The famed Tokaj region in the north-eastern part of Hungary is literally packed with small producers making beautiful wines and tasting wines from just a fraction of those producers one really gets an idea of how diverse Tokaj wines really are – and of course I don’t just refer to the many different categories of wine, but also to the wines within each category.
The diversity of the wines is deeply rooted in the region’s soil as well as the topography with vineyards being on flatter or hillier sites of differing heights (up to 514 meters above sea level) and with varying aspects.
15-14 million years ago, during the Miocene period, intensive volcanic activity began in the Tokaj area, initially below sea and later the volcanic activity continued in what had by then mainly become dry land and created almost the whole scale of volcanic rocks including rhyolite, andesite, dacite and basalt.
Over the span of next 5-6 million years the process was brought to a close with intensive hydrothermal volcanic post-activity which mainly left its mark in the soils of Mád, Erdőbénye and Tolcsva and resulted in fine-grained quartz and diverse transformation products such as kaolin, bentonite, zeolite, etc. of some primary minerals. These volcanic bedrocks, that are primarily covered with soils of weathered tuffs, play an important role in the influence of the terroir and in the quality of the wines made from the grapes grown there.
The different soils of Tokaj impart particular minerality to the wines – particularly to the pure Furmints – although the intensity and character of this will vary greatly, but it remains a common theme for Tokaj wines.
The historical center of Tokaj and its famous aszú wines centers around the city of Tokaj itself as well as Tarcal and Mád, where you find most of the prestigious vineyards ranked so highly back in the early 18th century, but just a bit further north brilliant wines are produces, too, e.g. in Erdőbénye, a village well known for its woodworkers – including coopers producing barrels from oak from the Zemplén hills. Barrels which are to this day highly sought after by Hungarian winemakers.
The vinous history of Erdőbénye dates centuries back and the city’s wine pedigree is impressive with the Rákóczi family acquiring Erdőbénye in 1616 when Prince George Rákóczi I. married Susanna Lórántffy, whose vineyard manager, László Szepsi, is credited with making the first modern aszú from botrytized grapes. True or not, story has it that Szepsi postponed the harvest because of the Ottoman invasion and by the time it was possible to harvest, vines were full of botrytized grapes which he used to make aszú. To be fair, history doesn’t agree on his exact role in the development of aszú.
Today, Erdőbénye is increasingly recognized for producing beautiful wines – and one producer who delivers exactly that is Karádi-Berger. A winery of Szilvia Karádi and Zsolt Berger who started out in 2000 with just 0.5 ha. and in 2005 they bought the present-day winery, which used to be owned by the Szirmay family. The building was renovated over the next decade.
Zsolt Berger explains, that the wines are made with a natural approach. For the dry wines whole clusters are pressed, spontaneous fermentation is championed and both fining and filtration is done with an objective not to interfere unnecessarily with the wine.
Bubbles 2021 is a young, ultra-fresh sparkling made from Furmint and shows how well adapted Furmint really is to the production of sparkling wines. Bubbles is absolutely dry with less than 3 grams of residual sugar per liter and with high acid, lending it a light body. It is not at all a complicated wine, but with its classic Furmint-aromas of green apple, pear skin, citrus fruits, blossom, melon and almond and an appealing bitterness like grapefruit or pomelo on the finish, this is a beautiful aperitif.
Tokaj Dry 2021 is made predominantly from Hárslevelű in typical Tokaj assemblage with Furmint. The warm conditions in 2021 shows with very fine concentration of ripe fruit such as apple, pear, lemon & lime, melon and grapefruit team up with floral notes and a lovely salty feel. The wine comes with high acid and medium alcohol. At 5 grams of residual sugar per liter, the wine is dry but the feeling of a bit of residual sugar is there and together with a smooth mouthfeel from time on the fine lees it balances the high acid very nicely. This is an uncomplicated wine, that is hard not to fall in love with at the very first sip.
Palandor is a south-facing vineyard – or dűlő in Hungarian – consisting of the upper third of Sajgó-hegy (formerly Előhegy) and a classified as First Growth by Antal Szirmay in 1795. Old vines on rhyolite tuff mixed with clay give beautiful dry wines, that are characterized by their minerality. The south-facing aspect means that grapes can be harvested earlier here and still have excellent ripeness.
Tasting Palandor from two already acclaimed vintages, 2018 and 2021, alongside each other really displays the differences between two beautiful wines from great vintages.
2021 is expected to be exceptional in Tokaj. A warm June and July followed by lower temperatures in August meant a prolonged growing season and thus acid was retained in the grapes and aromas and flavours in the grapes were intensified as was the concentration of fruit.
Palandor 2021 has great intensity of apple and pear, ripe lemon and lime. Vanilla, spices and a toasty touch from time on oak. Zesty and at the same times waxy on the palate and with a definite fiery, mineral touch to it. High acid and high alcohol are balanced by the concentration of fruit in this very fine, young wine.
2018 was one of the warmest vintages on record in Tokaj and has produced a substantial number of beautiful wines.
Palandor 2018 displays ultra-ripe apple and pear, almond, marzipan, ripe melon and a touch of pineapple. On the palate you get like a rubbery note as well as vanilla, pastry and a saline touch. This is a big bodied wine with high, but not ultra-high acid and high alcohol as you would expect from the warm 2018 vintage and where some late harvested fruit is included. The wine spent 8 months in oak. This is definitely a gastro wine!
Tokaji Szamorodni is a special category (or two, one might argue), where whole bunches are harvested, which contain varying amounts of botrytied and healthy grapes that will be vinified together. Szamorodni comes from the Polish language, meaning “as it comes”.
Szamorodni used to be known as föbor or “Main wine” in Tokaj and this speaks volumes about the importance of these wines in ancient times. Today, they are way too little known outside of Hungary.
Time to right a wrong, isn’t it?
Both Karádi-Berger Szamorodni Szaraz and Édes are produced from a blend of Furmint and Hárslevelű, as is so often seen in Tokaj, where Furmint takes up more than 2/3 of the vineyards and Hárslevelű a huge chunk of the majority.
Szamorodni Szaraz (dry) 2016 is a lovely expression of the category. Dry Szamorodni is aged under a thin layer of flor (Similar to the production of Sherry, but much thinner layers of flor) and the barrels are not topped up during the ageing, which can last up to 10 years. This method of production, where the wine is protected from excessive oxidation allows nutty, apply aromas to develop. Bone-dry and with pronounced aromas of bruised apple, pear skin and fig, almond and green walnut, brine and varnish. The dried fig and raisiny aromas carry through to the very long finish. On the palate mushrooms and apricot join in as well as a definite salty and mineral sensation.
As previously mentioned, the wine is absolutely dry with high acid and high alcohol and a full body.
The wine has a quite obvious botrysis character due to the fact that clusters infected with botrysis were selected, Berger explains, only the grapes didn’t have the sugar levels required for an aszú wine. This is a lovely wine!
The Szamorodni Édes (sweet) 2019 is a completely different thing from the dry version. Sweet, bordering on lusciously sweet (149 grams of residual sugar per litre, which in itself is way above the requirements for a 5 puttonyos aszú) with aromas of light sultana, overripe banana, honey, baked apple tarte, caramel, burnt sugar, dried apricot and banana cream pie.
The imminent sweetness is balanced by high acid, rendering the wine freshness, medium alcohol and a full body.
The palate displays sultana, dried apricot, dried fig vanilla curd, apple tarte, caramel, burnt sugar, very ripe pineapple and mango – and the finish seems to never end.