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Winemaker Szepsy: “In the globalized world of the 21st century, you can be something that your ancestors were”

Hungary Today 2021.06.04.

30 years ago, the Szepsy wine-making family had a vision to bring Tokaj to first place among the historical wine regions of Hungary – István Szepsy, answers questions in a portrait video from the Friends of Hungary Foundation, publisher of Hungary Today. The family has been engaged with viticulture since the 16th century and received the title of nobility in 1631. Father and son talk about tradition, attitude, and visions for the future.

The Szepsy family lived in the Tokaj hills as early as the 16th century, the Szepsy vineyard (“Szepsy Dűlő) in Bodrogkeresztúr is also a reminder of this. In 1632 they received a certificate of nobility and a coat of arms from Emperor Rudolf. István Szepsy, the world-famous winemaker, has lived here since his birth. And although their property steadily decreased after the war, they always maintained a small vineyard, a plow, an orchard, farm, and even kept animals. This is how the “family business” was able to survive.

István Szepsy and his son, István Szepsy Junior now cultivate a total of 65 hectares of vineyards in the Tokaj wine region on 22 estates in six municipalities, with headquarters in the municipality of Mád.

Fact

On average, 38,000 bottles of dry wine, 7,000 bottles of aszú, and 12,000 bottles of samorodni are produced from the Szepsy vineyards every year. The soils of the vineyards are mainly zeolite, quartz, clay, and weathered volcanic riolitic tuff, which has become even more porous due to heat sources and into which roots can penetrate very deeply due to rainwater runoff. The climate is characterized by hot summers, long autumns, cool winters, and an average annual precipitation of 550 mm.

Photo via szepsy.hu

István Szepsy senior, resumed the family business 30 years ago

In 1631 my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather received a title of nobility eighteen generations ago, and produced wine at the court of Zsuzsanna Lorántffy,”

says István Szepsy senior in the shortfilm showing the wine region, which belonged to his family even earlier.

He recalls when his father took him to the vineyards as a child, he knew right away that he did not want to go home because “it was so beautiful there.”

On the way to the hills, István also reveals that as far back as 30 years ago, he had a vision to bring Tokaj to the top place of the historical wine regions of Hungary, with their winery playing a leading role in it.

After university, he became head gardener in Mád, and when he started working he didn’t like “the socialist factory,” so he went to France with the intention of staying there. Then homesickness brought him home, and he worked in a cooperative from then on, growing grapes in as large a quantity as possible. “I did what was expected of me.”

Fact

István Szepsy senior was born in 1951 in Bodrogkeresztúr, and after graduating from the University of Horticulture he worked in the LPG of Mád and later participated in the establishment of Royal Tokaji. Since 1991 he has been running his own winery. In the past decades he has received several high-ranking state and professional awards: in 1999 he was awarded the Officer’s Cross and in 2010 the Commander’s Cross of the State. In 2001, he was named Winemaker of the Year, and in 2009, Winemaker of Winemakers. In 2013 he received the “Les Seigneurs du Vin” award from the European Grand Juree, which can be considered like an Oscar of viticulture.

In the short film, the winemaker also talks about the challenges of viticulture- in the past 10 years, they have only managed to produce aszú three times.

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“You can only bear that nothing has grown through a spiritual strength that comes from the fact that you are very connected to the wine,” he quickly added.

Fact

The first mention of the most famous product, the aszú, and its production, dates back to the XVI-XVII centuries. Louis XIV called this wine “the wine of kings, the king of wines.”

He said that the family’s 400-year-old past had brought not omly knowledge, but a mindset: in fact, wine was the “sacred cow” for his father and grandfather: they simply could not imagine not giving their all to the grapes. With regard to future development opportunities, he stressed:

If no risk is taken with new methods and new prices, then there is no progress.”

For this reason, in fact, the risk is not to take any risk. Furthermore, he pointed out that it is the human added value that significantly affects the quality, the energy of love that passes into the wine. They consider the grape as a partner in the making, where the minerals, the plants, the animals, the human being are all on the same level and one must not exploit the other.

 They try to spend their lives in this harmony. At the end of the film, he speaks about the power of determination, whereby their dream was able to be realized: To be among the best in the world again.

Fact

Szepsy decided in 2015 to set the price of his aszú between 1,000-2,000 euros. Indeed, he believes that its price makes a quality wine on the market: the more expensive it is, the more it is appreciated by consumers. He thinks that Hungarian wines are not overpriced, in fact a foreign wine for the same price and quality does not exist. The “Essence” from 2007 presented at the Botrytis Forum in London in 2016 became the most expensive wine in Hungary at that time, at 1,680 pounds (1,948 euros).

István Szepsy Junior, 18th generation winemaker

István Szepsy Junior (1980) is already the 18th generation winemaker in the family; furthermore, he is also the main winemaker of the Szent Tamás Winery. In 2016 he received the Tibor Gál Memorial Award, which is traditionally awarded at the Ball of Hungarian Wines.

In the video he shows the original wine region which belonged to his family in the past. According to him, spending his life as someone from Tokaj gives him a “great identity.” This cultural activity can give security to the following generations, too and

in the globalized world of the 21st century, you can be something that your ancestors were.”

He added that agricultural work can teach you to be humble. He also spoke about how his father’s winemaking experience made it possible for the vision of them becoming world famous outside of this small village come true. It is also thanks to his father that they were able to get out of the collective mindset that characterized the region after the fall of communism.

In conclusion, the 41-year-old winemaker said: “In order to make Tokaj great again, you have to know of each parcel that this is the top wine of Tokaj. Indeed, there is no other way than to devote all energy to improving quality.”

Featured photo via István Szepsy’s Facebook page