Great wine is found in even the most unlikely of places. Like the time I discovered wine in Imola in Italy’s northern Emilia Romagna and most recently, wine country in Hungary. Yes, Hungary has its own wine region! Just a short drive from the capital to Etyek, this is the perfect day trip from Budapest.
Although wine tourism is still fairly new, bor is the old Magyar word for wine (and it’s literary proof that wine existed more than 1000 years ago). Hungary has around 90,000 hectares of vineyards – an impressive amount for such a small country! It may be smaller than most, but it’s diverse and locals tell me wine here is getting better and better.
Etyek (pronounced et-yek) is a short 30km drive west of Budapest. It’s beautifully quaint with lush green hills, old stone homes, and population of only 4,000 people.
We met Gabriela and Piroska, two Hungarian locals with a nose (and palette) for a good glass of bor. They started wine tours in Hungary and are now creating a new tour option to introduce more travellers to this picturesque village off-the-beaten path. It really is a region few people know about. My Google search pulled up very little info, and photos of village life from Etyek were few and far between. They reached out to give me an exclusive introduction before they launched their new tour with Voomago, a new and upcoming experiential travel company in Europe that offers short trips with locals. They call Etyek “the vineyard of Budapest” and I couldn’t wait to discover why.
Etyek sits on the same latitude as the prestigiously-known Champagne region so the climate for good, crisp white and sparkling wines is equal to even the best bottles produced in France. White wine is actually Hungary’s specialty and this one we tried at Etyeki Kuria winery has its own winemaking-style called reduction. Reduction is when a winemaker takes extra steps to limit the amount of oxygen a wine has exposure to. It’s not easy – air is everywhere. But you can definitely taste the difference. It’s stored in steel tanks instead of traditional wooden wine barrels so you don’t get that oaky taste most wines have. Reductive wine tastes more fresh, light and fruity.
We sampled Pinot Noir, Rosé, and Sauvignon Blanc but I took one sip of the Pinot Gris reductive and immediately I claimed it my favourite wine I think I ever tasted. Gabriel and Piroska thoughtfully (and very sneaky when we weren’t looking) bought Dan and I a bottle as a gift to take home with us. We now both prefer wine from steel tanks than oaky-tasting barrels by far!
Hungarians are proud to know a winemaker
Etyek is also where you can meet small-scale local wine makers like Mr. Hernyak. He is known by locals for making some of their favourite wines – in fact, about 70% of his production, like sparkling and Pinot Noir, is sold directly to people in his community which doesn’t surprise me – Europeans know how to keep the good stuff for themselves and I usually find the best wines are never exported. As they say in Hungary,
it’s more important to know who you buy from than what you buy
We met Hernyak near the end of his work day. He graciously invited us into his home and into his wine cellar – a cellar he built himself and which now houses the dustiest bottles I have ever seen.
He must have had thousands of bottles lining his shelves and walls, but nothing goes to waste. Any left over wine he uses to make spirits like Hungarian palinka.
Wine during Communism
During the Soviet occupation in Hungary there were no private cellars like this one and cellars that did exist were owned by the State. Wine at the time was terrible, mainly because the Soviets didn’t see wine for enjoyment but merely consumption. They didn’t care about good wine as long as it was wine.
Today, there are over 150 grape varieties in Hungary and more than 400 wine cellars. Some of them are in hobbit-size doors like this one built in 1867.
But as much as wine production is growing, wine culture in Hungary still has its challenges both within its borders and outside.
Travellers are not searching for Hungarian wine like they do for Tuscany although the hope is that more people are discovering this lesser known wine region.
Wine consumption is still quite low in the country. I didn’t understand why? You have all this tasty wine but people here are not drinking it? I’m told it’s because wine was traditionally strong in flavour and overpowering, seen as a drink for older generations. Budapest is also filled with old ruin pubs where 20-year-olds chill over beer and liquor rather than sip glasses of wine. Hungarian wine is now becoming fresh and light, easy-to-drink for younger generations so the hope is that the trend will catch on to youth.
Many 200-year-old wine cellars were left abandoned since the Communist era. Under the Soviet occupation soil was damaged or neglected, and vines that once grew here no longer do. The cellars are up for sale now but without quality soil locals just use them to store their wines.
I loved my time in Etyek and I highly recommend planning a day trip here from Budapest. Wine a’More and Voomago are launching their new 3-day wine tour to this picturesque local village this fall which I think is a perfect time to go. The itinerary includes a locally-produced farm to table lunch or dinner in an old wine cellar like the ones I visited, a 3-hour Hungarian food cooking course, and visit to the wine festival with a local wine tour guide.
Best time to go: Early September during the Budapest Wine Festival
Best wine bar in Budapest: Divino
Favourite wine to bring home: Etyeki Kuria Pinot Gris