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.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Tokaj has long been known globally for its golden-hued sweet aszú wines. 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 should I know about the history of Tokaj wines?
Unlike with the Roman-planted vineyards in today's western Hungary, it's unlikely that the Hungarian tribes found a sophisticated viticulture when they conquered Tokaj in the 9th century. It were French and Italian settlers in the 13th century who profoundly improved the region's viticulture: They introduced everything from soil management to pruning and barrel aging. Many village names in Tokaj still bear witness to these newcomers, for example Tállya, which comes from Old French, and Bodrogolaszi, which translates to "Italians by Bodrog."
When Ottoman Turkey seized southern Hungary in the 16th century, Tokaj fell outside the occupied territories. In fact, the Turkish invasion prompted the rise of Tokaj as many winemakers from other parts of the country found refuge here and the center of wine production shifted to Tokaj. During Tokaj's golden age, in the 16-19th centuries, the nectar-like aszú and esszencia wines were a status symbol across the European aristocracy. The Russian tzars even maintained a dedicated Tokaj purchasing committee in the 18th century.
For much of Tokaj's history, feudal landlords owned the vast vineyards. Most notable was the Rákóczi family, which lost it all in 1711 after Francis II led an unsuccessful war of independence against the Habsburgs. New families like the Trautson and the Degenfeld became then prominent. Tragically, the phylloxera aphid, which appeared in the 1880s, damaged most of Tokaj's vineyards (it took a hundred years for the wine region to get back to the pre-phylloxera level of output). After the Austro Hungarian Empire collapsed in WWI, two of Tokaj’s twenty-nine villages were annexed to newly created Czechoslovakia (today, they’re part of Slovakia).
During the communist era (1948-1989), the Hungarian state nationalized the vineyards and the state-owned cooperatives churned out mediocre wines in mass quantities. When communism ended, major international wineries purchased lands and started to re-establish Tokaj's global prestige. Apart from these big players, there are also many professional family wineries throughout the region today.
How is the climate and the soil of Tokaj?
Tokaj's vineyards occupy the northeastern segment of Europe's wine-growing region. Although a cool-climate wine region, long summers and dry falls help the grapes ripen, while the Bodrog and Tisza Rivers produce enough humidity for the growth of the "noble rot" that creates the precious aszú grapes, the basis of Tokaj's sweet wines (see more on aszús below). Also, the Zemplén Hills in the north shield the vineyards from cold winds.
The wine region sits on a volcanic bedrock of mainly rhyolite and andesite, which lends Tokaj wines a recognizably minerally 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 kind of grapes grow in Tokaj?
Synonymous with Tokaj are furmint and hárslevelű, two white grapes native to Hungary. They're used for everything from dry and sweet wines to single varietals and blends. Most winemakers regard the furmint, which accounts for 60 percent of planted vines, 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.
The aromatic hárslevelű can be more approachable for first-time Tokaj drinkers. At its best, it’s firm and tart and vibrant with floral and honey aromas. In blends, hárslevelű can take the edge off furmint and round out the wines.
Muscat blanc à petit grains (sárgamuskotály), the ancient Greek grape, occasionally also appears.
How are Tokaj’s sweet wines made?
Tokaj's 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 favorable combination of humidity-producing rivers and a dry fall, 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. The botrytis mold also produces a range of aroma compounds and glycerol, imparting the wines a signature taste and dense body. The first documented aszú wine is from 1571.
Part of the reason aszús are expensive is that harvesting them is hard: 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.
Despite containing more than 12 percent residual sugar, the balance between sweetness and acidity makes aszú wines so layered that sugar isn’t the first thing you notice. Other famous sweet wines, like Sauternes in France and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) in Germany, also rely on the botrytis mold to work its magic.
What kind of sweet wines exist in Tokaj?
There are three main categories of sweet Tokaj wines:
Szamorodni: Its name comes from Polish as people of Poland, just north of Tokaj, were especially fond of this style of wine in the past. Szamorodni translates to “as it comes,” referring to how the wine clusters are picked as a whole, so a blend of regular and botrytis grapes make it into the wine, similar to how a Sauternes is made. Szamorodnis lack the complexity of an aszú, but not by a huge margin.
Aszú: The pinnacle of Tokaj. Winemakers add hand-picked aszús grapes to a fermenting dry base wine made from regular grapes of the same crop. They measure the aszú grapes carefully in puttony, named after a traditional carrying basket. Five and six-puttony aszú wines are made commercially today. What emerges after years of 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: The rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich syrupy nectar that naturally trickles from aszú berries, 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 (they're more than 45 percent sugar). Its fermentation takes years because of all the sugar, which also prevents alcohol to reach higher than 4-5 percent. Esszencia wines command top prices, offering a playground for deep-pocketed wine collectors.
In addition, there are two kinds of secondary wines that are made after the initial processing: fordítás extracts precious flavors from already-pressed aszú grapes, while máslás relies on leftover lees (with a base wine added to both). A good thing about fordítás and máslás is that while they exhibit the signature flavors of sweet Tokajs, they're usually cheaper.
Does Tokaj also make dry wines?
Yes. In fact, the majority of wines produced in Tokaj are dry. 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. 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, usually fine and lightly filter their wines. Fining gets rid of tartrates, those white crystals you sometimes find at the bottom of your glass, and 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?
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. Hugh Johnson is convinced that sweet Tokajs are perfect with sweet-saline shellfish like shrimp.
The classic combination with an aszú wine is foie gras, but aszús also pair with blue cheese like Gorgonzola and Roquefort, and sweet desserts.
But many people simply enjoy an aszú as a post-meal treat on its own or in place of a dessert.
Is Tokaj 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 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 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 take a car to 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 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.