I returned to Hungary this past Spring, and on my brief visit to the Tokaj region, I didn’t miss the opportunity to stop in and visit with the guy I consider to be perhaps the single best winemaker in the country. When I last spent the afternoon with Zoltan Demeter, he was showing off his newest pride and joy, a renovated tasting room, while humbly offering his latest vintage to taste, the third since he stopped all other activities to focus only on his own wines. It was a vintage that he saw as an important step in his journey of understanding.
“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.”
I was quite excited to see how his understanding was progressing as I stepped through the gate into his sanctuary of a garden this past April.
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 evolving, but has proved quite fruitful.
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 is a bit more gray than last time I saw him, but he still has the same mischievous crinkle to his eyes and his hands and boots still show the wear that comes from spending a lot of time in the vineyards.
When I visited last, Demeter was still literally doing almost everything himself at the winery. Now, as he walks me around his newly renovated winery floor, complete with mood lighting and couch, I see several employees at work labeling wines. Demeter’s success has allowed him to add some help behind the scenes, but other than that, not much has changed about his operations. He still farms 7 hectares (17 acres)across 9 different areas and five different villages because “That’s how much I can control.” These vineyards have the oldest possible vine stock with an average age of 40 years or more, with all replanting done from a massage selection of cuttings from his best vineyards. He doesn’t use pesticides or fertilizers, plows his vineyards by horse, and applies sulfur by hand, and continues to eschew any particular label such as biodynamic or organic.
Demeter’s winemaking regimen has not remained completely static since last we met. He still harvests carefully in multiple passes, but has been experimenting with how his wine ferments and ages.
“There is a line of evolution for my dry wines,” he says. “I feel that I started to move the direction of the German style. A fresh feeling to the wines using inox [steel tanks], and more of a a reductive way, but not forgetting Tokaj dry wine in a barrel. So I am not accepting just using barrels 100%. I have arrived at a situation where I am using a good mix of inox and wood. I still experiment with the right barrel size and barrel type, and how many parts of the wine go to inox.”
“Also important,” he says, “I have decided that Tokaj dry wine is better with slight residual sugar.” He now leaves something close to 4 grams of residual sugar in most of his dry wines, a practice which has become more common since my last visit to the region, and which I believe has resulted in generally better wines across the board.
Not content to merely fine tune his production, Demeter has also been doing some more radical experiments, including the creation of a sparkling Furmint using the classic methods champenoise fermentation on the lees in bottle. To be expected from a guy who takes his work seriously, this has entailed several visits to Champagne, and at least one visit from Ruinart chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis to Demeter’s cellars in Tokaj. “It is important to ask good questions,’ says Demeter. “If you are going to go deeper and deeper into a subject you get more detailed questions.”
At our last meeting, Demeter spoke like a man on a mission to catch up to a past that he felt was lost behind the iron curtain. “There is no time for us to waste. We cannot make mistakes,” he said. “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.”
Now with four more years under his belt, Demeter continues to be thoughtful about his work.
“My dream is very clear,” he says with a smile. “I am finding more and more the direction and the job for each individual vineyard. I’m pretty sure you have to dream the wine first. I have to know what I would like, and I get closer to understanding my terroir every year. That is not so fancy, but it is what I see in myself. It is very nice to reach this kind of place, and to progress towards my dream of what this region can be. If someone can’t reach their dream, they lose all their life. Life goes fast. This year I will be 50 years old, and I can say calmly that I am at the place where I am born and where I came back to. I am in the good place and I can find meaning of the life here through the region. This is very important. If it does not exist like that you can’t calmly do creative work, you can’t create anything.”
Tasting through Demeter’s 2015 vintage, a vintage that he says allowed him to “do everything I wanted” I am struck, as I was on my first visit, with the poise and precision of his wines. They have the effortlessness that many of the world’s great wines bring to their expression. When I try to explain this to Demeter, he shrugs and says, “I think we really can make intelligent wine from Furmint. What will happen with this intelligent Furmint? There will be a dimension of deepness. You know it is an intelligent wine when you close your eyes and you are happy that you are living.”
By that measure, Demeter’s wines are surely genius.
Sadly, only a few of Demeter’s wines make it into the US and they tend to be snapped up pretty quickly, resulting in very little availability, especially of current vintages online. If you see these wines, buy them.
2015 Demeter Zoltan “Estate” Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and white flowers. In the mouth, bright apple and pear flavors mix with wet stones and a little faint sweetness. Good acidity and balance. Contains 5 g/l residual sugar. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28.
2015 Demeter Zoltan “Veres” Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, white flowers, and green apples. In the mouth, super juicy green apple, white flowers, and wet stones are delivered on satin bedsheets, with a hint of lime in the finish. Fabulous acidity and balance. This is the best located vineyard for dry Furmint according to Demeter, with a predominance of white rhyolite tuff and 30-year-old vines. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2015 Demeter Zoltan “Hold-Volgy” Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of greengage plum, star fruit, and white flowers. In the mouth, juicy star fruit and white flowers have a filigreed acidity, and beautiful silky texture. Deeply stony in quality with a deep rainwater flavor that is very compelling. Comes from south-facing 40-year old vines in Ratka village. The vines have very small branches and what Demeter describes as a “special clone” of Furmint, making this the place where he sources all his cuttings for replanting. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2015 Demeter Zoltan “Szerelmi” Harslevelu, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of melon and white flowers. In the mouth smooth and silky melon and apple flavors mix with wet stone and white flowers. Long finish and great acid balance. Aged partly in barrel and partly in steel. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2015 Demeter Zoltan “Boda” Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and asian pear and white flowers. In the mouth gorgeous minerality makes stony asian pear flavors seem to be delivered through a wash of rainwater scented with white flowers. Tiny notes of pear skin and herbs linger on the finish. Fermented and aged in oak. Made from 100 year old vines grown on hard, stony soil on an east-facing slope. Stunning. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2015 Demeter Zoltan “Ozy-Hegy” Sarga Muskotaly, Tokaj, Hungary
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of melon and orange peel and white flowers. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of orange blossom water are gorgeous and bright with fantastic acidity and deep mineral depth. Phenomenally floral and long. I’m not a huge muscat fan but I’d drink this wine all day long. Quite possibly the best yellow muscat I have ever had. Fermented in tank. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2011 Demeter Zoltan “Eszter – Tokaji Cuvee” White Blend, Tokaj, Hungary
Light to medium amber gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricots and honey and candied lemon rind. In the mouth, stunning honey and apricot and peach flavors have a wonderful crystalline quality and a deep stony acidity behind them that leave a clean wet stone flavor in the finish scented with honeyed apricots and white flowers. The flavors soar for minutes Incredible. Moderately sweet. A blend of Furmint, Harslevelu, and Sarga Muskotaly. Selected for about 60% botrytized fruit. Destemmed, crushed and then left overnight before starting fermentation. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2008 Demeter Zoltan “Tokaji Aszu – 6 Puttonyos” White Blend, Tokaj, Hungary
Medium gold in color, this wine smells of candied apricots and honey. In the mouth, honey and apricots have a bright juicy quality, with a silky texture and fantastic clean ambrosia character. The acidity is somewhat softer than I would like, but nonetheless, a minerality manages to shine through the liquid sunshine. Very sweet. A blend of Furmint and Harslevelu from all of Demeter’s vineyard sites. 305g/l residual sugar. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.