Travel Report: Running Dry in Tokaji
Published in www.jancisrobinson.com while traveling with OIV
Although for hundreds of years Tokaji has been cherished as a sweet nectar of fresh fruit balanced with acidity and delicate minerals, wine styles have been changing quite dramatically in Tokaj. Most remarkable is the rise of the dry Tokaji wine made from the same grapes as used in the sweet Aszu, specifically from the native grape variety Furmint, and sometimes Harslevelü.
These dry whites range from light, smooth and fresh with hints of stone fruits and minerals all the way up to full bodied, more concentrated wines, with high acidity and rich minerals. With Furmint’s unique character, it’s hard to mistake it for a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or any other international white variety.
Opinions in the region on this new category of Tokaji are mixed. While the popularity of dry Furmint may have soared, and production is rising to match the demand, some wineries remain sceptical and feel Tokaji should keep its traditional sweet character.
Eniko Kiraly, sales and marketing manager at Disznoko winery, says “the only reason why producers are focusing on the dry style is because they did not succeed to sell their sweet wine. They saw an opportunity to join the market in the dry white segment so that’s what they started producing. Regardless, they are still losing money by making a dry wine.” At prices ranging from £2 to £12 for a bottle, dry Tokaji is significantly cheaper than an Aszu, whereas a bottle of 6 puttonyos can cost £150 or even more.
For the first time, however, it’s possible to enjoy a bottle of Tokaji at one sitting. The sweet wines may be heavenly, but they are difficult to drink in quantity. A dry Furmint would match beautifully with fish or a traditional pork dish. Ageing potential for these wines is not yet determined as this is an entirely new product, but dry Furmints from 2005 and 2006 are now brilliant and it will be interesting to see how they develop.
But dry Furmint is not the only new wine style in the Tokaj region. In 1994, the first Late Harvest wine was produced as an experiment. In the following years Bodega Oremus (owned by Vega Sicilia) was the first winery to start offering Late Harvest wines. Now more and more wineries are adding this wine to their list. With much lower prices, and these wines are still sweet but their freshness can make them easier for newcomers to appreciate than Tokaji Aszu. Late Harvest is also rather easier to make since the wines are made from overripe berries instead of precious botrytized Aszu berries. There is also, usefully, much less government regulation of the process. As these new products are added, traditional wine may be losing its standing in Tokaj.
Szamorodni, Polish for “as it comes,” is another type of wine that has long been made in the Tokaj region. It can be either sweet, marked “edes”, or dry “szaraz”, depending on the degree of botrytized grapes used to make it. Because of its long and difficult name, wineries are having a hard time selling it to foreign customers and this is likely to become less common on shelves in years to come. For example, Bodega Oremus has already stopped making it.
The dichotomy in Aszu styles is another important issue in Tokaj. Producers are stuck in the middle as many western consumers prefer sweet, fresh fruit-flavoured Aszu to the nutty, oxidised (reminiscent of sherry) style of wine. This style was prominent during the Communist era, when quantity trumped quality, as it was an easier style to make. However, for Hungary’s neighbours to the east (particularly Russia and Poland, two of Tokaj’s biggest and oldest clients), this is the taste they know, love and expect from this region.
Jancis adds: I can confirm this trend to dry Furmint. Only the other day, at the launch of their sumptuous single vineyard 1999 Mézes Mály 6 puttonyos Aszu wine, Hugh Johnson's Royal Tokaji Wine Company served their Dry Furmint 2004 and 2006. They started making the style with an experimental 2003 and admit they were one of the last producers to adopt it. Both vintages had a certain appley aroma, and the 2004 is now both fiery (a Furmint trademark) and even slightly oily. The 2006 is a little tamer/more civilised (depending on your point of view). Both wines offers seriously intriguing flavours and went particularly well with our crab tart.