It was a wine tasting gone amok, like one that should be happening in the world of nocturnal dreams instead. I saw rooms and rooms of bottles, with more than 50 of them open to try, but almost nothing on the labels sounded or looked familiar.
What is a Szekszárdi Kadarka supposed to taste like? Or a Borpalota SzÃ¼rkebarát? What kind of a grape is a kéknyelÅ±?
Hungarian Wines: Highs and Lows
It was in Hungary, at the Hungarian House of Wine (now closed) in the cellar of a small building a few cobblestone-blocks away from Fisherman’s Bastion — the landmark that everyone just calls Buda Castle in Budapest. A few signs offered clues about the various regions and a helpful cellar master swooped in to offer a life raft.
He explained the origins of the intense red “Bull’s Blood,” wine, the degrees of sweetness in the famed Tokaji Aszú dessert wine, and how the Villány-SiklÃ³s area in the south has a climate much like that of southern France.
There I heard the first of many tellings of “The Hungarian Wine Story.”
The condensed version of the saga is this. The country started fermenting grapes during the Roman Empire. TÃ¶rley sparkling wine was once second only to Champagne’s. Tokaji gained the world’s first appellation control, before Port or Bordeaux. That elixir passed the lips of Europe’s kings, queens, and Popes; it graced the wine glasses of Beethoven, Schubert, and native son Franz Liszt.
Then came two World Wars and the territorial march of the communists. (Among those Hungarians who speak English well, the full phrase is usually “damned communists.”) Family vineyards became collective farms. The state-owned wineries prized volume above all else.
Eventually the Soviets forced everyone into making low-grade jug wine that would get the empire’s comrades good and drunk. Hungarian wine went from being the toast of kings to the domain of winos passed out on street corners.
The Rebirth of Hungarian Wine
Eventually the Iron Curtain fell and the winemakers went into overdrive trying to recapture the magic. As good as the wine gets though, there’s still a reputation to overcome. Instead of a chip on their shoulders, the Hungarian wine marketers have a ghostly hammer and sickle on their shoulders, haunting them as they struggle for respect.
“People have been sitting in this spot for over a thousand years, drinking wine from grapes grown on this land,” said acclaimed winemaker István Jásdi, as we sat on his terrace near Lake Balaton. “In just two generations you can lose it all.”
My notes from the Wine Club in Budapest are a jumble of alien accents and words with lots of consonants, with an occasional Pinot Noir or Chardonnay tasting note standing out like a familiar Hollywood blockbuster in a sea of foreign indie flicks.
In Eger, Monarchia Winery’s PÃ³k Tamás gives his export brands names like “Zen” (a light and fruity white) and “Rhapsody in Red” (a complex ruby red cuvee of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and local grape Kekfrankos.) “The Hungarian names carry too much of a stigma,” his brand manager said as we sipped with Tamás in the cellar.
“We were making wine before the French were!” shouted Szeremley spokesman Gábor Kardos as he launched into The Hungarian Wine Story with great gusto. “Now we have to prove we know what we’re doing all over again.” I noticed that bottle after bottle was covered with international award stickers though, so that coveted respect is starting.
When I visited the Figula winery up the hill from Lake Balaton, only established in 1993, one of the sons of the founder poured a series of fantastic white wines that were almost chewy in their depth of flavors and minerals, hitting every taste bud around the mouth. “This one needs another two or three years,” he sighed after sipping their late harvest Pinot Gris. A good problem to have—and a rare one in a global white wine market where screw caps are now common.
Custom Sparkling Wine in Budapest
Back in Budapest, I shuffled one block to Budavári Fortuna Restaurant, in a space that was once part of a labyrinth of caves during various wars, serving as a weapons depot and military hospital.
The cave under this restaurant is now dedicated to creating sparkling wine in the traditional Champagne Method. The owner let me pop out the sediment ice around the neck of one bottle and pop in my own cork with the antique hand press.
“When you return to Budapest,” he said, “this bottle will be waiting for you here in the cellar, for a fine dinner with your wife.” My bottle is number 555, a lucky draw.
Perhaps the Hungarians’ own luck will bring a nice conclusion to their story. Recognition is growing among those looking for the next new trend and visitors to Hungary are coming back with raves about wines they can’t pronounce.
If you go
The three Hungarian wine regions best suited for visitors feature very different taste profiles. The Lake Balaton resort area is the best for mixing outdoor activities with your wine tasting and it specializes in mineral-rich whites.
Eger is home to the rough and tumble “bull’s blood” variety but has one lively outdoor area filled with cellars pouring a wide variety of styles, accompanied by roving musicians.
The Villány-SiklÃ³s region is rural and picturesque, with rolling hills covered with vines and reasonably-priced inns that come with a bottle and a corkscrew.
The best way to sample a wide variety of Hungarian wines and get a sense of what you like is to join a wine tasting lunch froim Budapest, or an evening wine tasting. Viator also offers numerous trips to Lake Balaton.