Not all Hungarian wines are rotten. Just the great ones.

By Ben Curtis

For most people, Hungary probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a great wine-producing country. Yet Hungarian wines have a tradition that goes back at least to Roman times, and a renown that was once second to none. France’s Louis XIV, for instance, famously referred to Hungarian Tokaj wine as “the king of wines and the wine of kings.” This royal reputation was unfortunately tarnished by forty years behind the iron curtain. Communism, with its unique ability to turn gold into lead, triggered a precipitous decline in the quality of Hungarian wine. Since 1989, though, Hungarian vintners have been avidly trying to repair that damage, and once again the fame of Hungarian wines is spreading beyond the country’s borders.

A visit to Hungary’s numerous grape-growing regions, then, is a chance to see vineyards not yet overexposed to globe-trotting enophiles, and moreover to enjoy some charming villages and lovely countryside, all at prices still very reasonable compared to those in Western Europe. The main problem is one of choice: wine is such a deeply rooted part of Hungarian culture that many areas are worth exploring, from the pastel-hued city of Eger in the north, whose Valley of the Beautiful Women produces the red Bull’s Blood wine, to the Villány-Siklós wine route in the south, with its Mediterranean climate. That said, though, there are perhaps two main regions that best reward a traveler’s time.

The first, not surprisingly, is Tokaj itself. This is a region of volcanic hills in the northeastern part of Hungary, dotted with vineyards and villages that are relatively little changed over the past hundred years. The area centers on the town of Tokaj: strolling along its Baroque main street, you’ll pass by any number of wine cellars where, besides tasting the local tipples, you can learn about the arcane Tokaj classification system of “butts” (in Hungarian puttony) designed to indicate how much sweet aszú grape nectar a given wine contains. Aszú in Hungarian means “withered,” and it refers to grapes that are left to ripen so long that they become shriveled but extremely sweet—or “nobly rotten” in wine parlance. The aszú nectar is what makes Tokaj unique.

Cellars here and indeed throughout Hungary are often simple, rustic affairs, definitely not as corporatized and shiny as, say, their Napa Valley counterparts, but with much more character. Tokaj cellars are particularly distinctive for their mould-covered walls, which are critical to the fermentation of Tokaj wine. Many of the biggest wineries around Tokaj are now in fact owned by French, Spanish, and German firms, and international investment has gone a long way to modernizing what the communists so long neglected.

All was not plonk in the Bad Old Days, though: the Oremus winery, today owned by the Spanish company Bodegas Vega Sicilia, produced in 1972 a vintage that was recently voted the best dessert wine in the world. Other names to look out for include the winery Disznókö, which has also recently won several gold medals, and almost anything from the vintner István Szepsy, whose wines often sell out quickly.

The other area most worth touring surrounds Lake Balaton in the western part of Hungary, about two hours south of Budapest. This lake—known somewhat jokingly as “the Hungarian sea” to ocean-starved central Europeans—sits at the heart of a region with many attractions. The village of Tihany, with its ancient Benedictine abbey and its location high on a hill extending into the lake, takes the prize for picturesqueness. At the southeastern end of the region there bubbles the separate lake and spa of Hévíz, fed entirely by geothermal water—it’s the second-largest geothermal lake in the world, but just one of Hungary’s many hot springs.

The town of Badacsony is the Balaton’s most famous wine center, known particularly for its Rieslings. Lying in a broad valley ringed by extinct volcanoes, Badacsony is very scenic, and if you have one too many glasses at all the wine bars in town you can walk it off on the hiking trails in the area. One of the best local wines is produced by the vintner Huba Szeremley; look for recent vintages of his Badacsonyi Szent Orbán to find out what you’ve been missing.

Finally, though no great wines come from Budapest, even on hillsides within the city limits you can see little family plots laced with grapevines. The capital is also a great place to taste and shop for wines from all over the country. Wine stores are plentiful, especially on the Pest side of the river, while smack in the middle of Buda’s castle district, in the cellars of a big neo-Gothic building, you’ll find the Museum of Hungarian Wine. Also in Budapest every September the Hungarian Wine Festival takes place. Growers, vintners, and wineries from around the country assemble to show off their stuff and talk business, accompanied by lots of tastings, competitions, folk music and dancing. It’s quite a party, but then they have a lot to celebrate, since Hungarian wines are once again making a name for themselves all over the world.

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