What is Tokaj and what happens there?
Tokaj, officially the “Tokaj foothills” and occasionally spelled as “Tokay,” is Hungary's most famous wine region, situated in the northeastern part of the country. 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 invaded Tokaj in the 9th century. French, German, and Italian settlers in the 12-13th century helped improve winemaking by introducing techniques like soil management and 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."
Tokaj's rise in the 16th century was actually prompted by the occupation of southern Hungary by Ottoman Turkey. Szerémség, which had been the top wine region, became part of the Ottoman territories and soon lost it relevance. Tokaj, on the other hand, remained free and transformed into the new winemaking center as people from other parts of the country flocked there. During its golden age in the 17-19th centuries, Tokaj's sweet wines were a status symbol across royal courts and the European aristocracy. The Russian tzars had a dedicated purchasing committee stationed in Tokaj throughout the 18th century (hence the Russian orthodox church, which still stands in Tokaj's downtown).
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 Trautsons and the Degenfelds became then prominent. Tragically, the Europe-wide phylloxera aphid, which appeared in 1885, destroyed most vineyards in Tokaj. Desperate winemakers who suddenly lost their livelihoods migrated to the United States en masse. 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 (they planted new vineyards on the lowest quality low-lying sites). When communism ended, major international wineries purchased lands and, along with Hungarian family wineries, began the process of restoring Tokaj's global prestige.
What should I know about Tokaj's Jewish history?
As wine merchants, Jewish people played a key role in selling Tokaj wines across Europe. Despite the local laws that made it hard for them to ply their trade, by the 19th century Jews were in charge of most exports. They introduced a much-needed spirit of capitalism into the antiquated system ran by feudal landlords.
In many towns, the Jewish population reached 20 percent, with Mád, Tolcsva, and Sátoraljaújhely being the centers (the Baroque synagogue of Mád has been nicely refurbished recently). Tragically, almost all of Tokaj's Jews perished during the Holocaust in 1944 and even the few survivors left the country.
As a reminder of Tokaj's once flourishing Jewish life, every year, big groups of Hasidic Jews from New York City descend on the village of Bodrogkeresztúr to commemorate the death anniversary of their legendary rebbe Yeshaya Steiner who lived here (the name of their dynasty — Kerestir — is derived from the village's name).
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. When winemakers make sweet wines, they count on a special mold, botrytis cinerea, to attacks the grapes (see more on aszús below). The two nearby rivers, the Bodrog and Tisza, are essential in producing the humidity required to trigger the growth of botrytis.
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 that together acccount for nearly 90 percent of all planted vines. What made them so widespread is that they ripen around the same time and both of them are prone to developing the "noble rot," which is key to making sweet wines. Today, furmint and hárslevelű are used for everything from dry wines to sweet wines, from single varietals to blends.
Most winemakers regard the furmint as Tokaj’s main 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 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 in blends.
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 can attack some of the grapes, extract their liquid, and leave behind shriveled raisins with a naturally intensified, sweet-tart flavor (the dry falls are important to limit the infection). Grapes infected by this “noble rot” are called aszú, and aszú wines are the heart of Tokaj’s sweet wines. Apart from making the grapes more concentrated, the botrytis mold also produces a range of new aroma compounds and glycerol, which imparts a signature taste and a dense body. They've been making aszú wines in Tokaj since the 16th century.
Part of the reason aszús are expensive is that harvesting them is hard: laborers need to 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 a minimum of 12 percent residual sugar, there is a balance between sweetness and acidity so 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: Szamorodni translates to “as it comes,” referring to how the wine clusters are picked as a whole, so a blend of regular and botrytis-infected aszú grapes make it into the wine, similar to how a Sauternes is made. Its name comes from Polish as people of Poland, not far from Tokaj, were especially fond of this style of wine in the 19th century. Szamorodnis lack the complexity of an aszú, but not by a huge margin. The minimum residual sugar content of a szamorodni is 4.5 percent.
Aszú: Winemakers soak hand-picked aszús grapes in a fermenting base wine 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. The minimum residual sugar content of an aszú wine is 12 percent.
Esszencia: Also known as "nectar," esszencia is the rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich syrup that naturally trickles from a pile of 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. 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. The minimum residual sugar content of an esszencia is 45 percent.
In addition, there are two kinds of less common, 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. They both have a minimum residual sugar content of 4.5 percent.
Does Tokaj also make dry wines?
Yes. Currently about 20 percent of all wines in Tokaj are dry. Global tastes have long ago shifted to less concentrated wines and this is also reflected in Tokaj. Among the top wineries, there's usually a first harvest in September when grapes are picked for the dry wines, and another one in October when sugar-rich aszús will have formed (many in the good years, few in the bad years). There are winemakers, especially of the younger generation, who focus 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 chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the vineyards. Many also 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 winemaking processes.
As to orange wines, Tokaj has been making skin-contact white wines for hundreds of years: skin-on aszú grapes have to be soaked for a day or two in a base wine 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 winemakers in Tokaj agree that foreign companies helped put Tokaj back on the international wine map by bringing much-needed capital 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. The classic combination with an aszú wine is foie gras, but aszús also pair with blue cheese like Gorgonzola and Roquefort, and sweet desserts. The legendary British wine writer Hugh Johnson is convinced that sweet Tokajs are best with sweet-saline shellfish like shrimp. But many people simply enjoy aszú as a post-meal treat on its own, or in place of a dessert.
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.
Is Tokaj worth visiting?
Absolutely. 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. Softly rolling hills coated in vineyards 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.
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 her or him about anything: approach to winemaking, favorite vintage, 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, but I highly recommend that you take a car.
The wine region consists of 27 villages, but Mád, Tarcal, Tokaj, Tállya, and Erdőbénye have the highest concentration of renowned wineries (Sárospatak, a city in the north, is the most cultural). 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. 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 each tasting, there’s a chance to purchase wines directly from the wineries at prices that are meaningfully cheaper — between €10 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.