A family tradition

Courtesy of Aaron Rodebaugh

Szepsy István, who has lived through good times and bad at his family winery in Mád, Hungary, examines boxes of Furmint grapes that just arrived from the vineyard. The Furmint is the dominant variety. Szepsy had just taken over the family operation when the Soviet Union’s domination of the country cast a pall over winemaking. He persevered and bought land to plant.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

MÁD, Hungary

Investors on the prowl for a piece of the action in proven wineries in the renowned Tokaj region long have wanted to acquire a share of Szepsy Borászati KFT.

But Szepsy István (the surname precedes the given name), a 15th-generation vintner, patriarch of his family business and president of the Mád Circle of Origin Protection association, is not selling.

Szepsy, 62, knows the value of independence and what it takes to be your own man.

“We have no loans, no debt, no investors and no government subsidies,” Szepsy told visitors during a recent three-hour chat in his winery/home in this picturesque region just south of the Slovakian border. “We stay abreast of what is happening in the industry, but we make wine according to our standards.”

The only requirements are self-imposed and those of the local vintners association, Szepsy said. The goal of the association is to ensure quality wine through a system of strict requirements.

Szepsy probably is most demanding on himself. In 1994 and 2001, when grapes didn’t meet the quality he expected, he sold them in bulk to other vintners.

He hasn’t always enjoyed such independence.

Born about the time Soviet Union domination of the country began, Szepsy was brought up in the vineyards owned by his father, also named István.

When the elder Szepsy died suddenly in 1970, the burden of family leadership fell on young Szepsy, who, at age 19, recently had graduated from Budapest Horticultural University.

The family eventually had to sell the winery, and Szepsy found work at a vintners cooperative where he rose to be chief winemaker.

Wine production stagnated under Soviet domination. But Szepsy saved his money and began to buy property – 0.3 of a hectare at a time, ending the interruption in direct family involvement in wine production.

In 1989 with the end of Communist rule, he joined other cooperative members in putting their land in a joint venture company along with foreign investors and found himself named chief winemaker. As such, he was invited to the prestigious Chateau d’Yquem winery in France. But in three weeks, he decided that large-scale production of wine wasn’t for him, and he returned home to familiar surroundings and his cherished vineyards.

The perseverance has paid dividends. Today, Szepsy owns 73 hectares (180 acres), 48 of which are under cultivation with two dominant grape varieties – 60 percent are Furmint and 35 percent are Hárslevelü.

The family winery provides jobs for his son, another István, two daughters, a son-in-law and 25 year-round employees. Some of the employees, nearly 80 years old, started with his father.

The Tokaj region is blessed with conditions particularly favorable to growing grapes. So great is its fame that it has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The widely grown Furmint grape, a staple in Szepsy’s winery, is the basis for dry wines and sweet dessert wines, the latter the result of the botrytis cinerea fungus that robs grapes of moisture but increases their sugar content.

Volcanic upheavals millions of years ago left the region with mineral-rich soil. Climate, topography, hydrology and sun/shade variations along with soil create terroirs, a French term designating microclimates noted for their particular homogeneity.

There are 22 such special places in the country.

The Szepsy name can be traced to at least the 16th century where the family is linked to winemaking. A coat of arms dates to 1631.

Szepsy today produces a delicious, sweet, white wine, but he’s shifting toward dry varieties.

It’s a losing battle to compete with the giants in the sweet-wine market, Szepsy said.

“I prefer to create a niche where I’m happy, can control my destiny and satisfy our loyal supporters,” he said.

Just recently, he bought the house next door with plans to convert it into a tasting room within two years.


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