Tokaj for wine lovers

Ancient Oremus bottles in Tokaji, Hungary

Katalin Kiszel-Kohari guides us round the Tokaj-Hegyalja region, home of dry whites, dessert wines and Furmint in north-east Hungary. See this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

Tokaj-Hegyalja has a special place in my heart as I was born there. Possibly the most famous and well-known Hungarian wine region of all has a triangular shape stretching between the Mount Tokaj (seen below from Tarcal), the Mount Sátor of Abaújszántó to the north-west and the Mount Sátor of Sárospatak to the north-east. You can find here white wines with varying levels of sweetness from indigenous varieties and even bubblies, but no red. At least not officially (I will tell you all about it later). It’s famous for its dessert wines, but most of the produce is dry.

Mt Tokaj seen from Tarcal in north east Hungary

It is a two and half-hour drive from Budapest on the A3 motorway towards Miskolc then on road 37 towards Szerencs and it is well worth a visit. You can find a great number of wineries, wine shops and tasting venues around here with significant differences in quality, but you can just as easily can find nine or 10 world-class winemakers who provide tastings, cellar and vineyard tours – and some of them offer food and accommodation too. Nowadays the most significant community is Mád where the majority of outstanding winemakers are to be found. It is a place of natural beauty with gently rolling hills, dusty little villages and streams criss-crossing the valley floors. The northern fringes of rural Hungary at its best.

You will arrive at Szerencs which used to be a bustling little market town, the gateway to the Great Plain. You just drive through it on the road 37 and shortly afterwards turn left on to road 39 to find yourself in Mád, the spiritual centre of Hegyalja. There you have it. Feast yourself! Literally. There are bistros, accommodations, wine bars aplenty and a recently refurbished, beautiful synagogue – and wineries of all sizes and, as I mentioned before, with substantial differences in quality. I focus here on the higher echelons.

Mád is the home of Szepsy and the Royal Tokaj although they are, unfortunately, not open to the public, but there are still plenty more to choose from.

My favourites are:

Holdvölgy which has an amazing cellar tour, dedicated staff, stylish wine shop, excellent wines with their own specialities such as a blend made with Fordítás, a Máslás, Szamorodni, Aszú, Esszencia and selection of dry and sweet Furmint and Hárslevelű.

Barta Pince is in a rustic, refurbished stately home, with a fantastic range of well-made whites, outstanding Furmints, but the Öreg Király Dűlő Hárslevelű is a must-have.

Szent Tamás, with its interactive wine facility and designer, high-tech wine vault is beautiful to behold but has an impressive range of Cru selection Furmints as well. Try the Úrágya Furmint and the Percze Hárslevelű.

Percze Restaurant is run by Szepsy and you can taste any wine from their range while having a meal, if you are willing to pay the price for some Essencia. He is not cheap by any stretch of imagination, but I can happily recommend any of his wines. You should try something from Királyudvar or Úrágya. The food is not bad either, quite modern Hungarian and fusion, and it helps to soak up the alcohol too.

From here head back on the road 37 and right after Mád, if you drive towards Tolcsva, you can see a big yellow building called Sárga Borház (means Yellow Winehouse). This is a restaurant that serves Disznókő wines from the crescent-shaped winery next to it. Their wines are readily available in Great Britain.

From here you can drive east to Tolcsva on road 37. There is one winery to see here high up on the hillside, Oremus. Owned by Vega Sicilia, it is well-worth a detour. Their tasting happens in the cavernous, dimly-lit cellars that are lined with thick mould between antique bottles and barrels. It is truly an experience. They have superb lighter, fresher style of Aszús but do try the dry Oremus Mandolás. I even tasted their 2006 Essencia. Epic!

Back on the road the direction is the road 38 towards Tarcal, near Mount Tokaj, where you find Dégenfeld. After the caverns, this will come as am elegant little Biedermeier surprise with a hotel on top. The tastings are in a sophisticated, period-furnished drawing room, with ample amount of mineral water and freshly baked cheese scones (locally known as pogácsa). They have an organic range and sparkling wine too. Do try the Zomborka Furmint and the Tokaji Hárslevelű and the beautiful Muscat Blanc before the obligatory Late Harvest and Aszú which are, incidentally, superb. Afterwards you can have a walk up to the little hill above the building where you find beautiful views and the recently refurbished Mária Terézia Chapel.

Just a little further down the road, staying in Tarcal, you find the Basilicus Szőlőbirtok. This stunning estate offers tastings, masterclasses, wine dinners, vineyard tours, cellar tours, cooperage displays and accommodation. They have vineyards with a local pre-phylloxera black grape called Purcsin cultivated organically and offered for tastings. It is not part of the seven varieties authorised for Tokaji.

Just keep going for a little further and behind the catholic church, next to a conveniently placed car park, you can find a very modest, inconspicuous-looking house on the corner. That is Tokaj Kikelet Pince, although we are still in Tarcal. Here you can taste dry Furmint, Hárslevelű and Late Harvest wines but what you should not miss is the outstanding sparkling wines. They have a little shop at the back, open only on weekends, where you can taste and buy local artisan cheeses, vinegars, jams.

Finally, we need to go a little bit further down road 38 to arrive at Tokaj itself. Tokaj-Hétszőlő Szőlőbirtok is one of the oldest fully-organic estates around. They have a vine trail set up on the hill to display the different varieties and at the end of the tour you can taste wine in the Rákóczi Cellar. Their wines are also readily available in Great Britain.

I was saving something different, something special, for the end. A distillery, called Bestillo at Boldogkőváralja (it actually means ‘at the foot of the happy stone castle' – doesn`t it sound magical to you?). If you go back towards road 39 at Mád and drive all the way to Abaújszántó on road 39, then take a brave turn a couple of hundred yards after the town market towards Abaújalpár, drive through Boldogkőújfalu and you have arrived at the Bestillo distillery just before the village of Boldogkőváralja. (You can see the fort from here that perches on the top of the hill and is open for visitors who can enjoy great views.) Here you can taste excellent fruit-based spirits called Pálinka, but beware, they are not liqueurs. These beauties have at least 40% alcohol. I would wholeheartedly recommend tasting the Gönci Apricot Pálinka, the Raspberry Pálinka, the Sloe Pálinka and the Aged Aszú Törköly (törköly means pomace) Pálinka. If Gönci rings a bell, there is a good reason for that. Gönc is the village nearby where the small oak barrels used to be made for ageing Tokaji. Hence the name Gönci barrel. Nowadays they use a different barrel called Szerednyei which is more like a barrique in size.

If after this alcohol marathon you would like to have a bite or two, head back towards road 39 towards Encs, and after some hairpin bends you will arrive at the Anyukám Mondta (meaning `My Mama told me`) in Encs. This is a nice little restaurant serving Italian and Hungarian food and has a lovely Sommelier and a great selection of Hungarian wines. He was the one who gave me a glass of Pinot Noir(!) from the Tokaji-region and opened a bottle of my favourite Egri Bikavér (St Andrea Merengő) which they were not selling by the glass. I did have a glass, among others. What service!

This would be one of my ultimate wine, spirit and food experiences of Tokaj-Hegyalja, recommended if you happen to visit Hungary. You may get confused by the funny letters, but never mind. After the third glass we are all friends, and it does not matter. It is worth it!