The wines of the Tokaj region vie with some of the greatest names in history for the title of most admired wines in the world . Both in price and in reputation, Tokaj is generally placed among the pantheon of the most cherished. Botrytized sweet wines have been made here longer than anywhere else on earth. And the vineyard lands and the local grape varieties are exceptional. Hungarian winemakers have had to face a challenge despite the fame that they have nurtured for centuries. In the current market, dry wines are generally more sought after than sweet. And so there has been a fascinating turn to dry white wines that is causing a stir and reinvigorating the wines of Hungary.
But wait. There is more to the wines of Hungary than Tokaj. The great red wines of the Eger region also have a place in history as well as a new renaissance. With Budapest as our base, let’s take a traveling drinker’s tour of the wines of the Eger and Tokaj regions. Budapest is a passionate wine city. Wine has been in its soul for thousands of years. So before we head out on the wine roads of Hungary, let’s stop in at some of Budapest’s best wine bars. From the racy, elegant dry Furmint whites to the resonating reds of Eger to Tokaj itself, we’ve got a lot to sample.
The Wine Bars Of The Jewish Quarter And Józsefváros
One of Budapest’s most magnetic tourist destinations is the charmingly gritty warren of bars, restaurants and shops in the Jewish Quarter. To some degree it is a victim of its own success since it heaves with visitors. But there are many great places to visit here. And we’ll take a detour for some respite in the more recently trendy District VIII or Józsefváros neighbourhood.
Starting From The Buda Side Of Budapest
Budapest takes its name from the two parts of the city on either side of the Danube River – Buda and Pest. The two sides are linked by a number of bridges but the most emblematic is the Chain Bridge or Széchenyi Bridge. The Buda side is dominated by the Buda castle. The “castle” is more a historic district than a single castle and it makes a great place for a morning explore. So let’s start our day here and make our way through the city. There is a very good wine tasting shop here called Faust Wine Cellar in case you are feeling like trying some of the wines of Hungary before walking over to the Pest side!
The Jewish Quarter (District VII)
From the castle district walk across the Chain Bridge to Pest and make your way to the Jewish Quarter. As you leave the bridge turn right and at the edge of the park head up József Attila toward the Budapest Eye ferris wheel. After you walk through the park and across Károly Boulevard you come into the Jewish Quarter. It’s worth walking several blocks up Király street to Kadarka Wine Bar at Király 42 for the fantastic list of small Hungarian wine producers. Nearby is the famous DOBLO Wine Bar at 20 Dob street. DOBLO has all the ambience you expect for a rustic wine bar in the old city. On your way stop in at the buzzing, small and authentic Wine & U at 3-9 Holló street. It’s a great place to try some distinctive examples of the wines of Hungary.
This is a pretty heavily touristed neighbourhood and it’s important to check out the main reason for the revitalization of this once destroyed district – the ruin bars. The name is taken from the ruined buildings in which they are located. Start with the iconic Szimpla Kert at Kazinczy 14 for its glorious, eclectic pandemonium. Then head to Fogas Haz at Akácfa 49-51 for a hipster vibe within the larger, wilder Instant-Fogas ruin bar complex. Not to be missed is the fantastic jewish food and upscale ruin bar vibe at Mazel Tov nearby on Akácfa.
Also not to be missed (although a little outside the Jewish Quarter and back towards the Budapest Eye) is the spectacular view, cocktails and wine of the stylish St. Andrea Wine and Sky Bar. The entrance is on Vörösmarty Square at Deák Ferenc 5.
New Hip Frontiers In Józsefváros (District VIII)
Newly gentrified Józsefváros is just across main thoroughfare of Rákózci street and will provide a welcome break from the party buzz of the Jewish quarter. But on your way try the small production wines at Tábla Natural Wine Bar on Dohány 29. Whether you are a natural wine fan or not, the selection here is really fascinating. A few minutes walk into the Józsefváros neighbourhood find Tasting Table Budapest on Bródy Sándor 9. This place is very well regarded for its wines selection and the pairing to Hungarian food. It’s a few blocks walk but make your way to the very classy and attractive Oinos WineBar Bistro in Rákózci market.
Travel and Tour Suggestions:
Check out BudapestFlow for great guided walking tours to discover the secrets of Budapest’s neighbourhoods
Likewise Offbeat Budapest has a terrific range of guided tours including the Jewish Quarter and Józsefváros
From Budapest To Eger
The beautiful, historical town of Eger is only about an hour and a half from Budapest. You can get there by car or by train and having a car will allow you to more easily tour the local wine cellars. This small city is a real gem and well worth the visit just to walk the streets and visit the famous Eger Castle. But Eger has a wonderful wine secret right on the edge of town – the Valley of The Beautiful Women (the Szépasszony valley). Interestingly named, the area has dozens of wine cellars carved into the hillside and you can walk from one to the other tasting the local wines. It is a marvellously quaint and effective way to try the local wines. There are some small producers but also some of the top Eger wineries represented as well.
The Red and White “Egri” of Eger Wine Region
Eger is best known for its “Bull’s Blood” wines, the famous Egri Bikavér. As the name implies, it is a robust red but it can be very, very good and quality is improving all the time. Egri Bikavér is a blend, usually dominated by Kékfrankos (Blaufrankisch) and also including Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Blaufrankisch in the hands of a skilled winemaker is scintillating stuff and similarly Cabernet Franc can be extremely good in Eger. So these wines are worthy of some on-the-ground research!
Egri Csillag is the name of Eger’s local white wine blend. Crisp, bright and aromatic, Egri Csillag is a dry white that ticks a lot of boxes for current wine tastes. And it’s very at home chilled and served on the patio on a summer afternoon. Made from Furmint, Leányka and a number of other unpronounceable local white varieties, Egri Csillag deserves to be much more available on the international market. It’s a potentially powerful ambassador for the wines of Hungary.
The Winemakers Of Eger
The following is a starting point for experiencing the wines of Eger:
St. Andrea Estate makes top quality, terroir-driven wines and also owns the fantastic St. Andrea Wine and Sky Bar in Budapest
Thummerer Winery has an impressive estate with large cellars carved in the dark volcanic tuff that is a signature of the Eger wine region
Bolyki Cellars wines are stamped with the unique personality of the winemaker and his slightly subversive but elegant style.
Tóth Ferenc Winery is another highly-awarded winemaker and is a must stop in the Szépasszony Valley (the Valley of The Beautiful Women)
Gál Tibor Winery is one of the most respected wineries in Eger and makes an excellent Pinot Noir, a great expression of this cool climate
Juhász Pince is at #40 in the Szépasszony Valley and is another top producer
And From Eger to Tokaj!
Another hour and a half down the road brings us to the singular Tokaj wine region. Tokaj is beautiful and deeply historic, particularly in terms of its wine heritage. Its reputation has been built largely on the sweet botrytized (noble rot) wines that were pioneered here, the first of such wines anywhere on earth. The conditions are perfect for botrytized wines with the autumn fogs created by the rivers that flank the region, the Tizsa and the Bodrog. This humidity will cause noble rot in the grapes – reducing the moisture in the fruit and concentrating the sugars. The wines are expensive and luxurious, with resonant spice and candied stonefruit and citrus flavours.
Tokaj’s name will forever be associated with these “wines of kings”. But there is an emerging, dry wine production that is breathing new life into the region. And helping to put the wines of Hungary back on the map.
Tokaj’s winemakers have recently focussed on extracting the inherent quality of the local grape varieties (Furmint and Hárslevelü primarily) to produce fine dry whites. The result has been a tremendous cult following around the world for these mineral and crisp wines. Dry Furmint should be high on your list of wines to try. The local winemakers are embracing this additional wine offering and it is revitalizing the region. Tokaj is an under-visited wine region despite the fact that it is so well geared to wine tourism.
The Winemakers Of Tokaj
Here is a sampling of some of the wineries to try:
The Royal Tokaji Wine Company in the village of Mád is perhaps the most famous and venerable of the producers of Tokaj Aszú sweet wines
Barta Estate is also in the village of Mád and is developing a growing reputation for its vivacious dry Furmint
Diznókö Estate is one of the biggest names in Tokaj Aszú wines
Patricius Winery is highly recommended both for its dry Furmint wines and for its Tokaj Aszü wines
István Szepsy makes terroir-specific wines from a number of regions in Tokaj, including both dry and sweet wines