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Hungary’s Historic Tokaj Wine Region

Two of my clients, a mother and daughter, met me for dinner last week at The Montauk Club, and then with my laptop out, we worked on their next trip together, choosing the right river cruise for their last-minute June adventure along the Danube. We selected a great itinerary on a lovely line offering extended Memorial Day discounts, and now we're working on their pre and post cruise plans. My clients want to see great European cities in the region, but when you'd like to go further afield before or after embarking on your own Danube River cruise in Budapest, let me help you discover the magnificent wines and vineyards of Tokaj, Hungary! 

Excerpt below from 10/1/2021 article produced by Virtuoso with Discover Central Europe can found here. 


Sweet Tokaji aszu vintages are just a taste of what awaits. What comes to mind when you think of Hungary? Probably goulash – or, for gourmet travelers really in the know, porkolt, a rich and meaty paprika-spiked stew. Ruin bars, if you’re a nightclubber. Definitely Budapest and its magnificent bridges, castle, and parliament building. Here’s another to throw into the mix: Tokaj. Located in northeastern Hungary, about 150 miles from Budapest, Tokaj is Europe’s oldest classified wine region, long known to wine afficionados. That’s right – years before Bordeaux and Burgundy gained recognition, and generations before Rioja and the Rhineland earned viticultural respect, Tokaj reigned.  


Named a UNESCO Historic Cultural Landscape, the Tokaj Wine Region makes wine from local grape varietals: furmint, harslevelu, zeta, sarga muskotaly, and koverszolo. But it’s Tokaj’s location at the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers that stamps its most famous vintage: Mild temperatures, volcanic soils, and morning mist conspire to create a particular kind of fungus called Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot,” on the furmint grape, resulting in Tokaji aszu. Pronounced “oss-oo,” the singular sweet wine is worth the trip just to drink it in the storied spot where the grapes are plucked.


The regional prominence started in 1737 when a royal decree defined Tokaj’s boundaries. Some three decades later, it earned classification as an official wine region. It might have helped that French monarch Louis XIV proclaimed Tokaj wine as “the wine of kings, the king of wines.” The region even makes an appearance in the Hungarian national anthem: “And let nectar’s silver rain ripen the grapes of Tokaj soon.”


Tokaj’s wines haven’t always maintained such lofty praise. During the Soviet era, nationalization and collectivization of the wineries dulled their product and sullied their reputation abroad. But now, 30-plus years after the Iron Curtain fell, Hungary – Tokaj, in particular – has become an increasingly impressive destination for food and wine. 


At the Grof Degenfeld Wine Estate, for example, winemaker Balazs Sulyok’s organic wines attract global attention. Crowned by a glorious château from the 1870s, the estate, in the wine-centric village of Tarcal, is owned by an old blue-blood German-Hungarian family who revived the winery in the 1990s. Visitors can take a cellar tour that ends with the chance to taste five to eight vintages, Sulyok’s crisp sparkling harslevelu and its acclaimed Tokaji aszu among them.


The Tokaj region consists of 28 villages and towns stitched together by ever-present rolling vineyards. At its core is the village of Tokaj itself, where you’ll find historic Rakoczi Cellar, which planted the area’s first grapes in the seventeenth century. The winery sits on the town’s central square and welcomes guests for tours and tastings. Today, it’s operated by award-winning Tokaj-Hetszolo Organic Vineyards, located in the nearby town of Mad, where visitors can sip small-batch Tokaji aszus. While in Mad, pop into Mad Wine, a highly decorated estate that produces everything from bone-dry furmint and late-harvest Tokaji aszu to the dry and minerally Nyulaszo furmint. 


Along with claiming its place as the most famous of Hungary’s 22 wine districts, Tokaj is in the running for some of the country’s most delicious, close-to-the-land cuisine. Mad Wine operates the lauded Elso Madi Borhaz bistro. Among the hyperlocal dishes: rosé-braised duck breast and an unctuous pork chop from the locally bred Mangalica pig, which has been called the “Kobe beef of pork.”


Mad’s local craft brewery, Zip’s, runs town favorite Percze. Housed in a handsome dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows, the restaurant pairs beer and wine with a porcine-heavy menu, including Mangalica pork pâté and a massive Mangalica tomahawk pork chop. 


Fifteen miles northwest of Mad, brothers Szilard and Szabolcs Dudas opened Anyukám Mondta (“My Mother Said”) after working their way around kitchens in northern Italy and New York City. In the two-plus decades since, it’s been the region’s go-to for soulful dishes such as slow-cooked lamb from the nearby Zemplen Mountains, speck-spiked rabbit stew, and wood-fired pizzas.


Of course, this is just a taste of what awaits in Tokaj, which has stood the test of time to remain very much the same as it was centuries ago when princes and potentates, counts and kings were singing its praises from the banks of the Danube all the way to the halls of Versailles.



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