Meet Tokaj The Most beautiful Wine Town In Hungary
Hungary is known for the capital, Budapest. I’m sure, barely a few visitors heard of one of Hungarians’ most beloved towns, Tokaj. It is famous for the region’s special wine, but did you know, how charming and entertaining can this place be for Youngs, adults, elderlies, families, couples, technically for everyone?
It is within easy reach from Budapest, 2-3 hours by bus or train, less by car. Spending a weekend there will become a memory, you will happily remember decades later. Amongst the many fun activities, the must is a cellar tour with wine tasting. Visiting the over five centuries old mold covered cellars will make you forget about the world outside and jump into a nice wine tasting. You can go for a wine tasting with cellars tours starting at $15. There are at least a dozen cellars worth a visit in the town.
It is worth to look out the windows on the way to enjoy the beautiful view.
Spend a day or two to get the vibe of this lovely place filled with history and charming restaurants, wine bars and souvenir shops. But Tokaj has more to offer than just the wine. The town is beautiful, the surroundings are great for a nice hike, there are lovely temples and old buildings to admire. You can go for kayaking on the Tisza river, go biking and there is a newly built concert hall at the corner of the town which offers great shows throughout the year.
The fun part is that Tokaj is full of nice Insta-worthy spots so you won’t just make nice memories but get a lot of likes on your posts!
It is a great fun to walk or bike around Tokaj, which is safe and calm, so your children can get confident on two wheels worry free. Discover the authentic Hungarian souvenirs without the tourist hordes making you uncomfortable as there aren’t so many yet in Tokaj despite it’s not far from Budapest.
There are beautiful restaurants where you can sit in for a good glass of wine and enjoy the small town vibe and history that Tokaj charms you with.
Let’s talk food!
Tokaj is a fantastic place to try real authentic Hungarian fisherman’s soup aka Halaszle and other forms of fish food. The Tisza is the other very important river in Hungary besides the Danube. See, you already learned something awesome that your friends will probably won’t know. You can visit Bonchidai Csarda which offers authentic food and restaurant setting.
Or visit Horgony (Anchor) Restaurant, one of our favorites. Where you can try real Hungarian food that we eat every day. We eat halaszle but that one mostly at special occasions. We had lebbencs soup and pea stew with stewed meat. You are going to love these bites while sparing your wallet as these meals are usually far cheaper in a restaurant.
You can enjoy the view of the Tisza from the restaurant or have a walk, even climb on some shipwrecks on the river bank.
There are also many taverns to sit in and have a quick bite of fish between wine tastes.
Let’s talk about what we’re really here for; WINE
Growing up in a country, where wine is -for some- part of people’s identity, a traditional drink that is not just a drink but way of living, I got to appreciate good wines. When I say drinking wine is a way of life, I mean people making it from scratch, spending months of a year to perfect that barrel of liquid to become the beloved red or white fluid everyone prefers in their glasses. If you travel to Hungary, there is a good chance to meet people, who are extremely proud of the Hungarian wines, may even be a little down about its popularity Europe or World wide despite the reputation it has gained over the centuries.
I heard many times people say “Hungarian wines are amongst the bests in the world”. I often just smiled at this statement. How could our small country compete with the highly reputable wine countries such as France or Italy? After speaking to several wine makers from the most prestigious wine region in the country, Tokaj, we got to a better understanding of Hungarian wines. “Since we are a small country, we should be focusing on the wines’ uniqueness. There are over a hundred wines in the Carpathians that could be competing on an international market. I’m convinced we should be paying more attention to our native grapes such as Furmint, Hárslevelu, Juhfark, Kékfrankos etc… instead of the Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc that were brought to the country from abroad over the time.”
These provinces have the perfect conditions for wine grapes. The mineral content of the soil combined with the weather and the tradition of wine making result in high-quality products.
Laszlo Ravasz ~ Oenologist at Szerelmi Pince
Let me introduce Hungary’s most beloved product. If you come to Tokaj you will have to try the Tokaji Aszu.
Another interesting drink is the essence, a drink made only of the rotten grapes. It is not pressed as regular wines, but it is left to drip all of its juice under its own weight. It ends up to be low in alcohol content (%3-6) and very high in sugar (min. 180g/liter). A bottle of half liter from 2003, ranges between $250 and $1000. It cannot be made every year, so it is a really rare delicacy.
What makes the wine “Tokaji aszù” (Tokaj Muscatel) so special? This wine has a proud and admirable history over the at least 600 years. Kings, barons and all the nobility have been praising this sweet vino from all around Europe and the country. If you ask a sommelier, the highest chance to know a wine from the country, will be this one. The Tokaj hill itself is indeed rich in minerals, a volcanic prominence in the Northeast region of the country. Local wine makers claim, the famous Zasmidium cellare fungus (we simply call it black or cellar mold) only lives in their cellars, cannot be found anywhere else. This noble rot is inevitable to make “the drink of kings”.
We visited the most famous cellar in the region, which is over five centuries old and was owned by great historic personalities such as Gaspar Karoli, translator of the bible to Hungarian, Gabor Bethlen, Transylvanian prince and the Rakoczi family. Ferenc Rakoczi II. was the head of the country.
There are tours every hour between 10 am and 6 pm, usually, there is no need make reservation or such, just walk in and pay for the upcoming tour. There are tours to see the cellar combined with a wine tasting, or you can just go for either. Prices start from $10.
It is really fun to hear how many great people had sipped from their cups between these walls.
Going down to the cellar gives you a feeling of stepping into the old times. You feel the hundreds of years’ of hard work and the smell of wine barrels. You will see in your mind’s eye the gathering lords planning the revolution. Not to mention the amazing view of all walls covered with the renowned black fungus. It had been the favorite spot for the Hungarian elite, all the royalties and privileged spent some time here to socialize and of course taste the delicious drinks. Some traveled hundreds of miles even from abroad as well to try the Tokaj wines.
Back to the wine; there are only six types of grapes, which are native to the region, qualify for the Tokaji classification
Furmint, Hárslevelü, Kabar, Kövérszölö, Zéta, Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Blanc)
In short, as I don’t want to walk you through all the life cycles of the grape that is to be harvested in September-October, the valley is right by the river Tisza, hence the berries get infected with gray mold or Botrytis Cinerea. This mold spreads in a moist environment when the grapes are ripening. After a while, the berries begin to shrink and dry as the sun touches them. This whole process that the rot started results in extra high sugar content.
The hard work mentioned before, I promise really begins now… These infected berries are to be picked by hand. It also matters if the grapes are rotten well, the too dry ones have to be thrown. The suitable ones are then added to the juice of the regular grapes. The quality used to be measured by the number of baskets added to a barrel from 3 to 6 baskets.
Let’s see the results of the hard work!
With every glass we were poured, we got a short story of how they were made and what makes them special. On the sheets in front of us, there was a quick introduction of the wines’ acid, alcohol, and sugar content so if not yet familiar with the values, you can taste it for yourself. To have a reference for the future, you can grade the wines and even buy each by the bottle.
During our exploration of the cellars, we got introduced to the services Rakoczi winery provides. Our favorite was the option for buying a few bottles of wine with your preferred vintage and have it stored in their cellar. This way the wine will age properly and when you decide to open it, let’s say on your 10th wedding anniversary or your child’s 18th birthday, a beautifully aged, delicious bottle of wine will be waiting for you.
About that black mold;
The black fungus is all over the walls, in some cases even the barrels. It is thought to help to maintain the proper humidity and microclimate and cleans the air. It is not scientifically proven, however, tests have concluded, it has no negative effect on the wine’s taste and doesn’t harm us, humans.
When in Tokaj, you shouldn’t miss the Szerelmi Pincesor (Love cellars), where newly built, privately owned cellars and wine bars look to aid your thirst.
We of course went and tried Szerelmi Pince and boy it was a good choice!
Asking the freshly befriended Oenologist at the bar, László Ravasz, we got to know Illés winery, the one that runs and supplies this charming little bar. It is amongst the very few Hungarian suppliers that try to grow over the border, however, there is a lot of room for expansion inside the country, especially considering, that it is a family run business, that aims to fill the glasses with good quality wines. That leads to the conclusion we already mentioned; it is more important to have a unique, high-quality products than high quantity to serve a continent sized market.
It’s a charming place with friendly and talkative staff. Laszlo, oenologist and wine enthusiast has shown us around the area (virtually) to have a better understanding of what is really missing from Hungarian wine management.
“There are so many good wine regions for such a small country, but no one really knows much about it. For example, one of the internationally renowned wines is from the Balaton area. They make good wine, but far from our best ones. The big difference is the ambitious marketing management of their product.”
Laszlo Ravasz ~ Oenologist at Szerelmi Pince
This lovely wine bar with a newly built cool cellar is an amazing atmosphere for small or larger parties, gatherings. Try some Aszu or Furmint which is the fav for many in the region. As Laszlo told us we are celebrating the Furmint’s year (2017), so there are going to be hundreds of options for you to try it in Hungary!
Or you can sit outside under the beautiful willow tree and enjoy the breeze while taking some nice shots! The fresh air, smiling people and chirping birds make it an ideal relaxing hour there.
Special thanks to Laszlo who answered all our questions on an easy and entertaining way. Laszlo, by the way, has become a certified oenologist recently but is a real wine lover, who has been traveling the country and Europe to taste and compare the wines from all around. Soon, hopefully not more than in two years, you will be able to purchase his own wines as well. We do wish the best and hope to try it as soon ass possible! After a few tastings, we decided to visit and walk around the beautiful fields where the magic happens.
Tokaj Hetszolo (Seven regions)
There is a quite nice and easy walk up in the vineyard to the top of the hill. Easy, if you hadn’t tasted too much of the wines offered all over the town!
You can get a closer look on Hungarian homes, and of course the grapes as well.
The effort is definitely worth it because the view is breathtaking.
To sum up, if you are a wine enthusiast or just enjoy visiting beautiful towns, villages, love nature and old wine cellars, then you will have to visit Hungary. Being a wine lover or just enjoying quality wines, can be an expensive hobby. The great thing about Hungarian wine tourism, it is far more affordable than its European competitors and you get to try top shelf quality introduced by enthusiastic and friendly professionals, who don’t just fill your glasses but your brain with knowledge in a fun and entertaining way. As mentioned by Laszlo, despite the small size of Hungary, it is amazingly rich in wine regions and types. There is a huge versatility in character and style, which makes this country and Tokaj a heaven for wine lovers. In his opinion, Eger, Villány, Sopron, Mátra, Badacsony stand out of the others besides, of course, Tokaj and deserve much more attention.
If you want to visit other great places;
Eger – North East (red)
One of the country’s most historic cities. Besides the cellar and wine tasting tour, you can visit the famous castle held under siege by the Ottoman empire for 150 years. Two hours by train from the capital.
Somlóvásárhely – North West (white)
Charming little village with many cellars to visit and wines to taste. You can get there from Budapest in less than 2.5 hours by intercity trains.
Villány – South West (red)
Another traditional wine making village offering cellar tours and wine tasting with dinner for curious ones. It may be better to plan at least for one night as Villány is about 4.5 hours from the capital by train.
Szekszárd – South West (red)
A beautiful city awaits you to explore, have a nice walk, try lovely wines, visit cellars and refresh yourself in the bath/aqua park. Being only 2-3 hours from Budapest, could be a day out as well as a memorable weekend getaway.
Sopron – West (Red)
A lovely city near the Austrian border. It is a lovely sightseeing option besides wine tasting and hiking around the city. You can get there from the capital in 2,5 hours by fast train.
Mátra – North (mixed)
Is an amazing mountain range in the northern regions of the country. Easy to get there by bus or train in an hour or so. You will love hiking in nature to stop by some cellars for tasters!
Badacsony – Central Hungary (white)
This area is on the north shore of Lake Balaton. A lovely option to visit some cellars after refreshing yourself on the beach. It’s winemaking history dates back to Roman times. By train, it is about 2 hours from Budapest.
Do you have a favorite wine region? Have you been to Hungary yet?
Thank you for reading!