5 Tempting Reasons to Visit Hungary’s Amazing Tokaj Wine Region
Why explore Hungary’s historic Tokaj wine region?
Can you name a Hungarian wine? When asked this questions, most will simply scratch their heads and shake their heads. Some may have heard of the sweet white wine coming from the Tokaj wine region… Believe it or not, Hungary’s wine-making history goes back to ancient times. The Hungarian word for wine – ‘bor’ does not derive from Latin, which makes some scientists argue that wine was made and consumed here long before the Romans started planting vineyards.
In the Middle Ages, Hungary was best known for the sweet Tokaji Aszu which was dubbed ‘the king of wines and the wine of kings’ and was the drink of choice for the likes of Louis XIV and Peter the Great. Unfortunately, under Communism, wine production was nationalized and Hungary’s historic wine traditions, grape diversity, and established quality were mostly forgotten in the pursuit of mass-produced and low-quality quantities to be exported to the vast market of the Soviet Union.
Luckily, in the past couple of decades, Hungarian wines have been making a comeback and viniculture has diversified a lot with small wineries once again offering artisan wines all over the country. All in all, there are 22 wine regions in Hungary, but the best-known by far is the historic Tokaj, which can be visited on a longish day-trip from Budapest.
5 cool facts about the Tokaj wine region
Located in northeast Hungary at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, the Tokaj wine region is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What makes its terroir unique is the blend of clay and volcanic soil, south-facing slopes, the two rivers creating the perfect micro-climate for the molded raisin-like berries essential for producing sweet Tokaj wine, and the centuries-old subterranean network of rock-carved wine cellars providing constant temperature and humidity.
Tokaji Aszu was the world’s first protected wine and one of the world’s first sweet white wines, made from nobly rotten grapes as early as the 16th century – long before similar sweet wines were made in Sauternes, France (1836) and Rheingau, Germany.
According to legend, one year, Hungarian farmers had to leave their vineyards unharvested in order to battle the invading Ottomans. Upon their return, they found the grapes infected with noble rot (botrytis), but decided to pick them and make wine anyway. They were delighted with the sweet wine they got and have been making it ever since.
The Tokaj wine region is world-renowned for its sweet desert wines, but in the 1990s local vintners started experimenting with dry whites and today dry wine production is widespread in the region. The most popular native Hungarian white grapes are the Furmint and Harslevelu, which are blended to make the famous Tokaji Aszu, and Hungary’s most-planted white grape – the Olaszrizling, called Welschriesling in Austria and Grasevina in Croatia.
If you are a wine lover and only have limited time, I would suggest touring the Tokaj wine region. Harvest time, generally September – October, is of course the most exciting time to visit, but also when local vintners are very busy. Day-trips from Budapest usually include visits and tastings at several wineries and lunch providing a fabulous introduction to the region’s culture and food and wine-making traditions. If you are in Budapest in September, do not miss the annual Wine Festival.
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