Hungary doesn’t have spectacular scenery, dramatic mountains or beautiful seacoasts like most if it’s neighbors, but it does have a lot of scenery that is beautiful in a kind of understated way. For me, a vista that I never get tired of is vineyard-covered hillsides. And in our part of Hungary there are a lot of them.
About 5 million years ago this area was volcanic. All that remains are a bunch of stubby hills with some black basaltic outcroppings. Many of these are topped with ruined fortresses from the middle ages. And the slopes of all of them are covered with vineyards. The last couple of days we did a little tour and visited some of these hills, of course sampling some wines along the way.
And the wines! Oh, the wines! Vines have been cultivated in Hungary since Roman times and while not much gets exported to other parts of the world today, there are dozens of unique and wonderful varieties of wines. In our area many of these hillside vineyards are small holdings, in some cases still owned by families who have been making wine for the last three hundred years. During the communist era, and collective farming, Hungarian wine quality declined, but since 1989 some families have been able to re-aquire their lands, and are now producing fantastic and unique wine. In particular, the small wine-makers who are producing wines by organic methods (no additives) are creating some amazing wines. We stopped at one such vineyard, that of Denés Tibor, and interrupted him while he was mowing the weeds and grass between his rows of vines. He treated us to a tour of his various vintages of white wines. We tasted several varieties of grapes, Olasz Riesling, Furmint, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. The most remarkable part of the experience was tasting four different vintages of the same grape – the Olasz Riesling – from the same vines, but from four different seasons. Depending on weather and other conditions these produced completely different wines. The 2014 vintage – a year when the weather through the summer was rainy and cool – the wine was mineraly tasting, a little salty, but delicious. A perfect wine to go with with seafood. 2013, same grapes from the same vines – it was fruity and flavourful – serve with duck perhaps? Another year, 2012, the sugar content in the grapes was high and the naturally fermented wine rose to 16% alcohol content – and this was warming as it went down, something you’d like to drink in front of a fire on a winter night.
We also visted Kreinbacher Birtok, a newer winery located on another one of the hills. It is owned by the architect Kreinbacher József. Starting in 2011 they completed a new sparkling wine facility, brought in a Master of Champagne, and began producing fine sparking wines from the grapes grown on the slopes of Somlo Var Hegy (Somló Mountain). We stayed the night at the futuristic looking Kreinbacher Estate Hotel (the owner is, after all, an architect), had a delicious tasting menu, and tasted more than half a dozen different wines.
We came back from this little overnight outing with a car-boot full of wines and with a new realisation. A popular and cooling summertime drink in Hungary is white wine mixed with soda water and for this relatively cheap wines bought from supermarkets like Lidl, Tesco and Aldi were good enough.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately?) this trip spoiled us. I am afraid we won’t be able to go back to those cheaper and more commercial wines again. We’ll be on the lookout for these much better wines. And the soda water will be drunk separately.