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Beyond Wine – Discover Tokaj Region

Tokaj - Wine Region - The Good Gourmet


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Making efforts for good things is a must

Why do I say it? On one hand I have heard it before, on the other hand it is a personal experience. You have also felt it, when you have made a hard hiking, and the view from the top of the hill is worth all the efforts. And this is just one example.

Now I am inviting you to the North-eastern part of Hungary, to Tokaj, the world famous wine region, and the home of the ‘Tokaji’, the sweet ‘aszú’ wine. The first effort is to get here, to the ‘Far far away’. Although as Einstein said: ‘Everything is relative’. For me, a native Hungarian who lives in Tokaj for my childhood, this is home. But, from your armchair, it could be ‘behind the God’s back’.

First thing is: arrive to Budapest, to the capital of Hungary. It is not so hard today (apart from the actual pandemic situation). After it, you’ll have to travel 230 km to the north-east to get to Tokaj. You can either rent a car and drive on the motorway M3 (E71 or E79) or travel by train about 2.5 hours to the direction Miskolc-Nyíregyháza (sorry, we have no super-fast trains yet).

But once you are here, you cannot choose what to see first. The natural beauties e.g. Zemplén-hills, the rivers Tisza and Bodrog, the forests, stone mines, wine cellars, or the biodiversity. If you are not an outdoor-person, you can visit many castles, museums, churches and synagogues as well.

Try the local gastronomy, taste the Tokaji wines, or learn interesting information about the multicultural people’s heritage on a guided tour. If we talk about heritage: since 2002 Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Tokaj itself is a small town (approx. 3800 habitants) and it gave its name to the wine region where the famous wine is made as well. It was an important junction of the North-South and the East-West trading routes, and here was the easiest way to get across the upper-Tisza.

The Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region is the world’s first demarcated wine region since 1737. In the present days it has 27 settlements located in Hungary. (It was a bit bigger, but since 1920, due to the Treaty of Trianon a smaller part of the historical wine region was given to Slovakia). This land is a meeting point of hilly and flat lands, rivers, many culture, and different people.

It is a fact if there was no volcanic bedrock, good climate, vineyards, hardworking people, and wine, Tokaj would not be on the map either. So, first of all, I have to write some words about the ‘aszú’, the amber-coloured sweet wine (usually paired with foie gras, blue cheese or a dark chocolate dessert).

Aszú wine has been made since the 16th century! The first written memory can be found in Máté Garay’s testament in 1571. In the 18-19th centuries the Tokaji conquered the European kings’ courtyards. Even the Roman Pope liked the aszú. That is why the name ‘Tokaji’ or ‘aszú’ is the synonym of luxury and wealth.

Do you know how much effort is need to make this wine? People working in the vineyards, from early spring to the harvest in October, needed to bow 167 times to each vine stock! And during the harvest, people are picking by hand, the overripe, dried and noble rotten (botrytized) berries, also called ‘aszú’, one by one from the brunch. So they have to walk through 3-4 times the whole vineyard during the harvest season, because only a few aszú berries are ripe in each brunch at the same time. They pick them out, and leave the other berries and the whole brunch to mature on the stock.

Just briefly, if you want to make a 5 puttonyos[1] aszú you need a big vat, put into it 100-120 kg aszú berries, add 1 gönci barrel[2] of grape must or the same vintage wine, and soak it 1-2 days. After, this mass have to be pressed and the juice put back into the barrel for maturing at least 2.5 years. (In the ancient time, old people said, as many puttony of the aszú you want – from 3-6 puttony – as many years are needed for maturing in barrel, so 3-6 years at least, plus 2 years in bottles before selling it. Imagine what an investment (manual work and cellar capacity, repeated every year)! By the way, a woman can select and pick 15-17 kg aszú berries per day, if there are enough quantity of botrytized berries and all other conditions are perfect. And, I have not mentioned yet the typical types of grapes; the wine specialties such as Essence, Szamorodni and the new trends: the reductive style dry wines and the champagne.

But as a local guide, I believe that Tokaj, and the Tokaj wine region is not just wine.

Tokaj is almost a thousand-year old town with tiny streets, churches, natural beauties and cultural events. The biggest are the Crescendo Summer Institute’s master classes and its concerts; The Bornapok (Wine Days) in the summer and the Szüreti Napok (Harvesting Days) in the Autumn. There are also thematic guided tours (e.g. Greek heritage from the 18th century; churches and its art; and customary wine tastings as well).

The wine region and its surrounding has many castles and ruins. Some of them are real social media stars. You can find churches of six religions (Roman catholic, Greek catholic, Greek orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist and Jews). In Mád there is a European-Nostra Awarded synagogue.

You can walk on many thematic routes, such as Road of Northern Castles, Footsteps of wonder rabbis (Jewish heritage), Road of St. Elizabeth (Sárospatak – Kosice, Slovakia) or the Virgin Mary’s road (road of shrines in Central Europe).

There are lots of keep active possibilities. Go hiking on marked routes in the hills. Ride a bike or rent a kayak, canoe or SUP. The region is a good place for fishing and hunting, too. In Sátoraljaújhely, in the Zemplén Adventure Park there is a canopy sliding wire rope, a bobsleigh track, and cabin cable car among many others tourist attraction.

And, after this hard working  adventure, it’s time to taste the unequal gastronomy. There are uncountable variations for wine tastings according to cellars, vintages, types of grapes or types of wines. Some Hungarikum, maybe you have heard about and /or have tried yet: Pálinka, Grape marc pálinka, the mentioned Tokaji aszú, Hungarian acacia honey, soda-water. Local crafts make food and beverages from grapes, plums, apricots and nuts. Other handcrafted products include: emu (yes, the bird), Tokaj gin (1st place of The Gin Masters 2020), beer, honey, chocolate, etc. Almost each settlement has its own little festival or arts & crafts market.

It is mission impossible to write everything what I would show you in my home town and in its region. And I know, reading this article and imagining all of it was also a huge effort. I hope you enjoyed it and from now on Tokaj is on your bucket list. Please make some more efforts, leave your comfort zone, and come to Tokaj personally. If you need a guide, feel free to contact me.

[1] Puttony means tub, a wooden dry measure, in which the grapes, in hilly vineyards, were carried to the pressing house in the ancient times. Approx 20-25 kg aszú berries is 1 puttony

[2] Gönci barrel or gönci cask is a 136.6 litres barrel, made from Zemplén oak. Gönc is the name of the village where these barrels were made first.