Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Hiding among the rows of indigenous white grapes in some of Tokaj-Hegyalja’s (hereinafter Tokaj) most prestigious vineyards is one of the region’s best-kept secrets: Pinot Noir. Before the phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of Tokaj’s vineyards in 1885, records indicate that Pinot Noir was actually the region’s most important red wine grape variety. While nothing is known about the character of those wines or the location of the plantings, a few producers are showing that Tokaj’s climate and unique vineyards have great potential for producing world-class Pinot Noir too, on par with those produced in Burgundy and the Willamette Valley of Oregon.
Like Burgundy, the 27 communes that constitute the Tokaj wine region experience a continental climate characterized by long sunny summers and dry, sunny autumns. The sustained period of moderate heat allows Tokaj’s native white grape varieties to ripen while still maintaining the racy acidity that is one of their hallmarks. Coincidentally, Pinot Noir benefits from the same conditions.
In fact, Tokaj’s climate is quite favorable for ripening Pinot Noir. On the Winkler Scale, a system developed at U.C. Davis for measuring the cumulative heat of a wine region during the growing season, Tokaj’s growing season falls right between those of Burgundy and Willamette Valley. Tokaj does receive less annual precipitation than the other two regions (600mm vs 700mm for Burgundy and 740mm for Willamette Valley), but this is made up for by the high levels of humidity created by the nearby Tisza and Bodrog rivers. The combination of humidity, ample sunshine, and wind is a both a gift and a curse for Pinot Noir—while it helps create a microclimate that is suitable for slowly ripening grapes with complex aromas and ample acidity, it also provides the optimal conditions for botrytis, its main nemesis.
While botrytis can add incredible depth to Tokaj’s white varieties, it is known to destroy entire plantings of Pinot Noir, whose thin skins make it particularly susceptible to disease. For those who produce Pinot Noir in Tokaj, the climatic risks are no surprise. Sauska Tokaj’s winemaker, Gábor Rakaczki, is aware of botrytis’ threat, but likens it to any of Pinot Noir’s propensities, including sunburn, shriveling, and drying. With proper precautions in the vineyard, such as moving plantings to areas with more favorable amounts of sunshine or wind, such problems can be avoided.
Around the world, Pinot Noir is famously known for its ability to create excruciatingly complex wines. As sensitive as it is complex, its wines take on character from the environment in which it is grown. No better example exists than in its native land of Burgundy where limestone-rich soils of various mineral and clay content are known to produce wines whose aromatic and structural components are equally as nuanced.
Among the most famous vineyards located in the prestigious Côte de Nuits area of Burgundy, Romanée Conti and Chambertin vineyards contain soils of limestone and marl, with a famous mineral clay known as montmorillonite, which according to Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay in The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, is “prized in viticulture,” due to its unique ability to provide drainage and nutrients for the vine. Here, the wines are voluptuous, paradoxically silky and taut, and with a wide spectrum of fruit to savory aromas.
The same phenomenon of Pinot Noir’s ability to benefit from nuances of intricate terroir exists in the New World as well. Willamette Valley’s soils reflect both the volcanic activity that is still present in Oregon and neighboring Washington and the nearby Pacific Ocean. While prehistoric lava flows account for the volcanic basalt-rich soils that characterize many of the region’s vineyards, even older marine sediments provide sedimentary soils that more closely resemble those found in Burgundy. Over the years, the two very different types of bedrocks have decomposed and conflagrated to various degrees, resulting in a veritable playground for Pinot Noir.
While Tokaj’s climate may be sufficient for ripening Pinot Noir, what we’ve learned from the great examples of Burgundy and Willamette Valley is that exceptional soils are needed to produce exceptional Pinot Noir. In Tokaj, as in Willamette Valley, volcanic subsoils play a lead role in the characterization of the region’s terroirs, which vary greatly from vineyard to vineyard. Such nuances have been noticed between Tokaj’s vineyards since at least the early 18th century when the world’s first vineyard classification system was established. Evidently, typicity of place might not be a wholly Burgundian concept.
These days, the nuances of Tokaj’s vineyards are exploited in the form of dry, single-vineyard indigenous varietals, such as Furmint. Furmint, like Pinot Noir, has the ability to mirror the soils that it is planted in. For example, Furmint from the Nyúlászó vineyard’s yellow clay and hard tuff soils are noticeably elegant and approachable, while those originating from the prized Szent Tamás vineyard’s nyirok and rhyolite soils are complex and fragrant with exceptional minerality and racy acidity.
Nyirok, a red clay soil, yields the most powerful and substantial wines in Tokaj and is comparable to Willamette Valley’s famed Jory soil in that it is formed from volcanic rocks (in this case rhyolite and andesite), is known for its long water retention, and has a visually noticeable iron component (i.e., it’s red!). Of particular interest is that some samples of nyirok from Mád have been shown to consist of around 43% montmorillonite. Scientifically speaking, according to geographer and wine writer Alex Maltman, montmorillonite actually has the highest capacity of all clay minerals to provide several essential macronutrients to grape vines. Anecdotally, it is the clay mineral that famously helps Pinot Noir reach its savory depths in some of Burgundy’s most well-known vineyards. In Tokaj, montmorillonite-rich nyirok can be found in some of the best vineyard sites and undoubtedly plays a role in the complexity of the white grapes grown there.
Near the village of Mád is the south-facing vineyard of Padihegy. Here, as in all of Tokaj, indigenous white grapes dominate, but if you walk the rows of vines for long enough, you will eventually come across some Pinot Noir. In this vineyard, Sauska grows the red grape for both sparkling wines and single-vineyard still reds. Padihegy’s surface is all rock—volcanic rhyolite tuff and quartz cover heavy clay with a clear presence of nyirok. According to Ferdinánd Pincészet, quartz’s inability to retain water is advantageous in the sense that it forces the grapevines to engage with the bedrock and clay in search of nourishment.
It is no mistake that for Sauska’s Rakaczki, Padihegy is probably the most classic Pinot Noir vineyard in Tokaj. This interaction between quartz and nyirok is strikingly reminiscent of that of limestone and montmorillonite in Burgundy, and the likeness shows through in the wines. Sauska’s 2017 Padihegy Pinot Noir is broad shouldered but elegant, with a near-full body, mouth-watering acidity, and soft tannins. Its aromas are rich with red and black fruits, dried herbs, and mushrooms, and in the background is a steadfast influence from the volcanic soils: minerality and salt. This influence is felt even more strongly on the palate, as salinity lingers in the back of the palate long after the wine is drunk. By no means detracting from its complexity, Sauska’s 2017 Padihegy agrees with Willamette Valley winemaker Ken Wright’s observation that volcanic soil Pinot Noirs are fruit driven and have high acidity.
To the east of Padihegy lies the Úrágya vineyard where Pinot Noir plantings can also be found. Here, Dobogó Pincészet grows the grape for its Izabella Utca Pinot Noir, which was first vinted in 2008. The southeast-facing vineyard shares the rhyolite and nyirok features with its neighbor to the west but with less quartz. Instead, iron oxide-painted rhyolite stones of various sizes and highly hardened clay mark the surface. In addition to being difficult to cultivate, the vineyard is known for its ability to impose strong minerality into Furmint made from grapes grown there. The same minerality stands tall in Dobogó Pincészet’s 2015 Izabella Utca. Staying true to its volcanic roots, the wine is fruit driven with uplifting acidity, but with a light, delicate body. Raspberry and cherry give way to violets, leaf pile, and wet stones. As with Sauska’s Padihegy, here too salinity and minerality play a large role, leaving a pleasant sensation of bitterness on the palate.
Overall, with its agreeable climatic conditions and unique soils, Tokaj has immense potential for producing world-class Pinot Noir, and the examples that already exist show how Tokaj’s signature minerality can be excellent not just in white but also in red. Going forward, it will be exciting to see how other winemakers tap into the grape’s potential in Tokaj, but if you’d like to try Tokaji Noir now, check out Oremus, Vayi Pince, and Pedits for examples beyond those mentioned above.