The Tokaj wine region in northeastern Hungary is, according to many, the oldest designated wine region in the world — though fans of the Port region in Portugal and the Chianti region in Italy might disagree. But no matter who was first, it’s clear that grapes have been grown in the Tokaj region for eons. Prehistoric forests uncovered in the area show evidence of vines that were precursors to the modern grape vines so prevalent in Tokaj today.
King Louis XIV of France, who served Tokaji wine at the French Royal court at Versailles, is said to have referred to it as “Wine of Kings, King of Wines.” Over the years, the wine became a favorite of many notable people, from Ludwig von Beethoven and Joseph Haydn to Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson.
Today, the region — which was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2002 — encompasses 27 towns and villages. Beautiful wineries are scattered throughout the Tokaj region, and myriad ancient wine cellars are dug into the ground, with winding, atmospheric corridors lined with 136-liter Gönci barrels.
Named for the town of the same name, the Tokaj region is widely considered Hungary’s star region, and it’s the most well-known and well-represented Hungarian wine region on international market. The region is known for its unique wines not found anywhere else in the world, particularly the Aszú, Szamorodni, Máslás, Fordítás and Eszencia styles. The Tokaji Aszú and Eszencia styles require the growth of the botrytis fungus*, which gives the wines a special sweetness. Along with the Somló region, Tokaj is the most important region in Hungary for the Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes. A third grape grown well in the region is the Sárgamuskotály, which also is grown in the Balaton-felvidék region in western Hungary. Additional grapes grown in Tokaj are the Zéta, Kövérszőlő, Kabar and Sauvignon blanc varieties.
* Legend has it that during the Turkish occupation, the people of the Tokaj region were not allowed to return to their vineyard until late October, after botrytis had begun to set in on the grapes. The wine from that year was especially good, and a tradition was born.
The Bodrog river, which cuts through the Tokaj wine region, combines with the Tisza river to the south and the Zemplén Mountains to the north to create a special microclimate. This microclimate, which features between 500 and 700 millimeters of rain per year, is perfect for the dry grapes (Furmint and Hárslevelű) grown in the Tokaj region. The humidity that comes up from the rivers is essential for the growth of botrytis, and the heat from the Great Hungarian Plain provides ample summer growth opportunity for the vines. Daily heat also is essential to the development of botrytis wines; the vacillation between rotting and drying shrivels and sweetens the grapes. The terroir of Tokaj is further shaped by earth rich with riolite, andesite and volcanic debris. Furmint grapes, in particular, carry the characteristics of the various types of organic soil found throughout the 5,446-hectare region.
Traditionally, Tokaji wines were fermented in barrels and oaked. More modern production methods include reductive fermentation and maturation in a combination of stainless steel tanks and oak barrels.
The Hungarian government recently announced a series of major development projects in the region, totaling approximately 48 billion HUF. Planned improvements include the refurbishment of Mád’s main street, upgrades to existing hotels and improvements to the train line between Mezőzombor and Sátoraljaújhely.
Tokaji wines, too, continue to rebound from a Soviet-era stagnation in quality*. At the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards, Tokaji wines took home 22 medals, including seven golds and two platinums. Wines from the famed Tokaj region (including relatively less-known dry wines) appear to be retaking their rightful place near the top of the world wine stage. Many producers, such as Patricius Winery, are striving to “elevate the dry Tokaj wines to their worthy rank.”
* According to Wine Folly, the state-run wineries in Tokaj had little incentive to produce the great wines for which the area long had been known. In 1990, when the wineries began to be privatized, quality started to return to the region’s wine.