Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-09-01
The glorious history of Tokaji Aszú very nearly ended in 1949 when Hungary fell under Soviet rule…
forty long years during which collectively managed vineyards were administered by a state-owned cooperative called the Borkombinát whose annual goal was the production of 30 million bottles earmarked for the USSR.
Vines producing the finest vintages were uprooted to allow tractors to pass through, chemical fertilizers were added by the ton and farmers were expected to produce industrial-level yields. Only a handful of wine-makers were committed enough to safeguard the Tokaji Aszú tradition - in secret. Between 1990 and 1993 the Hungarian government privatised part of the land and some of the cellars, returning them to their rightful owners or selling them to foreign investors.
British wine expert Hugh Johnson was the first person from Western Europe to settle in the region. His winery, The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, was the first mixed post-Soviet concern in Hungary, with small-scale local growers providing grapes and know-how and Western investors bringing in the necessary funding.
‘After forty years of Communism,’ Johnson says, ‘most of the Hungarians had forgotten that they were in possession of a world treasure, Tokaji Aszú!’ In gratitude, Hungary has erected a statue of Hugh Johnson which looks over the domain’s entrance in the village of Mád.
Another brilliant adventurer who has contributed to the renaissance of Tokaji Aszú is Frenchman Jean-François Ragot. As early as 1986, he began exploring the hills and cellars of Tokaj looking for forgotten treasures to export.
He has since founded his own label, Château de Sárospatak, in order to select, assemble, vinify and age what he considers to be the premium grapes of the region. Only the very best will do!
But the land’s most emblematic figure is certainly István Szepsy whose ancestors were already busy making Tokaji Aszú three centuries ago.He’s famous throughout Hungary for his fabulous elixirs and infectious enthusiasm.
You may meet him in the village of Mád (if he is inclined to receive you) where he cultivates 52 hectares of grapevines. His philosophy? ‘To produce the finest Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos possible, requiring a great deal of toil amongst the vines before that of the winery...’
Each vineyard has its own style, depending on its surroundings and preferred technology. The most beautiful is certainly that of the Imperial Domain of Hétszőlő situated on the slopes of Mount Tokaj. One-time property of the Rákóczi princes, its cellars, located in the centre of town, are open to visitors.
The most spectacular medieval cellars are those of the Domain Oremus which belongs to the Alvarez family - their main estate is Vega Sicilia in Castilla Leon, Spain. András Bacsó is Oremus’s managing director. He is one of the region’s ‘living memories’ and a man of great courtesy. Visits of the Oremus cellars and winery building are by prior arrangement only.
Domain Disznókö, owned by Axa Millésimes (an Axa subsidiary) since 1992, is the first vineyard one sees when arriving from Budapest. From amongst its vines, classified in 1772, there is a lovely panorama of the entire region. After visiting the ultramodern winery, you might have a meal on the terrace of one of the restaurants situated by the side of the road.
Chateau Dereszla, on the banks of the River Bodrog, has 15C cellars which continue on for a full kilometre and an 18C winery; both are registered historic monuments.
The estate’s star vintages are their Tokaji Aszú 5 puttonyos made from grapes from 16 different sites, the oldest vines of which are 60 years old. Visitors are given a very friendly welcome.
Bordeaux native Samuel Tinon is another trailblazer, as he settled in the region in 1991 and learnt the ropes from native vintner István Szepsy. He tends 5 hectares of vines planted on the slopes of the Zéemplen Mountains (the tail end of the Carpathians) and only harvests grapes with the highest concentration of sugar and acidity.
Compared with the other vineyards, Tinon prefers a very long maturing in casks. You can visit him in the Olaszliszka village where he has a miniature winery.
The Royal Tokaji Wine Company
+3647 348 011
+3647 348 349
+36 47 352 009
+36 47 384 505
+36 47 369 138
+36 47 396 004
+36 47 358 405
In France, Tokaji Aszú from Château de Sárospatak vinified by Jean-François Ragot may be found just south of Lyon.
32, Place de l’Église
+33 4 72 31 02 06
For a guided tour of the region of Tokaj, I recommend Krisztina Balogh, a professional guide based in Budapest. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable - she knows Hungary like the back of her hand - Krisztina is fluent in English, French, Spanish and Italian.
+361 3953 307