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The Evolution of Tokaj’s Dry Wines

13 minutes read

Legendary sweet wines, like Tokaji Aszú and Essencia, have made Tokaj famous for centuries. But dry wine has also been produced in the Tokaj region for at least as long as sweet wine has. For a long time the dry wines of Tokaj lived in the shadows of the sweet wines, but these days 70 percent of Tokaj’s wine production is dry. And these modern dry wines have definitely emerged from the shadows, bringing lots of positive attention to the region. Tokaj’s dry wines have become an important part of the region’s portfolio, and wineries depend on them for cash flow.

Long before Tokaj dry wine became, arguably, one of Hungary’s flagship white wines, it was used as an ingredient in the production of the sweet Tokaj Aszú wines. Before the hand-picked Aszú berries—which are shrivelly botrytized grapes—are pressed, they are macerated in dry base wine. Historically, when there was some of this base wine left, it was often aged in old oak barrels. It was rarely bottled, but was sold in bulk with no reference to its place of origin. Its flavor profile would have been similar to today’s Dry Szamorodni. This dry Tokaj wine was called pecsenyebor, and there are numerous references to it in Tokaj’s archive of historical winemaking documents.

Tokaj’s vineyards were first classified in 1737, making it one of the world’s oldest classification systems. Most of the vineyards named in that classification not only still exist today, but are still considered among the region’s best. So it was only natural that wineries would start making high-quality dry wines from these single-vineyards, and that they would be amazingly delicious. “Single vineyard wines are the way to go,” said Hajnalka Prácser, co-owner of Erzsébet Winery. “Furmint, just like Chardonnay, can really show the different nuances of the vineyards.”

The first commercial dry Tokaj wines of the post-Communist era were produced by wineries like Disznókő and Hétszőlő in the early 1990s. “We produced a dry Tokaj in our first-ever vintage, back in 1992,” said László Mészáros, Disznókő’s managing director. “We had a tasting in London in 1994 and the dry Furmint was well-received by the wine experts and sommeliers. But in the 1990s the region was focusing on sweet-wine production, so our dry wines were not really in the spotlight.” 

That spotlight came in 2000 when István Szepsy and Zoltán Demeter, two of the region’s most important winemakers, made the first commercially acclaimed Dry Tokaj wine. Szepsy and Demeter were working for the Királyudvar Winery in Mád at the time, and the wine was a single-vineyard wine from the Úrágya vineyard. It was initially conceived as being the base wine for a sweet Aszú. But that year the Aszú harvest was not as abundant as expected, so there was some base wine left over. They ended up bottling it (thank God!). And that was the beginning of the modern era of Tokaj’s dry wine production, which has continued to flourish ever since.

The Grape Varieties and Styles

The grapes used for dry wines in Tokaj are the same ones used for the sweet wines. Furmint is the most popular, followed by Hárslevelű, and then Sárga Muskotály (Muscat Blanc a Petit Grain). The Kabar variety is becoming more popular, even though there is still not much vineyard land planted with it. The other two allowed varieties in the region are Kövérszölö and Zéta, which are rarely seen as single varietal dry wines. One of Tokaj’s most unique wines is the old and rare style of dry Szamorodni, which is one of the world’s very few dry botrytized wines. 

Dry Szamorodni

Tokaj’s original dry wine is the distinctive dry Szamorodni. The birth of the dry Szamorodni style, according to the most likely theory, was the result of having a surplus of base wine left over after the Azsú berries were macerated for the sweet wines. This base wine was made mostly from the grapes that were left on the vine after the botrytized berries were selected for the Aszú. The wine from these grapes was too strong for a dry wine, and not concentrated enough for a sweet wine. So it was then aged in barrels for years, and a layer of flor (yeast) developed, which brought more complexity and uniqueness. For this reason, it is compared to the Vin Jaune of the Jura region (France) and Fino Sherry from Jerez (Spain), which both age for a long time under flor. The difference is that these two wines are not made from botrytized grapes like dry Szamorodni is. It’s truly one of a kind. 

Dry Szamorodni is living a revival thanks to producers like Samuel Tinon—a Frenchman who settled in Tokaj to make wine —who started making top-quality versions of it again in the 1990s. “Thirty years ago, when I arrived in Tokaj, every tasting ended with a dry Szamorodni. It fell out of fashion because people could not understand it, and in the 1990s the producers were told that the market didn’t want it,” said Tinon. “I believe dry Szamorodni and sweet Aszú are like Alpha and Omega: they complement each other. Dry Szamorodni is essential for the balance of the Tokaj cellar, but it is not an easy style to produce. It is very complex and requires a skillful winemaker that understands it.” 

With the recent trends of natural and low-intervention wines, wines like dry Szamorodni are getting back into fashion since consumers are more open to tasting new styles of wines.

Dry Szamorodni to Try:

For a concentrated and intense dry Szamorodni, full of almonds, olives, and caramel flavors, try Samuel Tinon’s 2009 dry Szamorodni. The wine was aged in oak barrels for six years before bottling. For a softer, gentle experience, try Hangavári Winery’s dry Szamorodni. Beef consommé is a classic pairing for these wines. Available in our EU online shop.

Furmint

As Riesling is in Germany, Furmint is also considered to be a mirror of the soil, meaning that it can show the differences in flavor according to the place where it is planted. In Tokaj’s wide range of volcanic vineyards, Furmint is the variety of choice when producing single-vineyard wines. Like Riesling, aged Furmint also develops petrol-like aromas.

Prácser believes in the uniqueness of Furmint. “The Furmint grape is excellent for dry wines. Not only for fresh and soft young wines, but also for oak-aged ones,” she said. “It can produce wines that, after ten years of aging, can stand next to the big whites of the world.”  

Dry Furmint to Try:

Try Karadi-Berger’s dry Furmint from the Narancsi vineyard. For an aged-wine experience go for the 2014 dry Furmint from the Füleky Winery, which was recently mentioned by Jancis Robinson in the Financial Times. Available in our EU online shop.

Some other beautifully developed Furmints are Erzsébet Winery’s 2012 and 2015 Estate Furmints, and Barta’s single vineyard Öreg Király Furmint. These are big wines with pure minerality, quince, and citrus. Available in our US online shop.

Hárslevelű 

Hárslevelű translates as “linden leaf”, and as its name implies, it produces wines with white-flower, linden-like aromas, and a gentler acidity than Furmint. Talented winemakers know that certain grapes varieties complement each other, and when blended can make extraordinary wines. Just like in Bordeaux, where Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with Merlot to soften the harsh tannins, in Tokaj Furmint is often blended with Hárslevelű to soften the acidity and produce a softer, more floral style of wine. Hárslevelű is more approachable at a younger age than Furmint, but not as age-worthy (even though it can have a 10+ year shelf life). “The aging potential of Furmint is better than Hárslevelű,” said Prácser. “That makes Furmint the number one choice for winemakers when producing dry white wines.”

Hárslevelű to Try:

Erszébet Winery’s Zafír is a single vineyard blend of two-thirds Furmint and one-third Hárslevelű. It’s an elegant wine that will show the good friendship between these two varieties, both in the vineyards and the blends. Hárslevelű is becoming more popular as a single-varietal dry wine. To experience the flavor of a pure, varietal Hárslevelű, try Béres Winery’s dry Hárslevelű from the Diókut vineyard, or Füleky Winery’s dry Hárslevelű from the famous Úragya vineyard—the same one that sourced the fruit for the famous dry Tokaj wine made by Szepsy and Demeter. Available in our EU online shop.

Sárga Muskotály

In most parts of the world the Sárga Muskotály variety (aka Muscat Blanc) is almost exclusively used to produce sweet wines. But in Tokaj—one of the world’s most famous sweet wine regions—it’s used to make dry wines. Internationally, it’s rare to find a good dry wine made with the Sárga Muskotály grape because it gathers sugar extremely fast, and it drops its acidity levels even faster. So it’s a very challenging variety for dry wine production. But Tokaj’s volcanic soils, combined with its cold growing conditions, help keep its acidity quite high, and the sugar low.

Sárga Muskotály to Try:

Dry Sárga Muskotály has the intense fruity, grape-ness of a sweet wine combined with a light body and  the sharp acidity of a light dry wine. When produced correctly, like Erzsébet Winery’s 2017 Lunée, it is truly a remarkable experience. Available in our EU online shop.

Kabar

In Tokaj there are six permitted white varieties. Of those, two are crossings created to fit the needs of the region: Kabar (Hárslevelű crossed with Bouvier) and Zéta (Furmint crossed with Bouvier). These varieties get botrytis (noble rot) easier and gather sugar faster. Of the two, Kabar has gained a better reputation. A few wineries are producing 100 percent dry Kabar with great results.

Kabar to Try:

Füleky Winery produces a single-vineyard Kabar from the Vinnai vineyard. It’s a wine that is aged and fermented in new oak barrels, showing the elegance of an oak-aged wine mixed with the freshness and softness of a cold growing region’s wine. As the great American wine writer Karen McNeil once mentioned while describing a wine from Champagne: “it possesses the tension of opposites. Like a sword enveloped in whipped cream.” This Kabar also fits that description.  Available in our EU online shop.

The Special Tokaj Bottle

When winemakers in Tokaj began to be successful with their modern-style dry Tokaj wines, they wondered what type of bottle to use. Was the Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Alsatian shape the best for highlighting the characteristics of a dry Tokaj? What color glass should they use? Most producers used the Alsatian/German bottle (long and thin) for their dry wines, but there was a need for something unique. In 2012 the designer Géza Ipacs developed a special bottle shape for dry Tokaj wines. It was inspired by the traditional Tokaj bottle for the sweet wines, and is similar to a Burgundy style, but with a longer neck and wider bottom. It is made of black-colored glass (to protect the wine from light), with the word “TOKAJ” embedded on the neck. Tokaj was the first Hungarian wine region to create a unique bottle shape for their wines. Now two more regions, Szekszárd and Eger, have their own bottles.

Tasting Dry Tokaj

How does dry Tokaj wine taste? Mineral. The best way to describe it is really mineral. The wine is a reflection of Tokaj’s volcanic soil. It is fresh and crisp, with high acidity and soft apple-pear like aromas. Compared to an international wine, you could say it is similar in style to a dry Riesling from Alsace (France) or from Rheingau (Germany). The oak usage is changing dramatically in Tokaj, as the wineries are trying to find their own style. In the early years, the wines were more oaky, higher in alcohol, and had a richer texture. These days wineries are trying to produce fresher, crisper styles, using more integrated newer oak flavors. However, they are still experimenting. 

“The very first trend in dry winemaking in Tokaj was to pick the grapes early. But we quickly realized it was too early, and the wines had an unbalanced green acidity,” said Mészáros. “Then we started picking later, using slightly over-ripe grapes, and heavy oak. But those wines were heavy and hard to drink. These days, the trend is somewhere in the middle—a mid-picking time, better vineyard selection, and an overall crisp, fresh wine style, with some oxygen contact during aging, allowing the wine to be more stable and last longer during its bottle life.”

Tokaj has more than 500 years of experience in making sweet wines, and just a few decades of experience in making dry wines. So they know exactly how their sweet wines age, but they are still learning how the dry styles behave over time. 

Wines to Try:

To taste the evolution of dry Tokaj style, taste the 2012 and 2018 vintages of Oremus Winery’s Mandolás Furmint next to each other. You will feel how the style of winemaking has changed in the last decade. Available in our EU online shop.

What's Next

Like other historic sweet wine regions of the world, Tokaj has deeply felt the trend of sweet wines falling out of style with consumers. But the popularity of the region’s dry wines has been a big help in keeping the region alive, dynamic, and on the great wine lists of the world. The success of the dry wine, in some ways, funds the less-popular sweet wine. Tokaj dry wine is “good for our cash flow, which is is very important because it will guarantee that we can keep doing our jobs and produce the classic, age-worthy sweet styles as well,” said Tinon. “It can also bring more visitors to the region, and open it to a broader audience.”

While Mészáros believes in the potential of Tokaj’s dry wines, he believes the region should remain true to its real gem: its incomparable sweet wines. “In the 1990s the message was to produce only sweet wines. Then, all of the sudden, in the 2000s the message changed: produce dry wines, because sweet wines were out of fashion,” he said. “The right way is somewhere in the middle. We should not forget that we produce, arguably, the best botrytized sweet wine of the world, and this style should remain the main product of the region. With the dry wines we are competing in the big international market, against some of the best whites of the world, so it is hard to stand out. On the other hand, in the local market we have realized that the depth and complexity that dry Tokaj wines have is rarely seen anywhere else in the country.”

It seems that with the increasing emphasis on single vineyard wines, now the Tokaj winemakers have found the style of dry wine that they have been searching for over the last few decades. As this style becomes stronger, let’s hope that instead of damaging the region’s flagship premium dessert wines, the dry wines help bring some glory back to them.

Dry Tokaj has become one of the most remarkable wines of Hungary. Have you tried it yet?


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