Tállya, Tokaj (Hungary)
You may not familiar with the name of Tallya but this village at a short distance from Tokaj has even deeper roots in the wine history of the region, and its climats or terroirs were considered the best several centuries ago by the wine-wise elite of this time.
Alkonyi László or rather László Alkonyi like we say outside Hungary (Hungarians like the Japanese put the family name first) was in his former life a writer, and at the beginning he was writing about financial issues and stock exchange in Budapest and in the mid 1990s' he foresaw that Hungary, his country was heading toward big problems, social and economic after the fall of communism. People were quite desperate, companies were closing or were sold and dismantled and people were not prepared for this different world, they had little hope. He had the luck to have had a good job and he decided then to create a wine magazine because in his mind the wine business with all its ramifications could save many families and jobs. He undesrtood that the country needed more and more independant people who can lead their own lives, and family wineries plus all sort of wine-related businesses could do the job. Something had to be done so that people could have hope, have dreams and have children and make plans, and he viewed a wine magazine like a way to help all these things come true.
When László Alkonyi decided to start a wine magazine and write about wine in the mid 1990s' there was no independent wine magazine in Hungary and his goal was to start the first, with the possibility to say the truth and not only polished myths to enhance established wineries. With his previous work in the financial sector he was independant enough himself to start this venture without the sponsoring of powerful wine companies or wineries, he knew he had the means to remain free. Borbarát started being published in 1996, immediately covering local artisan winemakers who were then under the radar. He took some advertising in the magazine but mostly from banks and car makers. There happened now and then that big wineries post advertisements too, but for example once in the same issue there was an article with a comparative tasting in which the wine of this particular winery scored the worse, it made waves of course, the winery owners weren't very happy but the magazine proved it was serious in its independance stance.
Bálint Losonci, another artisan winemakers who now makes wine in the Matra mountains also worked as a wine writer in these years, and that's through him that I learned about László who was making his 1st vintage then. It's very curious but everywhere I go, wether France or abroad it's often the outsiders who make the most daring and successful artisan winemakers, maybe because they're not refrained by a heavy generational "tradition" (which is often biased toward conventional winemaking).
In addition to managing this wine magazine, László Alkonyi also wrote several books which are very important for people who want to know the Tokaj wines and the history of the region. He wrote The Wine of Freedom where he put the wine history in perspective, it was the first time he wrote also about fake wines. We're familiar in the West with conventional wine made with all sort of additives but here in Hungary wine was often made without any grape being involved in the first place [like in Russia by the way, certainly a legacy of the progressive economics of socialism...], using sugar, alcohol, coloring agent, people would drink wine that had never had any grape juice in it... Until 1991 it was allowed to add alcohol in the winemaking process even for quote "normal" end-of-quote wineries, and people thought alcohol adding was traditional. When he wrote about these practices it was a big scandal, the dirty little secrets of wineries were revealed and some people in the wine trade didn't like it. But then Decanter's Michael Broadbent was asked one day what were the 10 best wine books he had read and László's book was among them, so the controversy stopped in Hungary, this book had found the highest recognition. He then wrote a second part, Tokaj : the Myth of Terroir where the classification of Tokaj terroirs is extensively examined. People in Hungary at the time were saying this word, classification, without knowing what they were talking about and wineries would put themselves on the top of the "classification" without reason.
So he began by telling about the classifications in the context of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and emphasizing the closeness of Burgundy and Tokaj for its historical approach of climats or parcels, he underlined the importance of parcel selection for dry wines. He looked into the cadastral documents and other documents to set up a detailed map of the classification of Tokaj terroirs. The first document telling of a classification here dates from 1730, with a list of parcels if not an outright map. You can see on the left the outcome of months of research : a map with a cadastral precision listing the best terroirs and parcels in the Tokaj region 300 years ago, this is as close as it can be, at the intersection of the historic sources and the soil analysis. Red parcels are 1st class, orange 2nd and yellow the 3rd.
Then he wrote in 2009 Iránytű borkedvelőknek which is a profile and review of the best producers in Tokaj, he says that today two names come to his mind when speaking of the best, first Kikelet and 2nd Bott Pince [Judit Bodo]. László didn't know that I had just visited Bott the previous day and that I visited Kikelet 10 years ago, so it felt good that (chance or intuition ?) I had visited the very best of artisan winemakers. And I was supposed to visit Stéphanie again at Kikelet, in the first place, but she was leaving for France at the time I could spare a few days for this Tokaj visit.
On this point, I ask László about this interesting issue : both are outsiders, Stéphanie was a winemaker, but from France, and Judit came from Slovakia and is not from a winemaking family, and by the way László himself is an outsider for both his initial job and family origin, so I ask him if he saw a similar trend in the list of the best artisan winemakers in Hungary. He says that traditin freezes things and outsiders feel free, he noticed that people that are in the tradition, it's like being in a prison, they're constrained and don't change their ways.
This is not by chance that László Alkonyi setlled in the village of Tállya, he became an expert of the history of Tokaj wines and of their best terroirs which were already in a classification centuries ago, while many people still ignore it today, Tállya was known for having the top terroirs and parcels, the 2nd best village being Tarcal (where Kikelet is based). One of the reasons it's important to write all this is that people forget easily the past, even the recent past, for example he says that the 1st interesting dry wine made in Hungary from a loess terroir was made in 2007 by Kikelet, this is 9 years ago and people had already forgotten about it 5 years after, although it's very important. Today you find great dry wines made on loess at Kikelet, Bott, Gizella and Demeter, but it all started in 2007.
These villages are still looking very poor with many houses in derelict conditions, you feel the legacy of decades of socialist immobilism and the impulse of people like László will really make a difference.
He renovated this typical village farm on the main street, with a vaulted wine cellar and a garden. He doesn't live here but it's there that he makes the wine. The cellar has been brought back into its vinous heritage, it's cool and it has a well on the floor, this means that people could have water without leaving the house, I guess it was useful in winter with all the snow and mud outside.
László shows me how these strange basket press works, there are 3 of them in the courtyard in the open, all the wooden parts are safe in the house I guess and they're put to work again when harvest comes. Even if it's not the first time I wander in the Hungarian wine regions I'm surprised by the diversity of designs of the Hungarian-made presses, this is a sign of a vibrant wine culture, which somehow survived through the communist years. These presses are made in Miskolc, it a metal-industry town through which you drive when you come from Budapest.
There are 3 such presses but they are small capacity, which is good because he has small volume each time, the pickings being done in several passes as you know. And I guess he can thus press three separate batches at the same time. He presse whole-clustered and one only, no cutting/moving of the pomace. You just power the press by hand, it's very simple. The ratio of juice he gets with it is 4 deciliter per kg of grapes. When the pressing is done, they group all the pomace bottoms and press them together for a few more liters, but the resulting juice it put apart, not blended with the 1st press.
__Csepke 2015, means droplet, it's a blend like all his wines, it's Hárshevelű & Furmint but he doesn't communicate about the proportions. Very aromatic wine on the nose. This wine is the result of the 2nd press for all the cuvées, some sort of generic, entry wine. Man, that's pretty good for an entry cuvée, I highly recommend it, there's almost an energy feel here on the tongue, but it's not sulfur-free. This wine is the result of 22 2nd pressings of different batches, each being added in the same fermenter. He made 10,5 hectoliter of this wine. László made it so that every one even the young peple with little means could enjoy it, it's an everyday wine. The vineyard is managed organic, it gets only orange oil [a Hungarian organic spray mix] and sulfur, very little copper, no more than 1 kg/hectare/year and in 2016 they used only 0,5 kg/hectare, last year same and the two previous years none. He wants everyone, himself, his buyers and the village people to remain healthy, and that's good for the wine too. From what I hears anyway, when the conditions are really bad, even the chemically-farmed vineyard loose all their fruit, so what's the point of still using these chemicals ? I notice that if Hungarian winemakers can still make progress in the use of SO2 (or the lack thereof) during the vinification, they're well ahead in terms of eliminating the use of copper in the vineyard. There could be an interesting exchange of experiences between the French natural-wine makers and the Hungarian ones..... László says that he decided to bring down the use of copper, but it's only his 4th vintage and he doing things step by step, plus he also keeps sheep and goats and has to manage all this at the same time. I think frankly he did a lot in just 3 years.
Asked about his general approach when he makes wine, László says that he has a problem with sugar, he says that Aszu wines (the ultra-sweet wines of Tokaj made with dried out berries) became very famous 400 years ago, at a time when on average European ate 300 grams of sugar per year, sugar was a very rare and precious commodity, just compare to today when sugar costs nothing and people eat an average of 5 kg sugar per year (and many ingest much more than that...). In 400 years sugar went from being an exceptional treat to an ubiquitous health threat. So he favors parcel selection wines which show elegance which is more difficult to get than richness, and he on the picking stage he has a rule to pick only the just-ripe grapes, and therefor it's very slow, in good years they pass 8 times to pick all of the fruit, pressing 100 or 150 liters per day, adding each time the freshly-pressed batch on top of the one that has begun to ferment the previous days.
László says that also that there's two things in doesn't like in wines, the high alcohol and the tannin, at least in the Furmint and Hárshevelű, because it's not bringing a nice structure, and with selecting only the ripê berries tey manage to avoid the tannin issue. When he says he picks the just-ripe berries he really means it, he doesn't pick a bunch making assumptions about the average ripeness between the very ripe and the under ripe, they just pick the ripe fruit and leave the rest on the cluster. We don't often hear about the tannin being an issue on white wine, we assue that as the wine is basically colorless, it's tannin-less as well, whites have tannin and it is a disregarded factor that can affect the character of the wine in a negative way.
__ Kalaka 2015, the domaine wine we could say. Blend also. Made from 3 pickings. László explains that when he tastes the juice and feels it lacks concentrations or is not good enough to be let continue to ferment until it's dry, then he racks the wine and stops it with a bit of SO2, keeping this way a low alcohol. The dry wines have no
more than 60/70 SO2 while the sweet no more than 100.
Flowery nose, generous flowers that is, light sweetness. Asked about how much residual sugar there might be I answer 15 grams, but it's actually 40, very surprising because it's just a hint of sugary feel, you'd not guess it's 40. The thing is, he says, there's no tannins also, because of the way he picks, and it helps.
__ Tallya 2015, Tokaj Furmint, the cuvée villages we would say. Majority Furmint, but it's a blend too. Half come from a top terroir, Patocs, then some comes from the Galyagos climat and also some from Sipos and Kis-Tokos-Maj, but the character of the wine comes from the leading terroir, Patocs. You feel stone indeed here, it's very mineral. Very classy and beautiful wine, coats well the palate. Feels dry or maybe 2 grams residual sugar but László says there's 9 grams in there. Very popular cuvée, sold out. He made 600 bottles of this only. Sells for 4500 Forints (14,3 € or 15,8 USD). Asked about were he sells his wines, László says that until this year he used to sell everything at the domaine here in Tallya, but now the Budapest Wine Society buys much of the wine and distributes it in Budapest.
Kalaka pince, László's domaine, has now a vineyard surface of 3 hectares but he'll plant 3 more hectares, doubling the wine volume in the short term. He took care to have all his parcels in a one-kilometer radius, it happened that when he began this winery project he was living in Mád near here which is also in the Tokaj region, and at the time he discovered that the best terroirs of the old classification
were respectively in Tállya, Tarcal 15 km south of there and Tolcsva at about the same distance east, and he decided to look for a house in Tállya and also looked for parcels in the area. He still lives in Mád to this day, but I understand that it's a bigger city which is fine for his family. When he looked to the parcels in Tállya he saw that nobody was aware of were the first-class terroirs were located, if any. He knew that the place was the center of the top winemaking centuries ago, so he sold the parcels he had in the Mád area and bought others in Tállya. He dis his search step by step. One of the parcels for example was owned by a "wine faker", someone who like it was common in Hungary would own a vineyard for the face value of it because he was supposed in regard to the Hungarian wine administration to have one for his wine production, but his "wines" were completely artificial and there was no grape in them, so he didn't need the parcel really and ended up selling it to László (the administration needed a proof of vineyard ownership when you created a winery but after then it was useless).
László was helped in his search of the best terroirs by friends with whom he made an investment partnership and they could purchase the nest parcels at the best altitude at mid slope and when possible with an eastern exposition. He doesn't look for a big surface overall, but the quality of the parcels is important, with wind or breeze all day, and water in the underground.
__ Bathory 2015, the name comes from an old aristocratic family with Polish roots which was the owner of this terroir until 1543. The owners were living far away but these terroirs were so important at that time that they were considered like high-value real estate. During the communist years the cadastral name was changed to Batorka to erase the erase this nobility origin [we know today in the West how similarly, for the sake of political correctness we love to change words in order to change minds, but it alas doesn't always work as planned...]. So on his label he chose to reinstate the original name of the terroir.
Dry wine, fermented in tank, the only cuvée that didn't follow his rules, it's been picked at once after a 3-week-long rain, plus there was some botrytis and he put it to ferment in oak because the oak tannin compensate the botrytis. If he makes a botrytized wine, it will be a 100 gram residual sugar one. But his experience tells him that people like Aszu wine but they don't drink some often, you just don't get back to work one evening and say yourself, I'll open this 5 puttonyos bottle and relax....
I asked if it's easy for someone coming from outside to come here in Tallya, buy or rent an old house (as it seemed to me that severa nice old housesl were not occupied). László says that this village was 300 years ago the biggest village in the area, already a city with 5500 inhabitants compared to 1700 today, this explains the empty houses, but the village began to be popular 2 years ago (Mad, where he lives, went up earlier, like 20 years ago). The city administration is not doing very much to revitalize the twon, it could better encourage people to setlle here and invest.
__ Galyagos 2015, Tokaj Furmint, this batch was supposed to go into the cuvée Domaine, the Kalaka but the juice tasted so good that he vinified it separately. Was picked in 3 times. The terroir is 3rd-class terroir, on green on the map. Very clear color. Nose with hawthorn and lemon, white flowers. In the mouth and swallowed, a very aerial wine, very enjoyable. 550 bottles in total. Sells for 5000 Forints (16 € or 17,4 USD).
We walked along a grass road after parking the cars and before a large nut tree (the region has lots of them) we had a look at a few trellised rows of his, this is the picture on the left, with Furmint grapes still looking very green, the soil is sandy here and it dries fast in summer. Altitude is 200 meters. After we passed the tree there was this large parcel of vines on posts or échalas, the soil is thick with andesite, it's some sort of andesite sand, by the way there's a big quarry extracting the mineral on an industrial scale not far from here, and you can see giant trucks coming and going. László says that he never had a drought problem with hthis parcel, it seems that it has good underground water reserves.
__ Tökösmál 2015, the top cuvée, a 1st class terroir which was the earliest mentioned historically centuries ago, the first time it appeared on a written document was 1481, and it may have been productive for a while already before that.... This wine is a blend of 60 or 65 % is Hárslevelű and the rest Furmint.
I feel stone on the nose too, looks very mineral, lovely wine, lots of purity, coats the tongue and the palate, superb. László says that for its first vintage 2 years before the acidity was 9 which was very high, this one is 5, much lower, but the wine feel is the same. Residual sugar : 0,8 gram, very dry. I ask if he adds less SO2 as it's dry, he say he still added but not much, the tests said it was 60 or 70, not very high. 1100 bottles made of this. Yield here is 11 hectoliters for this one hectare which is planted with 4000 vines, and there were 8 different pickings to make this wine. 30 % of the parcel is on posts and the rest on wires but in the future he'll put all on trelis & wires because it's better for the aeration of the leaves and the grapes.
He does the pruning around december, finishing it around the end of february. He adapts the pruning to the type of vine and also to the soil, for example here on Tökösmál (he shows me a particular vine) he can let 1 kg or 1,5 kg of vine and he prunes accordingly. On Tökösmál this means having 7 to 10 bunches of grapes if it's Furmint, and 4 bunches for Hárshevelű. Before he bought this parcel the fruit load was much bigger, and it was chemically sprayed, herbicide and insecticide. For 2 years he just sprayed nothing, not even sulfur and after then, only orange oil (a locally-made organic mix) and sulfur. The vines are now healthier year after year.
In the Patócs terroir he targets only 0,5 kg of grapes, so the pruning will be different. He works with two local people to do the pruning and other vineyard work, in addition to the two friends with whom he partnered for the purchase of the land.
Walking further we pass alon old walls that testify of the age of the agriculture life around here, that's certainly not in the socialist interlude that they built this. If he has time he'll rebuild and renovate it. We reach an emplty plot that had deep plowing to remove the trees and bushes, this is another prized terroir that László is conquering back from the woods, this is 1st class terroir here on the left with ryolit stones, and 2nd class on the far right, with andesite soil. He'll plant vines next spring here, Furmint one one side and Hárshevelű on the other side, 15 000 vines in total.
As we walk on this plowed plot László says that these to-be-reconquered terroirs are attracting good winemakers including from faraway regions, like a plot near this one that has been purchased by the most famous producer of the small Somlo wine region (he told me the name but Hungarian names are very hard to understand when you're not familiar with the pronunciation, this was something like Layosh Tokadj...). And also here on this slope no less than world-famous Tokak winemaker István Szepsy will plant a parcel... It's like if the best terroirs of Burgundy had been forgotten along the centuries and were suddenly rediscovered and reconquered from the wilderness.... Now of course the land price has been going up steadily compared when he bought his first parcel, and I joke that this may have to do also with his own informative map detailing all these top-notch terroirs...
Here above you can see the mound or hill of Patócs, another great terroir in the Tokaj classification, there are still some wooded part but it's been reconquered by vineyards. And above these cleared parcels there are still woods that were long time ago vineyards, so there's still work ahead for those willing to make great wine on these slopes.
I ask if with all this wilderness around he doesn't get too much fruit eated by wild animals or birds, he says mostly birds, yes, but the more plantation there is, the more they have to choose from and the loss will be contained.
There's something I didn't report about because we didn't go there, but László who lives in Mád with his family, has 8 hectares of land near this village where he keeps sheep and goats (beautiful sheep, look like local breed), and part of this large surface is terraced, proving that there was an intense agriculture life long time ago. These terraces are now also overwhelmed by the wild vegetation but in the future he may clear them and plant vines too, one of the way he may use to clear these parcels is open them to his goats which will eat everything they can...
We drove a couple kilometers to the Patócs hill near the small village of Golop near Tállya. Patócs is also a prized terroir of Tokaj, László bought this 0,7-hectare parcel(part of it will be planted next spring) because the soil is sandy and there's always a nice breeze coming from the Tatra mountains, plus there's a good water table underneath, he noticed in winter (it's dry now of course) a small spring coming out of the wall at the end of the parcel. It's mostly Furmint here, 80 %. As we look around we see that this hill is still mostly covered with bushes and woods. This is the parcel where he keeps only 0,4 or 0,5 kg of fruit per vine, pruning accordingly in winter. The rows are very spaced with an unusually wide inter row (maybe 3 meters), László says that in the past there was another row in between but that it had been uprooted for tractor use. The cuvée made from this place is the 2nd wine I tasted, the Tallya Villages cuvée, the one I remember was very mineral, almost stony. László says he likes this terroir, here also the first two years he didn't spray anything and the following year (last year) he sprayed only once (sulfur and orange oil), it's very a healthy terroir because of the wind. This was the 1st vineyard he bought in the Tállya area, these 5 rows.
Walking some more along a dirt road we could have a glimpse in the distance of Bathory, this ancient terroir with documented history going back to a few centuries (the cadastral land was renamed Batorka under the communism rule to erase its aristocratic origin). His own parcel is on the middle-right of the replanted slope, there's one hectare.
If you look on the closeup on the picture on left you can guess several terraces above the large vineyard, these were top quality terroirs that were planted with vines centuries ago, László says that from a Burgundy point of view this would be very strange to see such 1st-class terroirs and terraces that are still neglected and covered with bushes or fallow land. I'm confident someone will bring them back to life and make on them the great wines they deserve....
I think this sums up the challenges and chances of this wine region : Tokaj has top notch terroirs and still so many opportunities for newcomers with a grand plan. Burgundy may seem like an unattainable goal for Hungarians but in Burgundy aspiring vignerons with no heavy financial backing have no chance of acquiring parcels while there are still many opportunities in Tokaj, even if of course land price is going up steadily. That certainly explains why there are so many new artisan vintners in Tokaj and almost none in Villány, the established red-wine region south of the country.
I shot the picture on right while driving [I know, that's not very safe] and leaving Tallya, these are more walled terraces.
Gault & Millau story (Hungarian version) on Kalaka Pince