Dec 16 2008
The king of Tokaj- ladies and gentlemen, the one and only, István Szepsy
I´m sure you all heard that proverb wine of king, king of wines. My only question is whether Louis the XIV. said it in French Le roi vins et et le vin des rois or in Latin Vinum Regum Rex Vinorum. But to be honest it doesn’t really matter as today I rather introduce an outstanding wine maker, a ‘creator ‘of great wines, who produces indeed wine which is worthy to be called as such. István Szepsy leading Hungarian wine maker from Mád in Tokaj Hegyalja. A modest man blessed with great knowledge and determination. When you speak with him you almost get the feeling, that he knows everything yet he still on the search for answers.
A good friend of mine Vilmos Kreil who runs the Balaton House of Wine in Keszthely invited me to István Szepsy. He knows him very well and I can say without hesitation he has a special relationship towards Szepsy, not only has he designed a shrine for him in the Wine House but also published recently a book on István Szepsy. Prophet in his country, is the title, a kind of conversation between István Szepsy and Vilmos Kreil about beliefs, religion, wine and much more.
I use to say it´s not difficult to be a prophet in your own country but in Hungary’s´ case it´s not easy if you want to break from inside to outside, as you could have many envious (enemies too) people around you who try to push you down. It’s the habit which remains from the communist period, it´s much more difficult to achieve greatness when you have such a number of reluctant people.
István just finished with his lunch when he came out to greet us. He showed us to the “office/tasting” room and the conversation began.
It was not the first time that I met István Szepsy, but the first one in such a private environment. So the question is vital what does probably the best Hungarian wine maker do differently then the others. To answer it with one sentence: it´s his belief and his never ending will power. Or you could call it tradition with modern technology yet with deep faith that nature provides everything he just has to take it and use it. Or you don’t explain it after all and just going to taste his wines. There was a time when he was focusing to make sweet wines in Tokaj, but today he turned his attention to the dries. The Szepsy Cuvée (Botond), sweet Szamorodni and the 6 puttonyos (he doesn’t do lower “basket” numbers) aszú are stunning examples of the capability of the region on botrytis possibilities. The main single vineyards are the Szent Tamás, Úrágya, Király, Nyulászó, Urbán beside single vineyard (and within the single vineyard a special site or vine selection) he also does an estate wine, which is a Furmint from usually from all the vineyards. This later one is absolute a bargain, no question.
Now, you could ask what´s the story with this a single vineyard wine but with in the single vineyard a specific site or vine selection. István explained this to me, as for example he has the Szent Tamás vineyard which is around 50 ha, but the quality of the fruit is not equal as the vineyard is everything but homogeny. There is tuff, quartz, red clay, zeolit, etc. And not only this but also the exposure to the sun and elevation does vary quite a bit. So Szepsy decided to harvest and bottle the wines according to vines with in the site, which means this happens according to patches or lots in the vineyard Szent Tamás. For instance the 46 vine plot appears on the label beside the single vineyard name. This seems to be confusing in the beginning but it does make sense. Said that, this is not going to make consumers life easier. Or does it? I was told also by Vilmos that there are consumers, who are fanatic enough to collect stones and to check the vines in the vineyard, literally they know what Szepys gets for breakfast. Perfection is Szepsy´s drive yet I reckon you have to settle in some way but on the other side I do understand his point of view.
What I do miss in Tokaj is a proper classification, however. You could mention Mátyás Bél or the Tokaj Album (which is a great book by the way) or even the 1981 old communist classification which is actually the only official one with its 400 point system. It does have flaws, said that there are some good points too.
I hate to compare wines from different wine regions or even more different wine regions with each other, but occasionally there is no way around it. So here we go, Burgundy (Cote d´Or) and Tokaj. Burgundy made it´s classification based history and facts, yet it can be disputed. It can be very much questioned whether Nuits St Georges should have a Grand Cru site (Les St Georges for instance) or that parts of les Amoureuses in Chambolle are worth of Grand Cru quality or that not every body does Grand Cru worthy wines in the Clos Vougeot. Far as I see according to Szepsy´s theory they should be people who simple declassify their wines but neither this nor upgrading will happen anytime soon. In Burgundy’s climats you have a certain style whether its Vosne Romanée or Gevrey you know more or less what to expect. I would love to see something similar in Tokaj Hegyalja (and in other wine regions too). If it´s Mád, Szerencs or Tokaj different “terroir” should allow to make different styles. I do agree on the basics that the plot do differ in certain places but to overcomplicating it makes life difficult and Tokaj has to do the fundamentals first.
Get a classification! And yes there will be “blood” you cannot make it for everyone right, but hey if your vineyard is on the “wrong side of the road” you´re missing out. But if you don´t go down with the yields and lets say the tasting panel (a proper one) does not award you with the “Grand Cru” status you´ll leave it without. The VDP (Verein Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter) did something similar in literally each wine region and consumers do recognize and appreciate their efforts. There are so many examples, Tokaj just has to start and please start very soon!
Szepsy use to be in the Tokaj Renaissance Guild (he was once also the chairman) but left not so long ago. A wine merchant once said to me, Szepsy is putting himself above Tokaj and no one should do this. Well, there was certainly no intention in doing so as he explained it to me, he is everything with Tokaj but nothing without. He is a far too modest man with great wisdom and love to the wine region and he just decided to pursue his own business (for similar reason he did quite from the joint venture Királyudvar). Said that recently some wine makers (including Szepsy) founded the Circle of Mád. Which is trying to do a classification within Mád and as Szepsy said with a smile getting together and having a good time is also important.
I can not get my head around but it seems for me these association or guilds (for the Circle of Mád it´s too early to say anything) somehow fail to work or do not full fill for what they stay in Hungary. Why? This should be another topic, another day. To the question where would Szepsy likely to have vineyards, outside of Tokaj if he could choose anywhere in the world, he answered with slight hesitation: Somló, Badacsony/Balatonfelvidék and Burgundy. The man is a clear white wine thinker.
There is a bit of a weird situation going on in Tokaj when it comes down to break up the wine regions how it works and in trying to understand the quality issue. There are quite a few international owner or partnerships in Tokaj (Germans, French, Spanish, American, English, etc.) but they only make up 20% of the total. The other 350 companies, wineries are Hungarian. The former communist State owned Kereskedöház (Trading house) works today as a co-op and gets a lot of grapes from small farmers. I use to think that if they would improve in quality it would mean a big step forward. But as I was told there is plenty of really “weak stuff” out there. I never really tried that, but I do believe that the tourism from the East generally speaking does not help to improve quality. And when a bottle of 3 puttonyos aszú costs 1600 HUF opposed to 1800 HUF (almost a 1 EUR more) a bottle of semi sweet Zweigelt which is shocking in all means. Then wine in cans (you should bottle age most of the wines, especially aszú, szamorodni types), oxidized wines and sweet wines with little botrytis but plenty of süssreserve (added unfermented must). All terrible examples and all illustrations for what Tokaj should not stay. As the consumer price sensitive some of the well known estates had to introduce so called second labels to push prices down.
This is definitely not an operation what Szepsy will practice, I can tell you that. With 2000 bottles / ha, this means his average yield is far lower then 30 hl/ha, pressing happens as little as 0,6 bar, sweet wines age in 300 l Hungarian oak barrels and the dries in 450 l. For the dry wines he will pick the grapes between 20-23 must degree (about 100-115 Oe) his sweet wines can have anything from 110 g/l residual sugar up to 230 g/l or even more. There is no intention to change the “traditional” varieties, like the Furmint or Hárslevelü. No way, they belong to the region without question, Furmint is Tokaj yet Szepsy uses the Furmint as a tool to make a great wine, to let the spirit of the place, speak.
You can not be afraid, failure is a point of view he says. Consciousness is important, be aware what is happening and be always connected with the world. Your spirit is a constant part of yours no matter what happens to you. It is his deep belief what makes Szepsy´wines so great, no doubt his wines are amongst the greatest in the world and he is on a mission, in search of perfection. And believe me he will find it…hail to the king of Tokaj, István Szepsy.
Szepsy End of 2008
Szepsy Furmint 2006
Straw yellow colour, stunning ripe and fabulous nose, deep yet elegant full of tropical mango, pine apple, passion fruit, and quince baked apple pie. Dry with a rather good acidity and minerality to it, stone fruit, passion fruit notes, soft finish. Did it go through some MLF, likely? It does have an idea of nutty and leesiness at the end.
Urbán Furmint 2006
Light golden colour, pronounced stone fruit and mineral, lees notes. Minerality is more in the lime light, comes from zeolit and red clay soil. Complex yet charming. Dry, good zip, ripe apple, pear, grape fruit, long finish with good mineral spice to it. Complex wine, look out.
Szent Tamás 2006, plot/block 46 vine
Good straw yellow colour, ripe fruit with an earthy mineral touch. Fire stone in the background yet full fruit from the beginning on. Complex, flint with some creamy notes. Dry, lemon, citrus fruit, fresh ripe apple, fine and precise acidity. Crisp citrus, soft finish yet with a long go on all sides. High notes, a real Grand Cru Furmint.
Birtok Furmint 2007
The Estate Furmint. Good colour, bold on the nose quite pronounced with a creamy, tobacco, perfume and stone fruit. Dry, full bodied, powerful, ripe apple notes with mango and tropical fruit back up. Stylish it does have a slight bitter finish to it with some spicy minerality.
Hárslevelű Király Dűlő 2007
Fairly deep golden colour, this wine is little about the Hárslevelű varietal (lime tree /linden leaf) but it’s more about the Király dűlő single vineyard, “growth”. Notes of lees, and spicy, flint, hint of gun powder on the nose. Dry, high in alcohol, the soil is dominant it even suppresses the usually so strong varietal character of the grape. Minerality on the „cube“.
Szepsy Cuvée 2006
Good deep colour, pronounced nose, more than a late harvest botrytis sweet wine. There is a lot of complexity and serious notes of stone fruit, spice and minerality in the wine. Great food wine, a superb all-rounder with spicy dishes. It will stand against it, no doubt. Fantastic wine.
Szamorodni 2006 (sweet)
Deep straw yellow colour, ripe tropical fruit, good-clean botrytis from the beginning. Quite pronounced. 116 g/l residual sugar, bit juicy lemon notes. Sweet –better combo on the palate, high alcohol, dense and lovely structure, rich and long concentrated finish yet elegant.
6 puttonyos Aszú 2005
Deep golden colour, with orange peel spice, minerality, clean and fantastically pronounced botrytis. Mango, lemon peel, superbly sweet on the palate marzipan and mint leaves, gorgeous and very long finish. Still a baby, the wine is a great journey and so is the person who goes with it…
6 puttonyos Aszú 2003
Deep golden colour, superbly dense botrytis yet fantastic finesse and elegance beside the truck load of tropical fruit. Concentrated. 10 g/l TA, 230 g/l RS, gorgeous concentration, great acidity shows precision yet with plenty of weight. Balanced in all means, dense with great intensity, superb character, very long finish. Awesome wine!