Hungarian traditional method sparkling wine overview
Kárásztelek, Kreinbacher, Légli, Sauska Tokaj, Tokaj Nobilis
When we taste traditional method sparkling wines blind, at the end of the tasting it turns out that the most favoured ones are always born in pristinely pure, well-organised and designed, well-equipped cellars. Whether they are small or large, it’s always made in the professional ones. Somehow coincidence doesn’t fit into making traditional method sparkling wines. This is supported by the five wineries making traditional method sparkling wines, who we visited in the middle of the harvest.
We’re standing on Padihegy. In front of us is Istenhegy, with the Medve in the distance. Volcanic cones with three different soils produce the raw material for the Sauska traditional method sparkling wines. Sauska Tokaj winemaker Gábor Rakaczki tells us what makes a Tokaj traditional method sparkling wine Tokaj. What the soil, the mesoclimate and the place of growth add to the local varieties of Furmint and Hárslevelű, and to the Burgundy/Champagne grapes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is because these four varieties are needed so that traditional method sparkling wines can be created at the Sauskas. And also, patience and knowledge.
“The basis of our traditional method sparkling wine is Furmint – for us, this has been the DNA of Tokaj traditional method sparkling wines from the beginning. It has the possibility to make very good and exceptional wine. We are searching for looser bunches, variations with smaller berries and good acid-producing clones that give security, even in this changing world. We selected the raw material in several batches, for 15 days. Last year, we did it in mid-August, yet this year almost a month later – it’s becoming increasingly difficult for winemakers, grape growers and for the grapes in particular to follow this changing climate. And why is Furmint the basis? Because it’s a neutral variety that conveys the place of growth exceptionally well. Also, because based on the experiences so far, it can be aged very well – just taste our 2015 Vintage Furmint from the Medve. And because it can be counted on –
which, in the case of traditional method sparkling wine that is a pre-planned wine, is extremely important.”
“As I’ve said, besides being a neutral variety, Furmint also reacts to the soil incredibly well. It’s already obvious that it likes our volcanos, but on clay, calcareous soils its genius is brought out as a traditional method sparkling wine. We live among extinct volcanos: one cone is quartz, the next is pure tuff, further away stone white rhyolite – incredible diversity by itself. The icing on the cake – at least from the perspective of traditional method sparkling wine – is that in the clay soil, limestone also appears beside the crumbled volcanic rocks. We’ve been researching the soils for 10 years, and we can see the direction more and more. The assistance of our Burgundy and Champagne consultants helps us in channelling the strong character that is our Tokaj into a consistent style. Everything is so different there, they enjoy the challenge immensely.
On the edge of Kárásztelek, in Sălaj county, on the mica, quartz hills of the ‘crystal island’ of today’s Transylvania, people say that the Gepids were already cultivating grapes, as well as the Visigoths, the Romans and even the Hungarians. The settlement was once surrounded by 300 hectares of vineyards, the heart of which was the amphitheatre around today’s Kárásztelek cellar. Here, we asked winemaker Csaba Bereczki about bottle-fermented sparkling wines.
In one block
“Our vines can be found in one block around the winery. The climate is cool here but the location is south-facing, which is a perfect combination for traditional method sparkling wines. Warm daytime, cool night. It’s a natural amphitheatre with a forest on the top, at 350 metres above sea level. If it’s -4ºC in the village, which is a kilometre away, it’s +3ºC here.”
A blessing and a curse
“The real virtues of the estate, which stands in the middle of the grapes planted in one single vineyard, comes out while making traditional method sparkling wines. A real blessing is that we can deliver the bunches selected for traditional method sparkling wines to the press in small cases without causing them any damage. It takes 10 minutes on foot to get the intact bunches into the cellar, even from the most distant parts. The berries don’t break, the skins don’t get torn, there is no damage, which is incredibly important when whole-bunch pressing. There’s no oxidation, the must is just the way we wish to have it – fresh and pure.
Possibly, the only disadvantage of the single vineyard is that it doesn’t have such complexity as blending the base wines from several vineyards. We protect against this in a way that we harvest and vinify the clones separately and we make the blend from them. In that way, we can increase the layers of the base wine – with different harvest dates for each clone. The single vineyard is a curse when hail strikes, as in 2016… That year, we didn’t make any traditional method sparkling wines because it took all of it.”
Man and machine
“For me, the basis behind a nice traditional method sparkling wine is the harmony between man and technology. It’s a lot more important than with still wines. It’s man who understands when and how which particular bunch should be harvested, how to put the fruit into cases, and up to which point the cases can be filled up. It’s the machine for putting the healthy and intact bunches into the press without any damage, without pumps and breakage. It’s the gentle pneumatic press that makes it possible to divide the must fractions – only the free-run juice can be put into the traditional method sparkling wine, never the press juice.
The fresh must goes into the 14ºC temperature tank purely and without oxidation, whereby fermentation starts with Champagne yeast. Then, it’s the turn of man again: perfect hygiene, an immaculately clean cellar and equipment, and sterile surroundings are the primary aim, then the assembling of the blend through tastings. And to make the picture complete: traditional method sparkling wine requires time, thus the owner is an important human factor, who allows the traditional method sparkling wines to remain long enough in the bottle on fine lees before disgorging.”
If anyone asks the Léglis what kind of wine they like, they’d answer with a slight sharpness in their tone: the good ones. However, after a brief conversation and quizzing, they outline the type(s) of wine they like: “White, dry wines with good acids, a full palate, rich flavours, elegance, bubbles and if possible from Champagne.” So, it’s not surprising that since 2009, whenever the weather permits, they’ve been making traditional method sparkling wines. Based on the experimenting and experiences of almost a decade, it’s obvious that making traditional method sparkling wine is a ‘never-ending story’ for them with all of its difficulties and beauties.
From the point of view of the result, the most important aspect is the quality of the base wine, which beside the unpredictable effects of the vintage is defined by the ripe and healthy fruit, the astutely chosen variety and the shaping of the production technology – to become traditional method sparkling wine. A lot of work, humbleness, rational risk taking, but if someone is aiming for top quality, they would do it. Still, if they want to put down an even nicer, more elegant, more noble wine on the table, there is one more trump card in their hand, and that’s ageing.
At the Léglis, the minimum 24 months of ageing is an axiom, which means that the wine ages for two full years until disgorging. The fresh fruits or the nice flowers that characterise the base wines are pushed a bit into the background, leaving space for the ageing notes, which with the bottle ageing recalls the aromas of an old bakery. With this, the bubbles also tame, but perceptively they will be present in larger quantity, and this way the gulp almost ‘swarms’ on the palate. After the 37 months of lees ageing, the result is surprisingly exact. The fine lees keep fresh the wine, made from ripe, healthy grapes – this way, there is enough to build on.
In Sarlota Bárdos’ cellar in Bodrogkeresztúr, everything is in its place. She makes her traditional method sparkling wines on an artisanal scale, precisely and with her usual elegance, in the greatest homely romanticism.
“Since the 2013 vintage, my traditional method sparkling wine has been made at home. The first moves were very exciting. New machines, new work phases, everything had to be tried out. We practiced ‘homemade’ disgorging on Stéphanie Berecz’s traditional method sparkling wine together. We didn’t know how many minutes it’d take for it to freeze, how large the ice cork should be – and when the machine stopped working, what it was that went wrong. Then, gradually, we experienced everything. Now, we have enough routine, but we still happen to have a ‘bubble bath’ at times, when we don’t touch a bottle with enough care.”
At my place
“In Champagne, the non-vintage champagnes are born out of the blend of several vintages. I thought, under our own circumstances, the lack of it could give us a good result. At my place, the traditional method sparkling wine is 100% Furmint, the crop of one vintage from the Csirkemál vineyard. Out of the Tokaj varieties, I think, Furmint is the best for traditional method sparkling wines. It’s neutral, it has good acids, and when we find the ideal picking time and vinify it properly, it can make a very nice traditional method sparkling wine. On the ‘Csirke’, there is a 40-50-centimetre mainly clay layer that is not as stony or gritty as the Barakonyi. Here, smoother, less mineral still wines are born. And with the traditional method sparkling wine, the airy and elegant raw material is very important. There is no place for robust wines here. I like the subtle acid structure that refreshes but is not sharp. It usually starts to change and refine after a year and a half on the lees. And I start really liking it after two years of ageing.”