Here is the 39th published entry into our wine writing competition, as penned by Daniel Ercsey.
Budapest-based journalist and wine writer. Studied French, geography, tourism and communication at university. Since 2008, editor at the Hungarian-language wine magazine BORIGO. In 2015 with two colleagues, founded the online wine magazine WineSofa, which writes about Central and Eastern European wines, gastronomy and touristic opportunities. He regularly judges at international wine competitions, including VinItaly and the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, is co-author of the Hungarian-language Great Hungarian Wine Atlas and numerous other books on wine, and as editor-in-chief of WineSofa is constantly travelling Central and Eastern Europe in search of new themes and wines.
OLD TOKAJI VINTAGES – FORTIFIED?
Tokaji Aszú is arguably one of today's best naturally sweet wines, and although collectors have not yet discovered it for themselves, if you consider current prices and quality, it is not inconceivable that Tokaji will also become one of the best wine-market investments. Older vintages, however, are becoming more saleable, old Tokaji Aszús are appearing regularly at auctions and an increasing number of old vintages of Tokaji are being sold on the internet.
But are these wines the same as the Tokaji Aszú that is currently on the shelves? Well, not really.
To understand the problem, we need to look back a little into the past. At the beginning of the modern era (from the 16th century), Tokaji Aszú was one of the most influential wines. Kings, princes, generals and noble families vied for it all over Europe and later in North America as well. However, in the 1500s, glass bottles didn't exist and so wines were rather sold in wooden barrels. Sweet wines tended to re-ferment due to their high sugar content, and winemakers did not yet use sulphur in the form known today, so the treatment and preservation of the wine became a major issue. From the end of the 1600s, merchants transporting wine from Portugal to England began to add brandy to it, thus preventing any deterioration in quality on the long sea voyage. This is actually how fortified wine was born, although early ports most certainly didn't resemble today's at all.
That last sentence may well also be true of Tokaji Aszú. From the 16th century on (currently the first-known mention of a Tokaji Aszú dates from 1571), the naturally dense, sweet Tokaji wines were shipped right across Europe by Armenian, Polish and Jewish merchants, in wooden barrels. These wines, although they were most certainly sweet wines, were rarely capable of long ageing due to the absence of suitable preservation and treatment. Continual re-fermentation meant that they would most definitely also ferment out to total dryness within a few years, as trade price lists from this time can also attest. Merchants sold 'last year's or the year before last's Tokaji wines' which had 'already lost their sweet flavour' more cheaply than the new vintage, although at a higher price than dry table wines.
Tokaji retained this commercial structure for quite some time, which, unfortunately, had an adverse effect on the quality of the wines. While both the glass bottle and treating the wines with sulphur became more prevalent in Western Europe, things remained unchanged in Tokaj. In France, various types of glass bottle came into general use as early as the 1700s (although in England it was totally forbidden to sell bottled wine right up until 1860 due to the lack of a standard bottle size), as did treating wines with sulphur, introduced in Bordeaux by Dutch merchants.
Experiments with bottling Tokaj did, however, begin at the end of the 1700s, especially among enterprising aristocrats. Several villages in the mountains to the north of the vineyards were also engaged in glass-blowing, so the bottles were produced almost within the wine region too. However, in addition to the lack of a standard, other problems also emerged, which one of the era's greatest philosophers, Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860) summed up like this: 'in so far as I understand the matter, I think that the Sopron, Sremski Karlovci, perhaps the Badacsony wines too, but especially our Tokaji wines would be suited to that same treatment with which Madeira, Port, Marsala and numerous such wines are produced, into which, as you know, brandy is stirred'.
Széchenyi wanted to find a solution to the problem that the London-based Hungarian wine merchant Bertalan Szemere also encountered in 1859. 'I sent wine to New Orleans in America in spring. They wrote that some bottles had started to ferment. I did not believe them. Later, I sent some wine to Bridgewater in England. They wrote the same. This also occurred with a London shipment. Finally, the end of May came (in 1859), I examined my bottles and 250 out of 450 were fermenting. A month later, only 100 of the 200 were not fermenting. Some wine of mine in a barrel had also begun to re-ferment. Eventually, it was the turn of the Mezőssy bottles, many were fermenting further, many cracked the weak glass, hence there were barely 100 from the 800 which had not begun to effervesce.'
It is evident that around the middle of the 1800s, Tokaji winemakers were incapable of getting their wines in the desired quality and manner to those markets situated the furthest away from Hungary. This was good for the nearby Polish and domestic markets, ie delivery in barrel and quick consumption, which could not meet Western needs.
Although few records can be found of this, it is thought that Széchenyi and Szemere's influence led the more progressively minded estates to begin dosing with brandy their wines destined for export. This method was not the same as that for port, in that the spirit was not added to the wine during fermentation, but rather after fermentation, for the sake of preservation and in order to prevent any continued fermentation. A good example of the above is the examination record relating to Gyula Andrássy's Tokaji Aszú from February 1862. The 1857 4-puttonyos Aszú had an alcohol content of 14.92%! The Kingdom of Hungary's first wine act in 1893 sanctioned this state of affairs when it allowed spirit to be added to Tokaji wines.
This did not mean that winemakers necessarily treated their wines in this way, but it was a possibility which they could make use of should they wish. The use of sulphur had not yet been approved at that time, but this was changed in the second wine act of 1908, which simultaneously banned the possibility of fortifying in Tokaj. There are several possible reasons for this. On the one hand, the fortification slightly altered the character of the wines, on the other sulphur represented a good alternative for producers. Nevertheless, the third wine act in 1924 again permitted the use of brandy in Tokaj and this remained the case right up until 1991!
Of course, there have always been technological and interpretational differences relating to this issue. Once the winemakers got better at handling their wines, they did not necessarily blindly fortify them, rather they simply rectified any alcohol lost by evaporation during the barrel maturation – at least as long as appropriate controls and normal market demand prevailed. However, during the Russian occupation (1945-1989) following World War II, the market changed significantly. The Socialist planned economy not only adversely affected the vineyards, but the bottomless Soviet market couldn't have cared less about quality, it was simply interested in sweetness and as high an alcohol content as possible. Therefore, sometimes Tokaji wines were matured in barrels that were only half-full in order to speed up the oxidation process (at that time, Tokaji wines were characterised by oxidative flavours) and nobody actually controlled the fortification, although in theory there was a law concerning this dating from 1957.
The key thing was to adhere to a predefined five-year production plan, so they didn't carry out any kind of grape sorting either. Fortification was stepped up and sometimes the wine underwent primary fortification, in that it was fortified prior to fermentation. Did anyone pay any attention to whether the alcohol ended up in the wine after, during or before fermentation, and whether it contained two or ten per cent alcohol at that time? Especially when vines designed to yield several hundredweight were unable to ripen the grapes to the desired level.
Under communism, professional supervision was unfortunately weak and easy to get around. The pursuit of quantity led to compromises using the crudest of methods (eg chaptalisation and must concentration). Self-criticism and the ability for realistic assessment fell to the absolute minimum, and the openness and flexibility induced by competition disappeared completely.
The 1991 wine act following Hungary's liberation from the Russian occupation put an end to the above. It once again forbade fortification in Tokaj, so that we can safely say that Aszú produced after this time is naturally sweet wine, just as it was between 1908 and 1924. If you are interested in purchasing old vintage Aszús, don't let yourself be deterred from those wines described above. The Oremus estate recently opened an 1876 Lorenz Reich half bottle of Tokaji and the slightly higher alcohol content was indeed noticeable (we therefore concluded that it was a fortified Aszú), but it did not detract at all from the pleasure gained from it. The old Tokaji was alive and kicking, just like we hope today's Aszús will be in 140 years' time!
CEE WINES – I'D BUY THEM BUT I DON'T HAVE MUCH INFORMATION
There's a curious situation in the current wine market. Western Europe is already winding down and perhaps the heightened interest in South American wines is already over, but so far there's nothing to fill the resulting gap in the market. According to Thomas Brandl, who is responsible for Eastern Europe at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, this situation came about four or five years ago and then, but maybe also today, provided the perfect opportunity for Central European wines, especially on the German market. Why is it that winemakers are not able to take advantage of this?
I need to start the story a little further back. The countries of the former socialist bloc, that is, let's say, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia and Romania, were important players on the wine market before the Second World War, even more so before the First, not only locally, but also internationally. Of course, they had different names and different federations of states. Territorial realignments following the wars on the one hand created the countries we know today (or their antecedents), such as Yugoslavia, and on the other a totalitarian political system locked them in its arms (I'm thinking of the Soviet Union), where there was no longer any need for quality goods. And so it was that the formerly competitive wine regions lagged behind and their quality, still in demand by western markets, was completely forgotten.
Would you have ever thought that your own grandfather or great-grandfather, if asked about fine wine, would certainly have listed Tokaji too? Perhaps wines from Styria or Szekszárd? Maybe even wines from Istria and Srem? You wouldn't, would you? What these wine regions have in common is that they were much better known a hundred years ago than they are today.
But what happened to them? First of all, due to the rearrangement of national borders, they lost those markets close to them which had represented material security. A good example of this is Vienna and its surroundings. Vienna was traditionally the most important market for the Sopron wine region (which belongs to Hungary today) and the Slovakian Small Carpathian wine region. Although the wines of the latter have been successfully soaked up since the regime change by its nearby capital, Bratislava, Sopron is still incapable of delivering the wines on their own merits to the distant capital, Budapest.
The second problem was socialist mass production, with its awful 'five-year plans'. This simple term meant that Moscow dictated five years ahead to every industrial or agricultural sector what and how much to produce. How do you think this affected the production of wine? After all, it took account of neither the climatic conditions nor the other characteristics of the wine region in question! So it was that the regions were forced into producer cooperatives, namely, the communists abolished private property, which meant that landowners were forced to hand over the land to the cooperatives. Moreover, in the interest of higher average yields, the sector was mechanised on the one hand and on the other, those areas where it was impossible to use machines were no longer cultivated at all. Wait a minute! Yes, that means that the premier cru areas were left to go to rack and ruin, and the vines to grow wild, whilst vines were planted where cornfields had previously stood! This is how two to three generations grew up in the Central and Eastern European wine regions; nobody had any private property and quality wasn't important to anyone, which of course led to a drastic degradation in quality.
This state of affairs came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Land could be re-privatised, although they didn't always end up the right hands due to many tricksters. However, these businesses soon went bankrupt because of the renewed demand for quality on the free market. By the beginning of the 2000s,10-15 years of work came to fruition in most wine regions, during which time winemakers tried to make up for the lost 50-80 years. Lots of travel, language learning (many of them may have spoken Russian, but fewer spoke German, English or French) and after some experimentation, the wines began to approach the expected quality, and by the end of the 2000s, they had clearly reached it. Then came the bitter realisation, which is still the case in Central and Eastern Europe (at least in the wine sector): my wine is good to no avail if I can't sell it.
There may be several reasons for this. One of them is the unhealthy size of the estates. The small wineries, often with fewer than ten hectares, are unable to bottle enough wine to make it worthwhile trying to export, whereas most merchants don't want to take the risk of embracing 10-15 such producers only to be told in the middle of the year that the wine in question has run out. The other problem is the realisation that they cannot be masters of everything. The fact that someone has successfully built a winery that is already producing good wine doesn't mean that he understands sales, marketing, communication and hospitality.
These are all professions, for which, moreover, it is increasingly difficult to find the right person in the region, as good people working in these fields were lured abroad long ago by western companies offering more competitive salaries. The third problem is a lack of suitable merchants. Until 1945, this role was fulfilled in Eastern Europe by the Jews; after that time nothing has remained but an enormous void. Today's Eastern European wine merchants are learning their trade just like the winemakers, and even if they have managed to achieve success in each small national market (mostly in their own country), they have no idea how to break into the international market. Finally, it is the fault of the scribes, the journalists and the communicators, who themselves don't know how to relate to these countries.
In fact, the world has sped up, whilst the flow of information is even faster than the world. Some of today's consumers stick to what is customary and only rarely buy a bottle from New Zealand or Chile in addition to their Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Champagne and Rioja. Whereas there are those who are open-minded and eagerly seek out novelties; just two clicks of their smartphone and they'll decide based on the information they obtain the quickest. This is where Central and Eastern Europe is seriously lagging behind! They don't have enough money for this (wineries lack financial strength) and perhaps they don't even understand the importance of appearing regularly in the appropriate English, French, Spanish and German language wine magazines and wine tests; they enter their wines into wine competitions without any kind of prior conception; and if anyone happens to write about them, they don't follow it up, they don't talk about it and they don't share it on social media interfaces. So, those people who deal with them on their own account also lose interest in the whole thing.
Knowing the inner workings of the wine media (since I work in this area), I have no illusions. As long as Central and Eastern European international wine experts are wine experts because they judge the region's wines in an international wine competition or because they have moved to the nearest large Western European city, we can't really expect any significant change. While local wine writers only communicate in their own language, nothing is going to happen. While the wineries concerned are not willing to pay either Western or Eastern European wine writers to write about them, they don't stand a chance. So, nothing remains but to watch how the open-minded consumer sits on the underground, clicks away on their phone, then gets off two stops later, goes into a recommended wine shop and takes the latest German Riesling, Australian Shiraz or Uruguayan Tannat down off the shelf. Sad, but there is no other choice.