When we talk about Tokaj late harvest wine or even szamorodni, we always have to mention the name of a person immediately. The man who did the most for not only these types of wine, but for aszú, dry wines, terroir approach and virtually for the whole change of system at the wine region. Unquestionably, this man is, István Szepsy who began to open up the universe of sweet wines below aszú both in his Mád estate and surrounded by the massive walls of Királyudvar. The first step was the cuvée. The more natural szamorodni came to the fore only after 2003. And what is the future like for the diverse genre of late harvest? In the following interview, we asked the highly respected István Szepsy about this, too.
What was the concept behind the birth of the Királyudvar and Szepsy cuvées in the late 90s?
When, in 1999, we started using the different varieties combined for late harvest likewise in the case of aszú, we already saw that producing free-style aszú and szamorodni is not possible in that winegrowing milieu. We could not give those wines any other name, only cuvée. At the time, I was producing only aszú (at Királyudvar, too), but it was already clear that something else is also necessary to complete 6 puttonyos of the highest possible concentration which wine was clearly intended to restore the prestige of the wine region. I tried to make a more accessible, a more consumable wine which was not aimed at collectors. That could have been szamorodni, but it was not permitted to be put on the market. The idea of prime wine did not attract much attention at the time. Although the concept of szamorodni gained popularity, many contemporary estates suffered from the fact that they were not allowed to put their szamorodni on the market. I did not want to run into this failure. Thus, by 1999, at the two companies I had enough grapes with high sugar content at the end of the harvest, but not fully botrytised. The thought of blended wines emerged then. From Danczka vineyard I had the base wine of very high sugar content processed mainly whole cluster. From Muskotály I had sweet wine made from shrivelled grapes, and from Hárslevelű partially shrivelled, partially botrytis-affected berries. Furmint was great in itself, concentrated like a 6 puttonyos soaked in must. I was criticised by wine writers for putting it in a blend, but the main idea was to find a composition that would be loved more than the parts of it. A wine that is accessible, easily consumable, tastes less oaky, with a little Muskotály, a little waxy from shrivelled Hárslevelű notes, completed with the massive botrytised character, acidity and minerals of Furmint.
How did the consumers and the profession receive this wine?
The advantageous blending of the vintage of 1999 was a huge success in 2000. We presented it at the end of the year among the aszús of the region in the Institute of Masters of Wine. Five producers' 3-3 aszú wines were presented (2 aszús and the cuvée by us). During almost the whole presentation they were talking about this wine, it was presented before the aszús. Then many of the colleagues attacked me. They were afraid of the value of this non-traditional sweet wine. They thought it might overshadow some of the aszú wines. Eventually, in spite of the conflict, many of them realized that this is a real value and more and more cuvées appeared elsewhere, too. The goal was a beneficial combination of the varieties more and more consciously after the beginning.
What was the experience like abroad?
Well sold. I felt that the content was tuned a bit high. It was calibrated as an alternative to aszú (szamorodni had a much smaller concentration then). The price was relatively high, so it did not succeed as good in restaurant as we had expected. They worked much with the wine there, too, but could not move with it bravely enough, probably because of the price. Later my szamorodni was put on the market at a lower level of price, and for a couple of years these two categories run side by side. However, when I managed to get my new style szamorodni approved, it gradually replaced cuvée.
The new Tokaj Product Specification wishes to strengthen Aszú as the highest category at the wine regional level. Below this segment a new scope opens up within the category of sweet wines. What sort of movement do you expect along these changes?
We clearly regard the category of szamorodni as important. We sell more of it and we aim at restaurants with it. - We have also modified the szamorodni harvest technique: we perform a reverse selection, i.e. we select the juicy berries and not the dried-up aszú berries that later soak in non-fermenting must. By means of szamorodni we could compete with all the sweet wines of the world: Sauternes, Auslese, Beerenauslese wines, ice wines, sweet wines made of dried or frozen grapes, and Alsace and Loire wines. And aszú surely ought to be placed in an even higher position than currently.
Szamorodni, prime wine, late harvest, cuvée ... Would there be any term that could adequately cover this wide variety of designations and help to clarify the mixed picture?
We have already made up our mind on this issue. Szamorodni has the traditions. However, I think late harvest cannot be completely given up. In a more concentrated form, it would correspond to the stopped (partially fermented), tank fermented, fresher, Auslese-style wines (in Germany there have been such wines, since they are able to work under sterile, chilled conditions, by reductive process). There are wines that do not give an easily drinkable, sweet enough character when fermented. So, I think, we should not give up this category, we should insist upon late harvest in the wine region. For the time being, at Szepsy Winery we cannot afford producing it, because I do not want to increase the complexity of the three-column product assortment (dry wines, szamorodni, aszú - excluding cuvée, Hárslevelű and essence). However, at the end of the harvest we could have such grapes that would be ideal for late harvest with less botrytis-affected berries.
The main problem with prime wine is the fact that it is permitted in every wine region. On the other hand, in the 16th century, when aszú appeared, it became prime wine and then got the designation of its own. When we look up the old books and records we will find that there was a period of transition when both terms were used for wines made from late harvest, shrivelled, botrytised grapes. Later aszú put prime wine into the shade, though both of them were made from the same grapes but with different levels of selecting and by different producing methods. So, due to the emergence of aszú, the term of prime wine became old-fashioned and later disappeared. Anyway, the point is that they always distinguished high quality wine, which was produced for export and ordinary wine, which was intended for local consumption. Prime wine always denoted the wine that was designed and produced for selling. Perhaps, we should discuss the issue again, and prime wine could have been reintroduced to the market, but it would require a lot more work and absolute agreement. For example, if Crown Estates should happen to go this way, we could accept a single label for the category, but there should be only one.
Did szamorodni appear only later?
When the market began to decline in the 18th century, during the reign of Maria Theresa. As the Polish market was weakening, wine merchants began to look for a wine which was a bit cheaper, on worst not as sweet as aszú. That was the birth of szamorodni of Polish origin.
Regarding its style, is szamorodni different or even more mature than prime wine?
No at all. They are the same. We mature wines so that they undergo the subsequent changes in the barrels, not on the market. In this respect late harvest is another category. It should not be mature. The virtue of this wine is that it is of lower alcohol content, so it is more consumable. It does not interfere with the picture. All we need to do is standardize the term. For that matter, when we started with late harvest, we wrote on the label: special quality wine made from shrivelled grapes (then only szamorodni and aszú were wine specialities). It was the same, yet there was a distinction. I do not think that this would be an obstacle. The wines ought to be good and standardised, ought not to be too weak and too low-priced so that estates could also grow, develop and provide job. Making aszú and szamorodni is the world's most expensive production process. In many wine regions, they have already given up total naturalness, e.g. in Sauternes, which is why the market is to blame. At that price they were also unable to sell their wine, taking into consideration to the risk factors of traditional production as well (volatile acidity, concentration, etc.). In Tokaj, however, natural sweet wine can be made be! Although there are vintages when there is a strong mushroom fragrance and the volatile acidity is high, we still have to hold on to the tradition.