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Will dry Tokaji be the next big thing?

Though Tokaj is best known for its sweet Aszú, the Hungarian region’s dry wines are also gaining traction, as Disznókő director László Mészáros explained to Louis Thomas.


Making up some 60% of plantings in Tokaj, Furmint’s attributes when it comes to the production of the region’s famous botrytised wines are well known: it has compact bunches of thin-skinned, late-ripening grapes that are particularly susceptible to the fungus, and it has very high acidity to balance out the sweetness, a necessity when you consider that a wine such as Disznókő’d 2016 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos has 177 grams of residual sugar per litre.

However, as celebrated as these nobly-rotted Furmint-forward fine wines are, dry expressions of the grape have been receiving attention in recent years – though there is tradition behind the trend.

Disznókő’s Tokaji Száraz Szamorodni is one such old school example of a drier style, with the 2018 vintage of this single-varietal Furmint possessing 0.8g/l of residual sugar (Disznókő’s 2020 Late Harvest has more than 100 times that, at 90g/l).

“Szamorodni is a wine that was almost forgotten 10 years ago, but it’s having a comeback thanks to sommeliers,” Mészáros explained.

One quality that especially stands out from a winemaking perspective is the use of some barrels with flor, the layer of yeast that gives biologically-aged Sherries their acetaldehyde character, often revealed by an aroma of bruised apple. Indeed, in a blind tasting of the Tokaji Száraz Szamorodni you might be forgiven on first sniff for thinking it was a Fino Sherry, though the 12.77% ABV of the 2018 is somewhat lower than that of the fortified Spanish wine.

The new generation

But Disznókő is also pushing Tokaji Dry, a style of what might be considered more ‘modern’, low sugar wines.

Among them is it’s single-varietal Furmint (RRP: £19 for the 2022 vintage from Ocado). Disznókő’s Inspiration label can also be a single-varietal Furmint, as was the case with the 2021, though the 2022 incorporated 15% of Tokaj’s second most-planted grape, Hárslevelű, which has looser bunches of thicker-skinned grapes, making it less prone to botrytis.

“It seems to be quite simple winemaking, but there is a lot of experience behind it. We made dry Furmint from the 1990s, but now we have a much better understanding of the vineyard sites we have to use for the dry wines. In the beginning we also harvested too early, but now we harvest later.”

Disznókő’s 112 hectares of vineyard are spread over three extinct volcanoes, with the fruits of different plots vinified separately to lend greater control when it’s time to blend.

The 2023 harvest was later than average, with some plots picked in late September. Harvesting in 2022, by contrast, was at the end of August.

Further revelations have come concerning the handling of the wine in the cellar.

“We are more aware of how to use oxygen in the winemaking – in the beginning we tried to avoid any contact with oxygen, but now we use some oxygenation during vinfication.”

The decision to permit oxygenation was not, Mészáros explained, because Furmint is particularly prone to reduction, but rather because wines that were not exposed to oxygen were “fruity and fresh” in the cellar, but unstable after bottling.

“We experimented a lot with different types of fermentation, using spontaneous fermentation, malolactic conversion, lees contact, cold stabilisation” Mészáros revealed, “we tried every possible technique to understand the wines. We have a good understanding, but we are still learning.”

Regarding the use of malolactic conversion, Mészáros said that it was something Disznókő had “wanted to try to bring some creaminess and texture” to the dry wines: “Also, in very cold vintages, it helps to make the acidity more harmonious. However, since the 2016 vintage we have not put the Tokaji Dry Furmint through malolactic – in the Inspiration range it can happen spontaneously, because Inspiration is very often spontaneously fermented. Some of the barrels of it are still fermenting in December, even January.”

The Inspiration wines are fermented in 225 litre and 500l Hungarian oak barrels (10% new), with ageing taking place in the same type of vessels for three months. The Furmint Tokaji Dry was aged on its fine lees in stainless steel, also for three months.

Market potential

The bottled product has various qualities that make it a good gastronomic wine.

“Because of the wine’s high acidity and salinity, I think it’s quite easy to find a good match with dry Furmint. Shellfish is good, and, with a richer wine, spicy food can be good. There’s also a volcanic character to the wine that goes very well with spice.”

As for the question of ABV, though harvesting is later than it was, these are wines that are still fermented to dryness while remaining palatably moderate in alcohol. For example, the 2022 Furmint Tokaji Dry clocks in at 13.5% ABV with only 2g/l of residual sugar – a similar alcohol level to the Inspiration wines tasted.

“We see a lot of interest among sommeliers, but so far we cannot say that it has had a spectacular impact from a sales point of view. It is growing slowly, but it is not widespread just yet.”

These dry wines may indeed have potential, but Mészáros said that Disznókő’s focus is still very much on late harvested wines with high levels of residual sugar: “Dry wine is important, but 70% of the approximately 200-300,000 bottles of wine we produce each year are sweet styles.”

By contrast, Mészáros estimated that for the Tokaj region as a whole, the proportions of dry to sweet wines produced are inverted, with 30% of production being for sweet wines and 70% for dry. It seems unlikely that Disznókő will flip its production towards dry over sweet anytime soon.

“I believe in dry wines, but in many of our export markets Tokaji Aszú is considered the greatest wine in the sweet category. Furmint makes great dry wines, but there are a lot of wines on the market of its type and in its price range, such as white wines from the Loire, so it’s a lot more competitive, even though it’s bigger. The market for sweet wines is much smaller, but Tokaji Aszú has a far greater share of it.”

Mészáros shared that while Disznókő does indeed also make a sparkling Furmint, production is limited to around 1,000 bottles and it is not a commercially available product.

“We make some for fun, but we are not considering adding a sparkling wine to the portfolio. We already have a lot of wines!”

Disznókő is part of the AXA Millésimes portfolio, alongside the likes of Pauillac’s Château Pichon Baron and Quinta do Noval in the Douro. Last year, the drinks business discovered from AXA Millésimes managing director Christian Seely how the acclaimed Port producer is increasing its emphasis on the production of its table wines, and which grapes are best for them.

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