Wednesday 7 August 2013

Sated in Hungary (Part 2: Wine)

Last week I wrote fondly of the tasty food of Hungary. This week I'm moving on to its equally impressive wine...

Wine Museums, Keszthely

The attractive town of Keszthely sits at the western end of Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake and the landlocked nation’s seaside.

It’s a pleasant holiday town, if somewhat sleepy when I visit out of season in mid-spring.

Despite its modest size, the town is home to two wine museums. The most imposing is situated in the brick-lined cellar of the Festetics Palace, a graceful 18th century structure in its own landscaped grounds.

The House of Balaton Wines exhibits some 1500 Hungarian vintages, with 30 or so available on rotation for tasting sessions.

Down the road in the basement of a more humble building, the three-star Hotel Bacchus, is the Bacchus Wine Museum. It’s a slow day so a waiter from the adjacent restaurant has to unlock the museum for me.

It turns out to unexpectedly interesting; in addition to covering the history and regions of Hungarian wine, it’s packed with old casks, winemaking implements such as curious doughnut-shaped ceramic bottles, and romantically dusty old wine.

[Believe it or not, as of December 2012 the following attraction has been transformed into a spy museum! I've retained the text as a historical record, and to give a sense of the cellar complex beneath Buda Castle.]

Royal Wine Museum, Budapest

Standing on the Szabadság Bridge at sunset, the first thing that strikes me about Budapest is its grandeur.

As the joint capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century, the Hungarian capital shared in the imperial trappings of Vienna, and it shows. The Danube is wide here, with soaring iron suspension bridges linking flat commercial Pest with hilly Buda.

The centrepiece of Buda is Buda Castle, a vast walled complex stretching for some 1.5 kilometres on a hilltop above the river. Buildings have come and gone within its walls over the centuries, and a set of rediscovered medieval wine cellars below demolished houses have recently been linked up to form the Royal Wine Museum [now closed, see explanatory note above].

The twisting and turning underground route is an atmospheric trek through cool sloping passageways, with folk music playing over speakers.

Along the way I learn about Hungarian champagne (who knew?) and encounter ancient wine apparatus including wooden goblets, then descend into much deeper cellars going back to the 13th century. There’s even the remains of a Jewish mikveh (bath) hidden down here.

At the end I sit outside in a pleasant shaded courtyard while a uniformed man pours a glass of apricot-flavoured palinka, the Hungarian spirit literally translated as "burning water". It packs a punch, but is not unpleasant.

The Valley of the Beautiful Women, Eger

To the east of Budapest in hilly wine-growing country most well known for the dessert wine tokay, Eger is a picturesque collection of old buildings including a prominent castle and a remnant minaret from the Turkish occupation.

Its local wine-related claim to fame is Bikavér, a full-bodied red which is said to have fortified the soldiers who resisted the first Turkish siege in 1552.

The best place to buy Bikavér is definitely the Valley of the Beautiful Women, just outside town. Both kitschy and rewarding, the valley is a collection of old wine cellars dug into a rocky horseshoe-shaped valley.

Visitors wander around, buying 100ml samples from random cellars and eating local dishes, before producing their own containers to buy larger take-away amounts of wine.

It’s an attractive way to spend an afternoon. In reasonably quick succession I try samples of Bikavér, then a nice dry rosé, then tokay.

The cellars vary greatly in appearance, from classy set-ups with uniformed staff to simple venues run by the vineyard owners. At my last cellar, I’m ushered in by an elderly lady to be met by a grizzled old man in track pants and a jumper, presenting a much-thumbed guestbook and welcoming us in German.

He’s a definite character, quickly filling glasses of tokay and slapping down a half-filled bottle of another wine, so we can pour our own samples. We can still see the original chisel marks on the bare walls of the cellar, and it’s cold within its depths.

Luckily, the tokay is warming our interiors quite nicely.

To read Part One (Food), click here.

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