1993, and we were still in the open air, with no roof over the press. Then Ben Howkins got involved, I can’t remember how, and he’s really good at the shoe-leather side of things. He’s still shoe-leathering his way around the world. We had just enough money to get the aszú berries in, but we were piling up huge debts. One of my roles was to find investors. We’d get them out there-and there was nowhere to stay-and they all loved the cellars and the wine and the atmosphere, but when they looked at the business plan, such as it wasn’t, they’d say, ‘Are you sure?’ Eric de Rothschild nearly got involved, but then he bought Rieussec instead. Ben still works for Jacob Rothschild, and Jacob still has a bit of money in it. Agustin Huneeus came to look. We had grand times over many years."
It was he, says Johnson, who commissioned the bronze bust of Johnson that stands on a plinth in the garden at Royal Tokaji’s headquarters. "It’s absurd, but he had a young sculptor friend, and got him on to it. We had a nice party when it was uncovered, and Damon de László came; his grandfather, Philip de László, was interned with my grandfather during World War I in Islington Camp in London, which is now Holloway Prison. But he’d never been to Hungary before." A Darien moment for him, too, then.
The original plan had been to focus on Aszú, and 5-puttonyos upward, to the exclusion of all else. Since real Aszú years happen only three or four years in ten, one does wonder how they expected to live in between; but this was the usual policy for the private companies at first. It meant, as Turóczi confirms, that there was hardly any income in the first few years, and by 1993 that amounted to a serious lack of cash. They decided to sell, and in 1994 a contract was signed with a group of British investors. Had they just got carried away with the romance of it all? It would be understandable: Hard financial heads have been turned by less. "Aszú is so expensive," points out Turóczi; "but the first wines were ready for release by the time investors had been found, so if they could have kept going just a bit longer…" Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And in the summer of 1994 a Land Act was passed by which neither foreign individuals nor companies can buy agricultural land in Hungary. Private individuals can own a maximum of 300ha (750 acres) each. The door had been open only briefly; but when it shut again, Royal Tokaji was inside.
A partially botrytized bunch
The crown jewels
It owns 107ha (264 acres), of which most are in Mád and just 10 percent in Tarcal. (These two villages comprise the biggest vineyard areas of the region; the town of Tokaj has some vineyards but was traditionally the trading center.) Some 55 percent of the vines are in First Class terroirs, and 10 percent are in Great First Growths, according to the 1730 classification. But even here memory is more complicated than it might at first appear. Mézes Mály is a Great First Growth in Tarcal; Royal Tokay owns 11.5ha (28.5 acres) of its total 19ha (47 acres). The name means "Honey Pot," and, says Turóczi, in the 18th century it probably made wines of even more complexity and botrytis than it does now, because then the river curved around the southern slopes of the hill, as well as the west and north, as it does now. But rivers came to be regarded as a problem in Hungary-or at least their complicated meanders did. Because the rivers curved and curled and dithered so much, the country had 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of marshland, and a malaria problem. Nineteenth-century minds took a brisk attitude to this and simply straightened up the rivers where they could; in so doing, they presumably affected the amount of botrytis in Mézes Mály, as well as the amount of malaria.
Mézes Mály gives wines of sparky, fiery flavors, pure and seamless. It ripens seven to ten days earlier than other vineyards and so escaped the 2009 rains that are so imprinted on Turóczi’s memory. Most of the topsoil in Tokaj is volcanic -there are over 500 volcanoes here, all mercifully extinct- but the Tokaj hill itself is more alluvial so heats up faster than other sites and also gives lower acidity in most years. The loess can be as deep as 260ft (80m) in some places, giving floral, honeyed characters, whereas volcanic clay gives a fruitier, more mineral style, with backbone and acidity.
Nyulászó has brown forest soil and red clay; Szt Tamás has pure red volcanic clay; Betsek is pure black volcanic clay, giving a black-pepper note. The acidity is different, too: fine and delicate in Szt Tamás; harsher when young in Betsek. And above Betsek there is a ridge over which the north wind blows, making these sites much less prone to botrytis. And then there is Birsalmás, which means "Quince Orchard"; as you might infer, this is not a top growth.
Terroir matters in Tokaj; the color of the soil can change as you look down the rows, and the climate is very local. Unplanted hills that look perfectly promising to the uninitiated may be subject to hail-or they might be too stony, or too windy, or perhaps as good as they look and just waiting to be talent-spotted. Turóczi reckons there are about 23 different terroirs in Mád, each with its own character.
What the investors took on in 1990 was low-density mixed plantings. (The rows had been widened to fit Soviet tractors.) They replanted 12.79ha (31.6 acres) in 2001, then 11.10ha (27.4 acres), then 15ha (37 acres), then 21ha (52 acres). (I am indebted to Turóczi’s memory for this, as you might have guessed.) Some blocks are just too small to make replanting viable, and consolidation is impossible now under Hungarian law. In addition, lots of Hungarians just don’t bother to register their holdings because doing so is so complicated and expensive. They haven’t really got into massal selections yet, so they replant with clones, with Mézes Mály being used as a kind of experimental plot with a big variety of clones, including some of the coveted.
Memory again: It always used to be the custom to add lime to Tokaj vineyards every fifth year. "We didn’t realize this," says Turóczi. "It’s an unusual procedure. It increases the pH of the soil, and it was done in Mád and a few other places, though the pH is naturally higher on the Tokaj hill. We paid more attention to other matters, and we didn’t do it. But when we started to replant, we did analyses of the soil, and we were surprised by how low the pH was. With very low pH, you get fewer nutrients available to the vine and poor flowering. So we added lime in 2001." Memory regained.
The smart new winery buildings opened in 2010 in Mád, the historic heart of Tokaj
Invention and reinvention
Perhaps the greatest exercise in recovered memory, however, has been in the winery. Anyone who tasted Iron Curtain Tokaji will remember how puzzling it was, but only later did it become clear why. And those who remember Royal Tokaji’s first releases will also be aware of changes. The wines are far less oxidative now than they were when Turóczi joined some 15 years ago.
At the beginning, they marinated the aszú berries in the base wine for seven to ten days in large open containers. "It was closer to red-wine making," he says. They pumped over a few times a day, then pressed in an old pneumatic Wilmes press. A little sulfur was added after fermentation, and a lot more just before bottling, four to five years later. Then, in 2000, a shiny new pneumatic tank press arrived. Now the maceration of azsú berries with base wine is much shorter (one to two and a half days), and a bit more sulfur is added after fermentation. The wine is paler and fruitier than it was, and not everybody liked it at first. "There were complaints," says Turóczi. But Royal Tokaji’s wines are still at the oxidative end of the spectrum; others have gone much farther along the non-oxidative route. Memory at this point ceases to be a reliable guide; one might taste pre-Communist Tokaji, but it’s a bit of a long reach to infer the detail of winemaking from how it tastes now. From here on, it’s invention.
Invention (and indeed necessity) has led to the abandonment of the Aszú-only rule. In 2002, Royal Tokaji produced Late Harvest for the first time-about 2,000 bottles of it. (Quite controversial, this; Johnson, in his Wine: A Life Uncorked, says that late-harvest wines "miss the point.") In 2011, it sold over 7,000 six-bottle cases. In 2003, it made its first dry Furmint-5,700 bottles. In 2011, it sold more than 15,000 six-bottle cases. These two wines comprise 50 percent of sales by volume now, and 35-40 percent of value. They’re still rising in proportion and can continue to do so, whereas unless Royal Tokaji buys another company, it’s very difficult to increase the volume of Aszú.
Some dry Furmint is fermented in wood. Says Turóczi, "We started thinking that dry Furmint fell apart after three years in bottle, but those wines were made in tank. Using oak changes the lifespan dramatically. Many of my colleagues wouldn’t agree, but Furmint needs oak." They use their own yeast for everything. For Aszú, they use fermenting wine near the end of fermentation as a base, racking it at about 15-20g of residual sugar per liter. Then they mix it with aszú berries in different proportions: one kilo of aszú berries to 0.93-0.95 liters of base wine for 6 putts; one kilo of aszú berries to 1.1-1.2 liters of base wine for 5 putts. Why fermenting base wine? Because alcohol extracts some components so much better than plain juice; it’s also easier to start the berries fermenting if the base wine is already hard at it. If you use unfermented juice as the base, the balance is different, and the effectiveness of the maceration is much less. The residual sugar at the end of maceration should be around 350g/l and can be as high as 400g/l. If you start with basic juice, the yeast has to ferment 11-13% alcohol in one step: "It’s a huge shock." And if the aszú berries aren’t perfect, you can get a stuck fermentation, with resultant VA, just as you can, Turóczi says, if you use fully fermented base wine. "You need a bit of VA for complexity, but not too much."
The winery is new and was opened in 2010, the cellar medieval. Building on memory, you see.