Like a gigantic quilt of randomly shaped corduroy patches draped over a vast expanse of pillows, the hills of Hungary’s globally revered Tokaj wine region are crisscrossed with premier vineyards cultivated for centuries – this is the source of goldenly sweet Aszú, long esteemed as one of the world’s most desirable libations. Blessed with an absolutely unique combination of geological and geographical conditions, this terrific terroir is the only place where Aszú can be made, but the area now flourishes anew as its innovative vintners also produce several other extraordinary wine varieties.
Sited amid the countryside’s northeastern corner where foothills of the Carpathian Mountains first rise from the Great Hungarian Plain, Tokaj bears remarkably mineral-rich soils originally formed by volcanic eruptions of 15 million years ago, and enhanced much later when the entire region was submerged under what is now the Mediterranean Sea and imparted with profuse clay deposits; subsequent volcanic activity added valuable loess to the mix. Coinciding with this potent geological blend, Tokaj is home to the confluence of Hungary’s Tisza and Bodrog rivers, and the area’s latitude generally delivers ample sunshine from early spring through late fall.
This fortunate fusion of nature sets the stage for one of the world’s most singular viticultural situations. Every autumn, the Great Hungarian Plain’s accumulated summertime warmth floats above the cool Tisza and Bodrog waters and their surrounding marshes, resulting in thick morning mists. The low-lying fog creeps up the sunshiny south-facing hillsides and envelops the grapevines growing there, and this combination of warmth and humidity is ideal for fostering "noble rot" (botrytis cinerea) on ripe grapes; the fruit reacts to the fungus by emitting aromatic elements that later ameliorate the wine with a distinctive citrus taste.
The Tokaj miracle is completed when these ripe grapes stretch their skin thin enough so that tiny holes form, allowing moisture to seep out more easily with the autumn sun and wind; thus the concentrated flesh of the berry develops more intense flavors. The raisin-like grapes are carefully handpicked and gently pressed under their own weight; the resulting extract has about five times as much natural sugar as ordinary grape juice, balanced by the fine organic acids derived from the soil’s volcanic minerals. This painstaking process provides the raw materials for honey-golden Tokaji Aszú wine, featuring a mild alcohol content but a fine sweetness that was highly cherished during bygone centuries when sugar was an expensive luxury in Europe. The most treasured variety of Aszú – the pure botrytized-grape juice, called Essencia – can contain up to about 900 grams of residual sugar per liter, and can be aged for many decades so that its taste gradually refines.
Because only a relatively small percentage of grapes can be used for Aszú with every harvest, a limited amount of this wine can be produced annually, adding to its value; for centuries, high-quality Aszú was primarily enjoyed by monarchs. According to legend, it was France’s Louis XV of who gave it the nickname “Wine of Kings, King of Wines”; other royals who cherished Aszú included Russia’s Catherine the Great, Sweden’s King Gustav III, and Britain’s Queen Victoria. Since the valuation of Aszú was so high, in 1700 Tokaj’s vintners were the first winemakers in the world to classify their vineyards by terroir, determined by which plots consistently produced well-botrytized grapes.
Tokaji Aszú was Hungary’s finest export from that point through the early 20th century, but the region’s output of quality grapes was severely diminished following a devastating phylloxera root-louse outbreak and the World Wars. During Hungary’s communist era after WWII, quantity was emphasized over quality, so the historic vineyards’ bad conditions were exacerbated by mass-farming techniques. It was only after Hungary’s regime change in 1989 that local winemakers could again properly nurture their vineyards and resume selective handpicking of appropriately botrytized grapes, and with considerable foreign investment the Tokaj region’s wine industry enjoyed a comprehensive renaissance that continues to this day, aided by the entire area’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
The primary grape varieties used to make Tokaji Aszú are Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Sárga Muskotály (Yellow Muscat) – however, in recent years the flavorful unbotrytized berries are also increasingly used to produce excellent dry whites as well, with vintages from Tokaj’s most renowned vineyards earning glowing praise from international oenophiles. Although Aszú remains the most prized product of Tokaj and is exported around the planet by major wine traders, dry Furmint and Hárslevelű are both quickly gaining recognition as unique Hungarian products ideal for pairing with meals or drinking with friends on a sunny afternoon.
As Tokaj’s wines continually improve over recent decades, Tokaj itself is also growing in sophistication as a naturally beautiful travel destination – many wineries welcome the public to taste their range and tour the cellars, while different towns of the region now feature comfortable accommodations (like the Mádi Kúria Hotel or Tokaj’s Huli Panzió) and high-quality restaurants, including Mád’s charming Gusteau in a renovated stone villa, the Első Mádi Borház bistro attached to the new Szent Tamás winery, and the Sárga Borház Restaurant on the Disznókő estate grounds.
Every year, the region's winemakers gather for the cheerful Tokaj Spring festivities and the Great Tokaj Wine Auction, happening April 24-26 in 2015. However, the following Tokaj wineries are worth checking out anytime, either with a visit or the purchase of a glass or bottle.
Andrássy: A relatively new winery housed in a stylishly understated building on a Tarcal hillside; highlights include the zesty Yellow Muscat Essencia 2006, the full-bodied dry Furmint 2012, and the five-star wellness hotel attached to the estate.
Balassa: As a leader of Tokaj’s renaissance, István Balassa approaches winemaking with deep appreciation for each vineyard; try his light Nyulászó dry Furmint 2011 or the more complex and flowery Betsek dry Furmint 2011.
Barta: Amid a lovely mansion of central Mád that is currently under extensive restoration, guests can enjoy the cozy atmosphere as much as wines like the oak-barrel-aged dry Harslevelű 2012 with a distinct herbal flavor.
Demeter Zoltán: Since 1996, master winemaker Zoltán Demeter crafts exquisite single-vineyard vintages with a goal of reflecting Tokaj’s hallowed traditions and land; his sparkling whites and dry Furmints are elegantly delightful.
Disznókő: This gorgeous estate encompasses some of Tokaj’s finest vineyards, centered by state-of-the-art winery facilities – if given the chance to try László Mészáros’s wonderfully viscous 2005 Essencia, don’t miss it.
Dobogo: Owned by Izabella Zwack (of Hungary’s Unicum-producing family), this rustic winery is where Attila Domokos makes limited-edition libations like the smoothly salty dry Furmint 2011 or the Mylitta aperitif series.
Erzsébet: A multi-generational Tokaj family produces handcrafted estate wines from several prominent vineyards in cellars dating back to 1743; their crisply salty Királydűlő 2012 displays the full potential of dry Furmint.
Gizella: When he took over his family’s small winery near Tokaj town, young vintner László Szilágyi melded reverence for the area’s heritage with a playful modern spirit – try his light and fruity 2013 Kastély dry Furmint.
Gróf Dégenfeld: For over 150 years, the Dégenfeld Family continually utilizes top-quality Tokaj grapes to produce world-class wines; the Aszú 5-Puttonyos 1999 has an intensive bouquet with nice honey-and-apricot flavors.
Holdvölgy: Above labyrinthine cellars dating back to the 15th century, this ultra-modern winery is led by Tamás Gincsai; here several wine varieties are divided into tasteful categories like “Meditation” and “Eloquence”.
Oremus: This sprawling estate overlooking Tolcsva is innovatively designed with gravity-fed facilities to make wines as gently as possible; the Mandolas 2012 dry Furmint has a nice spiciness enhanced by oak-barrel aging.
Samuel Tinon: After tending wineries all around the world, French vintner Samuel Tinon settled down in the village of Olaszliszka to become a pioneer of dry Szamorodni, an oft-overlooked Tokaj specialty well worth trying.
Sauska: Expanding on his modern winemaking center in Villány, Hungarian tycoon Krisztián Sauska launched his Tokaj winery under the leadership of Gábor Rakaczki; the Aszú 6-Puttonyos 2003 is like flavorfully thick honey.
Szent Tamás: Welcoming visitors at the border of Mád, this sophisticated new winery emphasizes Tokaj’s mineral cocktail that produces its incredible wines – the 2011 dry Furmint is smoothly salty, nice alone or with food.
Szepsy: As the primary trailblazer behind Tokaj’s renaissance, István Szepsy continually produces top-caliber vintages in his family’s own Mád winery; the Aszú 6-Puttonyos 2007 is smooth and fragrant with dried-apricot overtones.
For a chance to try good libations from some of these Tokaj wineries and many others without leaving Budapest, the Tokaj Grand tasting gala at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest on Saturday, March 28th welcomes the public to try the complete range of wines from the region. Moreover, many fine restaurants and wine bars across Hungary’s capital offer Tokaj wines, while all of Budapest’s Bortársaság wine shops carry an excellent selection of Tokaj’s best bottles. To learn more about Tokaj’s wine and touring, we recommend the English-language book Tokaj: A Companion for the Bibulous Traveller, and the freshly updated Tokaj Guide.