The view is breathtaking. Majestic. From the top of the Király hegy – the king’s mountain – the panorama view reaches many miles, although I have to admit my eyes focuses on the vineyard parts. A historically important vineyard in the Tokaj region and already classified as a first class site in the 1700’s, Király is today yet a prestigous location thanks to a bunch of quality driven producers.
I’m visiting and walking the vineyard with Hajni Pracser from Erzsébet Pince, a small family boutique winery in Tokaj. Hajni and her family owns one hectare at the Király dűlő which is a part of the commune of Mád. Vineyard or even terroir that translates to by the way, in magyar, dűlő [dyːlø:]. As with many well-known and historical sites of Tokaj, not all parts of the vineyard is a top location. In the quite big south to south-west exposed Király site you want to own land in the middle section or higher up where it’s not too humid and the wind gives a helping hand. Furthermore, in these parts the soil is not too rich and the drainage is good.
Grapes & Soil talk
Around Mád the soil is more about compact clay. That and rhyolites as the volcanic rock base. Rhyolite, an igneous rock which is rich in silica, is formed when magma or lava is cooling down and solidifies. The rhyolite mineral assemblage is often containing quartz which is the case around Mád as well. For the soil interested a visit to the Betsek site close to Király, is a must where quartz is a common feature. Also the Medve site is of interest where the rhyolites have cooled down too quickly and formed a natural glass, obsidian.
Three-quarters of Erzsébet Pince’s part at Király were planted roughly 20 years ago. The remaining quarter was planted in 2011 when Hajni and her family grafted the 0.25 hectares with a more than 100 years old Furmint clone that was collected from the village of Erdőbénye, in the northern parts of Tokaj. Erzsébet’s Király dűlő is a dry wine but since the vineyard is prone to botrytis it can result in some percentage of botrytisized grapes as well in the final blend. The fermentation also seems to stop regularly at around 5 grams of residual sugar.
When it comes to Király, it’s all about Furmint for Erzsébet Pince. For the three-quarters part the Pracser family has chosen to go with a tested clone, the T-85 and the remaining part is grafted from the more than century old Furmint plants which comes unchained and free of clonal number. It’s a risk of course, to plant the old Furmint, but the general view is also here in Tokaj that these older clones with small clusters are what Furmint is all about.
In 1989, after the collapse of communism and 43 years of complete disrespect for what once was the world’s greatest dessert wine, Elizabeth and Miklos Pracser established Erzsébet Pince. By that time they already owned some land. It might come as a surprise but during the communism era in Hungary it was allowed to own a vineyard and produce your own wine. Of course there were restrictions such as the size of the vineyard and that you could only produce wine for the family consumption, a few hundred liters a year. You’ve probably guessed it already, who took the rest.
The Pracsers complemented their vineyard holdings in 1989 and also purchased an almost three centuries old cellar in Tokaj. Once built for the Russian Wine Trade Company, to supply the royalties with Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum, the wine of kings, the king of wines. Today home of the wines of Erzsébet Pince which range from the dry table wines to the Aszús.
From the Király vineyard we head to a not as well-known location in the commune of Tarcal, the Zafír dűlő. At the vineyard which, as Hajni tells me, is of the same size as the world-famous La Tache in Burgundy, the Pracser family owns 1.4 of the total 5.6 hectares. There’s four owners at the Zafír but only two are making wine. The vineyard is located at the top of the hill with the old chapel of Maria Theresa protecting it. If the chapel, which seems to be falling to pieces, is in a lousy condition the opposite can be said about Zafír and the more famous neighboring vineyard cru in the lower parts of the hill, the Mézes-Mály.
Zafír dűlő has a dacite volcanic base. As is the case with the rhyolite in Király, the dacite is an igneous rock with a high level of silica. The dacite in Zafír is greyish looking and the color of dacite is determined by the mineral content which in this case is quartz and plagioclase, a mineral which is a dominating part of the earth’s crust. The soil at Zafír is a mix of loess and the brown forest soil, a common humus in eastern Europe. Without the loess the forest soil would have been too rich and not suitable for vine cultivation resulting in the loss of concentration.
Erzsébet Pince cultivates Furmint, Hárslevelű and Sárga Muskotály at Zafír. The outcome is the total opposite when compared to the full-bodied style of Király. Zafír is finesse and elegance in a more fragile suit although it ages beautifully. The exposure is in a south-west position and due to it’s location at the top of the hill, it’s also exposed to more windy conditions and hence less botrytis sensitive. The vines are now closing in at 15 years of age.
Vineyard sessions completed. We’re back at the premises of the Pracser family and the second Tokaj lesson is about to start. Hajni has prepared two vertical tastings; 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 of Király and the same four vintages of the Zafír dűlő. Yet again I have been reminded of the fact how crucial this is, to visit a wine region, to experience the complexity of the vineyards and its surroundings, to understand the thoughts of the winemakers. Without these visits, the gained knowledge by reading only would remain at a theoretical level and never take you to the next level of apprehension.
Tasting Zafír dűlő 2009-2012
Hajni’s husband, Ronn Wiegand joins us in the tasting which starts with the Zafír. The blend of Furmint and Hárslevelű changes of natural reasons every year but roughly it’s around 60 percent of the Furmint. The clone used is the well-tested T85. The ambition is to use the excellent indigenous yeast of Zafír which Hajni describes as clean, strong and remarkably low in volatile acidity. Some years though, it’s simply not possible, as in 2010 and 2011, and hence selected yeast is used.
Zafir are never destemmed, only gently crushed by using a vertical 4-hectoliters press. Only the first press juice is used. The slow pressing means some skin contact. The wine is fermented in local 225 liters Zempléni oak barrels from Erdőbénye where only a small part is new. Then up to 6 months of aging in it with partial battonage of the fine lees.
2012 Zafír dűlő. 1,800 bottles produced. Still in it’s infancy but quite promising with aromas of flowers, hyacinth especially, yellow fruit and wet rocks. On the palate the wine shares some similarity with the 2009. Although a warm vintage the acidity is evident and balancing the minerality and fruit excellently. Fine, integrated oak. Pure, floral finish. Promising stuff. One of my favorites.
2011 Zafír dűlő. 2,000 bottles produced. The 2011 is my personal preference. Summer flowers, peaches and a hint of lime and grapefruit. Smoky mineral character. Integrated oak. Lovely balance on the palate and quite a dry taste with less than 3 grams of sugar remaining. Stone fruits, peach skin and flowers. A dash of vanilla and wet earth. Long and pure. Best Zafír I’ve had and still it has years ahead.
2010 Zafír dűlő. 600 bottles produced. The worst vintage in Tokaj since 1974. Yet I’m seriously surprised by the end result. It’s not nearby the 2012 or 2011 but neither is it a bad wine. A herbal character, wool and modeling clay on the nose. Evolved taste, lower acidity but also less fruit. A mineral driven wine which should pair well with several dishes. Drink now.
2009 Zafír dűlő. 600 bottles produced. The 2009 is probably peaking now, showing evolved scents of modeling clay, peaches, herbal honey and wool character. Blind I would have been guessing Chenin Blanc here. On the palate it still shows good grip, fruit and an orange like acidity. 12.6% alcohol and just a bit more than 2 grams of sugar in a quite warm year. Shows the finesse of Zafír.
Tasting Király dűlő 2009-2012
Hajni tells me that in 2009 it was the last time they used indigenous yeast for Király as it resulted in an extremely slow fermentation (to compare with around three weeks for the Zafír). Still the wine always stops at a higher residual sugar compared to the Zafír dűlő, between 4 and 7 grams of sugar. Same process as the Zafír in the making but Király sees up to one third new oak and stays around 5 to 7 months on the barrels from Erdőbénye. Less battonage in the warm 2012 vintage.
2012 Király dűlő. 1,400 bottles produced. Wow. What difference to the Zafír! A youthful Furmint nose with aromas of peaches, flowers, wet rocks and lime peel. A dash of oak. Full-bodied on the palate, generous fruit balanced by a mineral driven, smoky acidity. Long and powerful. Around 4 grams of sugar. This I want to follow!
2011 Király dűlő. 748 bottles produced. Again, I’m falling for the 2011 vintage which seem to have been so amiable to the Tokaj region. Elegant nose with wet rocks, modeling clay, unripe pineapples and white peaches. Some oak. Still youthful on the palate but oh so promising. Stone fruits, wet rocks, lemons and peaches. Starting to show finesse. Will most likely age with grace. 7 grams of sugar but who cares. It’s the balance that counts. Find it!
2010 Király dűlő. 968 bottles produced. It’s easy to climb out on a ladder and claim this is among the best dry 2010 wines I’ve tasted from Tokaj. “It’s thanks to him,” Hajni says and points at her father Miklos who plays with her daughter on the terrace. “He quickly understood what work needed to be done in the vineyard in order to produce a good wine in 2010.” A mineral driven nose with smoke, modeling clay and herbal scents. A hint of honey and peaches. It’s on the palate it surprises the most by not being bland or falling apart. Good structure and acidity keeps the Király together and it’s actually quite tasty – even if not at the same level as the others. Still a proof that wine is made in the vineyards and not in the cellar.
2009 Király dűlő. 1,200 bottles produced. Lots of things going on here. Rich, yellow fruit and integrated oak. Wool and honey. Smoke and wet rocks. Full-bodied taste, excellent acidity and plenty of fruit left. This shows that Király ages gracefully in fine years as 2009. Long, concentrated and yet elegant finale. Will keep another year or two for sure without loosing its charm.
Yet again Tokaj and one of its fine producers demonstrates the complexity and diversity of the single vineyards in the region. With more than 400 “dűlő”, all having unique prerequisites, it’s truly the Burgundy of Eastern Europe. The number of high quality producers with their own personal take on Tokaj, clearly shows this might be the most interesting white wine region to follow in Europe at the moment – and likely for years to come.
To find the wines of Erzsébet Pince, consult their website or check the wine-searcher box in the top right corner of the page.