It’s hard to fathom what it must be like to have the world change beneath your feet overnight. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, I was a relatively clueless high schooler for whom the news was elating, but only in a purely theoretical sense. For a whole generation of Eastern Europeans, however, the event wrought an entirely new future.
When the wall came down, Zoltan Demeter was a Hungarian student, dreaming of a future as a winemaker. Before 1989, that future in Hungary would have involved working for one of the huge state-run winemaking companies whose primary mission was supplying the Soviet Union with wine, and lots of it. But after 1989? Well, that was anyone’s guess. So Demeter, like so many others of his generation, designed his own future on the blank slate of a new nation.
Demeter completed his college studies in Budapest and then decided he needed an international education in winemaking, something that had been inconceivable just a few years before. He traveled first to Virginia, where he says most of his time was spent learning English, and preparing for a six month stint at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa. From there, with rapidly improving English, and an ever deepening understanding of wine, Demeter got serious and went to Beaune to studied Viticulture and Enology, and then went on to Brighton in the U.K. where he studied wine marketing.
When he returned to Hungary in 1993, he was 27 years old, and with all the fire you’d expect in the belly of a young man at the time, he set about helping to remake an industry that for all intents and purposes had been completely destroyed by fifty years of Communist rule.
“We had to figure out the direction of the wine, and what quality was moving forward. It was a beginning for our region. Even though we have 500 years of history, we had to renew it and re-discover the wine, the vine, and the quality” says Demeter.
Demeter worked first for a French company, and then for Grof Degenfeld, an aristocratic German-Hungarian family who, like everyone else, lost their family’s holdings in the Tokaj region after the second World War when the Communists took over. The Degenfelds were keen to return to the Tokaj region and reclaim their winemaking legacy, and they hired the young Demeter to help them do everything from buy buildings to farm the vineyards. From Degenfeld, Demeter moved to a new winery project called Kiralyudvar, where under the direction of manager Istvan Szepsy and owner Anthony Hwang he helped establish what has become one of Hungary’s most famous and pioneering wineries of the modern era.
At Kiralyudvar Demeter and Szepsy (who must get equal credit) first began making dry white wines from the traditional grapes used to make the world-famous Tokaj sweet wines, a move that pointed towards a future for Hungarian wine that is still being forged by people like Demeter, and the generation that has followed him into the business.
Demeter began making wine under his own name in 1998, but it was not until 2008 that he decided he was ready to focus on his own wines on a full time basis.
Known to his friends as “Zoli,” Demeter has the practiced ease of someone who is very comfortable in his own skin. His receding brown hairline appears headed towards gray, but sticks straight up in the middle, and I can’t decide if that represents a youthful trendy hairstyle or merely the result of a guy who has more important things to do than comb his hair. When he extends his hand in greeting at the gate to the small compound that is his home, his tasting room, and his winery, it is the hand of a farmer — muscular and sunworn, but his blue eyes have a mischievous glint.
He walks us across a gorgeous courtyard to what is clearly his pride and joy — a newly renovated tasting room, paneled in dark wood, with recessed lighting, and touches that make it clear that Demeter cares about the details. His father’s ancient bicycle sits high in one corner, its small headlight wired to glow dimly when the lights are on; a slick modern LCD screen occupies a wall and shows images from Demeter’s different vineyards; and one wall features a piece of artwork that has a working clock that appears to be exploding downwards from a picture frame.
“Starting in 2008 I am working in my own business. It is truly a one person company. I have perhaps two or three people helping in the vineyard and the winery, but only when I can’t manage myself. If I’m doing something in the winery and someone else is there, they’re holding a pipe, or something. If I had three arms I’d just do it myself,” he says.
“Everything is my job. If I let others do things, it is not to my liking. I’m controlling everything. I think that is the only way that handmade wine can be produced. When I say handmade, it is not that the winemaker has to do everything by hand, but that every single decision is made by the winemaker. That’s why I only have 7 hectares (17 acres). That’s how much I can control.”
Demeter’s holdings are spread across 9 different areas and 5 different villages in Hungary’s Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region, whose violently volcanic past has produced a highly heterogeneous geology. Demeter makes a dry white wine from each of these soils, in what he sees as a race against time to learn the terroir of Tokaj.
“There is no time for us to waste. We cannot make mistakes,” he says, trying to explain his drive for perfection. “We have to get rid of the last 60 years and we have little time to advance and catch up. It was too much time, and we broke the chain between grandfather and father — we can’t catch each other’s hand. We have to do something quickly, something that surprises people, and we have to live through quality. There is no place for mistakes because we have only one time per year where we can ask questions and collect answers. I have only 20 or 25 harvests where I can collect these answers.”
Demeter is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished winemakers in Hungary, but you’d never guess that listening to him talk.
“I’m studying. Collecting experience. I’m studying winemaking, and my terroir. I’m getting to experience each vintage, to see what I’m going to change for the next one. I’m studying myself, and teaching myself, but the wine is teaching me. That is the main target to catch the right position in the center of terroir. I really believe that a winemaker has only two decisions to make. One is when they are going to cut the branch — to know when to cut , you have to know what ripeness means in a certain terroir — and with this cut you decide everything. There is another small decision, which is when to bottle. Everything else is a gift. We have to listen to how the wine is born, and make sure it doesn’t go in the wrong direction.”
For a while as we taste, that’s about as much as we can get Demeter to say about his winemaking and winegrowing. He’s much more interested in talking about the soils, his vineyards filled with 40,60, and 100-year-old vines, and the deep history of the region that, to hear him describe it, is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered by those who will devote the time and study.
Eventually he is coaxed into sharing his extremely basic winemaking regimen. Everything ferments in tank, with commercial yeasts (he’d like to use ambient yeasts but they don’t finish fermentations for him), and then the wines age in large, old oak casks. As he is describing this, to us, he notices that Handel’s Water Music is playing in the background.
“I like to play this music to the wines during fermentation and aging,” he notes. “Music’s frequency is based somewhere in the universe’s resonance. This kind of music is universal — an absolutely natural frequency.” It’s not too much of a stretch to imaging Demeter softly crooning to his vines in the vineyards as well.
Demeter has carefully assembled his parcels of vineyards based on a desire to have the oldest possible vine stock. None of his vines are less than 40 years old, and he takes excruciating care to replant with the right grape varieties for the place. “This is one of the serious responsibilities of the producer, to know what should be planted,” he says. “Like a well made instrument, to produce the sound, that is what the varietal is to the vineyard.”
As one might imagine, Demeter farms with an emphasis on coaxing these old vines and their minuscule yields to produce perfect fruit, always being a student of the vineyard.
“I don’t know anything. I don’t want to push my personality in th result. My knowledge is not comparable to photosynthesis. I know what is happening: it is magic. And I have only one possibility, just following along.”
“I try to be very close to the nature. I’m not saying I am biodynamic, but I would like to be there. It’s impossible to be biodynamic in the middle of 20 hectares of conventional vineyards. If I were biodynamic that would mean there was a community.”
“I’m not using pesticides. I am not fertilizing. I use a horse in the vineyard to plow, and I am only spraying sulfur by hand. I don’t really like the kind of stance where someone says ‘I am organic, or I am biodynamic.’ I’m sure I do some things in my vineyard that are much more than biodynamic, and others that are not. The main target is not the title.”
Now in his third vintage since he decided to focus entirely on his own wines, Zoltan Demeter easily produces some of the best wines in Hungary. While there are others that have as much or more experience than Demeter, there are few that surpass his skills as a winegrower. With the deepest of humility he is managing to reveal the true potential that Furmint and Harslevelu, the two primary white grapes of Tokaj, have to produce world-class dry white wines.
“All our knowledge, all the best creative qualities we put into a wine to show the world. We say good luck to everyone to have the knowledge to understand this wine. I feel when I am tasting this wine that I am small. Small to understand.”
If, as he suggests, Demeter’s wines represent merely the beginning of an understanding for what is possible in Tokaj, then great things are clearly in store, at least from the hands of this one man.
A word about the availability of these wines. Some of these wines can be found in the US, thanks to daring importers like Blue Danube, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to track down. I’ve provided links where I could to purchase wines online, but your best bet is contacting a retailer or importer. The 2011 vintage was just bottled and probably won’t hit the market until later this year.
2011 Zoltan Demeter “Birktobor Estate” Furmint, Tokaj
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of quince, wet stones, and white flowers. In the mouth, flavors of quince, crabapple, and candied lemon peel mix with bright acidity, and linger in a long finish of apple flesh. A bit of alcoholic heat lingers in the finish as well. Very faintly sweet. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2011 Zoltan Demeter “Veres” Furmint, Tokaj
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of bright apple fruit. In the mouth gorgeous acidity makes apple and quince flavors come to life along with strong wet stone flavors. White flower scents linger in the long finish with a hint of lemon juice. Fermented only in oak. Dry. 12% alcohol. 1119 bottles made. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Zoltan Demeter “Veres” Furmint, Tokaj
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of quince jam and apple butter. In the mouth the wine offers silky elegant flavors of apple, quince jam, wet stones and white flowers. Wonderfully harmonious and balanced. Mineral, delicate, wonderful 1626 bottles made. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Zoltan Demeter “Öszhegy” Yellow Muscat, Tokaj
Nearly colorless in the glass, this barrel sample smells of green melon, white flowers, and mixed exotic tropical fruits. In the mouth the wine offers quite refined melon and white flowers with a hint of spice and a deep minerality and a saltiness that emerges quite strongly in the finish. Quite beautiful acidity has a delicate laciness to it. A tiny bit of heat creeps into this wine, but I expect this to disappear after it has lived in the bottle for a little while. 13.5% alcohol. 690 bottles made. Score: around 9.
2009 Zoltan Demeter “Szerelmi” Hárslevelü, Tokaj
Light gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of lemon curd and exotic tropical fruits that are hard to pin down. In the mouth the wine offers juicy mango, papaya, guava, and melon flavors all fused into a single crystalline tropical core that has a remarkable brightness thanks to juicy acidity. Not content to simply be fruit focused, this wine also incorporates waxy and wet stone flavors to add complexity. The finish is quite long and tinged with white flowers and hints of dried herbs. There’s a light sweetness to the wine in the front of the mouth, but that sweetness mostly fades by the time the wine finishes. 60 year old vines in pure loess soil. A tiny bit if heat on the finish betrays its 15% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2009 Zoltan Demeter “Lapis” Furmint, Tokaj
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and linalool. In the mouth white flowers and spicy pear flavors seem to be borne on a stream of crystalline clear mountain stream water. Elegant and balanced, with a long floral finish into which a tiny hint of dried herbs creep. Beautifully textured — satin and silk. Fermented in oak. 30 year-old vines. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Zoltan Demeter “Lapis” Furmint, Tokaj
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and applesauce with overtones of white flowers. In the mouth white flowers and lemon juice explode with bright acidity while applesauce and notes of quince and quite remarkably, strawberry hang at the edges of perception. Beautiful and silky textured, the wine has a long, lingering finish of citrus and fresh quince. Fermented in oak, from 30-year-old vines. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2008 Zoltan Demeter “Anett – Furbor” Yellow Muscat, Tokaj
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey, apricot jam and white flowers. In the mouth moderately sweet flavors of apricot marmalade, honey, and candied orange peel are bright with lively acidity. The wine has an unbelievably sexy texture of pure liquid satin. Marmalade notes linger in the finish with crystalline notes of honey. Moderately to very sweet. Beautiful and balanced. 581 bottles produced. 9% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2001 Zoltan Demeter “Aszú 6 Puttonyos” White Blend, Tokaj
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricot jam and white flowers, in the mouth the wine offers gorgeously bright flavors of honeycomb, apricot jam, candied orange peel, and white flowers. Silky texture. A long airy finish lingers for minutes in the mouth with flavors of candied orange peel, honey and white flowers. Spends two years in large oak barrels before bottling. A blend of Furmint and Harslevelu, though mostly Furmint. 10% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $260. click to buy.
2009 Zoltan Demeter “Pezsgö – Method Traditionelle – Zero Dosage” Furmint, Tokaj
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of baked apples and warmed wood. In the mouth the wine has a soft, slightly coarse mousse, with a papery quality, and flavors of quince paste, baked apples, and a yeastiness that surfaces in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.
“I don’t like to buy wine. It frustrates me. So I try to make it instead. I wanted sparkling wine, so I made some. OK, so that is a joke, because I DO buy a lot of wine, but I thought why not try to make a sparkling wine with Furmint? Up until a couple of years ago, there were protectionist laws that basically prevented anyone from producing sparkling wine unless they were massive operations. But now anyone can make anything.”
2009 Zoltan Demeter “Nagyaszo” Cabernet Franc, Eger
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dark cherry and plum with a hint of vegetal greenness. In the mouth the wine offers cherry and plum flavors mixed with chocolate and a slight sweetness. Nice acidity and a long finish. Score: around 8.5.