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 of it even without swallowing.
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 dimly lit, 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 damp underground cellars. The molds feed on wine that evaporates from the barrels, and they gradually turn into black, fluffy chunks of unsolicited design elements blanketing every inch of the cellars.
Speaking of wine cellars, even in the summer months it’s pretty cold down there. Be sure to bring a sweater with you.
Tokaj has hundreds of winemakers, both small and corporate owned. Based on my visits and interviews with sommeliers, I list below some of my favorites that accept visitors, but feel free to venture out on your own. Note that not all winemakers speak perfect English, but they're all able to convey what makes their wines special.
Built delicately into the hillside of Mád, this high-tech winery doubles as 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 varietal 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 from the Loire Valley in France, 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 best in Tokaj.
For Judit and József Bodó, Tokaj isn’t just about making wine. They feel it behooves them to pass on the Tokaj heritage to the next generation—be it by mentoring other vintners, or organizing a communal harvest for the local students so “the kids learn and appreciate early on what a special place they come from” says Judit. Their wines are highly sought after and tend to sell out within weeks of their release.
In the early 2000s, Attila Homonna was among the first to redefine what a dry Tokaj meant (crisp, elegant, not too oaky). Ever since, 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 international wine circles, he doesn’t chase contemporary trends—currently he’s focused on sweet wines. Attila spends less time in Tokaj these days, but do try to meet him.
László Alkonyi is a unique character. His love affair with the region started when, as a Budapest-based journalist, he published several seminal works about Tokaj. Ultimately, he moved there full time, starting his own winery in 2012. He’s still 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 has been a great success story: In 2005, László Szilágyi started planting grapes on a one-hectare plot; today, he produces more than 30,000 bottles annually, and his wines appear in premium wine stores and Budapest’s Michelin-starred restaurants. The recipe for success? He keeps one eye on international wine trends, and the other on making consistently excellent wines that reflect Tokaj’s rich soil.
Like Attila Homonna, Géza Lenkey is another charismatic figure with an independent vision about winemaking. Years ago, Lenkey noticed that his wines were becoming more complex and layered over time, so he began to systematically barrel and bottle age them for years before release, hence their light shade of orange. For the first time, he also puts out a pét-nat this year. Advance booking is a must, as he lives in Budapest part time.
István Balassa is a shining star of the new generation of Hungarian winemakers. He’s keen to express the complex volcanic soil of Tokaj through his wines: he produces three different kinds of dry wines from a single vineyard in Mád (Betsek), splitting it by the soil’s mineral composition—rhyolite, andesite, and quartz. He’s also smart and articulate, making him a popular figure within Budapest's wine circles.
After a 50-year hiatus during communism, Barta winery replanted Öreg Király, one of the original first-class vineyards of Tokaj. 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, run by Tímea and Tamás Éless, is a pioneer of Tokaj’s fledgling natural wine movement. They believe in organic, low-intervention winemaking, using a minimal amount of sulfur dioxide, and often not stabilizing or filtering their wines in order to lock in more flavors. In line with current trends, they even age wines in a couple of 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.
Anthony Hwang, the American owner of Királyudvar winery, believes that the soil in Tokaj is the best in the world, only rivaled by Mosel, and that furmint can stand up to any grape varietal. 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.