Wine Scholars: the Rich Traditions and Even Richer Wines of Hungary Await!
There’s a very special Napa Valley Wine Academy trip coming up, and as I can personally attest, any serious student of the vine will want to be on it. Why? Because living wine history doesn’t get much better than where you’ll be landing: Hungary.
To really feel that living wine history, you’ll need to do more than watch a few videos or scroll through a handful of photos on Google maps. You’ll need to be there, to walk the streets of Budapest, breathe the mist-kissed air wafting over the vines of Tokaj, and of course, sip the wines that once made most of the world’s royalty swoon.
How do I know all of this? Because I’ve done it myself.
For a few years, I was fortunate enough to be the face of the Furmint USA program that brought the dry white wines of Hungary to the U.S.—I walked the same streets that you’ll walk, tasted many of the incredible wines that you’ll taste, and broke bread with several of the dedicated, talented, and passionate producers that you’ll visit. I have sampled some of the country’s greatest wines from its greatest vintages, deep in the caves in which they’re aging like the buried treasures that they are.
And because I am fortunate enough to regularly travel the wine world and explore its most beautiful and impactful regions, I can also tell you that there’s nothing else in the world like visiting Hungarian wine country.
The itinerary for this jaunt is exceptional. It starts with Budapest, a vibrant city that’s the beating heart of the country. Hungary’s steady emergence from under the heel of Communist Party rule has been nothing short of extraordinary—and that spirit is viscerally alive in the wide streets, austere monuments, art deco facades, and countless small shops of Budapest.
The charming storefronts might be small, but there’s nothing mini about Budapest’s great Central Market Hall (or Központi Vásárcsarnok), built in 1897, a spot you will hit early on this trip. Under a grand ceiling buttressed by interlocking metal beams reminiscent of Europe’s stunning covered train stations, you can wander the dozens and dozens of stands throughout the Hall’s bustling three floors. My advice: stock up on the paprika—you won’t find any fresher for the price anywhere else on the planet.
If Budapest is Hungary’s heart, Tokaj (located just west of Budapest) is Hungary’s soul—the energy of its ancient heritage can almost be absorbed through the soles of your feet when walking the stony hills of the region’s reclaimed, historic vineyards. When you get there, you’ll know immediately and exactly what I’m talking about; for lovers of wine history, Tokaj is sacred ground. Wine has been made here for centuries, and the area often had vineyard parcels reserved for sourcing wines exclusively to kings and queens. Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible (now in its third edition), has pointed out that in Tokaj, “Around 1730, more than a century before Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification, the Hungarian scholar, philosopher, and scientist, and theologian Mátyás Bél devised a ranking of Tokaj vineyards into First, Second, and Third class,” making Tokaj the oldest classified wine region on earth (even older than Port’s Douro vineyard classifications, which dates back to 1756).
Your first true wine-related stop is unmatched as an introduction to Tokaj: Disznókő Vineyards. Disznókő (established in 1993 as the Tokaj subsidiary of France’s luxury AXA Millesimes brands) effortlessly combines modernity in its spotless winemaking facilities with rich Tokaj history. A pioneer of the modern style of Tokaji Aszú sweet wines, their vineyards are as meticulously maintained as their cellar, with wines aging in ancient caves beneath it all. Their Sárga Borház restaurant, where those who venture on this trip will also have the chance to dine, is so good that I once made it a point to try every entree on the menu in just over one week. Every. Single. One (don’t judge me…).
You will also have the good fortune to see Szepsy, helmed by Hungary’s most legendary winemaker. Master of Wine Jancis Robinson has called István Szepsy “a genius,” and she wasn’t wrong—his estate in the town of Mád is a modest house, but his wines are anything but: they easily put him in the conversation as one of the world’s greatest winemakers. For Szepsy, the return to quality for Tokaj’s wines is personal: his family has been making wine in the region since the 16th century, and through to the mid-1970s, his father managed to hide a small independent vineyard from the ruling Communists who cared a lot more about wine quantity than quality. Let’s put it this way: when tasting at Szepsy’s home, I once witnessed another winemaker excuse himself to go to another room and literally weep with joy after tasting one of Szepsy’s Tokaji Aszú wines from the mid-2000s.
You’ll also stop by a spot that I frequently haunted during my time in the area, the Tokaj Coffee House. This cozy little gem feels as though it could have been transported directly from a New England city street right into the quaint and quiet center of Tokaj. Nothing re-energizes the taste buds like fine single-origin coffee, and you’ll find that these baristas know how to source fantastic java.
Another stop will fill your friends with envy: Tokaj-Hétszőlő Vineyards. In business since 1502, everything about Hétszőlő’s downtown estate screams history and tradition. Entering through their metal gates, having turned off a cobblestoned streetside, you feel like you’re stepping through a time machine to Tokaj’s yesteryear. Their candle-lit grand tasting hall, with its enormous wood top tables, looks like something straight out of a Viking saga (and while Vikings probably didn’t drink there, a king was crowned there, causing the former production cellar to be nicknamed “The Knights’ Hall”). They boast an impressive selection of older vintages in their sprawling cellars.
You’ll also experience Gróf Degenfeld, perhaps the most impressive winemaking location in all of Tokaj. The estate (which includes an oak forest, hotel, and superb restaurant) is set in a mansion that is owned by a bonafide Count and Countess. Walking up to Gróf Degenfeld’s main building, you’ll be tempted to start up a match on their enormous outdoor chessboard. Each room of the beautifully-maintained interior gives off major Downton Abbey vibes. It’s no mistake that Gróf Degenfeld was named “Most Beautiful Winery in Hungary” in 2019.
Now that I’ve given you a small taste of Hungary—how hungry are you to jump into an adventure to Hungary? Frankly, I’m a little jealous that you will experience Hungary and Tokaj in such a comprehensive and memory-imprinting way. Send my regards and swirl some of that remarkable Tokaji Aszú elixir for me!! – J.R.