Tokaj dry reconsidered

Wine writing is a strange scene. One hand rubs the other, as they say. International wine writing must be even stranger with even more rubbing to do. You get invited and the invitation comes with flight tickets, accomodation, full board and countless hours of attention, tastings, samples and presentations all lavished on you. It must be hard to keep a level head.

Even more so, if you show some affinity with the wines, the region, the people and your sympathy and insights are then manifested in articles promoted with the hashtag „the next big thing”. If it’s a region not exactly basking in the attention of wine luminaries, you may soon find yourself in the position of the international go-to person, the unofficial ambassador of the region’s wines. And then it’s only one tiny step away to become a lobbyist with a regular payslip.

For many years this was the mechanism that we, Hungarian Furmint Sceptics have suspected as the driving force behind the infrequent but unanimously glowing reviews on Tokaj drys. We the „ground force” have spent years and bucketloads of hard-earned cash trying to discover the promised beauty of Tokaj drys but our efforts were hardly ever rewarded.

After hundreds of painful failures we wanted to cry out that the emperor had no clothes but we were pushed underground by the unprecedentedly enthusiastic, elaborate and carefully researched writings of László Alkonyi in the pre-eminent Hungarian periodical on wine Borbarát Magazin. Simple reference to personal experience can not match the argumentative force of systematic adoration and cleverly constituted hierarchies. Our position was then made practically untenable as Tokaj and its wines became cemented as cornerstones of the new illiberal mythology fabricated by proud Hungarian patriots or nationalists (pick your choice).

It is true that Tokaj and furmint has a glorious past and an elaborate tradition, it is also true that Tokaj was the very first wine region to draw up a vineyard classification system three centuries ago. But from our perspective this time-honoured edifice has one fatal weakness: it’s all based on sweet wines. And sweet wines are a race apart. Shrivelled berries, botrytis, astronomical amounts of residual sugar and heavy doses of acidity are all vital for their success. Unfortunately they are all non-essential, even detrimental to dry winemaking. So Furmint may vie for the best variety to make sweet wines but that tells us nothing about its potential for drys. Palomino may be great for sherry or ugni blanc for cognac but that doesn’t mean that they are equally great for dry wines. In some ways the same goes for Tokaj as a wine region: the conditions that make it so right for making sweet wines are not necessarily conducive to making great dry wines. And let’s not forget that with dwindling demand for sweet wines Tokaj dry seems to be the only escape route for the region.

So despite the constant reference to a glorious past Tokaj dry actually had to start from scratch and it was only natural that the first decade brought more duds than gems. Thanks to the dedication and the brilliance of the aforementioned László Alkonyi together with the avantgarde of the local winemakers this was a top-down exercise in wine marketing where the theoretical foundations were laid and the terminological machinery to glorify the wines was up and running well before wines worthy of accolades were produced. Tokaj winemakers in private often voiced their doubts about the feasibility of the „dry project” but that did not stop them from posturing in public and positioning their wines way above all other whites in Hungary.

Despite my reservations about the quality of Tokaj drys and my moanings about the gap between hype and actual performance I still felt that it would be grossly unfair if the devotion, the talent and the expertise of local winemakers came to nothing. I’m a born optimist and a strong believer in „where there’s a will there’s a way”. However in the meantime my circle of friends had completely given up on Tokaj drys, not to mention Tokaj sweets (to describe the popularity of sweet Tokaj wines I have often said that if journalists were allowed to write only about wines they had actually purchased then there would be no more than one review of Tokaj aszús a year).

Not to lose touch with developments in Tokaj I would dutifully sample a handful of drys each year and invariably encounter the usual suspects: oak overkill, high alcohol, lack of complexity, lack of charm, lack of fruit, angular structure, tart malic acid, rough textures. Sadly, I never felt compelled to suspend my scepticism.

That is, until now. Come 2020 and the 2018 vintage and finally my misgivings about Tokaj drys have been dispelled. Having tasted a dozen wines (at home, from my own bottles, leisurely, for several days) I am happy to report that there were several wines that I enjoyed and only a few I disliked. Furmint and its sidekick Hárslevelű seem to have been reborn: there is fruit, there is purity, there is charm and on a few occasions even elegance. Oak has been scaled back, a modicum of residual sugar has been reinstated, the aromas are brighter and acidity has been reined in. As if the desperate fight to produce epic wines had finally been given up and with that heavy burden being lifted now there is spring in their steps and carefree abandon in their demeanour.

So here’s a brief recap of my findings:

Demeter Zoltán Tokaji Furmint 2018 – this is the wine that I regularly turn to to gauge new vintages in Tokaj. There is a purity and intensity to the 2018 that silenced my doubts and alleviated my fears, in fact, the first words of my tasting notes read: „Now, this is delicious”.

The nose is quite complex and expressive offering delicate herbal, sappy notes underpinned by pears and pineapple. The palate is solid and poised, with no rough edges, the focused ripe pear flavours are coupled with some medicinal notes which bring the sweet and tangy elements into perfect balance. The amount of residual sugar couldn’t be better judged (4 g/l). A confident, appealing, even elegant Tokaj Furmint. 6-7 points. It’s competitively priced at 14 euros.

Oremus Mandolás Furmint 2018 – a stalwart of the Tokaj dry scene, however in most vintages I have found it too oaky, too resreved and slightly bland. In this vintage oak influence is less prominent but even so this seems only a minor facelift compared to the best of the new wave drys. It’s a decent wine but it is still haunted by the old maladies: lack of complexity, lack of transparency, subdued aromas, blunt acidity. 4-5 points (15 euros).

Barta Öreg Király Furmint 2018 – a first for me: never before have I used the word ’elegance’ in my notes to describe a Tokaj dry. An alluring wine and a unique take on the variety. Cool, calm, sophisticated and relaxed. Quite intense with hints of flowers, orchard fruit and lemongrass. It’s refreshing and gentle, seamless and effortless. There is a lightness of touch that makes it extremely appealing. The very opposite of grandiose or monumental. It will be interesting to see how it ages. 7-8 points and 23 euros.

Szarka Juharos Furmint 2018 – one of the highlights at the London Furmint February tasting according to Jancis Robinson. To my mind it’s just run-of-the-mill. Sadly, the Juharos is dominated by oaky aromas and the soapy texture of barrel ageing. The vanilla overtones and the residual sugar make the finish slightly cloying. All the potential virtues of the fruit lie deep below the thick oak coating. Like in the bad old days the acidity is there and quite marked but it doesn’t lift the wine, it just hits your palate like a hammer. 4 points and 14 euros.

Balassa Tokaji Furmint 2018 – István Balassa is one of the leading lights of modern Tokaj and this is his entry level wine. It’s a fine effort. Unlike the Balassas of yesteryear it’s not smothered in oak, and it’s far removed from the coarse and angular Tokaj Furmints of a decade ago. With finely judged oak the nose is suave and inviting. The palate is polished, balanced, lively, well structured and juicy with delicate fruit and spice aromas. It’s not a particularly complex or original wine, but highly quaffable and refreshing. 5-6 points and fairly good value by Tokaj standards.

Balassa Nyulászó Furmint 2018 – a step up in price and though the quality and precision is familiar, the character is quite different. And I reckon it’s not a reflection of terroir, it has more to do with residual sugar. Nyulászó feels off-dry rather than dry. If you can live with that then this is a great wine for you. It’s opulent, it’s hedonistic, it’s a veritable fruit bomb. In the right context it’s a gorgeous wine, however if you’re looking for transparency, freshness and subtlety, look elsewhere. 6 points and 15 euros.

Gizella Furmint 2018 – László Szilágyi (a.k.a. Mr. Gizella) is probably the best loved Tokaj winemaker. Right after opening the 2018 Furmint felt pleasant and polished but simple and short. Even the allegedly minimal oak (10%) seemed to overwhelm the rather subdued aromas. On Day 2 and especially on Day 3 it blossomed into something more nuanced.

An attractive nose displaying notes of nutmeg, hazelnuts, quince, pears and orange zest carries on to a rounded palate with a well judged balance (RS: 4.5 g/l), ample fruit and smooth textures with some tannic grip towards the end. Length is just average and there is a touch of bitterness that some may find disturbing. Overall, it’s a surprisingly delicious and easy to like Furmint, but it remains to be seen whether it can develop more depth and complexity as it ages. 5-6 points; €15.

Gizella Barát Hárslevelű 2018 – I would single this one out as the best example of „new wave” Tokaj drys. Earlier vintages were also well-received but I found them a bit oaky and rough-hewn in terms of acidity. With this vintage all the pieces have fallen into place. It’s vigorous, intense and complex, a wine of fine proportions and fine details. One of the very few Tokaj drys where acidity is not just the blaring sound of a foghorn but a tuneful polyphonic composition. The palate is fairly weighty, concentrated and juicy. The amount of residual sugar is spot on. Tasted twice with consistent notes. 7 points and good value at 13 euros.

Tokaj Nobilis Barakonyi Hárslevelű 2018 – from a very highly regarded family winery this wine was a major letdown. This is the kind of stuff that fuelled our sceptisim for over a decade. It’s redolent of strawberry yoghurt and stamp gum, the texture is soapy, the palate is sweet and sour, the acidity is raucous and the finish is overly tannic. It is more an expression of the oak and its terroir then the grapes and the vineyard. 3-4 points and 17 euros.

Kikelet Tokaji Hárslevelű Lónyai-dűlő 2018 – this wine, also from a highly regarded family winery, proved to be a mixed bag. It shows lots of character and drive but falls short on polish and sophistication. The nose is quite intense offering floral, honeyed notes with some overripe gooseberry and, alas, also some raw wood and stamp gum. Acidity is quite pronounced, not exactly playful but not too clumsy either. Texture is slightly chewy, the mouthfeel quite rich. The palate displays a panoply of stone fruits marred by some chalky, starchy notes. Acidity might soften over time but at the moment it upsets the balance. 6 points and 15 euros.

Patricius Tokaji Furmint 2018 – one of the larger wineries in Tokaj with a reputation for reliable quality and modest prices. Somehow they never quite managed to hit the big time. At around 5 euros in local Tesco stores this Furmint is a bargain. Unfocused on opening with airing it cleared up and settled down to reveal a cool and even elegant nose with red apples, pear, lime and a bit of roasted peanuts. The palate is invitingly spacious, offering stone fruit and some herbal, leafy notes – no sign of bracing acidity and residual sugar battling it out. Not particularly typical, nor exciting, it is still a pleasant, unforced and satisfying wine. At 5 points and 5 euros this is a good buy.