“Where are you from?” asked the beautiful barista while we were counting the money for our bill. If one checked out the Chinese flower tea, the flat white made from just-roasted organic beans, and the home-made cherry pie we just had, they might suppose that we were in a fancy hip cafe in a trendy capital city like London, Berlin or Amsterdam, not a small town in Hungary.
But we were, and one thing was different: the cafe also did wine tasting, same as our bed & breakfast or many bicycle rental shops around town. Yes, you’ve heard it right.
Welcome to the Tokaj wine region! Once upon a time, its famous sweet wines were widely admired by princes and emperors, and they are now making their way back on the vino map.
A Brief History
Tokaj is an old wine region. Actually, the region's grapes were the first to be classified in official records, 120 years before ones of Bordeaux.
In its golden days, Tokaj's sweet wines travelled south-west as far as France and north-east all the way to Russia. After World War II, the communist regime intervened and made the people move away from the way their ancestors had made wine for centuries, growing for quantity over quality. Only after twenty years, things have started to change back.
Nowadays most of the Tokaj's winemakers sell their bottles locally within Hungary. Here in town I saw people buying the liquor in two-litre plastic containers. Our guess was that the alcohol had been diluted. Out of town, about half an hour on the bike, one would find the source of those bottles: the vineyards.
Tasting the wine
It was a Tuesday afternoon when we ventured beyond the quiet roads of the town. There was not a cloud in the sky and we could really smell the sweating earth beneath our wheels. As an abnormal heatwave swept across the country (and the continent), most vineyards looked deserted.
The scorching sun prompted us to take refuge at a random vineyard even though the gate was closed, guarding only an empty garden. We stuck our head through holes on the gate, poked our nose around until someone came. He took us into a small office, away from the sun, thankfully. We were even more grateful when he poured us generous portions of various wine. All of them were dessert wines but the dryness varied.
Tokaj makes only sweet dessert wines, which are white and served chilled. They are like Port without the thickness. One can enjoy their freshness even more when sipping the content from a glass in a cellar. Deep under the ground, we have found some treasure!
Getting to Tokaj
The town is two and a half hour's drive from Budapest. You can take the highway M3 then M30 towards Miskolc, followed by routes 37 and 38 to Tokaj.
Alternatively, get on one of the trains (like we did) running from both Nyugati and Keleti Railway Stations. The trip can take up to four hours depending on the service and the connections, but you can enjoy some exciting scenery en-route.
Protip: Don't go there on Monday as everywhere closes.
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