Wine leg­ends

Szepsy, Tokaji Aszú 6 Put­tonyos, Hun­gary 1999

Decanter - - NEWS -

a le­gend be­cause…

In 1989, István Szepsy be­came the winemaker for Royal Tokaji, one of the first for­eign­in­vestor com­pa­nies to pro­duce Tokaji af­ter Hun­gary threw off Com­mu­nist rule. The wines were highly ac­claimed, but in 1992 Szepsy left to fo­cus on his own la­bel. Even dur­ing the Soviet era, he had been able to make small quan­ti­ties of Tokaji, but he was keen to ex­pand. By 1997 he had about 9ha in some of the re­gion’s best sites. 1999 was an ex­cel­lent year, and those who tasted it were daz­zled.

Look­ing back

Af­ter pri­vati­sa­tion of the vine­yards in Tokaj, it was hard for the early in­vestors to find qual­i­fied wine­mak­ers. Many of the re­gion’s tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion meth­ods were no longer un­der­stood, let alone prac­tised. Szepsy ex­plains: ‘We all knew that new meth­ods had to be found, but there was no fund of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence from the past. We were start­ing from scratch.’ One of his 17th­cen­tury an­ces­tors had been cred­ited with ‘dis­cov­er­ing’ how Tokaji Aszú should be made and Szepsy re­alised that mass-pro­duced wines, sweet­ened with con­cen­trated must, were false to the au­then­tic style of Aszú. Royal Tokaji’s Hugh Johnson and Peter Vind­ing-Diers en­cour­aged Szepsy to re­cover those meth­ods and try to re­store the re­gion’s lost rep­u­ta­tion. Ev­ery­thing had to be re­vised, from iden­ti­fy­ing top vine­yards, to farm­ing to vini­fi­ca­tion and age­ing.

The vin­tage

A fine grow­ing sea­son led to very ripe grapes, and har­vest took place dur­ing the sec­ond half of Oc­to­ber. Botry­tis came in stages, so con­sci­en­tious grow­ers had to pick se­lec­tively. The wines showed not only ex­em­plary rich­ness, but pu­rity of fruit and bal­ance. Szepsy was ini­tially cau­tious about the qual­ity of the vin­tage, but his own wines proved him wrong.

The ter­roir

Most of Szepsy’s vine­yards are close to Mád, with parcels in out­stand­ing sites such as Nyúlászó, Király, Szent Tamás and Bet­sek. How­ever, in 1993 Szepsy stopped pro­duc­ing sin­gle-vine­yard wines, and blended the aszú berries. When plant­ing or re­plant­ing, he favoured mas­sal se­lec­tions of old-vine Fur­mint to en­sure small bunches. In 1992 he be­gan green-har­vest­ing. No fer­tilis­ers are used and he prunes short to man­age yields, which, for aszú wines, are around 4hl/ha. The grapes are picked berry by berry. Each vine yields roughly half a glass of aszú wine.

The wine

To make aszú wines, a paste of botry­tised berries is added to a dry base wine for a sec­ond fer­men­ta­tion. Szepsy uses late-picked (but not botry­tised) berries to pro­duce his base wine, as he wants a high level of ripeness. The grapes are crushed, given brief skin con­tact, then fer­mented with nat­u­ral yeasts in Hun­gar­ian oak bar­rels, 25% new. The wine is aged for 28-34 months in bar­rel. The 1999 was re­leased with 228g/l of resid­ual su­gar.

The re­ac­tion

In 2003 Stephen Tanzer wrote: ‘Apri­cot, or­ange rind and smoky botry­tis aro­mas and flavours dom­i­nate, but with fas­ci­nat­ing flo­ral, spicy and car­nal notes... the most in­tense acid­ity, rav­ish­ing com­plex­ity, and ul­ti­mately the most re­fine­ment and del­i­cacy.’ Jan­cis Robin­son MW tasted the wine in 2010. ‘Deep red­dish tawny. It’s los­ing the pro­tec­tive re­duc­tive el­e­ments and looks a bit old. Still tastes very fresh with mas­sive acid­ity. Not mas­sively sweet. Dried, candied apri­cots! Tingly.’ In 2018 Stephen Brook found the wine still ra­di­ant: ‘The nose is in­tense, with com­plex aro­mas of crème brûlée and mar­malade. The at­tack is lean thanks to its high acid­ity, but it has a silky tex­ture. Pun­gent and spicy flavours of or­anges and bar­ley su­gar. It’s sur­pris­ingly fresh and cit­ric with­out los­ing its caramel char­ac­ter. Amaz­ingly per­sis­tent.’

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