Feature Coverage

Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries of the Year

“When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, wine-writer Hugh Johnson fulfilled a dream he’d long had: to help restore Tokaj’s wine industry to its former glory. He assembled a team of investors and launched Royal Tokaji Wine Company in 1990, the first foreign-owned wine company in the region.

“They set out to revive the vineyards, which, under Communism, had been farmed for quantity more than quality. Using the classification maps created in the 1700s as a guide, the team bought a parcel of the Mezes Maly vineyard, a loess slope southeast of Mad that was classified as a great first growth. Then they turned their attention to the cluster of highly rated vineyards around Mad, acquiring pieces of Betsek, Nyulaszo, Szt. Tamas and Birsalmas. Focused on the tradition of aszu wines — produced by macerating late-harvested, raisined berries in a dry base wine and fermenting the resulting juice in old Hungarian oak barrels — the company began bottling each vineyard separately. Taken together, the wines offer a liquid map of Tokaj’s varied soils — Nyulaszo’s red volcanic versus Betsek’s black, the clay of Szt. Tamas and the loess of Mezes Maly.

“As aszu wines account for only a small percentage of the region’s production, winemaker Karoly Ats began to experiment with other styles. Mad Cuvee — called Ats Cuvee in Hungary — is one of his most successful inventions, a late-harvest wine. The 2010 is weightlessly delicious, the orange marmalade and sweet peach flavors kept edgy and buoyant by furmint’s fiery acidity.

“Ats also pioneered dry furmint, basing the wines on Royal Tokaji’s first-growth vineyards in Mad and Tarcal. The 2011 and 2012 bottlings are benchmarks for the style, quiet powerhouses of rich quincelike fruit charged with volcanic minerality.

“After the 2012 vintage, Ats’s former intern, Fruzsina Ostvath, stepped up to take charge of winemaking, working with consultant Stephanie Berecz, who runs Kikelet with her Hungarian husband Zsolt Berecz. As for Ats, he’s focused on his own winery — a move the team at Royal Tokaji celebrates, as it marks the beginning of a new chapter in Tokaj, the place, in which the locals once again take charge of their vineyards.”

Tara Q. Thomas, Winter 2014
Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries of the Year