Tokaj’s New Golden Age
How a quiet revolution in Mád will change the way think about Tokaji.
To visit Tokaj is to pull back the curtain on an extraordinary place, an ancient place that, at first glance, appears frozen in time even as the region embraces change. Storybook houses cluster together, defining this village from that; only the town church spire rises above a jumbled roofline, glinting pale gold in the early morning light. The warm hue of the terracotta roof tiles echoes the Venetian red volcanic soils that are common in many of Tokaj’s Grand Crus. These, I explore with my guide, István Szepsy Jr.
István is an 18th-generation winemaker. He speaks carefully and thoughtfully, like his father. He’s armed with technology, while steeped in old knowledge—the mutual evolution of generations of winegrowers and autochthonous grapes over centuries. For me, this place is a reference point, a means of understanding the purest expression of terroir. István takes us through the back roads, which in the village of Mád begin abruptly—there are scarcely more than 2500 inhabitants according to the most recent census.
Our first stop is a local quarry; it’s en route to a new planting of Furmint tucked farther up in the densely forested foothills. We stop to explore a deep cutaway in the hillside; the exposed subsoil layers are orangey red and honeyed cream. István shows us how burrowing roots can penetrate deeply, in some cases 20 meters, through the jumbled layers. He breaks loose a chunk of pure kaolin clay; it crumbles in my hand.
Earlier that morning, I’d spent time with István’s father, István Szepsy Sr., introduced to me as the “the Aszú king.” He’s made it his life’s work to understand the complex soils of the Tokaj-Hegyalia. “I wanted to understand what was here and why,” declares Mr. Szepsy. He’s more animated than his son, at least, while discussing the local geology. A fleeting smile betrays his enthusiasm as he points to a weathered map dated 1865. “The whole region was filled with water, trapped by the Carpathian Mountain range; after 20 million years the water finally cut through the mountains. At the line of Bodrog River a tectonic crack emerged, and two plates were in friction; one was sinking, and one was rising.” Volcanic eruptions over millennia and hydrothermal activity, some of which took place while Hungary was still submerged underwater, created cycles of heating and cooling that are responsible, in part, for the permeability of these soils. The Zemplén mountain chain, which forms the backbone of the region contain, the remnant cones of some 411 formerly active volcanoes; in Mád alone there are 29 peaks.