I make no attempt to conceal the fact that my writing tend to be emotional. That’s my trademark and of course it is related to what effect wine has on me. Or perhaps I should rather write the persons behind a wine. This became more clear to me than ever, when touring Tokaj earlier this year. The accumulated knowledge represented by István Szepsy and yet what drives him is curiosity. The friendliness shown by István Balassa, László Szilágyi and Zoltán Demeter, measured in the time they respectively reserved for us. Humbleness. Never any arrogance or taking fame for granted. But perhaps most of all, I learned how much work it takes, to actualize one’s dream.
The life of a wine producer is probably as far from wine romanticism as you can get. Yet the hard work they put in to it, realizing their visions, is what awakens emotions in me. In the case of Demeter Zoltán I finally realize how much work he has put in to his dream over the years, how much he has sacrificed, that gorgeous Saturday morning when I, Andras and Zoltán visits him.
Zoltán Demeter is a one man show basically. You might not give it so much thought when reading the sentence here so let me explain. We arrive around ten in the morning to find Zoltán occupied at the bottling line. The 2011 Estate wine is ready now and the man prefers to do everything himself, to keep as much control over the wines. Still, he manages to be our guide as well for the coming hours although he keeps on running in and out to the bottling line.
I know, you think he should let go a bit, hire someone to help out. Yes and no. This is one of the tough parts of putting up your own wine production as Zoltán is. The costs. At the same time, he do work with a vision which is to allow every site he cultivates, to speak through the wine. There is always a risk losing that vision, if not fully shared or understood, when more people are involved. Zoltán knows that and doesn’t compromise with his vision although he of course doesn’t harvest himself or can keep up on his own at all stages.
“I’m going to name the wine Eszter,” Zoltán says.
We’re having his 2008 Főbor in the glass, or as it is known of today, Szamorodni. Literally translated to “the way it was grown” the term Főbor was out-conquered due to the huge Polish market which called it Szamorodni. Zoltán Demeter tells us about his wish to resurrect the old term but has only met half-hearted cheerings so far. I guess belonging to the avant-garde, even though Főbor is a historically important epithet, can be quite desolating work sometimes.
A Szamorodni can be both dry or sweet, with or without Botrytis and this explains the name, the way it was grown. Normally though it shows plenty of the noble rot and so is the case of the 2008 Főbor, which will be named Eszter in the more recent vintages. Only 1,966 bottles produced of this Furmint and Harslevelu blend which carries its 198 grams of residual sugar with finesse. The yellow fruit, the slightly greenish note and the honey scents are expressive but contrasted by a touch of volatile acidity on the nose. What fascinates even more is the wet rocks feel on the palate, the fine balance and refreshing acidity. So much sweetness and yet Zoltán’s work on this wine make me write refreshing.
Zoltan’s firstborn is just half a year old when we’re visiting. Eszter. She already has a wine named after her. Few has worked so hard in the modern Tokaj to show the real class and potential of the region’s wines as Mister Demeter, but all the work has given him, as he tells me: “little time to build a family.” I notices how important this is to him, and that this hard working man, pretty much is like me when it comes to wine. Emotions. Besides, having named my second daughter Esther, born in 2009, I pretty much has decided upon the wine she will be able to open on her 20th birthday.
Zoltán talks about the single vineyards he bottles. One would perhaps think his surname gives him little choice but to turn biodynamic, but he’s not. Demeter Zoltan is relaxingly free from the need of being linked to a philosophy or being certified organic. A great winemaker don’t need to market the fact that no pesticides or fertilizers are used. If your vision is to produce a wine that follows and expresses the terroir, you shouldn’t have to. And exactly the same as László Szilágyi at Gizella Pince told me, is repeated by Zoltán; “How am I to be organic when the vineyards surrounding isn’t?” (Both are restrictive though,in the use of chemicals, if used at all.)
Zoltán leaves us for a few minutes. The bottling line needs his attention. Ten minutes later he’s back with a sample of the 2011 Estate Furmint. Having a wine that has, basically, spent one hour in bottle, must be a new personal record for me. As an entry wine one can only be impressed. The green apple scents mixed with white peaches, wet rocks and a slight floral feel is quite delicious. Admirable concentration, lovely purity and a mineral driven, slightly sweet ending. Fall in love with this one and you can’t imagine what will happen when you have a single vineyard wine like Lapis, Szerelmi or Veres in your glass.
The single parcel wines are all great expressions of their respective conditions and bottled proof of the huge potential the region possesses. Zoltan’s wines are extremely limited in production and hard to find, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying. If his wines will keep the high level – and even take the next step – it is just a matter of time before we start talking about dry Tokaj wines as potential world class! Actually I wonder if not his 2008 Lapis Furmint are closing in on that epithet already. With only 1,023 bottles produced I can’t express my gratitude enough, to be served the wine. Ripe yellow fruit. Wool and lime peel. Impeccable oak treatment. Then the wet rocks and the faintest tropical feel. On the palate the show continues with precision and delineation. The green apple acidity is just to die for and even if the wine is quite concentrated it is all about mineral oriented elegance. This is world class stuff.
The Lapis parcel are to be located at around 180-190 meters above the sea level. The vines are around 30 years old. Zoltán barrel ferments the wine and then the aging continues in barrique. In 2009 he produced 2,173 bottles from the parcel, a class act as well the 2009, although not reaching the same level as the previous vintage. Again, impeccable use of oak. The 2009 Lapis Furmint shows the typical wool character of the grape – at least when cultivated in Tokaj-Hegyalja – with scents of unripe pineapple, green apples and quince as well. Almost creamy structure on the palate, but dry and with that steely minerality which is somewhat of a trademark in Zoltan’s wines. So fascinating together with the oak and the exciting Furmint notes. Think great Burgundy meets ditto Chenin blanc on old volcanic soil kind of.
In my opinion, there’s no competition. The best dry Muscat à Petit Grains in the world are to be found in Tokaj. Don’t believe me? Try the 2011 Őszhegy Sárga Muskotály from Zoltán. The grape, Sárga Muskotály, shows such finesse here, with smoky, wet rocks minerals, discrete floral notes, litchies and spices. With a dash of bitterness in the taste and a purity so unbelievably seductive, I’m completely blown away. Long lingering mineral driven finish. Wow! 693 bottles only though.
Zoltán Demeter allows the terroir to speak. So, in contrast to the 2009 Lapis, his 2009 Veres sees only tank fermentation. And yes, the end result is pretty different, yet spectacular. Think wool, sour green apples, fresh herbs, wet rocks, unripe pineapples. Think razor sharp acidity, apple peel and restrained fruit. 1,626 bottles of a wine that won’t leave you unaffected.
When it comes to Tokaj most conumers associates it with Furmint. So did I until I visited the region and had some quite serious Hárslevelü wines. The 2009 Szerelmi for example. Yes, the character is different from Furmint, generally not the same overall class, but that doesn’t mean you should look at Hárslevelü as a grape for blending; it manages perfectly to stand on its own feet. Besides, when the masters take on Hárslevelü, the results can be spectacular. The 2009 shows a quite yellow color with scents of peaches, quince and wet rocks. If the nose feels powerful, the palate actually adds nuances such as refreshing acidity, gentle tropical notes and some toasted oak. For a nano-second there’s this salty ocean feel as well, before the more smoky wet rocks enter the scene. Long spicy finale with a dash of sweetness. 2,133 bottles produced from a site with very old vines, some dating more than 60 years back.
While we’re sitting there discussing Zoltan’s wines, he brings the last one – I suspect – a 2007 Aszú 6 Puttonyos. Aszú by the way, originally relates to dried grapes but is used today to inform the consumer that the wine is produced by using botrytisized grapes. The number of puttonyos simply tells the sugar level and sugar-free extract in the end product. The berries are gently pressed under their own weight and after the crushing, macerating with the juice from ripe non-botrytized grapes, before being placed in barrels for fermentation and at least 36 months of aging in the casks. 2007; great year. Warm year. When a wine ends up with 10 percent alcohol and 224 grams of residual sugar, it brings you perspectives. 781 bottles only, the 50 centiliters version, of this concentrated, lively and absolutely astounding elixir. Dried apricots, autumn honey, lots of acidity and fruit, Rarely do I think wet rocks on such sweet wines, but somehow – again – Zoltán manages to keep it exciting and not only sweet. Incredibly long and the work of a master.
The atmosphere is relaxed. Zoltán switches between talking Hungarian with my friends and English with me. Having spent time in the US, both working at vineyards and studying, he has excellent English skills even though it takes a while for him to feel comfortable speaking another language. Zoltán wants us to taste two more wines before we check out the old cellar of his, a cellar where the walls and ceiling are covered with the noble-mould so typical for the caves of Tokaj. It is, to say the least, two rare bottles he brings to the table – a sparkling Furmint and a red wine from Eger. First of all, you’re not allowed to produce red wines in Tokaj, so this one Zoltán produces for his own consumption mainly, on grapes from the Eger region. A powerful wine with dark red berries and sagebrush. Kind of a cold climate Amarone feel on the nose. The taste is concentrated and with some sweetness to it. High alcohol. Actually not my style at all, but interesting. “To warm myself during the winter, he says.”
The sparkling wine, a 2009 Zero Dosage Furmint, is more interesting wine. Furmint demonstrates that it can be used for sparkling wines as well and that no dosage might be the trick in warm years as 2009, in order not to end up with too much concentration and ripe fruit in the wines. If it has a future time will tell but with new legislation coming, making it easier for wineries to produce a sparkling wine, we should expect to see more of this.
Zoltán Demeter Pincészet might be a new winery but the man knows what he is doing and are already performing at a level few will ever reach. He is the kind of wine personality I admire the most out there, the one I want to support, the one I hope everyone in to wine will discover. The one that brings emotions to wine.
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