Hungarian Vine Part 4: Tokaj 2

In vino veritas

- in wine there is truth

Our first tour in Tokaj at Oremus was a lesson steeped in tradition, history and the ways of the cellar. The next tour would prove to be all about struggle, perseverance and will…

One cannot drive any stretch of road in Tokaj without encountering vineyards at some point, they are scattered all across the landscape. The rolling foothills and valleys have been chopped into hundreds of small parcels, some ancient and some only recently developed. Hillside after hillside is either ripe with vines or being prepared for a new plot as the race to claim the best terroir rages on. New and grandiose tasting facilities are being built to meet the influx of tourists from all over the world (we saw a sign for a Texas BBQ restaurant and couldn’t help but wonder what that was like…).

After finishing at Oremus, we sat down for a “quick” lunch at one of the local vineyard’s restaurants (I was still operating at American East Coast speed, so everything seemed slow). Our next tour would take us through the sprawling vineyards of one of the regions largest producers, Sauska. We were met at lunch by the vineyard Manager, István, who’s command of English was thankfully better than mine of Hungarian.

Vineyard roads are typically not all that well-kept, and many there also doubled as causeways for water runoff. If you’re lucky they are paved, otherwise they are a mish-mash of dirt and rocks almost always sloped at an angle. This can make for an interesting driving experience, especially when your driver has an intimate knowledge of the area and a disdain for going slow. After trying in vain to snap a few pics while we were moving (no camera OSS could fix that amount of shake!), I decided it would be best to wait until we were stopped.

Luckily, that turned out to be rather often. We stopped at some point at every major plot, where István would explain the history of the area and what they were growing at the moment. Some of the plots were rich in history, with old stone huts and walls decorating their hillsides. Others were brand new, areas that Sauska had determined contained the right mix or terroir and location to bear fruitful harvests in the future.

István graciously answered all of our questions about their techniques, decision-making, and struggles to produce the best grapes they could. Farming is farming, and vineyards have to cope with same obstacles as any other produce farm does. Weeds, insects, animals, bacteria, and of course weather patterns all conspire to ruin the hard work you’ve put in.

In the case of Hungary, this is compounded by the decades of mismanagement and nefarious production practices implemented by the Communist regimes. The soil was eroded, the grounds left in shambles, and the vines often damaged beyond repair. It has taken years for producers like Sauska to rebuild the hillsides into healthy, vine growing plots. Hard work, patience, and a will to restore Hungary to the position it once held in the wine world…that is what motivates the majority of the producers here. We would encounter this same sentiment time and time again in conversation with wine makers around the country.

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Our last meeting of the day would be with the son of István Szepsy (also named István, go figure…), one of the most important winemakers in Hungary whose family has a storied history in the industry. Szepsy is the chief winemaker now, taking over from his father, and a very knowledgeable and well-educated man. We could tell how much pride he took in his craft, his passion for all things viticulture is almost contagious.

Szepsy first took us to one of his vineyards, giving a short (but complex) lesson in the region’s geology and climate. He explained how the volcanic rock, fault lines and water run off contributed over the millennia to the unique terroir of the region. The rock deposits that populate these hills are responsible for injecting minerals and nutrients into the soil that make for beautiful wines. This process took millions of years and cannot be replicated, one of the many reasons why claims to specific plots can be so hotly contested.

After touring the lush vineyards, it was time to taste! Szepsy treated us to a private tasting at a local restaurant of some of their finest bottles. Again, he shared with us stories of their production process, the struggles to get it right, as well as his own personal history within the family business.

It had been a long day in Tokaj, rushed around from vineyard to vineyard, meeting producers and taking in as much information as our brains could muster. All of the people we met were incredibly passionate about Hungarian wine, and took great pride in being a part of an industry that they viewed as key to restoring the country’s reputation globally. They all knew there are many hurdles yet to overcome, but that does not seem to deter them one bit. After all, they are farmers, and there is no more frustrating struggle than that with Mother Nature. They know is will just take patience, perseverance, and the will to march forward…

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Stayed tuned for Villány…

scott tribby