I’m sitting across the table from Samuel Tinon at his home in Olaszliszka, a tiny village in Hungary’s mystical Tokaj Wine Region. He is of medium height and build. His hair is graying and he wears rectangular glasses. Behind him, his Vizsla is curled up on a velvet armchair. To my left, a white rabbit sits on another, matching chair. Rain is coming down in waves of heavy showers and Samuel is very pleased; rain in Tokaj has been scant this summer.
Together with my wife Anita, we’re sampling his wine at a long wooden dining table. Samuel is spontaneous, animated, talkative and passionate; the things I love most about the French. He speaks in concepts and rarely has simple answers to my questions. While he talks about Tokaj’s fascinating history I swirl his dry Szamorodni around in my glass and take in the dream-like scene around me: the dog and the rabbit, the sound of rain, Samuel’s French accented English and his cozy home. I then take a sip of the golden wine. It is amazingly complex and unlike anything I’ve tasted before. “This is the center of the Tokaj pyramid,” he says. “But people are forgetting about Szamorodni. I hope there is a future for it.” I hope so too, I say to myself with the wine’s nutty flavor still lingering on my tongue.
Originally from Sainte-Croix-du-Mont near Bourdeax, Samuel Tinon first came to Tokaj in 1991. Over the years his work as a wine consultant has led him to Italy, Chile, Texas and Australia. Indeed, the small plane found on his logo, is a nod to his life as a “flying winemaker”. Together with his wife (whom he met in Tokaj and strangely enough is also French) he raises his three sons and makes dry and sweet white wine in this tiny Hungarian village. He began making wine here in 2000. This struck me as being quite peculiar. Why Tokaj? Why not Bordeaux or some other more famous region? The answer lies in Tinon’s unwavering belief that Tokaj is as good a wine region as any. “And I like the challenge,” he says with a cheeky grin.
Earlier that day we descended down stone steps into Tinon’s wine cellar. “This is why I bought the house of course,” he told us. The first chamber contained barrels and the odd tool. Passing under a low archway we came to a tunnel-like room with musty, cool air. Here he keeps a few dozen bottles of rare Tokaji Essencia, a concentrated nectar made from the free run juice of botrytisized grapes. Many consider it to be the absolute pinnacle of sweet wine; something few ever actually taste. Covered in fluffy mold, the bottles conjured up images of long-lost pirate treasure. I immediately got the feeling that these bottles are some of Tinon’s most prized possessions.
Next, the three of us hopped into Tinon’s VW Transporter van and made for his Határi vineyard near the neighboring village of Erdőbénye. We passed black elderberry orchards along the crumbling, dusty road. I asked Tinon about his family estate in Bordeaux, about his life in Hungary and if he misses France. “At the time I didn’t want to take over the estate from my father,” he said. “My sister runs it now and we keep in contact. But we don’t discuss winemaking too much. It’s better not to influence each other, you know? But it’s all about family. Going on holidays together, these are the important things.” The van teetered back and forth as we began climbing up a dry grassy hill. “I don’t really miss France. I’m happy here,” he said with a shrug. Looking around at the landscape I was surprised how much it resembled California: dusty and dry with scrubby straw-colored grasses, the exposed earth at the roadside full of shale fragments and the rolling hills dotted with stout bushes.
We parked beneath a mature walnut tree and Tinon led us up the sloping vineyard. His grapevines, mostly Furmint with some Hárslevelű, are grown on individual wooden stakes. At first glance the plants appeared small and unimpressive, but then Tinon pulled back a handful of leaves, revealing bunches of plump gold-green fruit . “I believe this vineyard was planted in 1920, but you know, legends are never very far when you speak with people in the village. It’s difficult to know what true information is and what is the evolution of information,” he said chuckling.
We took in a hazy view of Erdőbénye and gentle, wavy hills stretching to the southeast. A cooling breeze cut the heavy, humid air. Samuel continued talking in a stream-of-conscious manner yet it was anything but boring. Anita and I listened intently as he spoke about grape clones, the serious issues winemakers face with climate change and his battles with wild pigs raiding the vineyard. He told us that Tokaj once had 100 varieties of grape before the late 19th century phylloxera epidemic. After plucking a grape from a plant Tinon took a bite. “Ah, you see…,” he said holding up the grape. “To see the ripeness you must look at the seed. If it is brown, they are ready. We need more rain though.”
Driving back to Olaszliszka, Samuel shared the realities of making wine in today’s market. “Lots of people lose money in the wine industry. It’s a very hard business and the situation is always changing. We are just working with what nature gives.” While he seems quite philosophical in one moment, the next he’s talking figures and facts only someone with profound industry knowledge would know.
Down a dirt road on the outskirts of town, we arrived at a set of four wine cellars dug into the ground. They had identical heavy iron gates and wooden doors. He unlocked the first, in which he ages dry Szamorodni, and we passed into a dark world of cool air and mustiness. There is no electricity here and so Samuel showed us around with a headlamp. It was typical of other cellars I’ve seen, aside from one thing: clumps of thick, fluffy mold plastered the cellar walls. “I’ve never seen a cellar with this much mold,” I said to him.“Then you have not seen a good cellar!” he said smiling widely. “People think everything has to be like a hospital or something, always looking clean and sterile. No, the air is very, very clean here. The mold is necessary to create the right balance in the cellar. It is a symbiotic relationship.” He then unplugged a barrel and showed us a layer of native yeast that protects the wine. Szamorodni (a Polish word meaning “as it comes off the vine”) is made using a mixture of healthy, shriveled and botrytized grapes creating something altogether different from other white wines. Tinon is one of only a few winemakers still making a serious effort to produce it.
In Tokaj, Samuel Tinon is an outsider. He’s a Frenchman in Hungary’s most prized appellation. What he’s doing, however, is very Hungarian. “I want to make the full range of traditional Tokaj wines,” he says to me now back at his house. I’m enthralled by his dry Szamarodni—it’s nutty and musty, yet fruity at the same time. We sample his sweet Szamorodni which is also shockingly good. It holds the same earthy body as the dry Szamorodni but with the sweetness of dried apricots. You could say it’s a gateway wine to Tokaji Aszú —an ” Aszú light” if you will.
With the rain still coming down in lashing sheets he brings out his 2006 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú. His take on Hungary’s legendary sweet wine and what King Louis XV called “The wine of kings and the king of wines”, is one of the best— if not the best—I’ve ever had. I’m no expert but simply calling this masterpiece a sweet wine doesn’t do. It is a rich, luxurious and nutty experience that transcends its classification. “It’s very, very good,” Anita says smiling and shaking her head in disbelief.
Samuel Tinon is up to something. He comes off as a patient and methodical man, yet he possesses a frenetic and infectious enthusiasm for his work. He seems all consumed by his winemaking and it translates into wine that is pure pleasure. He’s also incredibly good company, and while I’m looking forward to drinking his wine again, I’m just as excited about spending more time with the man himself.
Samuel Tinon: +36-47-358-405 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you, Colm!
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