No doubt, the highlight of Tokaj is winery visits: You get to meet passionate winemakers and taste excellent wines. Tokaj has hundreds of wineries, both family businesses and corporate-owned massive operations; the list below, which is based on my personal visits, includes both types (and only those that accept visitors). Note that not all winemakers speak perfect English, but most of them are conversational.
A few things to keep in mind
Try booking a tasting as far in advance as possible.
If you’re at least somewhat knowledgeable about wines and curious to learn more, gently convey in your email that you’d love the head winemaker to lead the tasting (with family wineries this is often the default case).
A tasting usually costs around €10-15 per person. Hungarian visitors often end up buying several bottles afterward. For foreigners, logistics can complicate things, so consider leaving a generous tip if you don’t end up purchasing any wine.
Tastings usually go for an hour, but they can last much longer than that. It’s prudent not to schedule more than two, maximum three, winery visits per day.
If you’re driving, or simply don’t feel like getting loaded at midday, use the spittoons provided. By smelling and swooshing the wine around your mouth, you’ll still be able to get a sense even without swallowing it.
Many wineries have a labyrinthine system of below-ground wine cellars, some more than 600 years old. Usually a deep flight of stairs lead to a dim, damp, narrow passage lined with wine barrels and coated in a thick layer of mold...
...a phenomenon unique to Tokaj is how a black mold, zasmidium cellare, accumulates in the underground cellars. The molds feed on wine that evaporates from the barrels and gradually turn into black, fluffy chunks of unsolicited design elements blanketing every inch of the cellar.
Speaking of wine cellars, it’s pretty cold down there even in the summer months, so be sure to bring a sweater with you.
Built delicately into the hillside of Mád, this high-tech winery doubles as an architectural eye candy. Holdvölgy produces the whole range of Tokaj wines, but head winemaker Tamás Gincsai also likes to experiment with kabar, an oft-ignored native grape variety with a spicy aroma. The tastings take place inside a 600-year-old, two-kilometer-long underground cellar, one of the longest in Tokaj.
Stéphanie Berecz, a native of the Loire Valley, came to Tokaj in 1993 as a college exchange student to help out at French-owned Disznókő winery for a few months. Twenty-six years hence, she’s still here, now tending her own five-hectare family vineyard with her charming, nature-loving, Hungarian husband, Zsolt Berecz. Many Budapest sommeliers will tell you that their single-vineyard dry hárslevelűs are among the great wines of Tokaj.
For Judit and József Bodó, Tokaj isn’t just about making wine. They feel it behooves them to pass on Tokaj's heritage to the next generation — be it by mentoring other vintners, or organizing a communal harvest for local students so “the kids learn and appreciate early on what a special place they come from,” said Judit. Their wines are sought out by discerning drinkers in both Hungary and abroad and tend to sell out within weeks of their release.
In the early aughts, Attila Homonna was among the first to redefine what a dry Tokaj meant: crisp, elegant, without too much oak. He’s been a role model for Hungarian winemakers of the younger generation. His wines appear in Michelin-starred restaurants anywhere from New York to Tokyo. Although plugged into the international wine circles, he doesn’t chase contemporary trends — currently he’s focused on putting out sweet wines. Attila splits his time between Tokaj and the Lake Balaton wine region, but do try to meet him.
László Alkonyi is a unique character and a great asset to Tokaj. His love affair with the region started when he was the Budapest-based editor of Borbarát, a seminal wine magazine. Ultimately, he moved to Tokaj full time, starting his own winery in 2012. He's a treasure trove of information with many opinions about the wine region and its place in the world. Every year, his team goes through several rounds of harvests in search for “perfect” grapes and the results speak for themselves.
Gizella is a Tokaj success story: In 2005, László Szilágyi planted grapes on a one-hectare plot; fifteen years hence, he produces more than 30,000 bottles annually and his wines appear in premium wine stores and top restaurants across Hungary. The recipe for success? He keeps one eye on international wine trends, while also making consistently excellent wines that reflect Tokaj’s rich soil.
Géza Lenkey is a charismatic figure with an independent vision about winemaking. Years ago, he noticed his wines were becoming more complex and layered over time, so, defying contemporary trends, he began to systematically barrel and bottle-age them for years before release. But he isn't totally indifferent to contemporary trends, so you can also try his fresh pét-nats. Advance booking is a must as Géza lives in Budapest part time.
Sparing no expense, Barta winery replanted Öreg Király, one of the original first-class vineyards of Tokaj that had fallen into neglect. It’s perched high up on a steep hillside and the wine tastings actually include a trip up there. The last stretch you’ll have to complete on foot, but the effort is more than worth it: panoramic vistas and an aromatic glass of the mineral-rich wine made from the grapes before you.
Owned by Vega Sicilia, the Spanish wine conglomerate, Oremus is one of the largest and best-known players of Tokaj. Their modern winery building is beautiful inside and out, complete with a science lab and a scenic viewpoint. The tasting here includes a visit to the enormous, 2.5-kilometer-long medieval cellar, where vintage Oremus bottles line the molding walls, some from as far back as the 1800s. Both their dry and sweet wines are worth trying.
This family winery of Tímea and Tamás Éless is pioneering Tokaj’s fledgling natural wine movement. They believe in organic, low-intervention winemaking, using only a minimal amount of sulfur dioxide. In line with current trends, they age some of their wines in egg-shaped vats and clay pots. Last year, Szóló produced Tokaj’s first pét-nat, an easy-to-drink bubbly wine currently experiencing a global renaissance.
The American owner of Királyudvar winery, Anthony Hwang, believes that Tokaj's soil is the best in the world, only rivaled by Mosel, and that furmint can stand up to any grape variety. Note that this comes from someone who also owns Domaine Huet, the legendary Loire Valley winery in France. Királyudvar, a biodynamic producer, puts out top sparkling wines, and their off-dry (“demi sec”) furmints are silky and elegant.
István Balassa is a shining star of the new generation of Tokaj winemakers. He’s keen to express the complex volcanic soil of Tokaj through his wines. This he does by producing single-vineyard wines, splitting them by the soil's mineral composition — rhyolite, andesite, and quartz. Balassa is also smart and articulate and media savvy, making him a popular figure within Budapest wine circles.