When I think of Hungary, I don't think of wine. I think of architecture, goulash, folklore, and a country that isn't very good at picking sides when it comes to world wars. Occasionally, I think of people named Helga. But, I don't really think of wine, at least not until now....
Despite my ignorance, Hungary maintains more tradition regarding wine than any other country in the Eastern side of Europe. However, most of this tradition, after being walled in from 1949-1989 by communist rule, is recently just coming to light and people are finally starting to hear through the grape vine great things about Hungarian wine.
Hungary, a landlocked country with forests, vineyards, rivers and orchards, is home to 22 wine regions, with the most prestigious one called Tokaj-Hegyalja. Boasting a number of different grape varieties, vineyards have flourished here since Roman Times. The climate, one that adheres to seasonal rules with hot summers and cold winters, allows for the country's soils to be diverse, leading to the variety of regions and a variety of wine.
The wines of Hungary come in all types and, despite previous communist control, are not limited to just reds. Though the vineyards of Hungary produce a variety of wonderful wines - Balatonlellei Cabernet Sauvignon, Tokaji Furmint, Tokaji Muscat - the one that is their claim to fame, the one they raise their glass to most often, is the Tokay Aszu.
The Tokay Aszu, whether accompanying a side of tiramisu or a pack of Twinkies, is one of the leading dessert wines in the world. Historically, it was discovered in the mid 17th Century and was soon filling the goblets of many European aristocrats. Certain types of it were even rumored to have magical healing powers.
Another famous Hungarian wine is the Egri Bikaver, also known as Bull's Blood. As legend goes, the name from this wine was derived during a 16th century battle between the Magyars (the modern day Hungarians) and the Turks. During the battle, in which the Magyars were protecting the fortress of Eger, the Magyars fought like lions and drank red wine like fish. While their arrows may have been a tad off target, their orders slightly slurred, and the bathroom line inside the fortress longer than usual, the red wine did the trick. When the Turks saw the Magyars with beards covered in red, they assumed the enemy was drinking bull's blood, and the Turks quickly retreated.
The best wineries to visit, if you ever find yourself in Hungary, are those in Tokay, which is located in the northeast, about three hours by train from Budapest. The wineries are usually open for tastings and tours of the underground cellars from May through October.
Overall, the wine in Hungary is a good thing to have by the glass, the bottle, or the case. Having been perfected over centuries, it gives connoisseurs something to study, something to order, and something to drink. And, of course, it keeps Hungary, as a nation, thirsty.
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