What is Tokaj and what happens there?
Tokaj, officially the “Tokaj foothills” and occasionally spelled as “Tokay,” is home to the world’s oldest designated wine region in northeastern Hungary, dating back to 1737. The town of Tokaj has come to represent the whole wine region, but the area spans across 27 villages, 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of planted vines, and hundreds of mostly small wineries.
Tokaj, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, became known for its amber-hued sweet wines made with a unique production method. It was Louis XIV, the King of France, who famously said that Tokaj was “the wine of kings, the king of wines.” Today, both sweet and dry wines are made here.
What’s so special about Tokaj’s wines?
In short: the soil and the climate that creates them. In the north, the Zemplén Hills shield the vineyards from cold winds. In the south, the Bodrog and Tisza Rivers produce humidity that helps foster the growth of the precious aszú grapes, the basis of Tokaj's sweet wines. Although a cool-climate wine region, Tokaj tends to have long summers and dry falls — factors that help the grapes ripen.
The other unique quality to Tokaj is its volcanic bedrock. A varied mix of rocks, mainly rhyolite and andesite, lend the wines a recognizably mineral-rich flavor. Interestingly, the exact soil composition, and hence the resulting wines, can be very different across the vineyards, even between neighboring parcels. To highlight this diverse terroir, many wineries produce single-vineyard wines.
What should I know about the history of Tokaj wines?
Italian and French settlers came to Tokaj in the 13th century to help rebuild Hungary after the Mongol invasion. They brought new grape varieties and techniques and set Tokaj on a path of serious winemaking. When Ottoman Turkey expanded into southern Hungary in the 16th century, the center of the country’s wine production shifted to unoccupied Tokaj in the north. This period marked the golden era for Tokaj: the sweet aszú wines became a sought-after delicacy across Europe, counting emperors, tsars, and presidents among the admirers.
After the Austro Hungarian Empire collapsed in WWI, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territories. Two of Tokaj’s twenty-nine villages were annexed to newly created Czechoslovakia (today, they’re part of Slovakia).
During the communist era — from 1948 to 1989 — state-owned collectives were in charge of winemaking. The goal was to maximize production, so quantity trumped quality and most wine ended up among undiscerning consumers in the Eastern Bloc. Since the 1990s, the wineries are privately owned and consumers are once again starting to understand and appreciate Tokaj wines.
What kind of grapes grow in Tokaj?
The two grapes synonymous with Tokaj are furmint and hárslevelű, both white grapes native to Hungary. Furmint and hárslevelű make both dry and sweet wines, as well as single varietals and blends. Most winemakers regard the furmint, the dominant variety, as Tokaj’s noble grape. With a racy acidity, furmint makes crisp, elegant wines, while also reflecting Tokaj’s volcanic soil with a mineral tingle. In sweet wines, furmint’s high acidity is essential in keeping sweetness in check — it’s thanks to furmint that they don’t taste cloying.
The aromatic hárslevelű can be more approachable for some first-time Tokaj drinkers. At its best, it’s firm and tart and vibrant with floral and honey aromas. The hárslevelű can take the edge off furmint and round out the wines.
In blends, muscat blanc à petit grains (sárgamuskotály) is occasionally also added.
Why are Tokaj’s sweet wines famous?
Although most of its wines are dry, Tokaj is best known for having pioneered a novel method of making sweet wine in the 17th century. These sweet wines aren’t just regular late-harvest wines made from sugar-rich grapes that were picked late (although those too exist).
Instead, thanks to Tokaj’s humidity-producing rivers and creeks, a benign mold called botrytis cinerea attacks some of the grapes, extracts their liquid, and leaves behind shriveled raisins with a naturally intensified, sweet-tart flavor. Grapes infected by this “noble rot” are called aszú, and aszú wines are the heart of Tokaj’s sweet wines. Part of the reason they’re so expensive is because harvesting aszú grapes is an arduous task: laborers need to inspect and individually pick aszú grapes off the bunch. On an average day, they may pick eight kilos of aszú compared to 300 kilos of regular grapes by the cluster.
Other famous sweet wines, like Sauternes in France and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) in Germany, also rely on the botrytis mold to work its magic. What makes Tokaj special is the balance between sweetness and acidity — these honey-like nectars can be so layered and complex that sugar isn’t the first thing you notice.
What kind of sweet wines exist in Tokaj?
There are four main categories of sweet Tokaj wines:
Late harvest: The entry level. Packing less sugar and being lighter and fruitier than the longer-aged varieties, late harvest wines could be your first foray into the world of sweet Tokaj wines. Besides being the most wallet-friendly option, they work both as an aperitif and post-meal drink.
Szamorodni: Its name comes from Polish and means “as it comes.” This refers to how the wine clusters are picked as a whole, rather than by individual grapes, so the wine is a blend of regular and aszú grapes, similar to a French Sauternes. Szamorodni lacks the complexity of an aszú, but not by a huge margin.
Aszú: The pinnacle of Tokaj. Winemakers add hand-picked aszú grapes to a fermenting dry base wine made from regular grapes of the same crop. Historically, they measured the proportions in puttony, named after a traditional carrying basket. What emerges after barrel aging is a deeply aromatic and layered wine, of which a small 500 ml bottle can easily run a few hundred euros in restaurants.
Esszencia: This is the rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich juice that naturally trickles from aszú grapes, without the addition of a base wine. The result is a honeyed elixir with a level of concentration so high that upscale restaurants often serve it with a spoon. The fermentation takes years because of all the sugar, which also prevents alcohol to reach higher than four to five percent. Esszencia wines command top prices, offering a playground for deep-pocketed wine collectors.
Does Tokaj also make dry wines?
Yes. In fact, the majority of wine produced in Tokaj is dry. Starting in the early 1990s, as global tastes were shifting away from sweet wines, Tokaj wineries began to turn to dry wines with renewed interest. Today, many winemakers, especially of the younger generation, focus mainly on dry wines, believing that those can best express Tokaj’s distinct volcanic soil.
How much intervention goes into Tokaj wines?
It depends, but many of the top winemakers farm organically (meaning, they don’t use any pesticides in the vineyards), and rely on wild yeasts to naturally ferment the grape juice into alcohol. They do, however, fine and lightly filter their wines. Fining gets rid of tartrates, those white crystals you sometimes find at the bottom of your glass, whereas filtering creates a clean-looking wine without deposits and a chance of an accidental re-fermentation in the bottle.
How about natural and orange wines in Tokaj?
A couple of wineries have started to experiment with natural wines and other low-intervention contemporary products. One of the first producers to embrace natural wines — and also the bubbly pét-nat — was Szóló, a small family winery in the village of Tállya. Szóló’s efforts are sometimes met with sneering contempt by other Tokaj winemakers, who think they’re cutting corners on well-established wine making processes.
As to orange wines, it was local winemaker Attila Homonna who put it best: “Tokaj has been making skin-contact white wines for hundreds of years.” By definition, aszú is an orange wine as the grapes have to macerate for a day before they’re pressed, picking up their signature amber-orange hue along the way.
What are the best vineyards of Tokaj? Is there a classification system like in Bordeaux or Burgundy?
In 1737, a royal decree laid out the 22 villages that were permitted to use the Tokaj name, creating the first closed wine region in the world. Around the same time, a total of 231 Tokaj vineyards were designated as first, second, or third class. Most of the 48 first-class parcels were in the villages of Tarcal (14), Tállya (8), Tokaj (7), and Mád (6). In 2012, local winemaker László Alkonyi updated Tokaj’s centuries-old classification system.
In terms of specific vineyards, Szent Tamás (Mád), Betsek (Mád), Nyulászó (Mád), Király (Mád), Tökös-máj (Tállya), Szarvas (Tokaj), and Hétszőlő (Tokaj) are generally regarded as the most prestigious.
Who owns the wineries in Tokaj?
After the fall of communism, the Hungarian state began to privatize Tokaj’s state-owned vineyards in the 1990s. This resulted in a handful of cash-rich foreign companies acquiring massive holdings. For example, Vega Sicilia, the iconic Spanish winery, AXA Millésimes, the French wine conglomerate, and Anthony Hwang, an American investor also in charge of Domaine Huet in the Loire Valley, all have major wineries in Tokaj. Apart from them, there are hundreds of small family wineries with a few hectares of plot each (some are bigger, of course).
Most people in Tokaj agree that foreign companies helped put Tokaj back on the international wine map by bringing much-needed capital, knowledge, and a global distribution network. Hugh Johnson, the British wine writer and author of “The World Atlas of Wine,” was an early proponent of Tokaj and later a minority shareholder of Royal Tokaji, one of the foreign investors.
Today, the Hungarian state has one remaining holding, Grand Tokaj, which produces wines mainly from grapes purchased from mom-and-pop winegrowers. More recently, big-pocketed Hungarian businessmen, like József Váradi, the CEO of Wizz Air, were also lured by the siren song of Tokaj, acquiring wineries as side projects.
What kind of food goes with Tokaj wines?
As with all wines, there are no strict rules for food pairing. Dry Tokajs work well with fish of all kinds, pickled foods like stuffed cabbage where the furmint’s acidity syncs up with the tart flavors, and also Mangalitsa pork and lamb.
Tokaj’s sweet wines make great aperitifs and also go with sweet-saline shellfish like shrimp. The classic combination with aszú wine is foie gras, but aszús also pair with blue cheese like Gorgonzola and Roquefort, and sweet desserts.
Many people, however, simply enjoy an aszú as a post-meal treat on its own or in place of a dessert.
Is the Tokaj wine region worth visiting?
Despite a long history of winemaking, Tokaj isn’t nearly as popular as other historic wine regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy. Part of this is because Tokaj was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, away from the Western world, for decades. But, years later in the post-communism present, this also means it has retained an unmistakable sense of place and it’s more approachable than tourist-heavy wine regions.
If it wasn’t for the occasional state-of-the-art wineries that noticeably stand out from their surroundings, you’d think that time has stopped long ago in Tokaj. Vineyard-coated rolling hills connect Tokaj’s sleepy medieval villages, some of them tucked away in green valleys with less than a thousand residents. The pace of life is slow; visitors are few. Sometimes you feel as if you have the area all to yourself: A few birds of prey floating above are the only creatures you’ll have to share the sunset vistas with from the top of Szent Tamás vineyard, one of, if not the most valuable in Tokaj.
The wine tastings, too, are more personal than what you might be used to. At many of the smaller wineries, it’s the head winemaker who leads the tastings, especially if you book in advance. You can ask him or her about anything: approach to winemaking, favorite vintage, and visions for Tokaj.
Is there anything to do in Tokaj besides wine-tasting?
Although mainly a wine region, not everything is about fermented grape juice in Tokaj. Cradled by the Zemplén mountains, the area is beautiful with panoramic hiking trails. There are also a couple of excellent restaurants, a medieval church in almost every village, a renaissance castle in Sárospatak, and a rich Jewish history throughout the region. Also, several accommodation options offer a chance to experience the once-lavish lifestyle of the Hungarian aristocracy. See my specific recommendations here.
What’s the best way to get into and around Tokaj?
The Tokaj wine region is located 230 kilometers (145 miles) from Budapest. By car, travel takes about two and a half hours to get to its southernmost end. There’s also a direct, three-hour train service between Budapest’s Keleti railway station and the town of Tokaj.
The wine region consists of 27 villages, but Mád, Tarcal, Tokaj, Tállya, and Erdőbénye have the highest concentration of renowned wineries. The village of Mád is currently the heart of Tokaj, having the most vineyards, about 70 wineries, and several accommodation options.
The villages are usually within less than fifteen minutes from one another by car. I highly recommend that you rent a car in Budapest and use that to get around Tokaj. There’s just a single taxi company in the whole wine region, and hence not available at all times. (If you decide to use a taxi, it costs around €15 to travel from one village to the next, and the cab company, Pirint Taxi, is reachable at +36 30 958 7495.)
Can I buy wines in Tokaj?
Yes. After the tastings, there’s a chance to purchase wines directly from the wineries at prices that are meaningfully cheaper — between €15 and €30 for most bottles — than what you might have paid for Tokajs in wine shops or restaurants in your home country in the past.
What else should I be mindful of before visiting Tokaj?
The service sector in the wine region — hotels, restaurants, stores and the like — is not as developed as what you might be used to. The villages in Tokaj are small, with up to a couple of thousand residents in each, and as night falls, the streets become eerily quiet. But don’t despair. I recommend many tried-and-tested wineries, restaurants, hotels, and activities, and also remember that a sense of discovery can be part of the fun of traveling.