No doubt, the highlight of a Tokaj trip is the winery visits: You get to meet passionate winemakers and taste excellent wines. I included below a list and a short profile of my favorites. The list reflects my own impressions based on visits and tastings, and also those of respected Hungarian sommeliers whose expertise I sought out. Naturally, it's subjective and in some cases incomplete (for example, if logistics prevented me from visiting a winery, that place wouldn't be included).
You'll find both sizable, corporate-owned wineries and small operations, but I’m partial to family wineries that convey a special sense of place. Finally, note that only wineries that accept visitors are featured.
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.
Not all winemakers speak flawless English but most of them are conversational.
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-seven 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 long cultural legacy to the next generation — be it by mentoring other vintners, or organizing a communal harvest for local students so that “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 release.
Winemaking in Sarolta Bárdos's family goes back several generations. A native of Tokaj, she was head winemaker at esteemed Tokaj domains (Degenfeld, Béres) before launching her own winery. She's best known for her dry furmint and hárslevelű from the Barakonyi vineyard as well as her sparkling wines that are sold in places like the Four Seasons Budapest. Together with Stephanie Berecz and Judit Bodó, the three of them also put out a blend under the "Három Grácia" label.
In the early aughts, Attila Homonna was among the first to redefine what a dry Tokaj meant: crisp, elegant, and just a touch of oak. He’s been since 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 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. In 2012, he moved to Tokaj full time and started his own winery. 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.
One of the major players, Disznókő was among the first private wineries of Tokaj in post-communist Hungary. The French AXA Millésimes, which also owns venerable chateaux in Bordeaux and Burgundy, stands behind this 100-hectare operation. László Mészáros has been overseeing the day-to-day management for more than two decades. Their portfolio is heavy on sweet wines — some years they produce more than 100,000 bottles of aszú. You're also here for the architecture: in 1993, Dezső Ekler designed a striking biomorphic tractor garage and a collection of winery buildings.
Royal Tokaji (Mád; 107 hectares / 260 acres; +36 47 548 500)
One of the anchor wineries of Tokaj, Royal's origins go back to Hugh Johnson, the legendary wine writer and co-founder who was an early champion of Tokaj (there's even a bronze bust of him within the premises). Royal owns sizable plots on the most prized vineyards — Szent Tamás, Betsek, Mézes Mály, Nyulászó — and bottles single-vineyard aszús from each. Their esszencia wines have been among the world's most expensive. Today, the De László family, from England with Hungarian roots, is in charge of the company, which is overseen by Zoltán Kovács.
Tokaj-Oremus (Tolcsva; 115 hectares / 284 acres; +36 20 251 2240)
Owned by the Spanish wine conglomerate Vega Sicilia, Oremus is one of the main producers of the region. Head winemaker András Bacsó was instrumental in setting Tokaj's path in post-Communist Hungary. The neoclassical guest house and the straw-colored modern winery have both become treasures of the local village (Tolcsva). The tastings take place inside a medieval, labyrinthine cellar, featuring both their iconic "Mandolás" dry furmint and sweet aszú wines.
Gizella is a Tokaj success story: In 2005, László Szilágyi planted his first grapes on a tiny 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 an eye on international wine trends, while also making consistently excellent wines that reflect Tokaj’s rich soil.
Géza Lenkey is a charismatic winemaker with an independent vision. Years ago, he noticed his wines were becoming more complex and layered over time, so, defying contemporary trends and financial prudence, he started to age the wines longer in his cellar before release. But Lenkey isn't totally indifferent to the present day, so you can also try his fresh and bubbly pét-nats. Advance booking is a must as Géza lives in Budapest part time.
Sparing no expense, Barta winery replanted with grapevines 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.
The family winery of Tímea and Tamás Éless is pioneering Tokaj’s fledgling natural wine movement. They believe in organic, low-intervention winemaking and using only a minimal amount of sulfur dioxide. In line with current trends, they age some of the wines in egg-shaped vats and clay pots. A couple of years ago, Szóló produced Tokaj’s first pét-nat, an easy-to-drink bubbly wine currently experiencing a global renaissance.
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Anthony Hwang, the American owner of Királyudvar winery 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 globally. 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.