I’ll Drink to That! Exclusive interview with Samuel Tinon

Samuel Tinon
Photo credit: Holley Robbins

If you like Tokaj, or if you want to learn more about Tokaj, you should check I’ll Drink to That!‘s latest episode.

I’ll Drink to That! is a podcast that releases new interviews of sommeliers, vintners, importers, retailers, and wine journalists every Tuesday and Friday. Episode 164 features an interview with Tokaj guru Samuel Tinon during his recent visit to New York City.

Born in Bordeaux in 1966, Samuel Tinon comes from a wine producing family in Sainte Croix du Mont, a sweet wine appellation on the Garonne River across from Sauternes. After his wine studies in Bordeaux and Montpellier, Samuel traveled to Spain and Chile. In 1999, he had the opportunity to work in Hungary in the Tokaj region. He didn’t know much about Hungary but there is a strong connection between sweet wine making in Bordeaux and Tokaj. He was the first French winemaker to arrive in the region, just a month after the departure of the Soviet Army.

Interview Highlights

How he started his winery
In 2000, when his contract with Oremus ended, Samuel decided to buy some land, grapes, and a tractor in the village of Olaszliska, but had no money. To finance his venture, he had to sell his wines to friends before they were made. Today, he exports his wines to 10-15 countries, mainly in Europe.

About the village of Olaszliska
Olaszliska is on the right bank of the river Bodrog at the center of the appellation. Tokaj has two main rivers: the Tisza, coming from Ukraine and the Bodrog, coming from Slovakia. Between the 2 rivers, there is an area of wet lands that provides the humidity for the botrytis. Half the village is on the wet land and the other half is on farming land near the hills and the vineyards. The oak trees that grow on top of the hills are used for barrel making.

One of the characteristics of Tokaj is that it produces wine and barrels from the same volcanic soil. It is very convenient to have your barrel maker in the next village. The wood is of very good quality and even French barrel makers are buying wood from this forest.

About the diversity of the terroir
The soil comes from the bottom of the Pannonian Sea and as a result, is a very complex and diverse terroir. Nowadays, producers have to find out how to work with this kind of terroir. During Communism, nobody tried to understand the differences between one plot and another, they were blending everything all together.

Today, it is important to realize the potential of one specific vineyard or soil. This is very complex, but progress has been made in the last 10 years. Tokaj can now have an offer that includes different styles and different producers from the same styles. The winemaker’s hand is still a little bit strong compared to the terroir but you find winemakers coming from different countries: France, Spain, Germany, Slovakia, with very different experiences and a different understanding of what is a good job. It is almost like there’s too much diversity but this is a very exciting situation. It takes a lot of time to understand a terroir and how to properly make each style of wine.

How his wines got imported to the United States
Blue Danube Wine Company has been importing wines from other Tokaji producers and they were looking for a specific wine called Dry Szamorodni. Samuel’s Dry Szamorodni is 90% Furmint attacked with botrytis with a little bit of Hárslevelű. To produce botrytized wines, the berries have to be picked when they are ready. Sometimes, you have a good selection of botrytized berries and sometimes, they are not so good. In terms of alcohol, the Aszú starts at 20º-22º, the Sweet Szamorodni at 18º-20º, but the wine that is between 15º and 18º cannot be labeled as dry because it’s too high in alcohol and has remaining sugar and it is not a pleasant wine to drink. But you can ferment this wine to reach 16º-17º and then age it in a damp cellar. With time, the alcohol decreases —half a degree every year. Then, after 4 to 6 years in the cellar, the resulting wine has something between 13º and 14º in alcohol and a veil of yeast on the top, like in Jerez for the Fino or in Jura for the Vin Jaune.

How he made his first Szamorodni
It happened in 2001. This was a very difficult vintage and 2 barrels were not so good. In the spring of 2003, Samuel thought of getting rid of these 2 barrels but for some reasons, didn’t empty them. Then, just before the harvest and needing some space for the new vintage, he realized that he had a “Vin Jaune”, right there. He didn’t know that he could have his own “flor” that could happen naturally in the cellar. Coming from Bordeaux, this was not a style of wine that he knew very well. Therefore, he decided to travel to Jura to learn more about the wine. The result was bottled in 2009. His other wines, the Aszú, Eszencia, are very classical but this wine is unusual. In fact, if he is here in New York today, it’s because of this wine. It’s because Blue Danube contacted him for this wine.

Confrérie de TokajIf you’re currently in Hungary, don’t miss the Great Tokaj Wine Auction 2014. This flagship event of the Confrérie de Tokaj will be held on the 25th, 26th and 27th April 2014 in the Castle of Sárospatak. Beyond the offering of exclusive new releases of Tokaji wines, the aim of the Auction is to help rebuild the viticultural landscape of the region, which has been a World Heritage Cultural Landscape since 2002. This is the most important rendez-vous of the year giving all wine lovers the opportunity to discover the richness of Tokaji wines and the regions’s latest creations.