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TOKAJ, Hungary (Reuters) - Dubbed the "king of wines, the wine of kings" by Louis XV of France, Hungary's Tokaji wine is undergoing a makeover as the region hopes to regain fame lost in decades of mismanagement.
Known for its exquisite sweet tipple, the eastern Hungarian wine region is clamping down on poor quality produce and establishing new standards as it tries to lure back high-end customers to arguably the best dessert wine in the world.
But Tokaj has a lot more to offer than wine, with medieval castles, refurbished chateaux, fine dining and nature trails.
Start any visit in Tokaj, a sleepy town at the foot of the Zemplen hills on the Tisza River, an unusually prosperous area in what is otherwise a desperately poor part of Eastern Europe.
In the refurbished town center is the family cellar Himesudvar. It is a little-known brand but the family's passion and innovation have yielded a unique Tokaji. Start with their fruity drys before moving up to Aszu, the region's trademark brand. On most days, the winery will take walk-in customers for a tasting. (himesudvar.hu/index_en.php)
Tojkai is a luxury product but its reputation fell into disrepute under 40 years of communism, and luster is not recouped easily.
Just over a year ago, the region took a risky decision, forbidding low-quality wines to carry the Aszu brand and eliminating a complicated classification system that baffled foreign buyers.
For a touch of old-style charm, visit Count Degenfeld's mansion near Tokaj. Stripped of their lands and titles under communism, the Degenfelds returned when communism collapsed and bought back their mansion, transforming it into one of the region's finest estates. (grofdegenfeld.com/en/)
The mansion also functions as a four-star hotel, offering fine dining, old-style luxury and wellness facilities.
Wine has been produced in Tokaj for centuries but Aszu, the legend has it, is a result of an accident.
Fearing an Ottoman attack, growers went into hiding and did not harvest their grapes until November.
Thinking their fruit had rotted away, they returned to find that a fungus, called botrytis cinerea and commonly known as noble rot, had attacked the berries, which shrivelled up, leaving them with highly concentrated sweet nectar.
Russian tsars were so infatuated with Tokaji that for part of the 18th century they maintained a colony of soldiers and officials in town to look after their wine. The relationship soured when the Russians bought too much, pushing up prices and depriving locals of their wine.
For a taste of a top producer, visit Disznoko, a unit of French insurance firm AXA. One of the earliest foreign investors after the collapse of communism, Disznoko built a huge operation, rehabilitating rundown vineyards while establishing top standards. It offers wine tasting along with a cellar tour. (disznoko.hu/...)
Though not strictly in the wine region, one nearby restaurant deserves a special mention. Anyukam Mondta -- My Mother Said -- is a hard-to-find gem with a reputation as Hungary's best restaurant. Run by brothers who trained in Italy and New York, the restaurant has a mix of Italian and Hungarian food and Tokaj's best wines. (here)
Os Kajan, at the other end of the region, is a French-influenced restaurant, art gallery and bed & breakfast. Featuring the artwork of owner Pascal Leeman, it is a hodgepodge of great food, modern art and a meeting place. (www.oskajan.hu/)
Although sweet, Tokaji is best enjoyed with salty foods, such as goat cheese or foie gras.
And even as you concentrate on food and drink, a few notable sights should remain on your radar. The 16th-century castle at Sarospatak is worth a visit and the 13th-century castle at Boldokgo is a wonderful side trip.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Alison Williams