This entry to the 2022 wine writing competition describes the regeneration of historical vineyards in Tokaj. See our WWC22 guide for more great wine writing.
Gergely Somogyi writes I am sort of a Tokaj allrounder, based in the Tokaj region and involved in multiple different Tokaj-related projects since around 2012. I not only organise and host private wine trips to Tokaj, but also work as a contract wine steward for several regional wineries, as well as running an independent news website about Tokaj. I am the Tokaj regional guide for British wine travel website Winerist.com, as well as British wine tour operator SmoothRed. I frequently act as an English-speaking expert, guide and translator for journalists who visit Tokaj. I even do location scouting and guidance for foreign documentary photographers and film crews shooting in the region. I am also former admin officer for the Confrérie de Tokaj and current admin officer of Vindependent, the Hungarian Association of Independent Winegrowers, as well as of Mádi Kör [The Circle of Mád], a local winemakers’ association. I have worked as a mentor, on behalf of ICOMOS Hungary, for the Tokaj World Heritage Site Management Organisation in a UNESCO periodic reporting process. I give masterclasses, lectures and talks on Tokaj and Hungarian wine-related topics in Hungary and abroad.
Back to the Heights
Three decades of reviving high-lying historical vineyard sites in Hungary’s Tokaj region
“The designation Tokaji (…) and generally any designation of a village or growth place of the Tokaj Wine Region may only be used of wines that have been produced from hillside vineyards” says Hungary’s second Wine Act of 1908. This stipulation, which was apparently rooted in centuries of experience about the quality of hillside-grown grapes, was reiterated in all subsequent wine acts and regulations until its being finally axed in the 1970s.
By then, a mindless mass production of technically fake Tokaji wines was in full swing, Tokaj having been tasked to produce cheap sweet wines for the entire Eastern Bloc. The intense mechanisation of grape growing necessitated vineyards to be brought down to the low-lying flat areas, where only fruit trees or field crops had historically been cultivated, but were now easy of access to heavy tractors and had a thicker topsoil that helped achieve higher yields. And it was high yields and production volumes that everything revolved around, reaching 24 to 30 metric tonnes per hectare in vineyards where the density of vines was often half of what we have in Tokaj’s modern plantings that produce an average of 5 to 7 tonnes per hectare today.
“In the Tokaj region, I have experienced the most beautiful and delicious-tasting clusters of grapes in the hills that are wholly of rock rubble and sandstone splinters” writes famous Hungarian agriculturalist János Nagyváthy in the late 18th century. A sesquicentennial later, all these stony sites where Furmint would thrive were declared plainly unsuitable for grape growing and left to be overgrown by bushes, shrubs and sylvan vegetation.
If the beautifully-drawn and detailed 1860s cadastral maps of the Tokaj vineyards are superimposed on current satellite images, it immediately becomes apparent that vineyards in the late 19th century still stretched over some 300 feet further up the hills than where current plantings reach today.
Tokaj Hill, the most spectacular of the hundreds of extinct volcanoes that make up the region, is still referred to by road signs in Tarcal as Kopasz-hegy, that is, Bald Hill, for grape vines used to be planted up to near its very top, leaving virtually no place for trees. US spy satellite imagery from the 1960s still only shows a small wooded patch around the summit, which was less than a fifth of the current forest cover.
When Hungary became a free country and foreign investment started to flow in in the early 1990s, the revival of old, high-lying vineyard sites was not quite at the top of the agenda for the newly-established wine companies. Their focus at this point was still more on modernising their existing plantings and, most of all, renewing the traditional sweet wine styles.
The first efforts to reconquer Tokaj’s heights began in the mid-to-late 1990s, but the process only gained full momentum after the turn of the millennium. What follows below is a showcase of some of the more ‘spectacular’ projects that are representative of this region-wide trend.
Kis Garai by Tokaj-Hétszőlő | 1996 to 1998, 2004
A pioneer in scaling old heights is Tokaj-Hétszőlő, the 1991-founded wine company, whose French owners decided in the mid-nineties to reclaim a total of 15.3 abandoned hectares of the Kis-Garai, their highest-lying dűlő on the south-eastern facing slopes of Tokaj Hill, which today encompasses what was historically called Ménes-oldal in its west.
The renewal work began in 1996 with clearing the often frighteningly steep site of grass, bushes, shrubs and even some old vines that had been growing wild for decades there. Old stone terrace walls were repaired, and four new earthen terraces built. Concrete access roads and drainage were constructed with a view to controlling erosion, which is of particular significance on Tokaj Hill, where the topsoil overlying the dacite bedrock is mostly loess, a loose deposit that is naturally prone to being washed away.
The site was then replanted with Furmint vines which remained the only variety here until 2004, when the highest-lying, north-westerly 2-hectare corner of the area was planted with Kövérszőlő, one of the ‘minor’ grape varieties, which was authorised for the Tokaj appellation that same year.
Hétszőlő has so far made seven single-vineyard Furmint varietals from this site, starting from 2014, and estate manager and winemaker Gergely Makai believes that that is exactly where the potential of this site truly lies, as it is a fairly wind-swept site where botrytisation does not occur easily. A partly terraced tract of bush vines in the western part serves as the core parcel for the single-vineyard Furmint expression of Kis-Garai. The Kövérszőlő grapes are, however, normally picked for sweet wines, mostly for Aszú or, occasionally, Szamorodni.
The name Kis-Garai means Little Garai, Garai being a family name [formerly spelt as Garay]. The Garays used to be major landowners in the region, and the word little is likely to have been added to differentiate it from the Garay, another, larger site the family owned right above the centre of Tokaj town. It is a point of interest that the first known mention of Aszú wine (of 1571) is in a deed of inheritance of the same Garay family.
Öreg Király by Barta | 2004, 2005
The spectacular set of terraces in the south-facing, trapezoid-shaped plot of Király Hill of Mád is one of the region’s most photographed vineyard sites. Steeped in history, this tract of land has been in cultivation since the 13th century, yet, the vines up there are all fairly young. They were planted in 2004 and 2005, right after Károly Barta and Ervin Demeter had bought the overgrown stretch of mountainside.
The renewal was a huge undertaking with trees having had to be cut to reclaim the top part of the dűlő from nature. Despite some five decades of neglect, the terrace walls were in surprisingly good condition. Apart from these terraces, Barta bought and replanted another close to six high-elevation hectares in the south-southeast of the hill and another three in the west to own almost 10 out of the 13.3 hectares currently in production in what is called the Öreg Király today.
The 2007 bottling, their first release from here, already bore the name Öreg Király [meaning Old King] on the label, one of the many distinctive names that had historically been used to differentiate between of the highest and steepest part of the Király and the rest of the hill. However, Király remained the official designation until 2019, when the self-government of local vineyard owners eventually voted to approve the formal separation of Öreg Király, based on historical evidence gathered by historian Kornél Nagy, a leading expert in the history of Tokaj vineyards.
The only other two growers in the Öreg Király are Demetervin, with around two hectares, including half of the terraces in the middle of the hill, as well as Szepsy with 1.6 in the south-west. Between their plots lies a gaping wound in the landscape – a disused quarry in the place of where vine terraces used to stretch even as late as the 1960s. While this part of the site has been lost forever to viticulture, what has so far been restored offers ample opportunity for today’s wine lovers to explore this special part of the Tokaj terroir.
For Barta, the main goal with the Öreg Király is to produce single-vineyard dry Furmint varietals that capture a distinct sense of place. The crisp and clean styling with a restrained use of oak which winemaker Vivien Ujvári introduced when she joined the company in 2016 is apparently a fitting approach to this end.
Csirke-mál by Tokaj Nobilis | 2004, 2017
The early-to-mid 2000s also saw many local winemakers starting to revive Tokaj’s neglected high-lying vineyards. These professional oenologists spent their early careers helping launch the large wineries of both foreign and Hungarian investors, while gradually laying the foundations for their own family brands. Tokaj-born Sarolta Bárdos was still at the helm of Erdőbénye-based Béres Winery, when she and her husband began to think about expanding beyond their parcel in the Barakonyi, the vineyard she partly inherited from her grandfather and partly bought back from family members. When Csirke-mál, an abandoned and rather difficult to access site higher up the mountains came up for sale nearby, and no-one else seemed to show interest in it, they went ahead and bought it.
Csirkés was the name of the wealthy landowning family from the village of Tarcal that purchased vineyards in this area in the early 17th century, and their family name, in the form of Csirke-mál, remains attached to this site. The fact that land here used to change hands at high prices in the early 18th century evidences the historical value of the site, and multiple noble families owned vineyards in the Csirke-mál up until the mid-20th century. Today, Sarolta Bárdos is the only grower here.
Parts of her five-hectare plot had been overgrown for 20 to 40 years when she started replanting it in 2004, mostly with Furmint. While close to the highest point vines seem to have ever been grown here in the late 19th century, Sarolta’s plot actually represents only a fraction of the historical Csirke-mál, as shown in the 1866 cadastral map of the area.
The crop from the Csirke-mál is usually harvested for an estate wine and a classic-method sparkler, her single-vineyard wines mostly coming from the Barakonyi these days.
From 2011 to 2016, she did make a single-vineyard Furmint from the Susogó-aldűlő of Csirke-mál, [aldűlő meaning ‘sub-vineyard’], where the bedrock below the loamy forest soil was andesite, as opposed to rhyolite everywhere else. The Susogó, as Sarolta describes it, was a “lean, mineral, perhaps slightly austere wine with flint on the nose and salt on the palate”. She may decide to make it again when the market has grown to appreciate such mineral wines, so we may see the name Susogó [susurrant in English] on her labels in the future.
Gyertyános by Carpinus | 2014, 2020
Meaning ‘hornbeam grove’, Gyertyános is a little more difficult for non-Hungarian-speakers to pronounce, so Edit Bai and his brother István chose the Latin version of the word, Carpinus, to name their family winery after this particular site, one of the seven they work with.
When, in 2011, István first climbed to the ridge of the hill outside Szegilong to have a closer look at the overgrown parcel of some 2 hectares in the Gyertyános that he was in the process of buying, he was stunned to find old vines still alive and well, climbing up the oak, maple and hornbeam trees in the wild. And there were even a few tiny clusters of seemingly Furmint grapes hanging from them. István decided to pick and vinify the fruit. The resulting wine had racy acidity, some beautiful, delicate aromas and an almost Riesling-esque character.
Then he felled the trees and replanted the parcel with Furmint in two stages, in 2014 and 2020. What makes the topmost parcel of Gyertyános special is not only the soil, but also the fact it is well-supplied with water despite its hilltop position. Old folks from the village have told István stories about springs and even two wells that people would use up there in the past. His long-term plan is to make a single-parcel wine from here, separately from the rest of the Gyertyános. But he opines that the vines are too young for a still wine yet, so the first single-parcel expression will probably be a classic-method sparkler.
In the spring of 2022, his sister Edit challenged him to taste a wine blind and guess the grape. “A mature Mosel Riesling?”, he speculated. It wasn’t. It was in fact his first 2011 wine from the top of the Gyertyános. He was happy to find it in such a great shape – and not so happy for her to waste their very last bottle of it just for the fun of seeing him fail to identify his own wine.
Hangács by Disznókő | 2017 to 2019
By 2019, young vines replaced the thicket in 7.63 hectares at the top of the Hangács-dűlő, as well. This is the latest addition to the 105 hectares that Disznókő, an AXA Millésimes company, cultivates outside the village of Mezőzombor. Another nearly 14 hectares of existing plantings were renewed lower on the slope under the same three-year project, which included the construction of 3.5 km of access roads and the movement of over 200,000 cu ft of earth to build micro-terraces and embankments. The total of 21.42 hectares now has different clones of Furmint [77%] and Hárslevelű [21%], as well as some of the minor varieties.
Featuring rhyolitic tuff fragments covering and mixed with the clay-loam topsoil in the highest parts, Disznókő’s Hangács is very different from the Dorgó or the Lajosok, and director László Mészáros says the limited experience they have had with this planting so far suggests that it yields broader, fruitier and more approachable wines than the nearby Kapi, the site that some of their signature Aszú wines come from.
Unlike most Tokaj growers, Disznókő remains focussed on Aszú, and the perfectly balanced style they have developed is widely considered a benchmark for natural sweet wines the world over. While Disznókő very rarely release single-vineyard wines, whether dry or sweet, they always vinify the crop on a plot-by-plot basis – not only to get a better understanding of the terroir they work with, but also to have a wide array of different wines to create the ideal blend.
And helping create the perfect blend is the role that the crop from the newly-planted Hangács is going to play in the foreseeable future, with a single-vineyard wine from here remaining a very possible option in the long run.
Back to the heights
Dozens of similar vineyard restoration projects could be added to the exemplary five above, both completed or in progress, from all over the Tokaj region. The renewal of the Hasznos by Szepsy, the Szil-völgy by Gizella, the Poklos by Dereszla – the list goes on.
Passed by the Parliament in December 2020, Hungary’s new Wine Act now allows the community of Tokaj producers to “create regulations distinguishing hillside vineyards from those lying on flatlands”. While this is only an option that the self-government of Tokaj growers may or may not make use of, the mention alone of hillside vineyards by the Act has, at last, formally reinstated the importance of high-elevation historical sites in Tokaj.
Renewing abandoned vineyards is a slow process, though, which naturally involves a great deal of financial and other implications. Whether the Tokaj Hill will ever become a Bald Hill again is difficult to predict at this point, but all these recent and ongoing efforts underscore the relentless enthusiasm and determination of local growers to bring the vines and wines of Tokaj back to the heights where they belong.
Credit for the main photograph: Ferenc Dancsecs of FurmintPhoto. Both maps are courtesy of Arcanum Maps. The final photograph is the author's own.