Would you ever think that Hungary was at one time on par with France as a premier wine-producing country in Europe? Kings, popes and even an American president (Thomas Jefferson) enjoyed wines from Hungary, and some had vineyards in Tokaj in the northeastern part of the country.
Budapest is a popular travel destination for Americans (and others) who are checking out the spas, ruins bars, festivals and sports competitions held there. In addition, many river cruises originate or stop there on their Danube routes. In 2019, European Best Destinations chose Budapest as a top honoree.
When traveling, it’s always a good idea to become familiar with local menu items and terms so you can better navigate local wine menus. If you travel to Budapest or other Hungarian cities, here are a few things to know:
What to Know
In Hungary, Étlap is a food menu and Itallap is a drink menu, but most restaurants in Budapest provide menus in English and German, as well.
Some key terms to be aware of regarding the types of drinks generally available are Pezsgő (pronounced Pezs-guh) – a Champagne-like sparkling wine; Sör (pronounced Shur) – Beer; Palinka (pronounced PAH-link uh) –brandy; and Unicum (pronounced OO-nee-coom) – the Hungarian specialty aperitif with herbs.
Wine is called bor, based on the Huns’ ancient concept of God or Bor Tengri, the divine transformational power that brings about a rebirth. The term became a reference for physical change and also described the transformation of grapes into wine. That change from grape juice to wine became linked to divine powers, integrating wine into the act of communication with the gods. Now, doesn’t that make you want to drink some good Hungarian wine?
Believe it or not, as small as Hungary is (it is about the size of Indiana), there are 22 wine regions across the country, some of which produce only white (fehér, pronounced FEH hair) wines. Tokaj is the most famous of those. If you’ve read a typical article about Hungarian wine in the U.S., you may already be familiar with Tokaj as the region that produces the most expensive wine in the world, Essencia. Grapes used to make this dessert wine have botrytis or “noble rot,” a type of fungus in grapes that causes water loss and concentrates sugars. The handpicked grapes resemble raisins. Sweet wines from Tokaj often aged in wooden barrels from 2 to 10 years. These include sweet Szamorodni (Sah-more-ode-nee) or Aszu (Ah-soo). A number on the label represents how many baskets of grapes (or puttonyos)–from three to six– went into making the wine. This careful preparation and time invested can bring up the price.
Juhfark (YOO-fark), meaning lamb’s tail, comes from the tiny white wine region of Somló in western Hungary. It is famous as the traditional wine for royals hoping to produce a male heir. In fact, when Catherine the Great of Russia did not immediately produce an heir, her mother-in-law, Empress Elizabeth, asked if she had tried drinking Hungarian wine.
Other white Hungarian wines worth trying are Olaszrizing (Oh-lass-reez-ling), Irsai Olivér (Eer-sha-ee-Oh-lee-vair), Cserszegi Fűszeres (Chair-seg-ee Foos-ser-esh), Leányka (Lay-yank-uh) and Tramini. These are grapes or hybrids generally found only in Hungary. Tramini, however, is Gewurztraminer in German. Note that the Olaszrizling is different from German Rhine Riesling. Here, it comes from a grape known as Welsh Riesling, though the word Olaszrizling translates to “Italian Riesling.” Most of these can produce exceptional dry white wines. Leányka and Tramini come in a range from dry to sweet.
In Hungary, there are two words meaning red, but for wine it is vörös (pronounced VUR -ush). Many outsiders generally connect red Hungarian wines to the term Bull’s Blood, or bikavér. But, that term gained a bad reputation over the years based on past practices in production. Today, most bikavér blends are actually quite good, particularly Szekszárdi Bikavér.
Probably the best red wine region in Hungary is Villány (VEE-lan) in the far south, just west of the Danube.
While some of the smoothest, most fragrant and well-developed red wines come from this region, the number of bottles produced per year is limited. Thus, the price per bottle, particularly in a restaurant, will be high. You can find a good merlot or cabernet produced in various regions of Hungary. Generally, the best wines to look for include grapes called Kadarka, Kékfrankos (Cake-frank-osh)(also known as Blaufränkisch in Austria or Lemberger in Washington State), and Zweigelt, a hybrid produced from combining Kékfrankos and a Slovakian varietal called St. Lawrence. The German name comes from the original breeder, a German from Austria. Some well-respected producers in this region are Vylyan, Bock, Tiffan’s, and Gere, and those names on a wine list are connected to some of the better wines. A favorite is Tiffan’s Cuvee Carissimae.
As for the cuvees or bikaver, there are some delicious blended reds from Bodri, a producer from Szekszard. Try their Szekszárdi Cuvee Bodrikutya (with a Puli dog on the label), Szekszárdi Vörös “Civilis” QV (pronounced as cuvée) and Bodri Szekszárdi Bikavér.
The premier producer of Hungarian sparkling wines (champagne-like wines) known as Pezsgő is Törley in Budafok, outside of Budapest. Its founder, József Törley, who learned his craft in Reims, France, wrote in 1882, “My diligence and persistency [sic] allowed me to succeed in creating a much better sparkling wine than the currently known products of Champagne.” There’s only one way to find out—try it yourself. And, that is true of all the Hungarian varietals—explore, experience, and enjoy.
Wine Tours and Dinners
If you are interested in wine tours or wine tastings and dinners, one of the most well-known companies, run by Gabor Banfalvi, is Taste Hungary. They also own the Tasting Table near Kalvin Tér in Budapest.
Diane Dobry imported Hungarian wines to the U.S. for three years. She enjoyed traveling around Hungary, tasting wines, meeting winemakers, and getting to know about Hungary’s unique varietals. Dr. Dobry is writing a book on the basics of Hungarian wines—Thirsty for Hungary—with a Hungarian professor of viticulture, Ferenc Baglyas, from Kecskemét, Hungary. Her Tumblr blog and Facebook page–Getting Hungary—cover travel, traditions and events in that country.