A historical region and a world heritage site since 2002, Tokaj is renowned for its amazing wines which became popular amongst kings since the 18th century. The town itself is small, tucked away in the North-East side of Hungary, surrounded by great plains and rolling hills. I've heard of the magical Tokaji wine ever since I was a little girl. I remember my grandfather, a true wine lover, telling me stories of how the Tokaji wine became famous and how the region gained international recognition. It seemed only natural I needed to commemorate him by visiting the very birth of his favourite wines. And so, I began my journey, from the West of Hungary to Tokaj.
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History of the Tokaji Wine
The Tokaji wine started gaining its reputation in the early 18th century, when Ferenc Rákóczi II, the Prince of Transylvania, gave Louis XIV of France several bottles of wine from his Tokaj estate. Delighted with the taste, the wine became served at the Versailles Court, and soon became known as "Wine of Kings, King of Wines". But this was only the beginning, as Tokaji wines became the favourite beverage of several historical figures, including Voltaire, Goethe and Schubert, to name just a few.
Why is the Tokaj region famed for its wine
Some say cheese is to France, what wine is to Hungary, and rightfully so. The Tokaj region has several unique attributes which allow for the finest grapes to be produced. A variety of Tokaji wines take shape and form in the region, from pocket-friendly types to the most sophisticated wine I have ever tasted in my life.
So what is it about this region that is so special? Firstly, the consistency of the soil which is clay as well as subvolcanic. The vineyards are positioned on sunny facing slopes and are located right by the rivers Tisza and Bodrog which help with the proliferation of Botrytis Cinerea (noble mould). Several grape varieties have been cultivated here for centuries including the famed Furmint, Hárslevelû and Sárgamuskotály. The wines are kept in rock cellars at a constant 12 degrees C temperature and very high humidity of 95% which are ideal for ageing the wines.
Free tours in the Tokaj wine cellars
A trip to Tokaj cannot be complete without paying a visit to a wine cellar. This is usually free of charge and the owners are happy to tell you the history of their wines. Most people started making the Tokaji wine as a hobby. I visited the Hímesudvar vineyards and their cellars.
This business was started by a brother and a sister passionate about the heritage of the region and interested in winemaking. One of the owners spent plenty of time showing us around and explaining the history of the Tokaji wine. After a free tour around the estate, we have been given menus so we can sample the goods.
What wines to try in Tokaj
Since I didn't know much about the Tokaji wine before setting foot in the Hímesudvar estate, I decided to go for their wine tasting option. For only 990 HUF I got to try 5 different types of wine. The host brought the wines separately and spent plenty of time explaining about each individual type, flavour and aromas. As part of the tasting, I got to try the following:
2015 Sárgamuskotály (dry) - This grape variety is considered native to Tokaj. It is usually harvested at the end of September. This is probably one of the most aromatic varieties of Tokaji wine.
2013 Cuvée (semisweet) - although I liked it very much, I much preferred the first one I tried, probably due to the fact that it was dry.
2011 Cuvée (sweet, late harvest) - Truly, I never even realised I could enjoy sweet wines, but this really manage to blow me away. DELICIOUS.
2012 Szamorodni (sweet) - This wine has a high proportion of botrytised grapes. If the sugar content is too low, then the resulting wine becomes Száraz Szamorodni (meaning dry Szamorodni).
2013 Aszú (sweet) - I honestly couldn't wait to taste this wine. I heard stories of how this wine supposed to be amazing, and after tasting it, I can safely say it was simply outstanding. The Aszú wines made Tokaj famous. The berries are first macerated into the Aszú paste. The wine has to then be matured for a minimum of three years in special cellars. Aszús wines come in various grades based on their puttonyos (content of unfermented sugar the wine contains).
2012 Kövérszőlő (sweet, late harvest) - Characterised by fairly large berries. Its name literally means "fat grape".
2001 Eszencia (AMAZINGLY SWEET) - To conclude my tasting, I ordered a 2001 Eszencia. Now this is a truly special (and expensive wine). It costs £250 per litre, but it's worth every penny. The highest category of the Tokaji wines is the Eszencia or the Nectar. Carefully selected Aszú-berries are collected in special wooden vats. They are left to their own devices and in time, they collapse under their own weight and press out a thick honey-sweet Essence, drop by drop. This wine is everlasting and it's sweater than honey. The reason why this wine is so expensive, is because only a few hundred bottles are made altogether.
Simply put, if you are in Tokaj, you must absolutely try this wine. Drinking Eszencia was sheer joy, the absolute nirvana of wines.
What else you can do in Tokaj
Tokaj Rooftops - After tasting all the wines, make your way to the centre of the town and take a walk up the stairs which will lead you to a nice lookout. From here, you can admire the town in all its splendour and see how river Tisza and Bodrog meet right under your eyes. Here, you can also admire the Slovakian mountains which border the beautiful Tokaj region.
Eat good food - No visit to a Hungarian town can be complete without a good meal. There are plenty of eateries dotted all around the town centre, serving authentic and delicious Hungarian food.
Attend a festival - There are plenty of year round festivals which take place in the Tokaj region. If you are young at heart, try the Hegyalja Music Fesztivál (the foothill festival) which brings the youth out for a few days of great partying. If you fancy something more traditional, plan for the Whit weekend in Sárospatak which celebrates Saint Elizabeth in Hungary. It wouldn't be Hungary without fairs, traditional clothes and weapons. Locals say the Whit weekend is a real show.
I loved my time in the Tokaj region and I'm incredibly chuffed I finally got to taste the "Wine of Kings, King of Wines". Have you ever visited Tokaj? Where did you go and what types of Hungarian wines did you try? Let me know in the comment section below.