As a result, Balaton wine is the equivalent of comfort food to many Hungarians—one reason it continues to thrive domestically even as the wider world's viticultural bounty floods the country. Another reason is Hungary's cuisine: rich and heavy, spiced with paprika, utterly unsuited to bottlings in the ultra-ripe international style. Balaton's wines cut through that spice and fat, refreshing the mouth with their bright acidity but also adding a measure of complexity that emanates from the strong minerality of the soil.
Unable to speak the language, I've asked a former Balaton winemaker, László Gerwald, to be my guide. From 1976 to 1993—when the state-run winery disbanded—he was vice president of production for the northern part of the region, supervising an annual output of 2 billion liters of wine, nearly all of which went to lubricate palates throughout the Soviet Bloc. He stands before me in the hotel parking lot, a massive man with a handlebar mustache and a cell phone that crows like a rooster.
I follow Gerwald's late-model SUV over a rock-strewn road, past tidy cottages and what seem to be empty fields, to a winery owned by Mihály Figula, a prominent Balaton vintner who has an intimate knowledge of local viticultural history. We park in a gravel lot, where a pig is being roasted for a celebratory meal. "The guest will be Péter Esterházy, the famous writer," says Figula, who greets us at our cars. Wiry and animated, he has a mop of Harpo Marx hair, colored snow-white. His winery is just over a decade old, he says, but it is built on the site of a far older one, and in the same style. That building over there?Almost new. But the one just past it?From 1773. And that's nothing compared to his vineyard, where grapes have been growing steadily for 2,000 years.
In the early 1990's, Figula traveled to the Napa Valley, where he visited 50 wineries. He found them fascinating, decades ahead of the Hungarian industry at the time. "And yet, I felt that all the wines there tasted the same," he says. This remark gives me hope. On his estate, he grows 12 varieties of grapes, some international, some Hungaricum. He ships his wines to nine countries. "The farther away they are, the more they want Hungarian wines," he says. Former Eastern Bloc nations order Riesling and Pinot Gris, wines made from Western grapes that offer tangible evidence of what these countries see as their own increased sophistication. But consumers in Asia, he says, are seeking different flavors from unusual wines that they can't find anywhere else.
So am I, I tell him, as we sit down to taste. We try Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, grape varieties I know well. The wines are terrific—brimming with acidity and a stripe of minerality, reminiscent of a good Chablis—but all too familiar. Hours pass. Gerwald and Figula engage in long conversations in Hungarian, a language that bears no similarity to any of the tongues I might possibly know. (Its only linguistic relatives are Finnish and Estonian, which makes me feel better about not grasping a single word.)
Finally, I plead to taste his Hungaricum. He has only one, it turns out—most of his indigenous grapes are used for blending with better-known varieties—and he isn't eager for me to try it. "It is for entry-level wine drinkers," he says. "Not nearly as complex as my more expensive wines." The grape is called Zenit, a cross between Ezerjo and Bouvier created in the 1950's by the Hungarian viticulturist Ferenc Kiraly. With apologies all around, Figula pours the wine. "I've never had anyone else's Zenit I liked at all," he says. "And mine is... well, you'll see."
It isn't his best wine, but it is his most interesting. Zenit tastes slightly sweet, with a flavor that reminds me of lychee nuts. It has almost no mouthfeel, all but disappearing on the tongue, yet I'm intrigued. I pour myself a second glass as Figula looks on disapprovingly, as if he expected better taste from me. "I don't see much possibility in this wine," he says. "It's simple, it's drinkable. Why make any more out of it than that?"
He's right. But now I'm more determined than ever to find the true Hungaricum. I've caught a glimpse of the rabbit, and I'm off and running. At lunch with Gerwald in a restaurant that seems like a throwback to the institutional sixties, from the blank expression on the waiter's face to the paucity of food selection, I insist on ordering a red Cabernet FrancZweigelt blend from the nearby Tihany Peninsula. It isn't Hungaricum, but it is an offbeat combination I've never encountered. The wine tastes like a barely passable effort from a country that doesn't typically make wine, the kind I sample far too often at trade fairs. I half expect someone to walk up and say, "Pretty good for a Filipino Merlot, no?"
"This wine is awful," I say.
Gerwald doesn't blink. "How's your soup?"
He smiles. "One for two. Not bad for the first day."
That night, I set out from my hotel for Tihany, five miles away. I drive down a road edged by birch trees, the product of a planting initiative in the 1950's, then into the cover of forest so dark as to seem sepia-toned in the night. With each mile I feel as if I'm falling further back in time: through the bleak years of the Kádár dictatorship to World War II, when Soviet troops marched down just this type of blacktopped road under hooded trees—at least in the movies I've seen. Soon I'm on the cusp of another century, when grapes were transported from the vineyards in horse-drawn carts.