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Wine's Next Frontier: Hungary's Lake Balaton

Benoît Peverelli Béla Fölfödi, Szeremley's winemaker, holds a traditional tasting pipette

Photo: Benoît Peverelli

I was two glasses into a bottle of perfectly good Australian Cabernet when I had the revelation that wines around the world were starting to taste the same. The previous evening's bright, polished Chianti, the pricey Spanish Syrah I'd ordered at a restaurant the night before that, even a Santa Barbara Viognier I'd recently sipped at a dinner party—they all struck me as more or less interchangeable. These were supple wines, easy to drink, yet somehow soulless: blow-dried newscasters in a bottle. I strained to recall true personality in any of them.

At that moment, I decided to go to Balaton.

Once upon a time, Hungary's singular wines were the envy of the world. Like Spain and South Africa, Hungary was marginalized by politics during the second half of the 20th century, so the Hungarian wine industry—like much of the rest of the country—emerged from the shadows after the fall of European Communism in 1989 with plenty of catching up to do.

Unlike Spain's and South Africa's, Hungary's best grapes aren't capable of making the big, ripe reds that are fashionable worldwide. Instead, they're quirky, temperamental, and white. Many of these grapes, referred to as Hungaricum, are grown—by dint of historical precedent, climatological conditions, and the market forces precipitated by both—only in Hungary, most successfully on the northern shore of Lake Balaton, in the western part of the country.

I had a vague knowledge of grapes such as Kéknyelu", Budai Zöld, and Juhfark, fanciful names that sound like the home planets of superheroes. But I'd never tasted the wines, never even seen a bottle. Had they, too, been transformed by the manipulative skill of modern enology?Or, somewhere in the hills of Mitteleuropa, where the Hapsburgs ruled and Bartók composed and Russian tanks once rolled, were heirloom grapes still being made into wines that taste like no others?

I arrived in Budapest on a rainy afternoon to meet Tibor Gál, Hungary's most renowned winemaker. Gál—who would die in an auto accident several months later—had left in the early eighties for Bolgheri, on the Italian coast, to take up a position as winemaker for the exalted Super Tuscan Ornellaia. With those bona fides, he could have stayed in Italy forever. But he was a patriot, and when Hungary's wine industry began to privatize in the early nineties, he returned to help.

Gál greeted me with a wide smile beneath his bristly mustache—and a tote bag of wine. "Here's my Chardonnay," he said, pulling out a bottle with evident pride. "Here's my Syrah. And here's my Pinot Noir from Villány, near the Croatian border. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."

"But what about the Hungaricum?" I asked.

"Yes, yes, someday," he said. "That is certainly the goal. But we must begin with varieties that the world knows in order to rebuild our industry. Selling Hungarian wine is hard enough without making obscure varieties nobody has heard of. Give us time! Anyway, taste this Pinot Noir. I believe you'll find it quite Burgundian in style."

I love Burgundian Pinot Noirs, but only if they come from Burgundy. I left for Balaton the next morning with fingers crossed.

Balaton, a two-hour drive from Budapest, is one of the largest and shallowest lakes in Europe—a giant, cigar-shaped puddle that extends nearly 50 miles, southwest to northeast, across the Pannonian plain. A simulacrum of a seacoast for millions of landlocked Hungarians, it serves every possible recreational need. The southern shore is crowded with faceless hotels from the Communist era, as flat and unadorned as Lego blocks, juxtaposed with the garish new constructions of frenzied capitalism. There are pizza joints, discos pulsating into the night, a Coca-Cola–emblazoned beach shack, and other detritus of Eastern turned Western civilization. Teenagers windsurf their way through July and August, families of five stake out weeklong claims on patches of sand, babies wail, pasty Central Europeans turn various shades of scarlet, all of them replicating the scene being played out at the Black Sea resorts of Romania and Bulgaria, and elsewhere around Eastern Europe.

But the wine-growing area on Balaton's northern shore, especially toward Keszthely in the west, remains a study in green. Driving in from Budapest, I see streets lined with flower gardens and the traditional squat cottages of the region, with their roofs of densely packed straw. The hotels here tend to be small, family-run establishments: not luxurious, but at least comfortable.

I'd learned early on that Balaton's vistas resonate disproportionately among Hungarians. During four decades of Communism's constraints, Balaton was where most families spent their state-sponsored vacations, unshouldering their burdens for a week or two. Mention of the lake to someone under retirement age evokes wistful memories. "I can picture it now, my little brother standing in the sand," one Hungarian friend living in America said when I told her I was headed there.

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