As a prelude to the yearly wine festival held in the Budapest Castle every September, the organisers generally stage a ‘wine university’ in the days beforehand, comprising a thematic presentation and tasting. This year, the state-owned winery, Tokaji Kereskedőház took centre stage.

The winery considers itself responsible for safeguarding the traditions of the region and also promoting the region at an international level. It is a particularly important player in the region, not only because it is state-owned, but also because of the sheer volume of wine it produces each year and the amount of vineyards it effectively controls – it owns 56 hectares of vines itself, but buys in from approximately 1100 hectares, one-fifth of the land the Tokaj region has under vine, this year signing contracts with around 1600 producers.

State-owned companies generally don’t have a reputation for high quality products and services, and this sadly was true of the wines produced by the winery. However, since 2013 Károly Áts, the chief winemaker, and his team have been making it their mission to change this. Their stated aim is to produce a quality range of wines that can find its place on the international market. Naturally, it is rather difficult to do this on an industrial scale; the winery produces in excess of 10 million bottles per year. Nevertheless, it is seeking to address this with a radical change in technology.

Between 2013 and 2017, the winery will be investing 17 billion HUF (approx. 54 million EUR) in a multi-phase development programme. The first phase, a new tank storage hall with a capacity of 66,000 hl, is now complete. A new bottling line, begun last year, should be ready in time to deal with this year’s vintage. Any new buildings are being designed to fit in with the UNESCO protected region and aim to demonstrate that quality work is being carried out there. Further phases include a new grape reception area, a barrel maturation building, an administration building and a visitors’ centre.

The winery already hopes to give a new face to its wines from this year on. Not only with the wines themselves, but also with new labels. It hopes the route it is taking will enable them to show the world-class quality of Hungarian Tokaji wines and in the end to sell the premium wines at a significantly higher price.

Supporting this goal is not only the work going on in the winery itself, but also a project led by Dr György Lukács of the Budapest Corvinus University. This high-tech project is measuring the vineyard and vine potential throughout the Tokaj region, looking at various characteristics, such as soil, aspect, water availability, areas where grapes may potentially ripen earlier, types of vines and climate, and then mapping these characteristics for each small area of the region, right down to parcel and row level. They can even indicate where there are missing vines! The information gathered is then validated by getting the producer’s opinion of the results. After all, they know their land and vines best!

All this information will be used to plot which parcels show the best potential for producing still dry wine, vineyard or even plot-selected wines, botrytised wine, sparkling wine, and so on. Producers will also receive advice on pruning methods, etc.

So, with the new winery technology and a searchable map of the entire region at their disposal, the wines of the Tokaj Kereskedőház and the region of Tokaj should be well on the way to a considerable face lift.

Click here for tasting notes on the wines tasted during the presentation.