What is Tokaj and what happens there?
Tokaj, officially the “Tokaj foothills” and occasionally spelled “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 27 villages, 5,400 hectares (13,000 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 aszú wines made naturally sweet by the work of a benign fungus. 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 are Tokaj’s sweet aszú wines?
Thanks to Tokaj’s favorable combination of humidity-producing rivers and dry falls, a benign fungus called botrytis cinerea can attack some of the grapes and leave behind shriveled berries with a naturally intensified, sweet-tart flavor (dry falls are important to desiccate and concentrate the grapes). While the fungi munch away, a host of new flavor and aroma compounds are created — apricot, orange, honey — that make their way into the wines. The climatic conditions don’t align every year, meaning that a sweet wine vintage in Tokaj is never guaranteed.
Grapes infected by this “noble rot” are called aszú, and aszú wines are the heart of Tokaj’s sweet wines. Harvesting aszú grapes 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 500 kilos of regular grapes by the cluster.
Despite the natural sugar content from fruit sugars that didn't ferment into alcohol, a bracing acidity prevents aszús from tasting cloying. "Sweetness so balanced and held in check by the sharp-tasting furmint that they leave your mouth whistle-clean,” Hugh Johnson, the wine writer, once wrote. Other famous sweet wines like Sauternes in France and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) in Germany also rely on the botrytis mold to work its magic.
What should I know about the history of Tokaj wines?
Unlike with the Roman-planted vineyards in western Hungary, it's unlikely that the Hungarian tribes found any grapes when they invaded Tokaj in the 9th century CE. French, German, and Italian settlers in the 12-13th centuries helped improve winemaking with new techniques like soil management, pruning, and barrel aging. In fact, some of the 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 prompted by Ottoman Turkey's occupation of southern Hungary. Szerémség, which had been the top wine region, became part of the Ottoman territories and soon lost it relevance. Tokaj remained free and turned into the new winemaking center as vintners from other parts of the country flocked there.
During its golden age in the 17-19th centuries, Tokaj's specially made sweet wines were a status symbol across royal courts and the European aristocracy. The Russian tzars maintained a dedicated purchasing committee in Tokaj throughout the 18th century (hence the Russian orthodox church, which still stands in Tokaj's downtown). But with the partitions of Poland, also a major market, the punitive tarrifs introduced by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa to support Austrian over Hungarian wines, and the shifting global tastes from sweet to dry wines, things started to look less rosy for Tokaj.
For much of Tokaj's history, feudal aristocrats 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. After this, families loyal to the Habsburg court, such as the Trautsons and the Degenfelds, became the major landlords.
Tragically, the Europe-wide phylloxera aphid, which appeared here 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 pre-phylloxera production levels. 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 easily accessible but low-lying sites. The biggest market became the Soviet Union, with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for wines. The onset of capitalism ushered in prominent international wineries who, together with some local family producers, began the long process of restoring Tokaj's 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 of distribution overseen by feudal landlords.
In many towns, the Jewish population reached twenty percent, with Mád, Tolcsva, Abaújszántó, and Sátoraljaújhely being the centers (the Baroque synagogue of Mád was nicely refurbished recently). Tragically, almost all of Tokaj's Jews were deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and killed in the Holocaust. The few survivors soon left Hungary.
This part of northeastern Hungary was a hotbed of the ultra-orthodox Hasidim. As a poignant 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 (Kerestir in Yiddish) and Olaszliszka (Liska) to commemorate the death anniversary of the legendary rebbes who lived here.
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 and play an important role in the development of aszú grapes (see more on aszús below).
The wine region sits on the remains of hundreds of volcanic eruptions. The bedrock mainly consists of rhyolite and andesite with a mineral-rich clay topsoil. One exception is the area around Tokaj and Tarcal, where the loess topsoil — accumulation of windblown sediments from the nearby Hungarian Plain — translates to more subtle and delicate wines. 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 in Tokaj is their ability to ripen around the same time and to attract the benign botrytis fungus, the noble rot, a key component in sweet aszú wines. Today, furmint and hárslevelű grapes are used for everything from dry wines to sweet wines, from single varietals to blends.
Accounting for two-thirds of the total, furmint is 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 more aromatic hárslevelű can take the edge off furmint in blends and round out the wines.
Muscat blanc à petit grains (sárgamuskotály), the ancient Greek grape, occasionally also appears in blends.
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What kind of sweet wines exist in Tokaj?
There are three main categories of sweet Tokaj wines:
Szamorodni (Late Harvest): Dating to the 16th century, 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 tend to be somewhat lighter, fresher, and more approachable than aszús. Before the aszú became prominent in the 17th century, szamorodni was Tokaj's most important wine (it was called "the main wine" or "főbor" in Hungarian). Wines labeled as "Late Harvest" are nearly identical to a szamorodni. By law, szamorodnis contain at least 45 grams / liter of residual sugar and are aged for a minimum of six months in oak barrels.
Aszú: The finest expression of Tokaj and botrytis-made wines. The aszú evolved in the 17th century from the szamorodni, above, for reasons of commerical logic: depending on the vintage, the szamorodnis fluctuated too much from year to year, showing swings in sugar content for example. Since customers preferred a more predictable taste profile, Tokaj winemakers started to make wines from a fixed amount of aszú grapes each year, using a method that has effectively remained unchanged since.
Winemakers soak the carefully measured, hand-picked aszú grapes in a fermenting base wine for a few days. Once the flavors of the aszú berries have been extracted, the rich juice is pressed, fermented, and left in underground cellars. What emerges after years of barrel aging is a deeply aromatic and layered wine with signature notes of dried peach, orange, and honey. Aszú wines tend to improve over time — picking up notes of coffee, tea, chocolate — and can be aged for several decades.
The word "puttony" appears on many aszú labels. Puttony is a wooden carrying basket used in the past for collecting aszú grapes during harvest. Depending on how many puttonyful of aszú berries were added to a 136-liter capacity so-called Gönci barrel of base wine, the resulting aszú was assigned a puttony-rating. The actual puttony, sadly, is no longer in use — instead harvesters rely on regular buckets to collect the aszús — but, using a conversion, wineries can elect to show puttony on their labels. It's not mandatory, though. There exist five and six-puttony aszús, containing at least 120 and 150 grams per liter of residual sugar, respectively. If no "puttony" is shown on the label, the aszú wine is to contain at least 120 grams of residual sugar with a minumum 18 months of aging in oak barrels.
Esszencia: Also known as "nectar," esszencia is the rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich free-run syrup that naturally trickles from a pile of 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 esszencia's first mention is from 1707, when Prince Francis II Rákóczi sent it to royal courts across Europe to drum up support for his war of independence against the Austrian Habsburgs. Today, esszencia wines command top prices, offering a playground for deep-pocketed wine collectors.
In addition, there are two less common wines 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). While exhibiting the signature flavors of aszús, fordítás and máslás are usually somewhat cheaper.
Do people drink sweet wines?
Many do, including myself. To counter the reputation that Tokaji aszús were too rich and staid and old-school, wineries since the early 2000s have shifted to making fresher, fruitier, and more approachable sweet wines. They age the wines for a shorter period in oak barrels and keep the sugar levels under control so that the grapes, the soil, and the botrytis-induced flavors are better expressed. A 2013 wine law aligned these updated consumer preferences with the official critieria.
How much sugar do Tokaj's sweet wines contain?
Way less than most people think. Coke contains almost exactly the same amount of sugar as an aszú wine (120 grams per liter). And while Coke is made with added sugar, Tokaj and other botrytis-affected wines like Sauternes are sweet because of naturally remaining fruit sugar that didn't ferment into alcohol. The "sweet wine" label is somewhat misleading: Yes, these wines are sweet, but not that sweet, and there's a lot more going on than just sweetness.
Does Tokaj also make dry wines?
Yes. As a reaction to shifting global tastes, Tokaj winemakers started putting out dry wines starting around the year 2000. In fact, most of the top wineries make more dry than sweet wines these days. There's usually a first harvest in September when they pick grapes for the dry wines, and another round throughout October or November when botrytis-affected aszús will have formed (many in the good years, few in the bad years).
For now, there are meaningful stylistic differences among Tokaj's dry wines. Most tend to be fresh, vibrant, fruit-forward, and released within a few years of harvest. But a few producers aim higher, aging the wines longer so they show the complex aromas and flavors that come from years spent in barrels.
What kind of food goes with Tokaj wines?
As with all wines, there are no strict rules for food pairing. The classic combination with sweet wines is foie gras, blue cheese like Roquefort and Gorgonzola, and desserts. Tokajis go well with seafood and many people enjoy aszú as an aperitif or a post-meal treat on its own, or in place of a dessert. I like to drink aszús and szamorodnis with spicy and savory dishes, Thai curries for example.
Dry Tokajis 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.
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 using the Tokaj name, creating the first closed wine region in the world. Around the same time, a total of 231 Tokaj vineyards earned a first, second, or third class designation. 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), Mézes-máj (Tarcal), 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, owns Oremus; AXA Millésimes, the French wine conglomerate, owns Disznókő; and Anthony Hwang, an American investor also in charge of Domaine Huet in the Loire Valley, owns Királyudvar. In terms of size, they are followed by a few large Hungarian-owned family wineries such as Szepsy and Sauska. Finally, there are also hundreds of small family wineries in Tokaj with a few hectares of plot each.
Most winemakers in Tokaj agree that foreign companies were essential in putting Tokaj back on the international wine map by bringing much-needed capital, technical expertise, 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 big producers.
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.
How much intervention goes into Tokaj wines?
It depends. Some of the top winemakers such as Királyudvar and Hétszőlő farm organically, meaning they use no 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 clarify and filter the wines to achieve 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 like the bubbly pét-nat. Dorka Homoky and Szóló, both of them small family wineries in the village of Tállya, put out unfiltered, unclarified wines with only a very small amount of added sulfites.
As to orange wines, Tokaj has been making skin-contact white wines for hundreds of years: aszú grapes are soaked in a base wine before they’re pressed, picking up their signature amber-orange color along the way.
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 for decades, away from the Western world. But 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. You can feel as if you have the area all to yourself: A few birds of prey gliding 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 and rich in 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 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 settlements 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 a cab isn't 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 €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 advanced 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.