Szepsy, Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos, Hungary 1999
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’