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samedi, 13 juillet 2013



Claude Gilois

Based on a conversation with Zoltan Demeter


In 1737 the Vineyard of Tokaj was first delimited by royal decree, acknowledging decades and perhaps centuries of excellence in the vineyard and in the production of sweet wines. Even if Austria can arguably claim to have been the first to have had a legislation on wine in the world, we shall leave these discusions to the historians.



Zoltan Demeter

Viticulture in Europe has never been an easy ride and phylloxera destroyed the vineyard in the late nineteenth century. The marked decrease in production that resulted led to counterfeiting and pushed  authorities to legislate for better, but also for worse.

The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to the loss of a small part of the Tokaj vineyard, which was handed over to Czechoslovakia, today known as Slovakia.


The communist regime chanted the situation radically after the war. The state system, of production based on quantity rather than quality, led to the collapse of the reputation of Tokaj wines which only remained known in Hungary and in the satellite countries of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union provided an ideal opportunity for the rebirth of wines from Tokaj. Well-needed investors flew into the country to reshape the vineyards and the rundown properties trying to gather the necessary know-how from Hungarian manpower to put the wine industry back on track.


After two decades of frenetic activity in the vineyards and the cellar from both investors and locals, the Tokaj Aszu is back to its former glory, and in some domains there has never been better wine produced since the creation of the vineyard, but in 20 years the world demand for sweet wines has fallen drastically and the challenge in Tokaj today is about producing high quality white wines, which is probably a greater challenge than making Asrú.


The enthusiasm from investors has somewhat diminished over the years and it looks as though the Hungarians have regained the upper hand on the vineyard and on the regulation that should go with the frantic reshaping of the Hungarian wine industry and in particular that of Tokaj. Today, there is such a gap between some practices in the vineyards and cellars, and the current legislation that the Terroirs of Tokaj appear to be poorly protected. Wines for Tokaj have lost their ‘readability’ for well-informed consumers and even for specialists.


What are the main points that are a real cause for concern?


  1. Is the practice of the addition of Puttunyos to the must to produce Aszú still the best method for making wine, and is it being superseded by other more modern methods of production?
  2. Are there too many wines carrying the Tokaj appellation and are the cellar practices overshadowing the terroir of Tokaj? To day we have the following wines in Tokaj:

Szamorodni (dry, medium dry-sweet oxidised or not)Aszú (3,4,5,6 puttonyos), Aszú Eszencia, FordításMáslás, Tokaji Cuvées and more recently Tokaji Ice Wines)

  1. The maximum yield is very high (14 T per hectare).
  2. There maximum maturity is 153g/l which is too low
  3. The addition of sugar is still permitted (except for the Aszú)
  4. Bottling outside the region is still allowed


However, the entry of Hungary into the European Community in 2009 is providing an ideal opportunity for reshaping the Tokaj wines so that they fall in line with European regulations. Indeed, there exists a codification to identify each wine region of production to which are added descriptions and conditions of production. Discussion has been taking place for some years now to limit the use of the Tokaj (or its equivalent Tokaji in hungarian) appellation to three wines


Tokaji Dry: in which the residual sugar would be between 3-5 g/l


Tokaji Föbor: This the old name for Szamorodni, which literally means ‘first wine of the house’. There would not be any residual botrytised grapes in this wine, the residual content of which would be around 70-80 g/l.


Tokaji Asrú: that would not be identified by the number of puttonyos but by its residual sugar which depending on the year would be between 160-350 g/l.





It is sometimes the course of history that shapes the life of people. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Zoltan Demeter was studying in Budapest to become an agronomist in the productivist communist system dominated by the mighty power of state planning. Today, after the fall of the Wall he has his own domain in Tokaj. The fall of the Wall gave him the ideal opportunity to explore different avenues abroad that would have been inconceivable under the ‘communist’ system. He went to the USA, first to Virginia and then landed his first job in the Napa Valley at the famous Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which was then directed by Warren Winiarski. He became convinced during his work at Stag’s Leap that winegrowing and winemaking was his path and he then went on to complete his studies in Burgundy and in Brighton to give him the marketing skills he needed.  He returned to Hungary in 1993, the year of a great vintage for Tokaj, he was then 27 and everything in the vineyards and the cellars had to be reshaped after 60 years of a disastrous ‘communist’ system and, despite 500 years of viticultural and winemaking traditions. He first worked for a French domain, then for Grof Degenfeld, an aristocratic family dispossessed of their domain after the war. He then worked with Istvan Szepsy; he directed the domain of Kiralyudvar, the property of the Chinese investor Anthony Hwang, where they returned the Aszú to its former glory and beyond.



Zoltan started making wine for himself (and his friend as he likes to say) in 1998 but, it is only in 2008 that he officially launched his domain, a one-man band or near enough. The knowledge and experience propelled him overnight to one of the stars of Tokaj.

Today, Zoltan Demeter has seven hectares of wine spread out over nine distinct geographical areas in the region of Tokaj-Hegyalja and covering five distinct villages. None of his wines are less than 40 years of age and the oldest are a century old. His method of working is as close as possible to nature but it does not claim to be organic or biodynamic. Not only is the man talented he also has a definite vision of what Tokaj should be whilst most of the domains belonging to the investors are more concerned with the promotion of their own wines. His mastering of vinification of dry wine is impressive and with Istvan Szepsy there is no equivalent in Tokaj.


Zoltan also has a vision for returning Tokaj to his former glory with simplification of the rules and regulations, which are making Tokaj a bit of a ‘dog’s dinner’ at the moment. I think Zoltan will have a significant influence over the coming years to find the harmonious blend to reconcile tradition and modernity to face up to the current changes of consumers’ habits and consumption.






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