No doubt, the highlight of a Tokaj trip is the winery visits: You get to meet passionate winemakers and taste excellent wines. I included below a list and a short profile of my favorites. This list is by nature subjective, reflecting my own impressions based on multiple visits and tastings. You'll find both sizable, corporate-owned wineries and small operations; either way, I’m partial to wineries that convey a special sense of place.
A few things to keep in mind
Try booking a tasting as far in advance as possible. Note that not all wineries offer a tasting, or not year-round.
If you’re at least somewhat knowledgeable about wines and curious to learn more, 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.
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 taste it.
Not all winemakers speak flawless English but most are conversational.
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 dim, 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 underground cellars. The molds feed on wine that evaporates from the barrels and gradually turn into black, fluffy chunks of unsolicited design elements blanketing every inch of the cellar.
Speaking of wine cellars, it’s pretty cold down there even in the summer months, so be sure to bring a sweater with you.
The wineries & winemakers
A grand old man of Tokaj known for his relentless perfectionism, Zoltán Demeter is one of the most colorful characters of the wine region. He cares deeply about preserving Tokaj’s cultural legacy, his foundation created a memorial park for Tokaj’s key figures, reissued historic documents, and launched wine photography competitions. Demeter’s winery is based in a landmark-protected 18th-century building in downtown Tokaj, where soft classical music fills the pristine space of perfectly aligned oak barrels. He was the first to make champagne-style bubbles in Tokaj, and both his dries and sweet aszús are among the very best.
Perhaps the best-known winery in all of Hungary, Szepsy means the pinnacle of Tokaj. István Szepsy, a brilliant winemaker and a talented businessman, set the direction for the entire wine region in post-Communist Hungary. First, by drawing attention to Tokaj’s dry wines, later by showing the full potential of single-vineyard aszús (a bottle from the Szent Tamás vineyard retails for north of €600), and championing the furmint grape. Following a recent stroke, Szepsy has retired from the day-to-day operations and currently his son, István Szepsy Jr., the 16th generation in this winemaking family, is overseeing the company in a similar vein.
One of the major players, Disznókő was among the first private wineries of Tokaj in post-Communist Hungary. The French AXA Millésimes, which also owns venerable domains in Bordeaux and Burgundy, stands behind this hundred-hectare operation while László Mészáros is at the helm locally. Disznókő's claim to fame is their fresh, fruity, and deeply expressive aszú wines, which are meant to be paired with savory, even spicy dishes. You're also here for the architecture: Hungarian starchitect Dezső Ekler designed the striking winery and tractor garage in 1993.
Anthony Hwang, the American owner of Királyudvar winery, believes that Tokaj's soil is the best in the world, only rivaled by Mosel, and that furmint can stand up to any grape variety globally. Note that this comes from someone who also owns Domaine Huet, the legendary Vouvray winery in the Loire Valley region of France. Királyudvar, a biodynamic producer, puts out top sparkling wines, and their dry and off-dry (“demi sec”) furmints are chiseled and elegant but also silky and round and among my favorites.
For Judit and József Bott, Tokaj isn’t just about making wine; they feel it behooves them to pass on Tokaj's cultural legacy to the next generation — be it by mentoring other winemakers or organizing a communal harvest for local students so that “the kids learn and appreciate early on what a special place they come from,” said Judit. They don’t try to chase the latest trends; their wines, most of them dry, are beautifully round and textured and sought out by discerning drinkers in Hungary and abroad. They tend to sell out within weeks of release.
Some refer to Stéphanie Berecz as the "Queen of Tokaj." A native of the Loire Valley, she came to Tokaj in 1993 as a college exchange student to help out at French-owned Disznókő winery for a few months. Twenty-nine years hence, she’s still here, now tending her own five-hectare family vineyard with her charming, nature-loving, Hungarian husband, Zsolt Berecz. Many people believe that their dry hárslevelűs are among the great wines of Tokaj.
In the early aughts, Attila Homonna was among the first to redefine what a dry Tokaj meant: crisp, elegant, with just a touch of oak. His wines appear in Michelin-starred restaurants anywhere from New York to Tokyo and he's a role model for Hungarian winemakers of the younger generation. Although plugged into the international wine circles, he doesn’t chase contemporary trends — currently he’s focused on going back to Tokaj's roots, putting out botrytis-based sweet wines. Attila splits his time between Tokaj and the Balaton wine region, but do try to meet him.
A native of Bordeaux, Samuel Tinon came to Tokaj thirty years ago and fell in love with the region. He worked as a wine consultant before launching his winery in the village of Olaszliszka, where he and his wife, Mathilde, a wine journalist, have lived since 1998. Tinon is an expert of botrytis-based wines, especially the dry szamorodni, a rarely seen dry made with botrytis grapes and aged in oak barrels for up to eight years. He recommends that people crack open a bottle on a Sunday morning or afternoon with a book or while listening to music.
Royal Tokaji - Zoltán Kovács (Mád; 107 hectares / 260 acres; +36 47 548 500)
One of the anchor wineries, Royal's origins go back to Hugh Johnson, the legendary wine writer and co-founder, who was an early champion of Tokaj (there's a bronze bust of him within the premises). Royal owns sizable plots on the most prized vineyards — Szent Tamás, Betsek, Mézes Mály, Nyulászó — and bottles single-vineyard aszús from each. Their esszencia wines have been among the world's most expensive but they also put out wallet-friendlier dries and botrytis-kisses sweet wines. Today, the De László family, from England with Hungarian roots, is in charge of the company, which is overseen by Zoltán Kovács.
Tokaj-Oremus (Tolcsva; 115 hectares / 284 acres; +36 20 251 2240)
Owned by the Spanish wine conglomerate Vega Sicilia, Oremus is one of the main producers of the region. Former head winemaker András Bacsó was instrumental in setting Tokaj's path in post-Communist Hungary. The neoclassical guest house and the straw-colored modern winery have both become treasures of the local village (Tolcsva). The tastings take place inside a medieval, labyrinthine cellar, featuring both their iconic "Mandolás" dry furmint and sweet aszú wines.
Tokaj-Hétszőlő (Tokaj; 55 hectares / 136 acres; +36 47 352 009)
One of the producers in Tokaj whose main focus is botrytis-based sweet wines rather than dries. Their late harvests, szamorodnis, and aszús express the ethereal elegance of Tokaj’s loess soil compared with the heftier wines coming from the volcanic soils to the north. The sweeping 55-hectare vineyard blanketing the south side of Tokaj Hill is a true eye-candy lined with walking trails. Not far from the vines, in downtown Tokaj, they have a wine store with a historic cellar underneath it.
László Alkonyi is a unique character and a great asset to Tokaj. His love affair with the region started when he was the Budapest-based editor of Borbarát, a seminal wine magazine. In 2012, he moved to Tokaj full time and started his own winery. Today, he farms a one-hecatre plot on Tökös-máj, perhaps the most valuable vineyard in all of Tokaj. Alkonyi is a treasure trove of information with many opinions about the wine region and its place in the world. Every year, he does several rounds of harvests in search for “perfect” grapes and the results speak for themselves.
Sparing no expense, the owner of Barta winery, Károly Barta, replanted with grapevines Öreg Király, one of the original first-class vineyards of Tokaj that had fallen into neglect. 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 salty, minerally wine made from the grapes before you. Apart from the vineyards, Barta has also brought back to life a 17th century Baroque estate, Rákóczi-Aspremont, which functions as a hotel currently.
This boutique Tokaj winery belongs to Zwack, the eponymous Hungarian herbal liqueur producer of the same name. Dobogó's plots span across the most prestigious vineyards in Mád (Szent Tamás, Betsek, Úrágya). Minority owner Attila Domokos runs the day-to-day operations of the company, which exports nearly all of the 20-25,000 bottles produced annually. Both their dries and sweets — late harvest, szamorodni, aszú — are precise and balanced, with unmistakable Tokaj character. Interestingly, Dobogó also makes a small amount of pinot noirs, despite it not being one of the classic grapes in this white wine region.
A true family operation helmed by Hajnalka and Miklós Prácser, with their father in charge of the vines, mother of the admin work. Hajnalka's husband, the American-native Ronn Wiegand, a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier, lends his refined palate during the blending process. Their vines grow both in the volcanic soils of Mád and in the loess of Tokaj, and it's fascinating to compare the results. Erzsébet's labyrinthine cellar once belonged to Elizabeth Petrovna, the Russian Empress who maintained a dedicated purchasing team in Tokaj in the 18th century (hence the winery's name). Hajnalka also runs the godsend Tokaji Kávépörkölő Manufaktúra, the wine region's one and only coffee roaster and new-wave coffee shop.
Winemaking in Sarolta Bárdos's family goes back several generations. A native of Tokaj, she was head winemaker at esteemed Tokaj domains (Degenfeld, Béres) before launching her own winery. She's best known for her dry furmint and hárslevelű from the Barakonyi vineyard as well as her sparkling wines that are sold in places like the Four Seasons Budapest. Together with Stephanie Berecz and Judit Bodó, the three of them also put out a blend under the "Három Grácia" label.
Built delicately into the hillside of Mád, this high-tech winery doubles as an 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 variety with a spicy aroma. The tastings take place inside a 600-year-old, two-kilometer-long underground cellar, one of the longest in Tokaj.
One of the promising winemakers of the next generation, Kata Zsirai has been in charge of this 16 hectare winery since the premature death of her father. With youthful energy, she has been constantly fine tuning the winemaking processes. Her dries are elegant but also textured, expressing the soil they come from, be it the beguiling furmint from Betsek or the intensely steely, salty one from the Szent Tamás vineyard. The Zsirais also have a guest house, located right in the heart of Mád.
After majoring in philosophy and film in Budapest, Dorka Homoky returned to the family vineyard in Tállya to strike it out on her own. Since 2019, she doesn't filter or clarify her wines and uses only a minimum amount of sulfites. Her natural wines and bubbly pet-nats are popular among the hip Budapest crowd and sell out months after release. She has ambitious expansion plans, currently building a new winery in Tállya.
Gizella is a Tokaj success story: In 2005, László Szilágyi planted his first grapes on a tiny plot; fifteen years hence, he produces more than 30,000 bottles annually and his wines appear in premium wine stores and top restaurants across Hungary. The recipe for success? He keeps an eye on international wine trends, while also making consistently excellent wines that reflect Tokaj’s rich soil.
Géza Lenkey is a charismatic winemaker with an independent vision. Years ago, he noticed his wines were becoming more complex and layered over time, so, defying contemporary trends and financial prudence, he started to age them longer in his cellar before release. But Lenkey isn't totally indifferent to the present day, so you can also try his fresh and bubbly pét-nats. Advance booking is a must as Géza lives in Budapest part time.
Dénes Szarka is one of the most talented winemakers from the next generation. He is a man of few words but with a tireless work ethic: apart from tending his own small vineyards, he’s in charge of winemaking at Pelle Pince. Dénes’s 2017 six-puttony aszú was recently chosen as the best in Hungary. Still, his dry and sweet wines offer one of the best price-to-quality in Tokaj.
The family winery of Tímea and Tamás Éless is pioneering Tokaj’s fledgling natural wine movement. They believe in organic, low-intervention winemaking, using only a minimal amount of sulfur dioxide. In line with current trends, they age some of the wines in egg-shaped vats and clay pots. A couple of years ago, Szóló produced Tokaj’s first pét-nat, an easy-to-drink bubbly wine currently experiencing a global renaissance.
Krisztián Ungváry isn't "just" a Tokaj winemaker, he's also a renowned historian. Without a background, he became interested in wines and set up shop in the scenic Erdőbénye, nestled in a small valley cradled by dense forests. Since his start in 1997, he has been polishing and improving his wines, which are fruity and elegant and balanced and surprisingly affordable (be sure not to miss his pinot noir). As one would expect, he has all the answers about Tokaj's history; tasting with him is a memorable experience.
István Balassa is a shining star of the new generation of Tokaj winemakers. He’s keen to express the complex volcanic soil of Tokaj through his wines. This he does by producing single-vineyard wines, splitting them by the soil's mineral composition — rhyolite, andesite, and quartz. Balassa is also smart and articulate and media savvy, making him a popular figure within Budapest wine circles.