Hungary’s most famous wine is undoubtedly the Tokaj Aszú, also known as the “Tokay” in the English-speaking world. The secret of this noble, sweet wine lies in the combined effect of the ideal climatic, landscape and soil characteristics of the Tokaj wine region as well as in the unusual production method.
What is Tokaj?
Although a relatively small country, Hungary has twenty-two wine regions, each having its own special grape variety. Tokaj is one of Hungary’s most well-known historic wine regions, located in north-eastern Hungary. Wine was being harvested here already in the 13th century. The first authentic written source mentioning the Tokaj vineyards is in fact from 1251. The original name of the wine region was “Hegyalja” meaning “foothills” in Hungarian.
Why is the Tokaj wine region special?
The Tokaj wine region is one of Hungary’s larger wine regions, consisting of more than ten-thousand hectares of vineyards. It used to be much larger, but after the first World War, Hungary has lost one third of its territory. As a result, part of the historical Tokaj wine region now belongs to Slovakia.
Tokaj has been declared a World Heritage Site in 2002. The wine region is characterized by its rich volcanic clay soil and special microclimate. The dry, warm late autumn weather is ideal for bringing on the “noble rot” (or botrytis cinerea) on the grapes. Mould develops on the berries in moist conditions and then dries as the sun comes out. This noble rot concentrates the grape’s sugars and adds distinct aromas of ginger and saffron.
Why is the Tokaji Aszú so famous?
Tokaji Aszú is a golden-coloured, sweet dessert wine. It’s also the world’s oldest botrytized wine. According to historic sources, the first bottle of Tokaj aszú was offered to a Hungarian lady called Lórántfy Zsuzsanna in 1631, but some say Aszú was being harvested in Tokaj already in the 1590’s. The Tokaji Aszú used to be one of the most sought-after wines in the world. Some thought that its special, golden colour comes from real gold and it was the favourite drink of many kings and noblemen.
Originally the word “Aszú” meant “dried”. Later, the term came to be associated with the type of wine that is made with noble rotten grapes. The Aszú berries are handpicked individually. Not every year brings the same amount of Aszú berries, it depends on the weather conditions. After the Aszú berries are collected in large baskets (puttony), they are trampled into the consistency of paste which is called Aszú dough. Must or wine is mixed with the Aszú dough and left for 24–48 hours, while stirred occasionally. Then the ready wine is poured into wooden barrels where it matures for 3-8 years in cool cellars.
When the season only brings a few noble rotten berries, selecting the Aszú berries manually would not be economical. In that case, berries are processed just as they were harvested, without any selection. However, a certain quantity of Aszú berries is obligatory to assure the right quality.
The best types of Tokaji Aszú
The quality of the Tokaji Aszú depends on the number of baskets (puttony) a wine has. The puttony is the 25 kg basket of Aszú grapes. The more baskets added to the barrel of must, the sweeter and better quality the eventual wine will be. Since 2013, the puttony number is based on the content of residual sugar in the matured wine. Aszú ranges from 3 puttonyos to 6 puttonyos, with a further category called Aszú-Eszencia which represents the wines above 6 puttonyos.
Annual production of Tokaji Aszú is less than one percent of the region’s total wine output which explains why it’s so special. Aszú is not made every year. The winemaker decides, if the quality of harvest allows Aszú production or not. The Aszú is one of the slowest maturating and longest-living wines in the world. A bottle of high quality Tokaji Aszú will age more than 100 years and can cost up to 500-700 EUR.
When to drink Tokaji Aszú?
Tokaji Aszú is an important part of Hungarian wine culture. It’s a noble drink with a tradition of hundreds of years. As it is a Hungarian wine specialty with a higher price tag, Tokaji Aszú is usually consumed during holidays and special occasions. Tokaji Aszú is an excellent drink for these festive moments, and can be paired with a variety of dishes, from blue cheeses to Far Eastern cuisine and desserts of all kind.
Where can you taste Tokaji wines in Budapest?
There are several places in Budapest where you can sample traditional Tokaj wines, we’ve listed here only a few.
Veritas Wine Bar
Location: Budapest, 58-62 Dohány Street
This is a place where you will definitely return not only for the Hungarian wines, but also for the attentive service. There is a wide variety of domestic and foreign wines on offer, and the pricing is fairly modest, which is not common in such prestigious establishments. The menu is diverse and each dish comes with a wine recommendation. It includes list of starters, salads and wonderful wine snacks such as homemade eggplant crème or mangalica ham and salami mixed plate.
What to try: The tapioca pudding with coconut crème and forest fruit sauce and Megyer: Sweet Szamorodni 2015 / Tokaj (700 HUF / glass)
Kadarka Wine Bar and Wine Shop
Location: Budapest, 42 Király Street
This is the place in downtown Budapest where you will definitely want to take all your friends to taste Hungarian wines. The choice is astonishing and the waiters are always ready to give suggestions on what to drink. They also offer a nice variety of soups, fresh salads, homemade vegetable creams and meat creams as well as pogácsa (the quintessential Hungarian salty snack) on their menu to accompany the wines. Their dishes are prepared without any additives.
What to try: The gooseliver paté with cognac and the Béres 5 puttonyos Aszú 2011 / Tokaj (3990 HUF / 0,7 dl)
DiVino Borbár (DiVino Wine Bar)
DiVino Bazilika Budapest, 3 Szent István Square
DiVino Gozsdu Budapest, 13 Király Street
This upscale wine bar has two locations in Budapest, both in the city center. They offer a large variety of Hungarian wines, among them several Tokaj wines. They also serve small bar snacks such as delicious cheese and meat boards and Bruschetta Caprese to accompany your wine. Evenings tend to get busy, so it’s best to make reservations.
What to try: The parmesan cheese & truffle honey and the Árvay Tokaji Édesem 2017 (4500 HUF / bottle)
Doblo Wine Bar and Shop
Location: Budapest, 20 Dob Street
Doblo offers a great choice of Hungarian wines in downtown Budapest not far from Gozsdu udvar. Their wine list is reasonably priced and there’s a cosy, intimate atmosphere in the evenings along with some live jazz clarinet and guitar music playing in the background. Bartenders are very attentive and knowledgeable about their wines. They offer a winemaker of the month selection which includes three different wines, a snack plate and a shot of pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy).
What to try: Blue moulded goat’s cheese with Oremus Tolcsva 5 Puttyonyos Aszú 2009 / Tokaj (17500 HUF / 0,5 litre)
Borkonyha Wine Kitchen Restaurant
Location: Budapest, 3 Sas Street
Located close to the Basilica, Borkonyha is one of the best, Michelin star restaurants of Budapest. As it indicates in their name, they are very much wine oriented, offering about 200 different wines on their menu, with a Hungarian majority. To dine in a Michelin star restaurant is always a special gastronomical feat and Borkonyha is no exception. The chef’s cooking style is a combination of French bistro and cosy Hungarian family restaurant and the carefully created dishes are not only delicious, but are also feasts for the eye.
What to try: The 5-course degustation menu with wine pairing – the wines include an Öreg Király Dűlő Tokaji 6 puttyonos Aszú 2010 (5-course degustation menu: 23000 HUF/person, Wine pairing: 19000 HUF/person)