Sweet revival

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 November, 2010, 12:00am

Hungary's vineyards have had a tough year by anyone's measure,' Laszlo Meszaros says, shaking his head. He's referring to the disaster that hit several villages near the renowned Somlo wine-growing region about an hour west of Budapest when they were inundated by toxic red mud, a by-product of aluminium production, from a damaged reservoir. Most vineyards, escaped and the pollution never reached the water supply, but winemakers in the region, renowned for its elegant dry whites - face a nervous wait to see what effect the mud will have on their soil over the long term.

Meszaros was not affected directly as he makes wine in Tokaj, Hungary's most famous wine region that lies on the other side of the country, about two hours east of Budapest. But winemakers there have faced their own problems this year. Summer saw hail followed by rain, meaning flooding in the vineyards and trouble ripening, and most winemakers are likely to make less wine than usual.

Fortunately, late September sun extended into a warm and sunny October, saving the vintage.

'This has been the most challenging growing season I have encountered since I started working here in 1995,' says Meszaros, chief winemaker at Disznoko Estate, owned by French company AXA Millesimes and part of a wider group that contains Chateau Pichon Baron de Longueville in Bordeaux and Quinta Noval in the Douro Valley.

This interrupts what has been a successful few years for Tokaj wines - among the most famous and sought-after sweet wines in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, but which languished while Hungarian vineyards were under communist rule.

Since the country opened up in the early 1990s, the region has been the object of serious investment from some of the biggest names in winemaking, including wine writer Hugh Johnson leading a group of investors at the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, legendary Spanish winery Vega Sicilia at Oremus, the Rabier family (of Chateau Cos d'Estournel in Bordeaux) at Hetszolo and AXA Millesimes at Disznoko. Exports have increased, particularly to the US and Britain.

It's not always easy to find these wines in Hong Kong, but they are here. There are three Tokaj wines on the list at the Michelin-starred Petrus restaurant at the Island Shangri-La hotel, and one at the Tastings wine bar on Wellington Street in Central. Retailers are increasingly stocking them.

Yin How Wong, owner of five wine stores in Malaysia and Singapore, has seen a growing presence in the region. 'Sauternes perhaps still has more prestige, but many consumers prefer the acidity and lightness that makes Tokaj great for food matching, particularly with spicy food such as Sichuan cuisine,' he says.

Paulo Pong Kin-yee, managing director of Altaya Wines in Hong Kong, agrees. 'Our last bottles of 1957 and 1972 from Royal Tokaji Company have just been sold to private customers. Tokaj is under-represented in the Hong Kong market, as it is a good alternative to Sauternes and Barsac.'

Tokaj wines also received a serious boost in the Asian market when the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) announced recently that Sauternes and other sweet wines could be officially exported to China. Until now, winemakers have been hampered by rules on the mainland forbidding the import of any wine with more than 250mg of sulphur per litre - as all sweet wines have, because it is essential to stabilise wines that contain high levels of residual sugar.

OIV scientist Jean-Claude Ruf says that '250mg has been the international norm for dry wines, but not for Tokaj or Sauternes. All wines in China will now be required to include the label 'contains sulphites', but with the label they will be available for sale.'

Tokaj's delineation dates back to 1732 - and the region is one of world's most beautiful.

A Unesco World Heritage site since 2002, it is immediately obvious why Hungarians are attracted to planting vineyards here. The drive from Budapest passes through seemingly endless plains, known as the Steppes, until a cluster of small hills sprouts in the distance. These are the Zemplen hills, and the wine region lies in their foothills. Its southern point is marked by two squat grey towers, covered with crazy-paving tiles, at the entrance to the village of Szerencs, and it is bordered also by the hills, the extinct Tokaj volcano and the Bodrog river.

Its most picturesque feature is the town of Tokaj, which looks like it has stepped from the pages of Hans Christian Andersen and is packed full of ice-cream-coloured, half-timber houses.

Also worth visiting is the village of Erdobenye - a burgeoning wine tourism centre, with tasting rooms, restaurants, a few small hotels and several festivals held throughout the year. There are about 10,000 grape growers in the region, although most produce just a few kilograms a year to sell to the 120 large wineries that make and bottle the wine.

But all producers have their work cut out. Tokaj is the world's oldest 'noble rot' wine - produced from grapes attacked by a fungus called Botrytis cinerea that sucks the liquid from the grapes, but leaves behind the sugars, leaving intensely sweet berries.

Pretty much any sweet wine is difficult to make, but Tokaj is perhaps the most challenging. The grapes must be picked berry by berry, after each has reached the perfect raisined state. And noble rot is not enough. The best harvests in Tokaj must have the wind blowing in off the plains to complete the drying process, shrivelling the berries completely dry.

These are known as aszu berries and Tokaj sweet wines are made by taking these berries (made almost entirely from the Furmint grape variety), and mixing them with a dry wine from the same vintage (from grapes that have not been affected by Botrytis).

This is a recipe that has been followed since the 16th century, and results in a luscious, amber nectar that is often sweeter than a Sauternes but has a gorgeous acidity that makes it lighter and fresher.

The wines are bottled according to sweetness - ranging from 3 Puttonyos (the lightest) to 6 Puttonyos (the most concentrated). A puttony is a traditional container for carrying the grapes, so 6 Puttonyos originally meant that a barrel of dry base wine had been blended with six containers of aszu grapes. Today everything is measured in grams and litres, so the puttonyos number refers more simply to the amount of residual sugar in the wine.

Standing above 6 Puttonyos is one further level made only in the very best vintages, known as Eszencia. This wine, made from simply collecting whatever drops of free-run juice remain from the freshly picked aszu berries, is a true nectar that tastes like liquid honey and has a delicately floral perfume. Painstakingly collected after the grapes are picked, it matures in glass containers and ferments for several years, never rising above 4 or 5 degrees of alcohol.

These are not wines to be drunk every day, but they have long caught the imagination of gourmets and intellectuals. Over the centuries Tokaj has been drunk by Goethe, Schubert, Peter the Great and Louis XIV, who regularly served them at the Palace of Versailles. 'The only problem,' Meszaros says with a wry smile, 'is that these people are dead, and we need some replacements'.

A desire to see the wines re-establish themselves has led to the recent inflow of investment, and to the adaption of new techniques. A group called Tokaj Renaissance, founded in 1995 by eight wineries, has led the charge, and now counts the 20 leading properties of the region among its members.

The group - headed by Patricius, a Hungarian-financed winery, has championed traditional methods since Hungary's opening up. Machine harvesting is replaced by hand-picking; and vines are replanted on the best-quality slopes, which had been abandoned because their steep inclines made machine harvesting difficult.

Perhaps most significantly, Tokaj Renaissance also supports the increasing emphasis on dry white wine, which has given the region a new focus, and allowed winemakers to compete in international markets, giving consumers a way into this little-known but richly rewarding region.

Mandy Chan of Hong Kong-based Ginsberg + Chan wine merchants says: 'Most of our customers for these wines are high-net-worth individuals who are usually pretty cultured and already have a great interest in wine.

'But the history and craftsmanship that goes into these bottles means they deserve to reach a wider audience.'

Buyers and cellars

Stockists in Hong Kong

Disznoko Tokaj Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2000. Available for HK$420 at Watson's Wine Cellar, tel: 2606 8828, www.watsonswine.com

Disznoko Tokaji Dry Furmint 2007. Available for HK$85 at Watson's Wine Cellar

The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, Royal Tokaj Aszu Essencia 1993. Available for HK$3,340 at Ginsberg + Chan, tel: 2504 2221, www.winemerchantsasia.com.

Oremus Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2002, GBP60 (HK$750), Berry Bros & Rudd, tel: 2110 1680, www.bbr.com

Websites of leading producers

Crown Estates of Hungary, www.crownestates-tokaji.com

Disznoko Vineyards and Winery, www.disznoko.hu

Patricius Tokaj, www.patricius.hu

Royal Tokaji Wine Company, www.royal-tokaji.com

Tokaj Hetzsolo, www.tokaj.com

Oremus www.tokajoremus.com