One of Hungary’s most famous wine regions, Tokaj is experiencing the effect of climate change as we speak. The changing conditions pose a serious challenge, but the future is still bright.
Located in the northeast of Hungary, Tokaj is the centre of one of the country's most famous wine regions; it has been a home for viticulture for nearly a thousand years, with the first grape vines being planted as early as 1067. Since then, it has become a prominent region, and it contributes to the worldwide recognition of Hungary's wine regions. The picturesque landscape is surrounded by rivers and streams, unique plant communities and protected nature reserves.
The summers are hot, the winters are cold, and the autumns are dry in Tokaj. Yet its most important feature is the unique microclimate, one favourable for growing the world famous ‘aszú’.
The world-famous aszú is made in Tokaj from botrytized furmint grapes, but now climate change is threatening its future.
The Tokaji aszú is a dessert wine, made by rotting grapes. While this may sound unappetising, the result of this 'noble rotting' by the Bortytis Cinerea fungus, is exceptional. The grapes are hand-picked and sorted to assure the best possible quality. They are then aged in wooden barrels, which are placed in special cellars to further ensure a premium quality. The Tokaji aszú is a Hungarikum, a special legal status that recognises important value to the Hungarian culture. The awarding of Hungarikum status honours the aszú's historical traditions, as well as its unique microclimate, winemaking practices and maturation technology.
Aszú can be made from several types of grapes, namely furmint, hárslevelű, yellow muscat, kabar, zeta, and kövérszőlő. Furmint is the main variety in the region, and thus is the most most likely to be affected by climate change. It is characterised by thick vines and leaves, loose clusters, medium sized berries and overall rich flavours, and is usually harvested in October – though due to the changing climate, many wine producers start harvesting as early as August. This has been an emerging trend in the last couple of years, causing trouble to winemakers. They often face the dilemma of when to harvest: if they decide to do it too early, the conditions might not be ideal for the berries to botrytize. If they leave it too late, unpredictable weather conditions might ruin the process of aszú production.
The changes that are already occurring are both external and internal. External changes are connected to the weather and the soil. As temperatures rise, the size of the grape berries is expected to reduce and their skin may become damaged and sunburnt. Where rainfall is lessening, roots are being forced to burrow deeper and deeper. Where rainfall is increasing, the heavy precipitation can cause soil erosion – a serious problem, sometimes invisible to the naked eye. As the fertility of this soil decreases, it also becomes less water-absorbent and more difficult overall for plants to flourish; in the worst-case scenario, plants might stop vegetating all together. Of course, scientists and winemakers are aware of these problems, and they are coming up with new solutions every day. Special techniques and practices can ensure soil protection, and efforts to minimise the effect of climate change are ongoing.
As for internal changes, the shifting taste of furmint grapes is a complex process. As the fruit ripens earlier and faster, the heat 'burns' the acid in grapes and reduces their acidic flavour. At the same time, the heat raises their sugar levels and pushes the wine’s ultimate alcohol content higher (which also changes the taste of the wine, as higher sugar and alcohol contents lead to a richer, almost 'cooked' flavour). While this goes against the current trend in global markets for lighter, less full-bodied wines, there is no cause for severe concern right now. Winemakers have been dealing with the effects of climate change for a while, and no data suggests that we should expect the sudden disappearance of grapes, wines or vineyards.
The disappearance of Tokaj as a powerhouse of wine is one, pessimistic, point in the spectrum of possibilities. In other outcomes, technology may mitigate the worst effects of climate change and usher in varieties that are much more resilient to weather and rainfall. Some promising clones are in testing, and many more are already being developed. Let's hope that these efforts bear (literal) fruit, and that though our continued efforts to defeat climate change Tokaj will thrive for many years to come.
Ramón Mira de Orduña, ’Climate change associated effects on grape and wine quality and production,’ Food Research International, Volume 43, Issue 7, 2010, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2010.05.001
Michelle Renée Mozell, Liz Thach, ’The impact of climate change on the global wine industry: Challenges & solutions,’ Wine Economics and Policy, Volume 3, Issue 2, 2014, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wep.2014.08.001