You’ve tasted the wine, now visit the region, says Linda Galloway after a visit to Tokaj, Hungary’s oldest wine region. There are miles of wine caves to explore, new state-of-the-art tasting rooms, historic estates plus a range of gastronomy and hospitality to indulge yourself in. Galloway points out some of the key wineries, plus gives a range of contacts for when you visit Tokaj.
“When I visited the Füleky winery in Bodrogkeresztúr village, I learned that Eszencia (a by-product of Aszú production), is considered a health drink and that many make a habit of sipping a tablespoonful every morning,” writes Galloway.
They say that Tokaj has a thousand faces. The picturesque region in the northeast of Hungary certainly has a multitude of facets, perched as it is in the foothills of the Zemplen mountains that form the border with Slovakia behind and looking down over the vast, wide-open Great Plain.
Just two-and-a-half-hours’ drive (or a train ride) from the capital Budapest, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the big-sky landscapes and dark volcanic hills, where the wine of kings has been made since the 13th century.
There is an ancient, otherworldly atmosphere where the Tisza and Bodrog rivers converge on a floodplain that is nature’s gift to winemakers, moderating temperatures and generating the gentle morning mists in late autumn that create the perfect conditions for Botrytis Cinerea, the ‘noble rot’ fungus that imparts unique flavour to concentrated, complex, late-harvested dessert wines.
The defunct volcanoes also provide unique, mineral-dense soils that define the terroir of the region and are recognisable on the nose and palate of Tokaj wines. ‘Stone’, ‘slate’, and ‘rock’ are common descriptors and many wines exhibit salty, mineral notes.
Whether at the 6 Puttonyos end of the sweet Tokaji Aszú scale, where 200g per litre of residual sugar is common, or at the citrus and green apple-led, dry Furmint end, acidity is the hallmark of Tokaj wines, something the winemakers here refer to as ‘treasure’.
More than just wine
While wine is the main reason to visit (it was the first region in the world to classify its vineyards, in the 1730s), it is also an UNESCO World Heritage site dotted with medieval fairytale castles and there is plenty to do from cycling, canoeing, forest walking and cave exploring to indulgent spa breaks, and an array of festivals (wine, music, food, culture) from spring through to autumn.
Taking in the culture is easy; you can even stay in some of the most historic wineries that now accommodate guests, such as the 4-star Degenfeld Castle hotel in Tarcal, still the home of Countess Maria von Degenfeld and voted Hungary’s most beautiful wine estate in 2019.
The town of Tokaj itself is picturesque with cobbled streets and tasting houses at wineries such as Hétszőlő, which was founded in 1502, but venture further afield to Tállya or Mád for even more opportunities to soak up the atmosphere.
At Barta Pince in Mád, walking up the cobbled path under the arch is like going back 500 years in time. The beautiful and sympathetically restored building now houses guest suites with canopied four-poster beds and luxurious fixtures and fittings, warmed by the original ceramic-tiled masonry heaters in every room. Climbing the worn wooden steps, it’s easy to imagine the feet that have gone before you.
If you’re spending time in Mád you won’t be far away from the breathtaking Boldogkő Castle’ in the Zemplén mountains (where the wood is cut for wine barrels). In Upper Tisza you can hire a bicycle to explore the unique tiny churches with wooden bell towers and medieval frescoes.
The Tisza River is a haven for canoeists, and even beginners can get their toes wet learning how to paddle, while a visit to Zemplén Adventure Park offers zip lines, climbing walls, bob-sledding and even dry-slope skiing for thrill seekers.
Historic and new wine estates
Also in Mád is the vast enterprise that is Royal Tokaji Wine Company, founded in 1989 and now exporting wines to over 30 countries. An unassuming, chapel-like structure behind the winery is the entrance to one and a half miles of underground tunnels where the barrels of Aszú and Eszencia sleep. There, the winemaker will explain the black mould growing on the walls. This is Zasmidium cellare, a fungus that likes cool, dark spaces with lots of alcohol in them!
The beautiful Patricius estate at Várhegy, welcomes visitors all year round with tastings and tours and is well worth a visit to see the gravity-led winery and plantings of historic indigenous varieties.
A daytrip to the Swabian village of Hercegkút takes you back in time, with wine cellars dug into the hillside by German-speaking winemaking families over several centuries. Cellar visits and tastings are available every day.
A keenly awaited opening is the new state-of-the-art winery, wine bar and restaurant from the much-lauded Sauska at Padi Hill, with two bowl-shaped terraces seemingly floating in space – this will be a hot ticket next summer.
When I visited the Füleky winery in Bodrogkeresztúr village, I learned that Eszencia (an intensely concentrated and sweet ‘essence’ which is a by-product of Aszú production), is considered a health drink and that many make a habit of sipping a tablespoonful every morning. As the alcohol in this elixir is negligible (less than 5% and therefore not even technically wine), I can totally get behind this habit and have added it to my list of breakfast drinks that pair well with fruit salad and buttery pastries.
Whether you’re an expert sommelier or just learning about wine, the very best way to sample, understand and appreciate it is to visit the places where it’s made. So when contemplating where to go next, consider one of the oldest wine regions in the world and plan an itinerary that takes in all the usual holiday leisure activities along with great food and wine.
Where to stay:
Where to eat:
Bobájka at Andrassy Kuria
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