László Mészáros is the General Manager and head winemaker of Disznókő, a leading winery in Hungary known for its sweet Tokaj wines. Disznókő is owned by the French AXA Millésimes. In addition to leading Disznókő, László contributes to winemaking decisions at AXA’s other prominent domains, including Château Pichon Baron (Bordeaux) and Outpost Wines (Napa Valley). Disznókő wines are available in big cities around the world.
Let's start with the basics: What is Tokaj?
Tokaj is a white wine region in northeastern Hungary. Surrounding 27 small towns and villages lie 5,300 hectares (13,000 acres) of planted vines. It’s one of the most special wine regions in the world.
What makes it special?
The volcanic soil and the microclimate. Tokaj winemakers have long known this. In the 18th century, they demarcated the area that was permitted to use the Tokaj name and created a vineyard classification system – basically ranked all the plots. This was a very modern approach for the time.
Tokaj is famous for the aszú. What is it?
Aszú is a sweet wine made from grapes that went through a special rotting process. It’s called “noble rotting” since the grapes are transformed in a positive way. It’s not so much the sweetness but the complexity that’s special about the aszú: depth, rich aromas, freshness.
What grapes are used to make these wines?
Furmint and hárslevelű are the main grapes in Tokaj. They’re both native to Hungary and prevalent only here.
How does this noble rotting work?
We don’t harvest until the fall, when the grapes are rich in fruit sugar. By then, a fungus called botrytis attacks some of the grapes and thins their skin. In the dry September and October days, which are so typical in Tokaj, the sun concentrates the grapes’ contents: their sugar, their acidity, their flavor and aroma compounds. It’s a transformation made entirely by nature. No sugar or alcohol is added to the wines.
What kind of food goes with an aszú?
You can drink aszú with dessert, to match sweet with sweet. But it offers even more with spicy dishes or sharp cheeses because the aszú’s richness and acidity stands up to those foods. It’s also a wine you’d enjoy by itself, at the beginning or at the end of a meal, savoring all of its complex flavors.
Are there also dry wines in Tokaj?
Yes. Starting in the late 1990s and with more ambitions from the early 2000s, a modern style of Tokaj Dry has been made. Typically, these are minerally, salty wines from the furmint grape. Some wineries release them quickly and focus on fruity freshness, others prefer long barrel-aging. Furmint isn’t an aromatic wine, which means it can nicely express the character of its soil.
How do you pair a dry furmint with food?
A crisp furmint straight out of a steel tank can be wonderful with seafood or salads. Those with more age and complexity go with substantive dishes, chicken, pork, even red meats. The inherent acidity of furmint makes it easy to pair it with food.
There’s also a special kind of dry wine for connoisseurs.
Yes, the dry szamorodni. It’s a rare type of dry Tokaj wine long-aged in barrels under flor, a film of yeast that partly protects the wine from oxidation and imparts special aromas. The dry szamorodni is comparable to the vin jaune made in the French region of Jura and to the amontillado sherry of Spain. These wines are currently enjoying a renaissance.
Tokaj is a white wine region. Do you also drink reds?
Hungary has some excellent red wines. For a visitor, the most interesting tend to be those made from traditional grapes, such as kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) and kadarka. I’ve recently enjoyed easy-drinking kékfrankos from the Szekszárd region by Heimann Winery (their “Baranya” label) and by Frigyes Bott, a Hungarian whose vines are located across the border in Slovakia.
Is Tokaj worth visiting for people who aren’t so into wine?
Tokaj’s towns and villages – such as Tokaj, Mád, and Tállya – are charming with many old buildings. The Zemplén Mountains have myriad hiking trails and the area is sprinkled with medieval castles (Füzér, Regéc, Boldogkő) and Habsburg-era palaces. You can canoe down the Bodrog River or simply hike through the vineyard-covered rolling hills, which provide panoramic vistas. Tokaj is beautiful.
Once in Budapest, it’s easy to spend an event-filled weekend in Tokaj, which is located a two-and-half hour drive from the capital. I’ve written several articles with specific Tokaj recommendations for visitors – you could start with this general guide. The wine region has an increasing number of excellent hotels and restaurants, both modern and traditional. Here, you can peruse the list of wineries that should be on your radar, while this article provides non-wine-related activities.