The Tokaj-Hegyalja (Tokaj Foothills) make up the southernmost part of the volcanic mountains that branch from the Carpathian chain, the region filling a triangle between the slopes of Sátorhegy-Sátoraljaújhely, the Sátorhegy-Abaújszántó and the Kopasz mountains. Fifty-five kilometres long and 15km wide, the mountains fill the horizon; tucked away here are 28 diverse villages. German, Slovakian and Jewish communities settled in the past, and linguistic variations persist. Spring and autumn are the seasons to visit, particularly during the Tokaj Spring Festival (last weekend of May) and the Harvest Festival (last week of October).
The vineyards of the Tokaj Foothills produce some of the country's best wines © Pecold, Shutterstock
Tokaj-Hegyalja is simple. Road 37 from Szerencs runs through the centre to its end at Sátoraljaújhely. Every village is within 8km of turn-offs from the highway. There are buses from Szerencs and Tokaj to most villages, but it’s easiest with a car. Starting at the southwestern end of Tokaj-Hegyalja and passing eastward through Szerencs, the last town before entering the region, you’ll reach a sign indicating Mád to the left. Hills full of the distinctive cellar doors embedded in their rocky sides surround this little village and its single main road, Rákóczi út. Mád is currently the home of the premier wine maker in the whole area. István Szepsy (Szepsy Mád-Királyi Szolészet; Batthyány u. 59; 47 348349; www.szepsy.hu) has been producing wines since communist times; although Szepsy does host tastings in his cellar, his workload means that such opportunities are rare, and it is better instead to head for the Királyudvar winery in Tarcal (see below), where he joins forces with another celebrated winemaker, Zoltán Demeter. The other big name is Tokaj Classic (Rákóczi út 45, opposite the town hall), owned by a Hungarian-American couple, András and Phyllis Bruhács. There are also many smaller winemakers scattered in Mád, offering full cellars and visitor tastings. Alternatively, consider the cellars at Oroszlános Borvendéglo´ in Tállya (Rákóczi u. 23, 47 598 888; www.oroszlanos.hu; sgl 6,000–8,000Ft, dbl 12,000–14,000Ft), in the 17th-century stately home Szirmay-kúria.
Joining Road 37 once more, and going due southeast towards Tokaj, the renowned Disznóko(Rock Boar) winery (Mezozombor, Disznókodulo; 47 569410; www.disznoko.hu), a dome-shaped building perched on a hill, stands just before the turn off for Tarcal. What makes Disznóko´´ particularly unusual is its white pavilion atop a jetting boulder; the boulder is said to look like a wild boar, and the structure was designed by the organic architect Imre Makovecz. Tarcal is a town located on the western side of Bald Mountain, and has several wineries worth seeing: the Dorogi Vineyard (Klapka u. 7; 20 9576470; firstname.lastname@example.org), Tokaj Nobilis, Királyudvar (Fou. 92; 47 380111; www.kiralyudvar.com), Kikelet and Degenfeld (Terézia kert 9; 47 380173; www.grofdegenfeld.com). The last of these has the Gróf Degenfeld Castle Hotel (47 580400; www.hotelgrofdegenfeld.hu; 21 rooms; sgl 27,600–30,000Ft, dbl 30,000–32,400Ft, suite 36,000–38,400Ft) in its grounds, an elegant place with 19th-century ambience but modern facilities. The nearby Andrássy Kúria Wine & Spa (Fou. 94; 47 580015; www.andrassy.hu; 40 rooms; dbl from 28,000Ft, suite from 41,000Ft) opened in 2008 and has everything promised in its name. Spa treatments play on the anti-ageing properties of grapes and grape seeds.
The Dereszla wines are full-flavoured and wonderful; the Dereszla cellars are a favourite of the region, winding deep underground.
Continue southwards and around the bottom of Bald Mountain, you’ll reach Tokaj itself. One of the gurus of this area is János Árvay, the top vintner after Mád’s Szepsy. The Bodrog River courses through Bodrogkeresztúr, which stands beside Route 38 on the way back to Road 37. The Dereszla Estate (Felsou. 2; 47 396004; www.dereszla.com) here is half-owned by French Wine Makers, the D’Aulan family from Champagne. In the immediate aftermath of the political changes of 1989, several French investors and wine makers arrived to work with the locals in harnessing traditional regional techniques with contemporary machinery. The result is spectacular. The Dereszla wines are full-flavoured and wonderful; the Dereszla cellars are a favourite of the region, winding deep underground. Supping direct from the barrels is a frequent pleasure during tours of this winery, but there is also a recently refurbished tasting room.
Choosing the best of their wines is a tough task, but special mention should go to the Muskotály 2000; free of the acidic taste that usually characterises Tokaji Muscat, this one yields a soft, slightly sweet wine with a swift and sharp finish. Füleky (Iskola köz 15; 47 396478; www.fuleky-tokaj.com), one of the leading smaller wineries, is also in Bodgrogkeresztúr. Judit Bott is the wine maker and in recent years she has received rave reviews. The Furmint ‘Pallas’ is the most popular of the wines. Judit speaks excellent English and is a super wine guide.
Back on Road 37, vineyards envelope the landscape. The majority are owned by Hétszolo, Dereszla and private landowners. The turn for Erdobénye is further northeast along the highway. Tiny in size but beautiful in look, it is known for its makers of traditional Tokaji barrels (gönci), which hold 136 litres. Attila Homonna came to Tokaj ten years ago, and has been making his name during the past few of them with his fantastic Szamorodni and Furmint wines. Olaszliszka is the next stop, 5km further along our route, where just one maker plies his trade. Samuel Tinon is a Frenchman who moved to Tokaj 14 years ago to revamp many of the larger wineries, introducing up-to-date processes and techniques.
Oremus also holds the ‘Wine of the Century’ – voted the best dessert wine in the world – from the 1972 vintage.
Eight kilometres on is Tolcsva, home of the Spanish/Hungarian Tokaj Oremus winery (Bajcsy-Zsilinszky u. 45; 47 384505; www.tokajoremus.com). Oremus is internationally known, and boasts one of the most advanced wine-making systems (with a ‘gravity-flow’ process, considered to provide the ‘clearest’ extract from the grapes). The estate is huge. Of all the cellars of the wineries, this is the one to go to. Mouldy, low-ceilinged corridors are lined with backlit bottles that project shafts of amber-coloured light all around. Oremus also holds the ‘Wine of the Century’ – voted the best dessert wine in the world – from the 1972 vintage. Keep an eye out for the 1999 Hárslevel late harvest and Szamorodni dry and sweet wines.
At the heart of the town is the Os Kaján (Kossuth u. 14–16; 47 384195; www.oskajan.hu; Tue–Sat 12.00–22.00, Sun 12.00–17.00), a restaurant owned by a French couple, Anne and Pascal, who have contributed greatly to the process of resurrecting Tokaji’s place in the tradition of Hungarian cuisine. They have studied old Hungarian recipes, and reinvented the art of the true Hungarian kitchen; their restaurant is rustic, antiquated and intimate. A garden holds plum, apple and peach trees, and is the venue for summer concerts on Fridays and Saturdays, while inside are regular exhibitions of Hungarian and foreign artists. As for food, ingredients are home grown and dishes carefully matched with the right Tokaji wine. Sárospatak is 20km on, while another 10km of tarmac brings up Sátoraljaújhely, right on the Slovakian border. This town is home to the Tokaj Pendits (MWB) winery (Abaújszántó, Béke út 111, Pf 27; 47 330567; www.pendits.de), owned by the Wille-Baumkauff family, who have just renovated and restored their estate; the views from the hill here are top-notch, and make this winery the perfect place to take a final draught, draw a deep sigh and complete your tour of Hungary’s prime wine region.
Wine tasting on the estates usually costs between 500Ft and 1,500Ft, although occasionally it is free. For further information, contact Tokaj Renaissance (Tokaji Nagy Borok Egyesülete; Tokaj, Pf 17; 47 353612; www.tokaji.hu). The headquarters
of the state-run wine company Tokaj Kereskedo Ház – whose wines are considered good but not the best – are in Sátoraljaújhely (Mártírok u. 17; 47 384164; email@example.com).