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Hungary might appear to be a recent entrant to the international wine stage but the area’s viticultural history actually dates back to the Roman Empire. Winemaking flourished through the Middle Ages under King Bela IV, with the country’s famed Tokaji wine making its first documented appearance in the late 1400s. By the 17th Century Tokaji Aszú, a sweet, robust version of its drier predecessor, began to take the region by storm, ushering in the need to establish formal classification and growing laws. In 1700, Tokaj’s vast swath of vineyards became one of the country’s first officially classified winemaking regions.
Given these storied roots, one could easily imagine Hungary being just as synonymous with wine tourism as Burgundy, Tuscany, or Rioja. And it surely could have been—if it weren’t for decades of state rule, deprioritized production, and cultural isolation behind the Iron Curtain. The National Association of Hungarian Vine-Growers, Wine Trades, and Wine-Growing Communities were forced to disband shortly after World War II, handing over the reins to a Soviet-run monopoly of state farms, state wineries, and a state-operated distribution company called Monimpex. It wasn’t long before Hungary transformed into the Soviet Union’s go-to for mass-produced, ordinary wines.
“We had a lot of issues, mainly because not quality but quantity was at the forefront of production and politics,” explains Zoltán Kovács, General Manager at the Royal Tokaji wine company, an instrumental force behind the country’s post-Communist industry revival. “In the Soviet Union, the wine culture wasn't a wine culture. They saw wine a source of alcohol to get drunk—just do it quickly, it doesn't matter if it’s cheap.”
Thankfully, Communism’s late-20th century collapse saw a bout of curious investors prowling the former USSR in search of viticultural gold. Esteemed wine writer Hugh Johnson was one of the first to rediscover the region, creating the Royal Tokaji wine company in 1990 and laying the groundwork for the patchwork of wineries and other tourist-friendly draws like highly-rated restaurants and luxury hotels that dot the magnificent countryside just a few hours northeast of bustling Budapest. Here’s everything you need to know to get the most out of Hungary’s picturesque Tokaj wine trail.
“Tokaj has late-ripening grape varieties with quite a thick skin, less aromatic than Bordeaux varieties,” Kovács notes, describing some of the ecological factors that set his region apart. “From a climate point of view, we are a continental climate with far less precipitation, with average yearly precipitation between five and 600 millimeters. Sauternes, for comparison, is an Atlantic climate with precipitation up to 1,800 millimeters per year. That also affects how we harvest the berries here.”
Tokaj’s 5,723 hectares of rolling vineyards are dominated by Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Muscat grapes. Steamy summers, frigid winters, and fog-laden autumns mixed with a porous, stonified volcanic ash soil called rhyolite tuff provide a perfect breeding ground for noble rot, or Botrytis Cineara, a fungus that turns these plump grapes into shriveled, highly-concentrated Aszu berries. These potent, raisin-like pearls are used to produce the region’s signature award-winning sweet wines (including the coveted Essencia, currently the world’s most expensive wine at $40,000 a bottle) while the uninfected grapes are fermented into an increasingly popular array of easy-drinking dry whites.
“For the region, the percentage of Furmint is around 68 to 70%,” continues Kovács. “Hárslevelű is the second biggest, up to 22 or 23%. We have five percent Muscat and the remaining area is planted with the other three varieties allowed under Tokaj’s appellation. Furmint gives acidity, structure, and power to the sweet wines. The berries are very close to each other so it has the ability to produce a lot of Aszú berries because the infection goes from berry to berry. Muscat is the most aromatic. In very good vintages it can produce Aszú berries of good quality, but it's mainly vinified into dry or late harvest wines.”
Where to Sip
While not all area wineries offer public tours and tastings—namely Kovács’s Royal Tokaji, though private appointments are sometimes possible with advanced notice—it’s easy to get lost wandering around the countless rows of neatly planted vines on foot or driving up and down the winding country roads. As you roam, keep an eye out for the dark, mangled Aszú berries hidden among the juicy green bunches. Also note that Hungary’s zero-tolerance drink driving law is heavily enforced, so picking a designated driver or, even better, hiring a private car or tour bus like the ones offered through Tokaj Tourismus is the way to go. But no matter which route you choose, you’ll want to include these standout stops in your itinerary.
Erzsébet Pince, Bem József u. 16, Tokaj 3910
Founded by one of the region’s first female winemakers, this small family-run winery has been perfecting its modest lot of single-vineyard dry whites and sophisticated sweet wines from its outpost in Tokaj’s historic town center since 1989. The estate’s 17th-century cellars are stunning for sure, but it’s the Lunée, an off-dry Muscat bursting with verdant floral aromas before fading into a long, citrusy, and herbaceous finish, that truly steals the show.
Oremus Cellars, Bajcsy-Zsilinszky u. 45., Tolcsva 3934
The tiny, romantic town of Tolcsva is home to this grand mountainside oasis from renowned Spanish winemaker Vega Sicilia. Creep down into the property’s subterranean 13th-century cellars and take in the musty, mold-covered walls before tasting your way through an assortment of light-bodied sweet wines as well as the supremely refreshing Mandolás, a 100% Furmint dry white offering a crisp acidity and a zesty dash of white pepper spice.
Patricius Cellars, 3917, Bodrogkisfalud, Várhegy Vineyard 3357
Get a solid lesson in vinification inside this remarkable 300-year-old press house turned sleek modern winery where a gravity-flow system walks visitors through the entire process from bunch to bottle. After, grab a spot on the terrace and look out over Tokaj Hill or sit down for a curated picnic among the vines complete with plenty of Sparkling Brut, a lively, fruit-forward terroir sparkling white made with Hárslevelű, Furmint, and Yellow Muscat.
Hímesudvar, Bem Jozsef utca 2. , Tokaj 3910
This family-owned Tokaj stalwart has been cultivating its three-hectare tract for over 30 years. Poke around the cozy Tokaj facility, originally constructed as a hunting lodge in the 16th-century, comb through the underground wine caves, and recline on the lush green lawn with a vibrant, honeyed glass or two of semi-dry Kaleidoscope Cuvee.
Szedmák, Keresztúri út 55., Tarcal 3915
“Since Szedmák Winehouse is also our home, feel free to just knock on our door,” proclaims this husband-and-wife team’s website, conveying the warmth, passion, and hospitality evident in every aspect of their charmingly rustic Tarcal operation. The sweet wines shine here, especially the lusciously fragrant Kabar Late Harvest, and all are produced in very small batches. Save room in your suitcase for a few liquid souvenirs...
Where to Stay, Eat & Drink
The scenic Tokaj region offers both high-end hotels as well as a plethora of mouthwatering dining options for refueling between vineyard tours. These handpicked recommendations from Royal Tokaji’s Zoltán Kovács should get your gears cranking.
Andrássy Hotel and Restaurant, Fő Utca 94, Tarcal 3915
This five-star luxury outpost houses 41 plush guestrooms, a full-service spa with a massive indoor soaking pool and u-shaped cave pool, and top-tier onsite restaurant, Eszencia.
Grof Degenfeld Castle Hotel Restaurant, Terezia kert 9, Tarcal 3915
This quaint hillside retreat is a one-stop-shop for vacationing wine-lovers. The 25-year-old onsite winery provides a taste of some of the area’s finest sweet and dry varieties and the adjoining vineyard evokes unparalleled ambiance. Rise early to hike through the vines and up to the beautifully restored 18th-century chapel atop Teresa Hill for a postcard-worthy sunrise panorama.
LaBor Bistro, Bethlen Gabor utca 1., Tokaj 3910
Cheffy farm to table delights await inside this homey Tokaj mainstay where an open kitchen churns out artful lunch and dinner dishes kissed with seasonal flare. An impeccable wine list completes the experience.
Sárga Borház, Disznoko Dulo 37, Mezőzombor 3931
Affectionately dubbed the Yellow Winehouse, this long-running favorite beckons passersby with its expansive patio and sweeping views of nearby Disznóko winery. The bill of hearty home-cooked fare and endless foie gras configurations (not to mention the stellar wine selection) sweetens the deal.
Percze Étterem, Árpád utca 70, Mád 3909
A more recent addition to Mád’s blossoming food and drink scene, this locally-minded bistro pairs adventurous, updated Hungarian classics with outstanding Szepsy Winery vintages. Special attention is given to wild game here, much of which hails from the surrounding forests.
Timari Fish Fryer, Bercsényi utca, Timár 4466
This casual roadside seafood shack overlooks the Tisza river and serves up some of the region’s most delectable freshwater fish and chips, fried to a crisp and accompanied by halászlé, a fiery, paprika-laced fisherman’s soup sure to cure what ails you.
Lebuj Pincefogadó, Bodrogkeresztúr, Lebuj-kanyar 3838
Platters piled high with beloved Hungarian comforts like mutton stew, whole fried walleye, goulash, and seven different types of halászlé stream out of this homey eatery’s humble kitchen. You’re bound to feel like one of the family by meal’s end.
Anyukám Mondta Étterem, Petőfi Sándor utca 57, Encs 3860
The cosmopolitan duo behind this Encs stunner cut their teeth working in kitchens in Italy and New York and their diverse pedigree shines through at this sophisticated yet welcoming open-hearth concept. Call ahead to reserve the Blind Date with the chef prix-fixe, a five course exploration of innovative Euro-centric flavors prepared with local ingredients, or keep things simple with a pristinely blistered Neapolitan-style pizza flecked with nduja Calabrese and chilis.