At first sight, Tokaj looks like it’s stuck in time. It’s a sleepy, quiet part of Hungary close to Eastern Slovakia and the Ukrainian border, a short distance only made longer by the rocky, badly-maintained roads that wind around Tokaj’s round hills. Everything looks ancient, horse-drawn carriages pass along the road, and the village bar (“kocsma”) is the only place with signs of life on an average weekday at noon. Wine has been made here for thousands of years, so everything has its place.
But below the surface, the region is changing and innovating quickly. Formerly known only for its sweet late-harvest wines, the region is now making elegant dry white wines out of the same grape varieties. Put into hibernation by 50 years of communist rule, the region, like the rest of Hungary’s winemaking, is crawling out of its shadow and looking for the spotlight once again. The exact direction, focus, and how the wines should be sold is still being debated heavily, but the wines are already exceptional.
Tokaj is a wine region on the site of over three hundred extinct volcanoes. Its soils are incredibly diverse, with layers of volcanic minerals stacked on top of each other, creating one of the world’s most interesting wine regions. The Tisza and Bodrog rivers nearby provide a cool, fresh breeze that sweeps through the hills for most of the year.
Historic records show signs of winemaking from the 12th century, but research shows that wine might have already been made in the region hundreds of years earlier. In the Middle Ages, the region became famous Europe-wide thanks to its exceptional natural sweet wine, Tokaji Aszú. Read all about Aszú, its history, and the changes coming to the style here >>>
A new future
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Tokaj quickly began to reestablish its role in Hungarian winemaking and top sweet wines started to be produced here once again. But Tokaj soon found that while it was hibernating, the world had changed, and dry wines were the rage all over the world. Winemakers such as István Szepsy and many others in the 1990s started to play around with dry wines, and soon found that the region that produced exceptional sweet wines could also produce exceptional dry whites.
By today, dry wines are being made by virtually every producer in Tokaj, and the development of these wines over the years has been outstanding. Starting out with old oak barrels and outdated winemaking methods, winemakers have learned a lot over years and have made huge leaps in quality. Today, dry Tokaji wines are powerful, rich and often intense, but also refreshingly balanced with good acidity and minimal barrel use. The Furmint grape variety has proven itself to be incredibly colorful and multifaceted, from fresh, crisp wines to bold wines w ith layers of minerality, while Hárslevelű produces round, warm wines with a sunny character.
Many debates in the region are still ongoing as Tokaj develops a new classification system and establishes its direction forward. Some would like to return to the traditional classification system of the 18th century, while others are proposing completely new ways to categorize the wines of the region. All we know is that if the evolution of dry Tokaji wines continues as it has until now, the future is bright for these unique wines.