King Louis XIV of France called it the ‘wine of kings, the king of wines,’ but remarkably, this Hungarian wine remains under the radar for many wine lovers today. For over a thousand years, Tokaj wines were served to royalty, and now, they are a treasure for modern travelers to Hungary to discover.
A perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in Hungary’s Tokaj wines may be before or after a Danube river cruise beginning or ending in Budapest. The wine region is a couple of hours east of Hungary’s capital, and makes a perfect oenophiles’ pre- or post-cruise extension of your cruise.
Tokaj is a town in the north-east part of the country, but the name represents the entire region of over two dozen villages, about 13,000 acres of vineyards, and hundreds of small wineries.
You mention the city of Bordeaux and everyone immediately thinks of its eponymous wines. But not nearly as many think ‘wine’ when they hear the name Tokaj.
Yet Tokaj claims to be the first defined wine region in the world, dating back to 1737 when a royal declaration listed 22 villages that were permitted to use the Tokaj name for their wines.
Tokaj wines owe their fame to a ‘friendly’ fungus, botrytis, highly valued for centuries by winemakers who call it ‘noble rot.’ Under the right climate and local weather conditions, it works away on wine grapes, shriveling them up. That concentrates the juice remaining, leaving a sweet-tart flavor and a new range of aromas including peach, honey and orange.
Grapes with ‘noble rot’ are the heart of Tokaj wines – the world’s first botrytized wines. Bordeaux’ Sauternes, for example, have not been around nearly as long as Tokaj.
Two white wine grapes native to Hungary account for nearly all the vines in Tokaj, and both furmint and Hárslevelű grapes have one very important quality: they attract the friendly botrytis fungus.
With uniquely local grapes that attract botrytis, a unique microclimate with humidity from two rivers that converge in the town of Tokaj providing ideal conditions to grow the fungus, long and dry autumns that allow the grapes to dry out and concentrate, and ancient volcanic minerals lending unique terrain and flavor to the grapes, Tokaj was blessed with perfect conditions to be a legendary wine region.
Winemakers kept refining their Tokaj wines, also carving a vast system of wine caves out of the rock and hillsides beginning in the 1400’s that offered the ideal temperature, humidity and growth of the mold highly valued by winemakers for ageing wine.
While Tokaj wine production waned behind the Iron Curtain, a 'Tokaj Revolution' followed the reopening of Eastern Europe three decades ago. Today, the ‘wine of kings, the king of wines’ has been restored to its full glory, with small winemakers still relying on the same local grapes, conditions, ancient caves and traditional methods to produce new vintages of the world’s oldest designated and botrytized wine.
But the secret isn’t fully out yet, even after the Tokaj wine region Historic Cultural Landscape was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
Unique, historic wines you can taste in intimate wineries dotting stunning hillside landscapes in a designated wine region that still remains off the beaten path for many wine travelers – that should put a journey to Tokaj on the top of any wine lover’s list.
Start Your Wine Trip!
By: Lynn Elmhirst, cruise/ travel journalist.
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