Interview with István Szepsy Jr.

Protection of origin places – in our case – grape production and winemaking within cer-tain borders and defines their elements. It assists us to be better able to strengthen the terroir-typical tastes for which we practise the whole and enables us to make more characteristic wines.

A uniform wine style comes into existence much more quickly, and that is very important now because there are historical categories in the wine region – Szamorodni, Aszú and Eszencia -, for which we can consider at length the regulations, but the character of their tastes and fl avours have already been developed. For dry wines however, this opportunity did not exist previously because they have a very short history. Thus it is of vital importance for Furmint’s protection of origin to be created before it bursts onto the world market.

Géza Ipacs: What problems are caused by the current lack of protection of origin for Furmint?

István Szepsy Jr.: One of the problems is that the leading products of the wine region have not been defi ned. Thus the wine strategy, which is of key importance for the whole wine region, has not come into existence either. The other problem is that the style elements in the Furmint category wine are the most varied: some wines have residual sugar, some not, some have Botrytis, some not, they are made in barrels or tanks, late harvested or earlier… And the most important is to position Tokaj in the world. Currently Tokaj is not a very strong brand. Investments in the wine region to date – excluding family companies – are all the result of foreign capital. For the wine region to function economically and be self-sufficient, we have to work with higher prices. As we are not able to produce such quantities of wine at international quality as other famous wine regions. Tokaji Furmint, Szamorodni and Aszú can be unique, but these are based on lower average crop yields and thus we have to distinguish the quality levels so that we can position the prices higher. Naturally we are not able to produce everything at top quality so the top quality should be distinguished. There will always be lower price wines in the wine region, and their more stable market position and their demand can be helped by the higher priced wines. But high-priced wines can only work if there is a precise defi nition of what is Furmint, what is vineyard selection, what the assets of a given terroir are and under what regulations each can be produced.

I.G.: So that means that – inasmuch as we regard Furmint not only as a variety but also as a brand – a brand stability will also develop that is appropriate to the various levels?

I.Sz.Jr.: If we do our work well and are able to create a good protection of origin, then the result will be a brand stability for all the various levels.

G.I.: It is possible that the most important factor in terms of the wines in every wine region will be created: Furmint will no longer need to be compared because it will be a reliably good wine. With the brand name Furmint, bad wine will no longer be available and at most there will be various levels of good quality.

I.Sz.Jr.: The other reason for protection of origin – which is also really important, perhaps the most important in the whole system -, is that naturally Furmint is not the top product of the wine region. It can however be a leading product. Eszencia is a rare product. Aszú is a more serious style than Szamorodni, so Aszú can be the top product. The situation with these top products is that there are great quantities on the market and at low process. Protection of origin is necessary for the repositioning of the wine region because we base the protection of origin on the most important aspect of Tokaj: the terroir, not the technology. In my opinion, first we can position Furmint as a grape variety on the international market, then the next step is to present the terroirs, that means we focus on vineyard selection. Those Aszú wines that are currently sold very cheaply because they are “unmarked” or “undesignated” are made according to relatively loose regulations. They can once again become top products when they are made as single-vineyard Aszú. So Furmint is capable of repositioning the terroir, creating the way for Aszú and Szamorodni to once again become expensive wines. Because when several million bottles are on the market annually, most at shelf prices well under 10 000 HUF, an enormous demand must be created for this price to be raised significantly. Making Aszú is the most expensive winemaking process in the world, and in comparison to this it is one of the cheapest which is not in the least logical in business terms… The Furmint story could be the engine: to make the top quality product a top quality product. A clear start is necessary for this and this is Furmint, for which protection of origin is essential.

G.I.: Where does the creation of the system stand today?

I.Sz.Jr.: The Mád Circle has expressed its expectation related to protection of origin: the regulations of grape production and winemaking. The legal definition has been created. This has to be accepted by the Mád Wine Community Board, which is open to it, but it has not yet happened as they have not received the finalised doc­uments. Since this is an independent initiation; it does not have to be accepted at the level of the wine region but will be directly presented to the Minister of Agricul­ture for appraisal and then, just as in all product descrip­tion modifications, to the European Commission to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. This process could be complet­ed in around six months, but it could take stretch out for more than a year.

G.I.: And what is the timeframe for the system to adapt? When is it expected to be in place in the wine region?

I.Sz.Jr.: At present we are thinking about the around 1200 hectares under the Mád Wine Community not at the level of the wine region. The following figures en­courage us to act more intensively: over 70 % of Tokaji single-vineyard wines are produced in the lands under the Mád Wine Community. The average crop yield of the wine region is 9 tonnes, whereas in Mád it is 5 tonnes. In addition, since Mád represents 22 % of total production, it significantly reduces the region’s average. Over and above the Mád Circle members, producers have decid­ed on an area three times as large where they want to produce less as to produce terroir-type wines. I thought that the interests should be represented of those who are willing to undertake the financial risks to produce a lower quantity but higher quality wines.

G.I.: Are there visions of categories that are similar to those used for example by the Italians or the French?

I.Sz.Jr.: In relation to this there is complete agreement in the Mád Circle and my father had a suggestion. Since we are not able to use AOC or DOC as one is linked to the French system, the other to the Italian, and both are protected, we have to create a new one. The label would have two possibilities: MOC (Mád Origin Controll), the other MDOC (Mád Dűlő Origin Controll), where dűlő means vineyard.

G.I.: When the protection of origin regulation is created, will producers be able to use these designations? How will they appear on the labels?

I.Sz.Jr.: Those who would like to take advantage of the protection of origin designation have to decide and state their intention with land registry number and other data before the end of February, that is before the vegetation period begins. It is very important to have an administra­tive background. Inspections will be carried out by the wine community judge who will check the cultivation, crop yield and other necessary information, and a viti­culture committee will make a report together with the wine community inspector close to the harvest date as to whether the conditions detailed in the protection of origin have been fulfilled.

G.I.: Is there actually already a protection of origin system that does not serve the interests of those who would like Furmint to be a world grape variety and sta­ble, reliable wine to be created in the wine region?

I.Sz.Jr.: There has been a protection of origin sys­tem since Hungary joined the EU. There was also a national regulation before. So now we have a na­tional regulation and a product description. The reg­ulation provides rules within Hungary, the product description is accepted by the European Union. Gen­erally the product description is not as detailed as the regulation. The product description has been modified on several occasions: instead of place and vineyard name for geographical designation, only Tokaji can pertain. An increasing number of less concentrated products can be called by the same name. The use of the puttony number – the indicator of sweetness – was removed, rules for Aszú winemaking have been re­laxed, the aging period for the two historical wine cat­egories of Szamorodni and Aszú have both been re­duced, etc. If it continues in this direction, protection of origin will lose all its value and legalise all that the Mád Circle does not agree with. In our opinion the regula­tions should not be relaxed, but rather the framework of higher quality wines should be limited so that the wine region can start to rise again.

G.I.: The greatest change is perhaps that the brand of the wine region may no longer be Tokaji but Furmint.

I.Sz.Jr.: I think that a new brand name has to be intro­duced for the world to accept Tokaj again. While pro­duction is so varied, there are so many producers and obviously people are not keen on the changes in pro­tection of origin, the existing brand names cannot be repositioned.

G.I.: People will be able to understand Furmint and it will become a world variety when it is started to be planted, for example, in California.

I.Sz.Jr.: Yes, that is a very important detail because if we want to make a world variety of Furmint, then it will really attract the interest of others too. For example, in Burgenland they have proven that Furmint is their an­cient indigenous variety and in under three years more than 40 single-vineyard wines from an area of 400 hectares were created in one vintage. The other exam­ple is that when I was in Wagram I discovered that it had been scientifically proven that Furmint is the most serious indigenous variety in Austria… Actually, Fur­mint was planted over 10 years ago in California. The South African Klein Constantia estate has declared that Furmint is their antidote along with Muscat in the face of global warming… So much more organised wine marketing exists than ours.

G.I.: It is very important that the endeavours and achievements work in parallel. If there is a result, we can communicate it immediately, so that no one else is faster.

I.Sz.Jr.: Unfortunately, in some aspects other countries are ahead of us: the most dynamically developing Fur­mint plantation is in Slovenia. It is represented by Car­oline Gilby Master of Wine, but there are no products in Hungary that are represented by a Master of Wine.

G.I.: But is it completely indisputable that Furmint is a Hungarian variety, a Tokaj variety?

I.Sz.Jr.: Yes, it is indisputable. A Swiss grape geneti­cist has proven that Furmint definitely originates from the Tokaj Wine Region and that Hárslevelű is related to Furmint, it is a branch created by selection that de­veloped a long time ago. That the most serious wines are always from their original environment is also true for Tokaj. Furmint cannot show the results as in Tokaj anywhere else. I have tasted Slovenian and Austrian Furmints, but they bring nowhere near the same char­acter as Tokaji.

G.I.: The of fensive from abroad gives reason for some concern if we are not able to take confident steps in questions of national wine marketing that strengthen Furmint.

I.Sz.Jr.: There is a good example as to how you can mess up branding: there is a restaurant in London that is built on Mangalica pork. It is the kind of restaurant that has not been created in Hungary yet. They are doing with Mangalica what we should be doing: they are serving Mangalica pork, using very high quality ingredients from a spectacular kitchen fused with a very good vibe. The Mangalica pig is hand-drawn on the chalk board with the history of the breed illustrated with images and Mangalica is depicted as the star – but there is no trace that the Mangalica pig originates from Hungary even though the meat itself comes from Hun­gary. They have made a sensational place and a great star of Mangalica, but there is absolutely no indication that it is not from England…

G.I.: I think the stakes are very high for Furmint, one of the world’s best varieties, to make its debut on the world wine map as a Hungarian variety. So it is rec­ognised as Hungarian. It is an extremely important matter that could shape the long term future of Hun­garian wine and its possibilities.

Updated: 2019.06.06.

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