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Snapshots: TOKAJ, Wine capital of Hungary

Tisza River, Foot Hills, Szegi Wine Cellar Entrance, Debbie with the wine barrels, Fungus behind the barrels on the wall, Fungus ‘noble rot’ on walls at Szegi Wine Cellar, Bottles of wine stored in Szegi Wine Cellar, Dinner in Szegi Wine Cellar

Snapshots: TOKAJ, Wine capital of Hungary

By Paul and Debbie Soos

Tokaj is a small town in north-eastern Hungary, near the Slovakian and Ukrainian borders. The correct pronunciation is Took-oy (oy as in the Yiddish “oy vay” for the second syllable, with the emphasis on the first syllable). Wow, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the more interesting stuff.

No matter how you say it, Tokaj is world famous for its white wines and is the center of the Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region. Tokaj is situated at the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog Rivers with the Zemplén mountains to the north and the Great Hungarian plains to the south. The region’s soil and climate are perfect for cultivating the white variety of grapes that result in the famous wines. These indigenous varieties are Furmint and Hárslevelü, which have been cultivated for centuries and the more recent Yellow Muscat (Sárgamuskotály), Kabar, Kövérsző, and Zéta.

Hegyalja” translates to “foot of the hill” and into these hills of solid rock were carved a vast system of cellars beginning over 600 years ago. The cellars provide a constant temperature of 10-12°C, but perhaps the real secret to the Tokaj wines is the fungus that covers the walls of these cellars. This fungus is called the “noble rot” (Botrytis) and has a magical interaction with the wines.

No one really knows when the first wines were produced in this region: maybe in the 3rd century, perhaps in Celtic times. The flagship wine and the most famous from this area is the Tokaji Aszú. When Louis XIV first tasted it, it is said that he exclaimed “The King of wines, the wine of Kings.” Even the third verse of the Hungarian National Anthem gives reference to this wonderful Tokaj story: “For us let the golden grain grow upon the fields of Kún, and let Nectar’s silver rain, ripen grapes of Tokaj soon.”

When we went to the Debrecen Summer Course for the Hungarian Language, one of the weekend trips we took through the school was to the Tokaj region. This trip included a tour through the Szegi Wine Cellar, followed by a traditional Hungarian cold-cut dinner and, of course, wine tasting. We hope you get a chance to enjoy this wonderful experience.

Paul Soos is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online, a lay reader at St. Ladislaus R.C. Church in South Norwalk, Connecticut, and a student at the Magyar Studies Hungarian School in Fairfield. He is a former U.S. Air Force Officer. Debbie Soos, Paul's wife, not only shared the trip, but also collaborated in the writing of this piece.


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