One of the many attractions of being posted to Hungary is the country’s long wine history.
My interest in the subject of wine was sparked during five wonderful years that I spent in the 1970s studying at the University of Stellenbosch, a pretty town surrounded by mountains in the heartland of the Western Cape winelands. In those years, a group of wine farmers came together and launched the ‘Stellenbosch Wine Route’, which at the time was an ingenious concept. They opened their wine farms to the public to taste the product of the vine at the place of origin. We, as students, made it our calling to support this splendid innovation. Many a Friday afternoon, we took our studies into the winelands where we learnt, indeed, a lot.
Curiosity drives the Ambassador
After our arrival in Budapest, I soon realized that there was much more to Hungary’s wine culture than Tokaji Aszú, the sweet ‘nectar of the gods’ that the country was justly famous for. In fact, the rows upon rows of bottles that I found in the wine shops were a bit bewildering. I got nowhere trying to figure out from the label what exactly was inside and where it originated from. There were strange grape cultivars – such as Cserszegi Fűszeres, Hárslevelű, Juhfark and Királyleányka – that I have never heard of and certainly could not pronounce.
Feeling ignorant, I bought a book in the English language about the Hungarian wine scene. It helped to introduce me to the basics. The description of so many different wine regions, spread out over such a relatively small area, tickled my curiosity. My wife and I decided to start exploring the nooks and crannies of Hungary’s many corners by visiting the wine regions, one after the other.
Of course, with Hungary being a zero-tolerant country, we had to take turns being the designated driver. We do so religiously.
Our wine theme proved to be a good one because in addition to getting first hand exposure to Hungary’s viticulture, we also learnt so much more about the history and people of every region that we visited.
Shaped by volcanoes
In Tokaj, we were informed about royalty and many famous people who imbibed the glorious Aszú through the ages, one of them being Napoleon Bonaparte. And immediately there was a link with South Africa. For Napoleon, was also enthusiastic about Groot Constantia, a splendid sweet wine produced in the Cape that won the favour of emperors and kings in the 18th and 19th century. The suburb of Tokai (sic!) in the city of Cape Town was named after this iconic Hungarian wine region!
We learned how Tokaji was keeping up with changing world-wide tastes and transforming itself into a producer of excellent dry whites as well. It was explained to us that the peculiar hills covering the region were shaped by volcanos which formed the unique soils and micro climates – the terroir – that winemakers now capture in their wide range of wines. By the time we left, we could correctly pronounce Hárslevelű and Furmint.
A visit to Pannonhalma exposed us not only to deep Hungarian history, culture and the precious books being preserved at this UNESCO site, but also to the thousand-year-old wine-making tradition practiced by the Benedictine monks of the Arch abbey. In the modern cellar, we were impressed how the ‘vertical’ wine-making process uses the slope of the hill to get the berries from the grape eventually into the bottle as wine. What a pleasure it was gazing down from the hill and enjoying the autumn colors in the valley below with a glass of Rajnai Riesling in our hands.
Vine on basalt soil
In the cold of winter we made a break-away weekend to Somló, where the lone hill dominating the surroundings is, itself, the wine ‘region’. Even though, the place was deserted we drove up steep, very narrow, snow-covered lanes past numerous small press-houses as far up the hill as we could, and made a stop at a quant parish church. The view was a spectacle to behold. We took great pictures that we sent home for relatives to envy.
The black basalt soil did not look particularly fertile and we wondered how vines could thrive in it. We soon got the answer with a very satisfying mouth-feel of the Juhfark cultivar that the region is famous for. We stayed over at an exquisite ultra-modern winery hotel and were struck again how the Hungarian wine industry was re-inventing itself.
Winetasting on foot
Another winter excursion took us down south to Villány. On the way, we visited the nearby museum at Mohács, which commemorates the devastating battle of 1526 between forces of the Hungarian Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire. This memorial reminded us of the Apartheid Museum in South Africa and how a harrowing historical episode could be turned into a poignant learning experience for later generations.
We traversed the hills around Villány and photographed vineyards in beautiful snow-scapes. We stayed over in one of the ‘bor’ (‘wine’) hotels right in town. We thoroughly enjoyed being able to go wine tasting in the wine-street from one establishment to the next, almost South African style, only this time on foot. From my student days in Stellenbosch, I could easily relate to the full-bodied, mouth filling, tannin-rich, teeth blackening, Bordeaux style wines that Villány had on offer.
Valley of the Beautiful Woman
In Eger we went on a tasting excursion to the Valley of Beautiful Women. While it is admittedly touristy, we were impressed by the variety of wines available in one setting and the authentic musty, dome shaped cellars cut into the hillside.
Some of the highlights were our discovery of Bikavér (bull’s blood) and Egri Csillag, the white cuvee that recalls the title of Géza Gárdonyi’s novel of the 1552 siege of Eger by the Ottomans. After we clambered the hill in Eger and inspected the ramparts of the fortress that was so gloriously defended against the invaders, I was inspired to read the novel itself (translated into English). I was captivated by the heroics of Commander Dobó and the ingenuity of Captain Bornemissza. But even more so by the courage displayed by ordinary folk, especially the Hungarian women, who joined their men in battle to fend off attack after attack. I wondered though, whether the ‘secret’ ingredient in Bikavér really made the defenders super strong.
Here in Budapest I learned about the contribution wine has made to building bridges in high places between South Africa and Hungary. On a visit to South Africa a few years ago, Hungarian Parliamentarians were so impressed to discover that the South Africa Parliament has its own wine cellar, that they are now happily copying that fine example here in Budapest.
My wife and I have not visited all the wine regions in Hungary yet. We nevertheless have every intention of following through with this project. Once it is done, we will happily start all over again to follow-up on the mental notes we have made of more wine experiences-in-waiting.