Food & Drink

Hun­gary’s bur­geon­ing wine in­dus­try has been 2,000 years in the mak­ing.

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In Bu­dapest, cul­tural land­marks of the Hun­gar­ian cap­i­tal—the Great Mar­ket Hall, the Danube River and Saint Stephen’s Basil­ica—whiz past the win­dow of my ve­hi­cle. But I’m headed for Etyek, a wine re­gion lo­cated 45 min­utes west of the city, to sam­ple some of the un­der­rated wines on the mar­ket to­day. Etyek is home to about 120 winer­ies, and most of them pro­duce white va­ri­etals, in­clud­ing Tör­ley, a sparkling wine you’ve likely spot­ted on shelves at your lo­cal liquor store. While this win­ery has an im­pres­sive out­put—a whop­ping 12 to 14 mil­lion bot­tles a year—it’s at smaller, fam­ily-run op­er­a­tions where you can sam­ple wines unique to this part of the world and meet wine­mak­ers pas­sion­ate about restor­ing the in­dus­try to its for­mer glory. Nat­u­ral wine isn’t a trend here; slow-fer­mented, small-batch, bar­rel-aged wine is a mat­ter of tra­di­tion—a tra­di­tion that per­se­vered through the coun­try’s 40-year Com­mu­nist era, in back­yards and base­ments.

Lo­cal tourism com­pany City & Wine of­fers day trips to Etyek, with af­ter­noon tours of three winer­ies. Our first stop is Anonym Pince, where we sam­ple fruity Sau­vi­gnon Blancs, light, easy-drink­ing Pinot Noirs and a big, oaky Chardon­nay.

“Hun­gar­ian wine­mak­ing has 2,000 years of his­tory,” ex­plains Gá­bor Nagy, owner of Grad­owski Es­tate, the sec­ond stop on our tour. “There’s a say­ing in Hun­gary: ‘You can crit­i­cize my wife, you can crit­i­cize my food, but please never crit­i­cize my wine.’” Nagy op­er­ates a tast­ing room and restau­rant in the re­gion, where guests can sam­ple wines from his fam­ily’s vine­yard in nearby Szek­szárd, which is known for its reds made from the Kadarka grape. As he fills our glasses with a Kadarka wine from 2016, Nagy tells us about the grape’s rich his­tory. The va­ri­etal, which is dif­fi­cult to grow be­cause it’s sus­cep­ti­ble to disease, was cut down and re­placed with high­yield grapes dur­ing the So­viet oc­cu­pa­tion of Hun­gary. Prior to Com­mu­nism, 60 per cent of the coun­try’s vines were Kadarka; by 1990, it had dwin­dled to 1 per cent.

“I think 99 per cent of the pro­duc­tion dur­ing that time was not wine but a vi­o­let­coloured al­co­holic liq­uid,” he ex­plains. “I re­mem­ber my fa­ther pour­ing these ‘wines’ into the toi­let.” Re­viv­ing this for­got­ten grape has been Nagy’s life’s work.

At our fi­nal stop, Kálmán De­breczeni— one half of the hus­band-wife duo be­hind De­breczeni-Ferenczi—in­vites us in­side their home for a tra­di­tional Hun­gar­ian din­ner of chicken pa­prikash. All the vint­ners we meet ex­ude the same strin­gent com­mit­ment to qual­ity over quan­tity. They’re also pa­tiently pas­sion­ate about their work. “Ev­ery­thing is chang­ing now,” says Nagy. “But we have to wait for the first pro­duc­tions of these vine­yards, so please come back, let’s say in five years, and we can taste again.” Till then.


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