Royal Tokaji
Royal Tokaji
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ROYAL TOKAJI
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On a wing and a prayer
 
09 January 2018
 
 
Hugh Johnson, one of the founders of Royal Tokaji, writes about the early years of Royal Tokaji and their First Decade Wine Tasting.

Royal Tokaji wines Hugh Johnson, one of the founders of Royal Tokaji, writes about the early years of Royal Tokaji and their First Decade Wine Tasting

Sometimes it’s an individual that stands out in the memory; sometimes a group of wines flying in formation. I can’t pretend emotion was not involved when the new director of Royal Tokaji, Zoltán Kovács, produced the surviving wines of the first decade of the company I helped to found in 1990. My own judgment should probably be discounted.

When you are making wine in unknown territory, and on a wing and a prayer, your expectations should probably be modest. That was our situation in Hungary in the aftermath of the 1989 revolution. Communism left all sorts of legacies, none of them desirable. We had almost no resources beyond grapes from a number of farmers who put (some of) their trust in us to make and market better wine than was possible under the old regime. Without the generous advice of István Szepsy - then a former state production manager, now the uncrowned king of Tokaj - we might not have survived. How would the few bottles left of our first ten vintages stand up to scrutiny?

I still have a handful in my cellar; there are a few hundred in Mád. It is a characteristic of Tokaji Aszú to turn dark brown, in some cases almost black, after a number of years in bottle. Zoltán opened every bottle, looking for faults. He found remarkably few. He discovered, moreover, that a light membrane filtration removed the excess color, a sediment so fine that, if it didn’t stick to the glass, remained in suspension in the wine. Filtered, the wines were a lovely range of gleaming topaz and amber shades, their flavors pure and incredibly fresh.

Royal Tokaji wines Hugh Johnson, one of the founders of Royal Tokaji, writes about the early years of Royal Tokaji and their First Decade Wine Tasting

The 1990 from the Betsek dulo (in the Côte d’Or you would say climat) was made by one of our first farmersubscribers. Today, this old Tokay style is conventionally considered too oxidized. Myself, I would rather not apply modern standards to old wines. In a way most memorable to me were the few surviving bottles of the blend made by Peter Vinding-Diers, our co-founder, as a template for our house style, labeled then and since as Blue Label (or, in the USA, Red Label). Peter seemed to understand what our vines, taken together, could consistently produce, and he nailed a flavor that expresses the region, grapes, climate, soils, and history - and still does decades later.

Nothing about wine moves me more than its ability to survive and express place and time, even through ordeals that seem ready to destroy it. I have a vivid mental picture of the glorious vintage of 1993. The sun blazed down on prodigious piles of raisin-like aszú berries heaped up in a grower’s yard. There was honey in the air. Clouds of botrytis spores floated up to catch the rays of the sun, and masses of insects buzzed excitedly around. I had the feeling then, and still do, that wine is a stage in a natural and inevitable process. We set it in motion when we plant a vine. The less we do to intervene with the behavior of roots and leaves, soil, sun, and rain, the better.

THE WORLD OF FINE WINE, ISSUE 58, 2017
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