02 March 2024 / Ádám Geri / Translated by Sue Tolson DipWSET Copy actual URL Facebook share Twitter share

Interview with Wojciech Bońkowski Master of Wine

Although Hungary does not yet have a Master of Wine, the first Pole to receive this distinction can be considered a bit Hungarian. Wojciech Bońkowski is an expert on Tokaj, and his thesis was also about the present and partly about the future of the most famous Hungarian wine region. In this interview, he also talks about Tokaj's strengths, what it needs to develop and what the wine region's great potential is.

How did you come up with the idea of writing your MW Research Paper about Tokaj?

I have been a devoted ambassador to the great terroir of Tokaj since my first visit to the region in 2001. I believed I possessed a reasonable knowledge of Tokaj, so it was only natural to look for a topic that would put it in the limelight. After negotiating several specific topics, I settled on the fascinating issue of vineyard classification.

 

Your title was: "Towards a Tokaj classification. Applying the Austrian Erste Lagen approach to Hungary" Why do you think lack of classification is one of the most important areas where Tokaj has not yet made a real breakthrough?

That’s maybe an overstatement, but I do believe Tokaj, with its unparalleled history of vineyard assessment and classification going back to the 17th century (The Rákoczy princes established an informal vineyard survey and assessment system 100 years before Bél!), is in a privileged position to channel the current interest in single vineyard wines, which are, for the most part, dry wines. It also offers a good opportunity for Tokaj to premiumise itself as a wine-producing region, with a new focus on high-quality wines originating from specific terroirs.

 

 

What was the outcome of your RP? Do you think we could apply something similar to the Erste Lagen classification? If so, what should the first steps be? If not, why not?

Part of my research consisted of probing Tokaj vintners’ (wine producers’) interest in a potential classification. Roughly a third of the region’s producers answered my questionnaire and a clear majority was in favour. The Austrian ÖTW classification (which is in the course of becoming national law, as only the second country after France to legalise an official vineyard classification) offers a very handy template to apply to other regions thanks to its structured, logical, interpersonal approach. With a little effort to include Tokaj’s regional context, it could be readily applied in the region. However, there are also several other systems, and a mixture of these could be considered in order to create a unique, modern Tokaj classification. This certainly requires a group of vintners to agree on principles and procedures before drawing up a roadmap and kicking things off, as classifications need time. But there is no reason why Tokaj should not consider a new approach: many regions such as the Loire, Chianti Classico, Soave, Etna, Cava and Germany have recently implemented various types of classifications.

 

 

What are Tokaj’s weaknesses and what are its strengths?

Tokaj has many strengths: its unique terroir and climate, its unmatched historical heritage, the current quality of wines and a strong community of educated, forward-thinking local producers. This gives me hope that Tokaj can regroup and reinvent itself in what is undoubtedly a challenging market environment for a historical sweet wine-producing region. In terms of weaknesses, I would highlight a lack of long-term vision and strategy, a lack of cooperation between the various local institutions, both public and private, and perhaps a general isolation from global trends and tendencies. Arguing that Tokaj can continue producing hundreds of thousands of bottles of expensive sweet wines when markets clearly aren’t interested, and there is a readily available remedy in the form of excellent dry wines, seems extremely naive.

 

 

Dry wine, sweet wine, Aszú wine and sparkling wine are all produced in Tokaj. Which do you think should/could be the main product in terms of profitability?

Sweet wine is on the decline in almost every market around the world and the fundamental reasons behind this trend suggest it will continue for years. Aszú wines should continue to be produced in small quantities as the region’s business card and bragging right. But a winemaking region of 5,000 hectares can only be sustainable on today’s competitive market with dry wines, and it is time the entire Tokaj community realised and implemented this. Sparkling wines are an interesting innovation, but I do not see them becoming the region’s main offering for a combination of factors: yield, grape varieties, economic sustainability and stylistic definition. Dry Furmint is a great product to push as Tokaj’s signature wine, with sparkling wines and Aszú playing a supporting role.

 

For visitors of ProWein Düsseldorf 2024: join our masterclasses led by Wojciech Bońkowski Master of Wine:

AN ERUPTING TREND: VOLCANIC WINES

THE OUTSTANDING CENTRAL-EASTERN EUROPEAN VARIETY: KÉKFRANKOS

 

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