Zoltán Demeter - Sparkling from first-hand experience
The date is March 7, 2013 - From this day on, every step of sparkling wine production takes place in-house at Zoltán Demeter’s winery in Tokaj. In complete freedom, along own decisions
– it is a small producer’s way of sparkling making, just like in case of Champagne growers. Zoltán presses wine, adds liqueur de tirage and does disgorging alone. Additionally, he also fine-tunes the details wherever and whenever he can.
Three of his lately disgorged wines have just arrived to us. On this occasion we talked to him at length.
He told the story from the beginning and we touched upon different topics: the heroic years, the life-like medium of Champagne, the difference between smallholders and prestige brands, and those who are sitting on the top of the arrowhead.
Tokaj, sparkling wine and Zoltán Demeter. Would you tell the whole story from the beginning?
Sparkling wine goes back a long way in my story. After finishing the Department of Oenology at the University of Horticulture in Budapest, I went to the US. I started in Virginia and then I worked at Stags Leap Winery in California. I learned the language, studied the wines and saw the professionalism. America was good for that. And it was good to leave soon. Then I immediately returned to the old world. In 1991 I studied in Burgundy, France for half a year. In the meantime, we tasted a lot of wines and visited Champagne as well. How much did I know where I was then? I rather felt than knew it. I recognized the wines. But I dare not determine how deep this experience was embedded in me. However, the style itself, the quality of the movement culture, that got deeply under my skin.
Then I decided to make sparkling wine myself. Jóska Szentesi was of help to me since the possibility of free creation was confined within limits (rules) at that time. The next act was when I already had the opportunity to produce this sparkling myself. That was a historic moment in my life which affected the whole sector, too. When the state administration in winemaking resulted in a crippling environment in which producers were obstructed by irrationalities and were not able even to move, a 12-point proclamation of winemakers was formulated. One point of which, among others, was about creating the opportunity to produce sparkling wine in Tokaj. Finally, the announcement was openly welcomed among professionals and decision makers.
On March 7, 2013, I was the first to receive a license to make sparkling in Tokaj and on March 8 I already bottled the 2012 vintage. From that date on, it can be declared about all my wines that the incoming grapes can only leave as labeled wine. No wage press, no wage bottling, no wage liquoring or wage disgorgement for others. Everything happens here and I decide about everything. It is a huge job with huge opportunities and huge freedom. It is also the basis of an artisan’s authenticity. (If it still means something.)
Since then, an important historical thread has also emerged. You have recently found an 1829 record about Tokaj sparkling wine. How did you discover it? Do you research the subject regularly?
You can easily recognize the grower as he never has any time. On the other hand, he does have an openness to pay attention to the thoughts of another value-creating person. That is how a book got into my environment. Or to be more precise, I received a copy of it which sent a message to the man of today from a great distance. It is about the grape varieties and was published as an appendix of the Vienna News in 1829.
I look through it, read the articles and turn the pages. And then I arrive to the Tokaj part, which is a small letter text. The author keeps explaining and all of a sudden there is a whole page where he starts writing about sparkling wine production: that in Golop, Baron Miklós Vay urges making sparkling wine (wine a la Champagne, as he refers to it). And I read this from here, from this distance. The point is, that all of a sudden, sparkling wine making in Tokaj, instead of a history of 10-12 years as I had supposed, got a 200-year-old past. This journal entry provided a little encouragement for the work I started in 2009. We got root and took root. Thanks to the chronicler for noting down this so creating the opportunity for us to connect with the past. God bless the chroniclers.
Following the model used in Champagne, you classify yourself as an RM (RM = récoltant manipulant), also known as a grower. RMs are champagne producers who use their own grape, their own tools in their own cellar and their own knowledge so they control the whole process of champagne producing. In your interpretation, what separates such winemakers from the big Champagne houses?
In the case of larger houses, production follows precise rules and standards with huge financial security in the background. With proper training, this formula can always be applied. It is common to have a pocket full of money in the background that they can reach into any time if necessary, to push a process or thought further whenever it gets stuck. Growers, on the other hand, have a life-and-death struggle. This is also the case with experimental batches. For growers the cost of gaining experience always hurts much more. It includes an aroma, a milieu, a resonance. You have to love it, you have to be able to recognize it. When you acquire its taste, it can be amazingly pleasant from both sides. It is more tangible and human than when you have a well-polished production. Nevertheless, of course, I also love the elaborate, precise and clear-cut champagne of the big houses.
You have built a real live working relationship with winemakers of Champagne. Who are the most important producers, which were the best encounters for you?
Now I can already move around Champagne without worrying about how that topmost elegance and style, which is natural there, impresses me. If one is not prepared, he can easily be occupied and blinded by this for a long time and unable to pay attention to the essential details. But if you have a kind of demand and ability to adapt to this, than after 2-3 occasions, the whole phenomenon can become a useful medium. Frédéric Panaiotis, professional leader of Ruinart, was of great help of me in this. We were talking a lot and he even invited me for a tasting. There I got to understand of what it is like to live in such a milieu. There were several growers, at least 10-12 outstanding producers (competent and credible local authorities): Pascal Agrapart, Raphaël Béreche, Jean Paul Hebrar, etc. We managed to attune to each other in no time. We got so connected that all you could notice was that though we were speaking different languages, we were talking about the same thing. It was a terrific experience.
Then Fred raised the question that why we do not have a Tokaj tasting together with the same company. Finally, we had this tasting last August with huge success. When these nearly twenty people were tasting my 2016 Aszú then time stopped for a little while there. Whatever that wine was born for, he did it there and then. I saw it on their faces that Tokaj became part of Europe for that moment. In addition to the smaller houses, I was also curious about prestige brands of the top category. Fred, at my request, organized a tasting at Dom Perignon in Hautvillers. I was interested in the real content behind the name. By the age of 53, when you have seen a lot of things, you will usually easily notice where more steam is pushed onto the horn than on the turbine. And this is when you regret the time wasted. However, when Nicholas Lane started talking about their philosophy, we immediately adjusted to each other. The style, what I am trying to represent here in Hungary as a windmill fight, coincides perfectly with the mission philosophy of this huge brand:
This is the driving force; this is the default attitude. Then while tasting P2 (Plenitude 2, one of Dom Pérignon's top champagnes, disgorged after 15 years of aging) I could really feel and understand what sort of foundation this subject of passion stands on. One of the cornerstones of world wine culture was verified to me at that moment, though I was already convinced of this before that. However, in case of large format things it is always interesting to find the leading persons sitting on top of the arrowhead, who work in great solitude but in the proximity of Perfect. This might be one of the most interesting things in life when you find it. People may have felt something similar 3-400 years ago when they were tasting the aszú from Tokaj and rejoiced the moment when they were born.
What is the most important element in producing sparkling wine?
The precise scalpel cut to detach the moment of harvest. To make the good decision along heterogeneous maturations. Then comes the most important thing for a winery: to be able to manage the fermentation. The process itself is dazzling, wine being born, the whole thing happens by itself. But even so, the associated human activity is also very important. So that the result should be able to delegate elegance and pleasure.
What is the criterion of good raw material?
soil and growing site, variety, clone, talent of the producer, luck
What are the essentials of wine pressing?
motionless, gradually rising pressure, whole bunches of grapes from manual harvesting
What are you looking for in a base wine?
elegance, vibrancy, purity
the longer maturing on lees takes, the more round, smaller and more elegant the bubbles will be