Royal Tokaji
Royal Tokaji
Vineyard Reports
Royal Tokaji - the first golden decade
08 January 2018
Peter Richards MW relished the earliest and latest releases of a producer that led the post-1990 revival of the great and historic Hungarian wine.

Royal Tokaji wines Royal Tokaji - the first golden decade

Zoltán Kovács, Royal Tokaji’s general manager

The moment critique in this historic tasting came late on, just before the final flight of new-release 2013’s were poured. Zoltán Kovács, Royal Tokaji’s general manager in Mád, insisted we assembled tasters rinse our glasses assiduously, something we hadn’t done before previous flights. It had the feel of a symbolic act. “These new wines are very different,” he explained, simply. “I don’t want to have the reminiscence of the previous wines in the glass.”

Reminiscence, memory, history, tragedy, bounty — such are just some of the key themes in what is the dense, intricate, poignant narrative of Tokaj. It’s quite some story — one in which frequent conflict, invaders, and strife mingle with royal patronage, a historic vineyard classification, and dubious medicinal potency. But this is not the place to rehash this most majestic of wine tales. The salient point here is that Tokaj’s history moves on: Blink and you miss it. Or rather, in wine terms: Be sure to rinse the glass so you can savor the subtleties.

Royal Tokaji wines Royal Tokaji - the first golden decade

A golden glass of the first growth Nyulászó

The title for this tasting was Royal Tokaji First Decade. As those who are familiar with the region will know, Royal Tokaji was formed in 1990 in a pioneering collective attempt to revive the region’s wine fortunes after communist rule had, in the words of legendary local grower István Szepsy, “been worse than phylloxera, the Turks and Mongols: It destroyed the concept of great wine in Tokaj, so much so I no longer know how many beautiful faces Tokaji has.” Szepsy — who had managed to preserve some of the pre-communist knowledge and traditions by making a small amount of wine under the communists — was involved with the establishment of Royal Tokaji, as were foreign investors including Peter Vinding-Diers from Denmark and British writer Hugh Johnson. The latter was present at this tasting, lending an effortless authority and personal touch to proceedings.

The rationale for the tasting was partly to explore this history in liquid form and also to look to the future, in the guise of the newly released 2013s. It made for a fascinating insight not just into Royal Tokaji but also the different vineyards, vintages, and the region’s evolution as a whole. There is a commercial angle, too: Royal Tokaji is releasing 1,746 bottles of library wines from its first decade into major markets. Kovács and winemaker Fruzsina Osvath tasted every single aszú wine from 1990 to 1999 (more than 2,000 of them). Some 15 percent of wines were eliminated — for taint, aromatic spoilage, seepage, and so on. The rest were lightly filtered, rebottled, and recorked.

Given the damage wrought by communist control, Tokaj was never going to bounce back with magical wines in 1990. But they are valued as historic pieces in a broader narrative: miraculous survivors in their own right, the foundations on which great things are being built. As Johnson exclaimed, “These wines were selected not for their outstanding quality but because they exist!” Royal Tokaji managing director Charlie Mount carried on the theme. “Tokaj didn’t emerge glistening in the post-communist dawn. It’s taken a huge amount of work getting where we are today. Vineyards existed, but decades of state control meant the knowledge required to manage them and make great aszú wines had been lost. This tasting, this story, is our journey bringing Royal Tokaji back to the top table of fine wine.”

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Peter Richards MW, Review, THE WORLD OF FINE WINE, ISSUE 58, 2017