A series of small wine making villages dot the perimeter of the hills in the Tokaj region, each as charming as the next – pastel plaster homes, tiled roofs, and a lone church steeple peeking above the tree tops from the highest point in town. The fields rise from the backyards and extend in a patchwork of striped green corduroy stretching this way and that for miles. A thousand years ago the Kingdom of Hungary was founded. The wine of the fledgling empire was Tokaj.
Last weekend, we set off for Tokaj for no other reason than it was the only village we could name, and it was connected directly to Budapest by train. A folksy sign welcomed us decorated, of course, in grapes. I expected some sort of tourist onslaught on a Friday afternoon, but the village was quiet, nearly deserted, the Tourist Information office closed, most bars and restaurants idle. We walked, trying to follow the makeshift map I had scribbled on a scrap of paper. Realizing we were most likely lost, I opened a gate and entered a private courtyard to interrupt a family party and ask directions to our Vendégház. “Here, let me show you” a young man offered. He guided me back onto the alleyway and pointed towards a distant steeple, “That’s the church. When you get there, ask again.”
Welcome to Tokaj. The main street is neat as a pin, almost every home painted a cheerful, baby chick yellow and each topped with a beak colored orange tile roof. Flowers bloom in gardens and window boxes and in
planters attached to iron light poles. Storks nest on the tops of chimneys and utility poles. When they detect our approach, they clack a warning which echoes across storkdom. Neighboring storks clack a response. I feel guilty, an intruder to their peaceful enclave causing a good bit of anxiety.
We found our guest house just beyond Kossuth ter, the main square and dropped our suitcases setting off to try our first Tokaj wine since, after all, that’s why we came here. A sign announcing a “pince” hung over steps which dropped precipitously from the square to the 13th century cellar below. We crouched as low as we could as we made our way to the subterranean tomb-like room. A woman poured from a selection of bottles – all white wines and ranging from the traditional sweet Tokajs through the more recently developed dry alternatives. Pat and I raised a toast and helped ourselves to two biscuits from a small basket. We tried to make idle conversation in spite of our limited Hungarian and the server’s limited English. As we got up to leave, the waitress handed me the bill. “No, this can’t be right.” I held up two fingers, “Two biscuits AND two glasses of wine.” “Egan, egan” she replied. Our bill totaled 370 forint – just over a dollar fifty.
Implicit in this price is the harsh reality of life in the Tokaj region. No industry exists in these farthest reaches of eastern Hungary except wine making. Many of the tiny vineyards produce no more than 5,000 to 10,000 bottles a year – barely enough to eek out a living. This is a meager life scraped together from the bounty of rich volcanic soil and a mold which turns tiny, shriveling grapes into a honey sweet nectar which tantalized the monarchs of Europe.
Tokaj was established as a wine region 150 years before the Bordeaux area in France and is the oldest named wine region in the world. Kings of Saxony stocked their cellars in Dresden with Tokaj wines. Peter the Great and his successor Catherine the Great established a customs office in Tokaj to enable export of the wines to St. Petersburg. In the 18th century, cossacks were sent to Tokaj to manage the safe export and transport of these wines. Louis the 14th called Tokaj the “king of wine and the wine of kings” as he poured glasses for guests of the French royal court. And of course the Habsburgs in Vienna raced to stock these wines for their own consumption. The 16th through the 19th centuries were the golden years of Tokaj with the region barely producing adequate supply for the dueling monarchies.
Then, late in the 19th century, phylloxeria destroyed most of the grapes and dealt the first near fatal blow to Tokaj. Back to back wars rocked the early parts of the 20th century. Many of the Jewish wine owners, producers and merchants did not survive the Second World War. No sooner did the wars end, when the communist government created an exclusively state owned wine producing structure. All Tokaj grapes funneled into this single, state production engine. This is how it remained for almost 45 years until 1990.
Over the last 25 years, the region has rebounded. Small vineyards are producing batches of high quality Tokaj wines once again. In 2002, UNESCO designated the fields of Tokaj a World Heritage Site. The most famous of all Tokaj wines, aszú, is a product of the unique volcanic soil and a climate which ranges from bitter cold winters through hot and dry summers. The juice from the thin skinned grapes evaporate, and they shrivel in the scorching summer sun distilling the sugar. The shriveled grapes are left on the vine long enough to develop the “noble rot” mold and then are hand picked one by one. After a minimum of two years of fermentation, the wines are rated based on their sweetness. Six puttonyos is the rating of the sweetest wine in the world, the most desired of the Tokaj aszú.
This story was relayed time and again as we ventured from vineyard to restaurant. I tend to forget what I knew and didn’t know before we moved to Hungary. I’m quite sure I never drank a Tokaj wine before setting foot on Hungarian soil. I certainly never knew the history and importance of this very niche wine in Hungary and the neighboring monarchies.
For two days we immersed ourselves into the life of a simple villager. We walked behind private homes to admire their gardens. Little space is allocated for grass, a worthless crop. The backyards of private homes are a cornucopia of fruit trees – cherry, apricot and plum – as well as a multitude of vegetable varieties and, of course, a grape arbor. As is the case in much of rural and poor Hungary, villagers produce their own food and wine. In one backyard a scarecrow protects the grapes dressed as a little, old man in a tan jacket and jaunty cap.
Not far from the village square, we discovered a tiny Saturday morning farmers market. Eight or ten vendors came together to sell smatterings of produce and flowers along with homemade cheese and honey. A woman cajoled me to buy a bouquet of flowers. I rubbed my fingers together, “How much?” She held up her thumb and pointer – two. Two hundred forith – roughly 80 cents. I bought the flowers. She beamed and thanked me over and over. We walked back to our house for breakfast where a bounty of cheeses, boiled eggs, breads, coffee and tea awaited. I gave the flowers to the owner, and she placed them on the table in a simple, clear glass vase.
Tokaj has known fame and royalty, war and despair, heartbreak and oppression. More recently, conditions are improving, though the region is terribly poor. We left Tokaj with a new appreciation for these distinctive wines and the people who lovingly produce them. Our first dinner back in Budapest, Pat asked the waiter if he had any Tokaj wine. “But of course” he replied. Returning to the table, bottle in hand, he poured the caramel colored aszú liquid beaming the entire time like a proud new papa.
Do it yourself:
Getting there: Tokaj village is easily reached by train from Budapest Keleti in three hours. We bought our tickets just before the train departed, but it was packed. To be safe, next time, I will swing into Keleti to purchase tickets a few days in advance (or take my chance with the complicated Hungarian Train Website). The domestic ticket window is across the station from the international window. The teller spoke surprisingly adequate English yet write down the train you want to take (both time and destination) before coming to the station to facilitate accurate communication.
Accommodations: We stayed at the tiny Böne Vendégház és Borozó, a family run guest house with a small wine garden of their own. Our room was roughly 30 dollars a night (for an upgrade to a two bedroom apartment). A full breakfast cost an addition 4 dollars per person. The inn was clean, extremely well located and the family and staff were friendly.
Wineries: Wineries are all over the town, mainly in small homes or “pince” (cellars). Drop in to whichever one suits your fancy. The winery I reference in my article (where we racked up the dollar fifty bill) was Rakoczi Pince.
General Information: The Tourist Information booth on the main street opened Saturday and rents bicycles. Tokaj is on a major Eurovelo trail.
Enough people spoke English to easily and painlessly get by. I realize heading off to the farthest reaches of eastern Hungary may be disconcerting – but the trip is easy and the reward is worth it.
By the way, thanks as always to my husband, Pat – the best travel partner and photographer a girl could have.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe