Tokaj has a world-famous reputation among serious wine lovers. The region of Tokaj is renowned for sweet wines. Its vineyards are spread out across the foothills of the Zemplén Mountains. Many of these vineyards were established as early as the 12th century. But the population is tiny so it seems that everyone knows everyone.
However, many beautiful things come in small sizes, and Tokaj is definitely one of these. It has one main street and one main square, but these are among the most beautiful town squares in Central Europe. Its population too may be modest in size, but international visitors pay homage to this mecca for sweet wines. The Tokaji Aszú is known as the most delectable of sweet nectars around the world.
Wine Tour in Tokaj
Tokaj has many excellent wineries within the city. And you will find wineries of all predilections; from the prestigious Imperial winery of Tokaj-Hétszőlő, to boutique wineries no one outside of Tokaj has ever heard of.
In fact, György Posta, Mayor of the city of Tokaj, himself confessed to owning a small winery simply for the love of grape. His wines are for his own consumption, which perhaps makes the wine even so much better.
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Our time in Tokaj was short so we focused only on the best experiences. This meant heading straight for Tokaj- Hétszőlő for a tour of its historic cellars and an afternoon of wine tasting.
Perhaps partly for this link with history, Tokaj-Hétszőlő has resisted the trend towards modern and minimalist that so many other wineries favor these days; so its cave is pitch dark save for sets of antique candelabras that left me awestruck.
Fortunately, the wine we drank was as impressive as its surroundings. We taste five bottles, including the 2004 Tokaji Aszú, and this was the six puttonyos Tokaji Aszú version in front of us.
It was the perfect dessert wine after such a heavy meal, and I was in raptures. So Katherine, our guide, smiled and said: “The harslevelu is wonderful, isn’t it? And the 2004 really is beautiful to drink now.”
Ranking the Sweet Wines of Tokaj
Hungary employs a puttonyos-based ranking to rate the sweetness of its wines and serious Tokaji lovers consider six puttonyos the top, five very decent, four drinkable, and three worth tasting at least once. There are also Tokaji Aszú wines that don’t employ this ranking system. However, wineries like Tokaji Hétszőlő take sweetness and their puttonyos very seriously.
The 2004 Tokaji Aszú we drank that afternoon used a single varietal grape called hárslevelű, found only in Hungary. The wine was like liquid gold, particularly after the delicious lunch we had at the LaBor Bistro.
It was the perfect dessert drink after such a heavy meal, and I was in raptures. So Katherine, our guide, smiled and said: “The hars is wonderful, isn’t it? And the 2004 really is beautiful to drink now.”
Everyone fondly refers to this homegrown grape called harslevelu as the hars. Its final form prior to being a sweet wine is a state of noble rot with wrinkled skin and discolored surface.
However, Tokaji Aszú drinkers revere this with passion. The taste makes up for everything, you see. It’s sweet, strong, and spunky, but also smooth and elegant.
And this is when Katherine ever so casually mentioned the kind of offer I simply can never resist. She said: “Lots of people buy cases from us and then they store it here until they’re ready to drink their wines. They like the idea of buying Tokaji sweet wine at the source and we store wines for free if they buy at least two cases from us.”
“Which is the best Tokaji Aszú you have now?” I asked. After hearing all the stories, particularly the one of the king crowned in the cellar, I had my heart set on buying four cases for storage in their ancient cellars. This almost felt like buying a piece of Tokaj itself, after all. So the romantic in me leapt for my credit card. However, if I was going to do this, I wanted only the very best.
I assumed over-inquisitive travelers always asked this to Katherine — most people want know which is the best, after all — but this did not seem to be the case.
In fact, the answer took a bit of research on her part. “Let me ask our team,” she said with a smile.
The best Tokaji Aszú
The consensus at the winery that day, including that of Gergely Makai, the chief wine maker of Hétszőlő, was that the Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos from 1999 was one of the best so far. For one thing, 1999 was a spectacular year for Aszú wines and Hétszőlő actually made three kinds of Aszú in the 6 puttonyos level.
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They made an Aszú from the furmint grape, which is another local favorite. Then there’s a rare one from the muscat grape. Finally, we have the general favorite which is a Tokaji Aszu made from the hárslevelű. I chose the latter because I liked the taste, and because this is the best choice for Tokaji Aszú among the three.
Most fine wine shops anywhere don’t even have a bottle of this very special Aszú in their cellars anymore. Moreover, even Hétszőlő only has about 50 bottles left of this wine that can keep nicely even for 100 years.
Winemaker of Hétszőlő
So I took four cases to place in their cellars on a whim and a lot of inspiration. And just before leaving, Kathryn also asked: “Would you like me to place a note on your cases of wine? Lots of people place messages on their wines for personal reasons.”
So I wrote on a piece of paper for her to attach to wines: “In beautiful Tokaj, ever so happily living a #Travelife.”
Read more about the best wines in Hungary in Travelife Magazine.