With its rural villages, atmospheric cellars and sweet golden wines, this northeastern corner of Hungary is a hidden gem, waiting to be explored. Caroline Gilby MW shares her highlights...
Decanter Tokaj travel guide – Need to know:
- When to go: You can still get there for the 2018 Furmint festival on 2 and 3 September
- Fly to: Budapest and take a train or hire a car. It’s a 2.5-hour drive.
- Top tip: Take a taxi out to wineries. There is zero tolerance for drinking and driving.
Vineyard area 5,747ha
Number of growers 3,900
Number of wineries 190
Six permitted grape varieties Furmint (69%), Hárslevelu (18%), Sárga Muskotály aka Yellow Muscat (9%), Zeta, Kövérszolo, Kabar (all together 4%)
Wine styles aszú (10%), dry (21%), wines with natural residual sugar (69%)
Tokaj is simply stunning; a region of hundreds of extinct volcanoes, wooded hilltops and vineyards. It covers 27 villages and the hillsides are full of tunnels that are carved into the volcanic rock, which provide perfect ageing conditions for its golden wine treasures.
It’s little wonder that in 2002 UNESCO listed the Tokaj wine region as a World Heritage Cultural Historic Landscape, one of only a handful of wine regions to achieve this status.
Tokaj (the place – Tokaji with an ‘i’ is the wine) lies in Hungary’s far northeast, so close to the border that a small part of the region is actually in Slovakia.
Wine and tourism are closely intertwined here and just about every winery is open to visitors, though usually you’ll need to make an appointment, as most are small, family-run concerns.
Twelve million years ago this area was under the Pannonian Sea, at which time undersea seismic activity created the porous volcanic rock that now underpins the region and allows vine roots to grow deep. The region also lies at the confluence of two rivers: the Tisza and the Bodrog. The humid air leads to dense foggy mornings in the autumn, which creates the perfect environment for botrytis cinerea in its noble rot form to infect the grapes. The sloping vineyards enjoy sunny and breezy afternoons, which then shrivel the grapes too.
The resulting aszú grapes (aszú was first mentioned as early as 1571) are so dry that juice can’t be squeezed from them, so Tokaj has a special winemaking method. These shrivelled grapes are mashed into a paste, which is soaked in fermenting juice to make the luscious golden Tokaji aszú wines. These are the wines that made Tokaji world-famous, enjoyed in royal courts all over Europe. Tokaj has possibly the oldest vineyard classification in the world, produced in 1707-1708, long before Bordeaux or Burgundy. Then in 1737, a royal decree defined the Tokaj region and which villages were permitted to use the name – arguably the first controlled appellation.
Hundreds of small cellars are a fascinating feature of this region, dug several metres into the coolness of the volcanic tuff bedrock – the perfect environment for ageing Tokaji. Most are lined with the velvety, cushioned growths of a fungus called Zasmidium cellare. This mould only grows in wine cellars and is believed to help purify the air and regulate the humidity. See it for yourself in the multi-level 17th-century cellars at Dereszla and contrast this with a visit to its brand-new winery and terrace wine bar in the heart of the vineyards at Henye.
Another option is Patricius, voted Hungary’s most beautiful winery in 2013. Explore the cellars, taste excellent aszú and late-harvest wines, and enjoy the stunning vineyards with their collection of almost-forgotten historic grapes. Vega Sicilia owns Tokaj-Oremus in Tolcsva, which makes the stunning Mandolás dry white, as well as wonderful sweet and aszú wines in its historic winery and deep underground cellars. Here you can even taste the legendary eszencia – the rich syrup that trickles from aszú grapes and is reputed to have miraculous medicinal properties.
For a complete contrast, visit the small Balassa winery, where owner István Balassa will take visitors into the vineyards and share his incredible knowledge of the landscape and soils of the region.
Wineries to visit
Tokaj is Furmint heartland – a wonderful grape that can truly reflect its terroir. Recently the development of single-vineyard or dulo wines has been a strong trend. István Szepsy has been a pioneer in so many aspects of Tokaji winemaking and lately he has focused on the fine details of the soils in his 400 vine parcels. Try his wines at Percze or Gusteau restaurants in Mád.
The talented Zoltán Demeter makes a stunning range of vineyard-selection dry wines, as well as elegant sparkling, fine f˝obor sweet wine and great aszú in an 18th-century house in Tokaj, where he plays classical music to his young wines. He and his wife will happily show you their wines if they are at the winery.
Other small wineries worth a visit include Dobogó , Gizella, the biodynamic Bott Pince and Tokaj-Nobilis. Meanwhile Frenchman Samuel Tinon has made his home in Olaszliszka and is king of the now rare, flor-aged dry style of szamorodni (made from whole bunches, mostly in sweet styles). Remember to book ahead to visit.
Wine is at the heart of tourism, but there are also lovely walks through the wooded hilltops of the region and breathtaking panoramic views, including the brisk hike to the region’s highest point, the Tokaj hill itself. Boat trips, mountain biking or horse riding can also be arranged nearby. The majestic, beautifully restored Rákóczi Castle at Sárospatak is well worth a visit. The 18th-century synagogue in the village of Mád, which forms part of a Jewish pilgrimage route through the region, should also be on your list.
When to visit
Best times to visit include late April when the annual Tokaj wine auction takes place, with the Tokaj Spring programme of visits and special tastings. Late May sees St Urban’s Day when a number of wineries open their doors, while in June there’s a wine festival in Tokaj town and Mád holds a Furmint Festival in September.
There are frequent flights to Budapest and it’s a straightforward 2.5-hour drive on good roads to Tokaj. A direct train leaves Budapest- Keleti railway station for Tokaj every two hours; journey time is two hours, 40 minutes. If you drive, leave the car at the hotel when you arrive and take a taxi – there is zero tolerance on drinking and driving.
This is a new travel guide, published in Decanter magazine’s August 2018 issue, and it replaces the original guide, published on these pages in 2014.