It’s a wine tasting gone amok, with some 700 bottles displayed, 50 open ones to choose from, and almost nothing that sounds familiar. What is a Szekszárdi Kadarka supposed to taste like? Or a Borpalota Szürkebarát? Clink your wine glasses and say egészségére to Hungarian Wine.
The Evolution of Hungarian Wine
After gazing over the Budapest skyline from a platform next to the impressive Buda Castle, I walked past the world’s most out-of-place-looking Hilton and down some stops into the House of Hungarian Wines, a now-defunct center for tasting all the country’s best, from hearty reds to late harvest dessert wine. I could have just read the English signs and played eenie-meanie-miney-moe with my wine glass, but springing $22 for a cellar master tour seemed like a better way to go. He explained the origins of “Bull’s Blood,” why Tokaji wine only comes from a specific region, and how the Villany area of Hungary has a climate much like that of southern France. Eventually he got to the Hungarian Wine Story.
It doesn’t take much time among Hungarian winemakers and wine lovers to learn the Hungarian Wine Story by heart.
From Roman times to Wine Times in Hungary
Here’s the condensed version. Hungary has been making wine since the Roman times, maybe longer. Törley sparkling wine was second only to Champagne’s and Tokaji Aszú dessert wines gained the world’s first appellation control, before Port wine or Bordeaux. It passed the lips of Europe’s kings, queens, and Popes; it graced the wine glasses of Beethoven, Schubert, and native son Franz Liszt. By the early 1900s, things were going swimmingly.
Then the communists came along (and among those Hungarians who speak English well the full phrase is usually “damn communists”). Collective farms and state-owned factories prized volume above all else. The Soviets forced everyone into making jug wine that would get the comrades good and drunk.
ACT THREE: the Iron Curtain fell and the winemakers went into overdrive trying to recapture centuries of skill and knowledge wiped out in a few short decades. As good as the wine gets though, there’s still a huge stigma to overcome.
After a few tellings, the grand theme emerges. Instead of chips on their shoulders, the Hungarian wine marketers have a ghostly hammer and sickle on their shoulders, haunting them as they struggle for respect. “In just two generations you can lose it all” laments the award-winning winemaker István Jásdi in Balaton. “We have to find our traditions again.”
My notes from Hungary are a jumble of alien accents and words I can’t pronounce, 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 Pók 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.
“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 visit the Figula winery up the hill from Lake Balaton, only established in 1993, one of the sons of the founder pours a series of fantastic white wines that are 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 sighs 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.
I stumble out and go one block to Budavári Fortuna Restaurant, in a space that was once part of a labyrinth of caves during WWII, serving as a weapons depot and military hospital. The cave here is seeing happier times now, with one of them dedicated to creating sparkling wine in the Champagne Method. The enthusiastic owner lets me pop out the sediment ice around the neck of one bottle and pop in my own cork with the press. “When you return to Budapest,” he says, “this bottle will be waiting for you here in the cellar, for a fine dinner with your wife.” Mine is number 555, an especially lucky draw it seems, and my name goes in the book next to Melanie Griffith and Anthony Banderas.
Yes, I will return someday to retrieve my bottle, perhaps after spending more quality time down south in the prime red wine district around Villany. The Hilton will still be ugly, Buda Castle will still be beautiful, and I am confident the wine will still be delicious. Perhaps in a few years, Act 3 of the Hungarian Wine Story will dispel the drama and tension and we can look forward to a happy ending.