Tőkések is the name of a micro group of artisan-minded winemakers based in the region of Matra, Hungary, precisely in the villages of Gyöngyöspata and Szücsi. You already know Bálint Losonci, here is a profile of the two other guys of the group, Karner Gábor and Szecskő Tamás. They all stand out in a region where conventional wineries manage chemicals-sprayed vineyards, growing big volumes of grapes that need heavy correction in the cellar. At Tokesek, the philosophy is to take care of the beautiful terroirs they have on these Matra volcanic slopes, eschewing chemicals including herbicides or fertilizers and keeping the yields low, doing for that lots of hand work to tend the parcels. In the cellar, apart from SO2 they rely entirely on natural winemaking, letting the wine follow its course by itself with its indigenous yeast. The whole enterprise is courageous, as they're alone in this region to follow these demanding guidelines, unlike in Tokaji where a strong group of motivated artisan winemakers have put the spotlight on the region. The Matra region has suffered from years of communist mismanagement of the agriculture and additional years of conventional winemaking centered on high yields, the understanding of what makes a good, terroir-driven wine is still not fully grasped by the trade actors for whom easy profits count more than quality.
Another feature at Tokesek is that they exchange a lot between themselves, sharing their experience in the vineyard management and in the winemaking. But the central object of their work is the vineyard, their motto being that everything is done there and the wine then proceeds by itself.
The picture above was shot from the top of a hill where a deep soviet underground command center had been built in the 50s or 60s, keeping watch on the region and waiting to be used in case of major east-west conflict. The hill was off limits to locals for years and it is now privately owned and topped by antennas for telephone companies. From there you have a beautiful vista on the Matra range, its remaining vineyards and on the villages of Gyöngyöspata and Szücsi.
The Matra region has today about 5000 hectares planted with vineyards, lots of it being for family use and consumption, and only 20 to 40 hectares are managed organicly with low yields in mind. The rest just let the vines produce as many shoots and fruit as possible for what is thought as a higher profitability.
Gábor Karner was a jazz-rock musician in his former life, he was a drummer in a band but it was enough for a living, he happened to develop a passion for winemaking and got his hands in the art, taking a day job as night watchman for a company all the while prsuing his passion. Some 5 years ago as his winery was beginning to grow he quit the job and centered on the vineyard work. He and his wife have 3 teenage children and the whole family live in Budapest 70 km away (his wife works there), so he has to commute often when he wants to work on the vineyard or check his wine. Last year he finally bought a house at the edge of Szücsi for when he needs to work several days in a row.
Gábor Karner's vineyards are located near the village of Szücsi (which is the next village after Gyöngyöspata where Bálint and Tamás live. As you can see on the pictures on the sides, the block is at the foot of extinct volcanoes, the soil being also very poor and volcanic in nature. The soil of this Szücsi/Gyöngyöspata basin is very characteristic with parts where the earth color is orange (because of iron oxide) and parts where it's whitish with the surfacing chalk. Gábor has 2,5 hectares of vineyards right now, including this block with Kekfrankos (2 ha) and Olasz Riesling (0,5 ha). There's an uprooted plot next to the woods where he will plant two additional hectares of vines in the following years.
The parcel above makes half an hectare with 4000 vines. This is a now very rare clone of Olaz Riesling in Hungary, it comes from a southern region of Hungary which is now part of Serbia. The berries are much smaller, same for the clusters and the fruits ripen earlier than the other types of clones and are more aromatic. The parcel was planted in 2007. There was no plow before the plantation, Gabor just mows the weeds from time to time. He still thinks that some plowing could do well, and he'll do some when he gets a tractor. For the last vintage he lots much of the grapes to birds who seemed to like the fruits.
To this day, Gábor hasn't any tractor or heavy tool, he works by hand, using a string trimmer for the weeds and a back-pack portable sprayer for the organic sprays.
We first walked through the uprooted lot where Gábor plans to plant vines in the near future, he shows me remains of a wild rose bush that grows in the region and that you find exclusively on these poor, volcanic slopes, it's a very good omen he says because when you see these wild bushes it means that the soil is really fit for vineyards, they'll struggle on this arid land but will yield the best quality. They plant the varieties depending of their ability to ripe, choosing rhein riesling and pinot noir on parcels (or parts of parcels) thare cooler and opting for Hungarian varieties on warmer expositions, these varieties needing more sunshine and taking more time to ripen. I have no picture from this uprooted plot but it overlooks beautifully the landscape with the woods in your back and Gábor says that if he had both the means and the right, he'd build his house there. When this empty parcel will be planted he'll reach 5 or 6 hectares in total and he says it's the limit he can manage by himself, this is the ideal size for an artisanal winery, beyond this surface it's difficult to keep a close relation with the vines and the adapted work. Basically, he only uses temporary workers for the picking.
The parcel above makes one hectare (he has another hectare of Kekfrankos elsewhere) planted in 2004. The soil nature can be seen on the neighboor's vineyard (the grass hides everything on his own), it's orange-brownish with the clay. The average yield here is 0,5 kg of grapes per vine, indeed a very low yield, you need 3 vines to make just one bottle of wine. Until now he manages to most of the time eschew using copper and sulfur in the sprayings, relying only with a Hungaraian-made organic mix named Biomit Plussz where 60 herbs extracts combine to protect and dynamise the vine.
These "cellar streets" are called pincefalu in Hungarian and just by browsing Google Image on this you can't but marvel at this vinous architectural particularity, there's a whole wine civilization nestled in these lines of houses at the bottom of the vineyard slopes. Just imagine : there are 110 such cellars around the village of Szücsi and just 3 operating commercial wineries today, it speaks length on how strong the wine economy was in the region a century ago. 10 of these cellars are still used by amateur winemakers as a hobby, the rest is empty. But in my mind the fact that these cellars are still there, combined with the work of the 3 artisan winemakers of Tőkések, gives hope for a future restart of real winemaking in the region. This would make also a beautiful setting for visitors looking for indulging in real wine and tasty artisan foods, there's probably something to do for the region in this regard.
In a first facility room you find the usual Hungarian fermenters and storage vats (made by Turk) plus a vertical press well adapted to the small surface managed by Gábor. Before last year (when he bought a house in the village), he used to sleep there in winter when he had to stay a few days of work, and it was very cold.
Gábor Karner has both regular-size barrels and bigger volumes (which we call demi-muids in France) of 500 liters, the latter being made out of acacia and the former with oak. Oak falavor is not the goal, so he plans to keep the vessels for a long time.
Gabor takes out a bottle and we begin with a red.
__ Karner Gábor [the first name is always at the end in Hungarian] kézműves borászata 2012. Olasz Riesling vinified in the white plastic fermenters, no wood here. Balanced wine, the malolactic is probably completed but he doesn't make checks for that, he leaves the wine follow its course. The volumes were very low so he put some 2013 in this wine too. Costs 10 € retail.
__ Karner Gábor kézműves borászata Olasz Riesling 2013. 50 liters only for this vintage, the flocks of birds at harvest time ate the rest of the crop. Light-color wine withacidulous-lemon shades. Nose : neat and vivid. Lightly fizzy on the tongue. He added SO2 once, at 40 gr/hectoliter. Seems a lot to me.
__ Karner Gábor Birtokbor 2012, a first red. Kekfrankos. This is the estate wine (base wine of his winery). Nose : dust, dry flowers. Half of the fermentation took place on skins and half later, after pressing. Aromas of cherries. Yields : 2 kg per vine here. He says that his top wines have yields of about 0,5 kg per vine. Costs about 8 € retail in Budapest.
__ Karner Gábor Kekfrankos 2013, from a barrel. Yields : 1 kg per vine. The color is more nuanced, evolved. One-night maceration on skins. The only SO2 here until now is the one he sprinkled on the incoming grapes. At the end when the wine will be bottled it will have a total SO2 level of 50. He says he tries to lower regularly his addition of SO2 [I agree he can], saying that on this terroir the wine is pretty safe.
Mouth : bitteness at the end of the mouth which brings freshness on the alcohol. Total volume for this wine, 2 regular barrels (oak) and one 500-liter barrel (acacia).
__ Karner Gábor, Tavasszal a Föld 2013, another red. 100 % Kekfrankos. Yields : 1 kg per vine.
The name of the cuvée is a play of words meaning "soil in the spring" but it also refers to the appellation which he quit, he finds this a way to tell about the terroir behind this wine even though as a non-appellation wine he isn't supposed to tell the consumer (they all quit the appellation system in 2013).
Vinification : one night on skins, bottled in january 2014.
__ Karner Gábor Vitézföld 2013, 100 % Kekfrankos. Taken from a plastic tank, the wine is on its lees. The wine has been there for one year and a half, nothing done, just leaving the time pass. Lightly perly on the tongue. Inky wine, including for the aromas. Concentrated wine, very mineral in the mouthfeel, with a salty or metal feel (in the good sense of the word). Very nice wine. Yields : 0,5 kg per vine. 1600 liters in total, from 800 vines. Will sell for 20-25 € retail in Budapest. Will be bottled after two years but seems quite excellent already.
__ Karner Gábor Vitézföld 2012. Taken from a 500-liter barrel. Gabor put the wine there 2 months ago, it was in a plastic vat before that. Nose : I think I already feel the minerality and silky side of this wine. Mouth : one notch above the previous sample. Very classy and elegant, thin tannins, Superb wine. Total SO2, he says, is 60.
__ Karner Gábor Vitézföld 2011. From a plastic vat, the wine will be bottled soon. Yields : 0,5 kg per vine or even less than that because flowering turned bat that year. Thin, refined tannic texture. Excellent, balanced and easy drinking even though it's probably 13,5 % alc. There's a freshness that wraps the whole thing (he says there was indeed more freshness or acidity in 2011). Gabor says that he uses glass closures for his top cuvées, and screwcaps for the rest. So2 here : free : 20 and total : 80.
__ Karner Gábor, Boróka Vitézföldi Kékfrankos 2009. Named from his young daughter, who was born in 2010. Bottled in august 2013, unfined and unfiltered. Nose : neat and aromatic. Mouth : again this thin glass-paper feel with the well-integrated tannins. Stayed one year in a plastic vat without added SO2. 28 months in casks (3 regular size and one 500-liter). Old people around here aren't used yet to the discreet tannins.
Tamás works on a larger surface thanks to his deep roots here, a bit more than 9 hectares of planted vineyards and 5 more hectares waiting to be planted.
Tamas thinks that tending the vineyard with care and not using chemicals brings returns because the vines get stronger with their natural immune system. He says that few people know the quality of the terroir of the Matra foothills, and walking through his parcels he grasps several rocks including andesite which is the base rock here in addition to the clay and the sea alluvial sediments. He strongly believes in the expression of terroir through small parcels and hard work, not large-scale surfaces where the wine is diluted. I felt that Tamás with his roots in the wine tradition is giving confidence and credibility to the group and that the region of Matra can find through their collective work the path to a healthy return to terroir.
I didn't have time to visit the facility and the only tool I saw was this tractor so the story will alas be shorter.
His pinot noir was planted 9 years ago, it makes half an hectare and it gets no chemical spraying at all, even SO2 or copper. I guess he also uses this organic Biomit Plussz with 60 herb extracts, to help the vines protect themselves against didease.
Further from this parcel he grows 1,5 hectare of kekfrankos. His average yields, he says, is 0,7 kg of grapes per vine.
He showed me also a parcel of Riesling planted in 2011.
All the parcels have a lot of wild flowers and weeds among which you can spot the surfacing stones hinting at the volcanic nature of the terroir. Like elsewhere in the region, the ground earth shows strains from the summer drought, you see cracks here and there (pic on right), but the weeds as well as the vineyard don't seem to suffer from that. These vines seem quite happy and unstressed in this environment, and the lack of spraying including the organic-sanctioned ones must play a role.
__ Szecskő Pinot Gris 2013, vat sample. Aromas of honey and white flowers. Generous mouth. Yields : 1 kg per vine. Half an hour maceration on skins (destemmed) and after that vinified in plastic vats, with temperature not above 20 °C. The juice took 3 month to wholly ferment. His facility is also a deep-rock cellar. The pinot-gris vineyard is exposed north-east, this is a cooler terroir on chalk soil. You feel the good result of that all in the freshness of the wine. Fining with bentonite. So2 adding on the must after pressing and also at bottling. Not on the market yet. Tamas says that in 2013 they pruned shorter and as a result got fresher wines.
__ Szecskő Pinot Gris 2012. No maceration here. Much hotter year. 15 % alc. On the market now. Lightly fizzy on the tongue. Interesting mouth feel, texture on the palate. Ripe citrus aromas. Sells for 8 € retail, mostly in Budapest.
__ Szecskő Chardonnay 2013, vat sample. 40-year-old vineyard, quite old for the region. Yields : 0,8 kg/vine. Nose : hawthorn flowers, aromas of generous white flowers. Tickling on the tongue but no CO2 I guess, just some mineral feel. Tamas says it's about 13,5 % alc. with an acidity at about 8. More or less for this cuvée 1200 bottles each year. Tamas and his colleagues say it would make a great sparkling.
__ Szecskő Peres Dülo Chardonnay 2011 (Peres Dülo is the appellation, as he was still working with the appellation system back in 2011). Generous wine.
They say that the tasting sessions for the appellation agreement were introduced in 2012 and they decided not to try at all to pass the tasting check. This wine that hadn't seen any oak during its élevage was cionsidered oaky by some judges at the board who weren't accustomed to the characteristics of a non-interventionist wine, they just mistook their difference style with overoaking. They say that sadly the appellation system throughout Hungary has been hijacked by the big wine industry who saw the setting up of the appelation as a deserved asset for their dominant business. The president of the Matra appellation for example is in his eighties, he still has a soviet-kombinat mindset and people of the region follow him blindly, so there is little hope for now that the appellation agreement commissions yield something interesting.
__ Szecskő ZV 2010 (Zöldveltelini or Grüner Veltliner). Still in the Matra appellation back in 2010. From a 1,2-hectare vineyard. 14 % alc. Still in vat. Elegant and generous wine.
90 % of people in Hungary think that 2010 was a bad year but actually you could do the best possible for the conditions and make a fairly nice wine. The weather was indeed very rainy and cold, there was disease in the vineyard, not very easy, the yields were lower than usual We're drinking here the very last bottle of this cuvée for this vintage. For the anecdote there was a very good wine shop in Vienna (Austria) which is specialized in Grüner-Veltliner wines and this particular cuvée ZV 2010 was the first non-Austrian Grüner Veltliner to have been selected and sold at the shop, a particular honor given the fact that Austrians usually look down on Hungarian whites.
__ Szecskő Julianna 2010. Some residual sugar (35,5 gr) here but no botrytis. Acidity : 9. Variety : Királyleányka, means little princess in Hungarian (Julianna is the name of Tamas' daughter). Aromas of dry raisins.
__ Szecskő Pinot Noir 2013. Very light color. Nose : cherry, kirsh spirit. This is the 2nd harvest for this young vineyard. Bottled march 2014, this is a spring wine, on the fruit. 4-day cold soaking and then fermented during 9 days, A bit of fizziness feel, there's residual CO2. 12,5 % alc. Sells for 7 € in Budapest.
__ Szecskő Pinot Noir 2012, a hot year. Vat sample, darker wine. Yields : 0,6 kg/vine. 8-week maceration, on its lees for a year, then racked. Bottled this summer (2014). A more serious wine obviously, different vintage and character. Nose : meat juice aromas, peony, very exciting. Mouth : neat and majestic. Cooked fruits aromas. He thinks that the tannins are too prominent here and he prefers to wait more before bottling the wine. Very nice wine.
__ Szecskő Cabernet Franc 2013, vat sample. From a 0,5-hectare surface, planted 5 years ago. Nose : complexity. Very enjoyable mouth, if still a bit closed. The malolactic is beginning to unfold, he says. Will be bottled in 2015 or 2016. The mouth is quite demonstrative even if not very long. Nice wine.
__ Szecskő Cabernet Franc 2012. I notce the words on the label : Doritetlen - Szuretlen, means unfined-unfiltered, the prefix etlen meaning without (I begin to get some Hungarian, but there's a long way before a full grasp of the language...). Appealing nose, summer flowers in the evening. Generous wine. Sells for 18 €. September was hot that year. 904 bottles were made of this wine. 14 % alc. Tamas says that his wines can also be found at three Michelin-star restaurants in Budapest, Onyx, Costes and Borkonya Winekitchen, proving by the way that like it happens elsewhere the top restaurants don't take appellations (or the lackthereof) at face value. These restaurant also hold the wines of Bálint Losonci and Gábor Karner.
__ Szecskő Rubintos 2011. Rubintos is a variety silmilar to Magyarfrankos from what I understand. Tamas is the only producer of Rubintos, which is a crossing between Kekfrankos and Kadarka. Sports 14,5 % alc. on the label but good acidity level to handle that.