Wine's Next Frontier: Hungary's Lake Balaton

Wine's Next Frontier: Hungary's Lake Balaton

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

The heirloom grapes from Hungary's Lake Balaton are unlike any other in the world—and the local wines remain utterly authentic. Bruce Schoenfeld uncorks one of Europe's most unique wine destinations.

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.

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 Franc–Zweigelt 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?"

"Quite good."

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.

By the time I find an open restaurant, well-lit and friendly, in a small hotel, I'm so deep into my Austro-Hungarian reverie that I'm startled to see a computer terminal at the front desk. I sit at a heavy oak table and order a Hapsburg-worthy dinner—consommé with liver dumplings followed by a stew of red-tailed deer—and a carafe of house white. I have fantasies of encountering some heirloom grape in quantities too small to be bottled, but one sip of watery Riesling jolts me back to reality. I can't expect to find Juhfark and Kéknyelu" and Budai Zöld around every corner.

And then I do—the next day at Szeremley Estate. Huba Szeremley, now 65, is a Balaton native who defected to Austria in 1967 in dramatic fashion: his wife's uncle landed a private plane on a highway and stole them away into the night. Szeremleys had been well-to-do vineyard owners since the 18th century, and when Hungary reopened in the 1990's, Huba Szeremley figured he'd restore an ancient wine cellar in the shadow of Mount Badacsony, the iconic symbol of Balaton. He ended up buying a nearby Pepsi plant too, and refashioning it into a modern winery. These days, his annual production is upwards of a half-million bottles, and his 39-year-old son, László—the most Westernized person I've seen in Balaton, with Italian-leather shoes and perfect English—runs the operation.

From the door of the hillside winery, I gaze out on the grand sweep of Balaton and the humpbacked Tihany Peninsula emerging from the water like a great whale. The fields below me alternate in color like squares on a chessboard. Then I step inside, passing walls that are four feet thick, and taste my first Budai Zöld. It is light-hued, with notes of citrus on the nose and the palate, and has a lilting elegance. László explains that the noble Kéknyelu" is a female variety that needs Budai Zöld to pollinate. During the Communist regime, Kéknyelu" was one of eight white grapes permitted to be grown; Budai Zöld was not. So it was cultivated surreptitiously, and the wine made from it—rarely bottled, and drunk from carafes or tapped directly from the barrel—has taken on a subversive connotation. To make my own political statement, I ask for another taste.

The Kéknyelu" is the real revelation. Its aroma is like nothing I've smelled before. "That's basalt, from the soil," László explains. The same minerality explodes in the mouth with a complex flavor that continues to evolve for half a minute. Next I try Bakator, a newly resurrected heirloom grape that makes a darker wine with a gummy taste, something like Riesling, yet utterly distinct. "There were only seven stalks left in the world," László says. "Now we have nearly five acres, and we're trying to add more."

Over lunch at the winery's restaurant—an idealized version of a local cottage, with trinkets and farm implements sharing space on the walls—I meet Huba Szeremley, a bear of a man with an ample stomach and a white beard. Apart from helping to reintroduce Bakator and promulgate the dwindling stock of Kéknyelu", he is in the process of saving an endangered species of local cow. We eat sliced tongue from his herd, white perch with a Hungarian ratatouille, and then a fillet of the intensely flavored beef. We drink a 1996 Kéknyelu", almost 10 years old, that has matured into a stunning wine, with notes of almond and, odd as it sounds, pound cake.

"Kéknyelu" was down to two acres in all of Hungary," Huba says. "Now there are about twenty." I tell him that stories such as these are why I have come to Hungary, and he looks at me intently. "Hungarian wine is not European," he says. "There's a different word for wine, bor. Not vinum, vino, wine, vin, but something entirely different. In the culture of the east, six thousand years of wine history, wine is sacred."

If that's the case, it seems to me, these Hungaricum have a special importance, embodying the culture of the Magyar people in a glass. As if to punctuate this thought, we end the meal with a late-harvest Zeus, thick and honeyed, but nuanced rather than simply sweet—and the only late-harvest Zeus, Huba notes casually, made anywhere in the world.

Before he returns to Tokaj-Hegyalja, the region where he's currently working—and where Tokaji, Hungary's most famous sweet wine, is made—Gerwald wants to introduce me to István Kiss. Kiss is something of an underground legend in Hungarian wine circles, I've discovered. Everyone seems to know his name, but almost nobody has tasted his wines, which are bottled under the label Szent-György Pince.

Gerwald worked with Kiss for two decades at the state-run wine collective but hasn't seen him in years. His winery is down yet another of the area's narrow country roads, which all seem to double back on each other yet somehow never intersect. Moments after we arrive, the two of them are waxing nostalgic about the team of enologists they'd assembled when the state winery was the only game in town. I'm astonished to hear Kiss say, "When the government stopped making wine, it ruined everything."

In a sense, I come to understand, the Communist regime was better soil for preserving Hungaricum than was the free-market capitalism that followed. The Soviet Union, which set performance goals for Hungarian industries, didn't much care what the wine tasted like so long as there were millions of bottles of it. Only after trade began with the West did land become too valuable to waste on obscure grape varieties, and thousands of acres of Kéknyelu" and Juhfark gave way to Chardonnay—or condominiums.

What Kiss is fighting against, in nearly every sense, is the incursion of the modern world into the wine-making process. No stainless-steel fermenting tanks or new French oak for him, let alone the high-tech toys, such as reverse-osmosis machines and computerized ripeness analyzers, that have become standard at wineries around the world. Philosophically opposed to wine's worldwide distribution system, he sells only at local festivals and to friends and visitors to the winery, just as he might have done a century ago. Unlike the Szeremleys, with their restaurant made so charming as to seem Disneyfied, he offers no tourist amenities; as we walk through the living room of his house toward his wine cellar, he doesn't even turn on the lights. With his untucked shirt and uncombed hair, he looks as if we caught him taking a midday nap.

But what wines! Weeks later, when I think back on my visit to Lake Balaton, these are the wines I will remember. A transcendent Juhfark, bold and peppery. A Budai Zöld with the bite of a Granny Smith apple. A sharply acidic Furmint from 1995 that Kiss insists needs another decade in the bottle. Tasting one after the next, I realize that Kiss is a wine archaeologist, if that occupation can be said to exist. As he serves me wines made from grapes such as Irsai Olivér and Zefír and Cserzegi Fu"szeres, he talks of "little towns of ten and twenty houses" with tiny vineyards that were too small or difficult for the mass harvesting machines to reach. "They've been there forever, producing just a bit of wine for the use of the town from varieties that aren't found elsewhere," he says. "I will save these grapes! That is my goal. It is something my generation has to do."

He opens a wine from a variety called Tonai Szaraz. The grapes come from the Zala region, near the Slovenian border. "One year I visited and saw the vines, but the grapes already had been crushed," he says. "I've been back for the grapes every year since. It's enough to make only eight hundred bottles, but if I don't do it, who will?" The wine has the soft floral notes of Furmint, but with a bracing intensity. If it were on the shelf in my local liquor store, I tell him, I would walk in every month and buy a case of it. Twenty dollars a bottle, 50 dollars, it wouldn't matter. "I know," he says. "When people taste my wines, they say, 'That's a Hungarian wine.' After that, they aren't satisfied with wines that could come from anywhere."

Before I leave, Kiss opens a bottle of Kiralyfurmint from 1978 that has been in his cellar for at least two decades. It has the seal of the Communist government on it—a faded paper collar, all tones of gray now except for a stripe of sky blue, picturing a shield and a star—and it looks to be in nearly pristine condition. Poured into a glass, the wine is such a bright gold that it practically glows. "Wine is the only product in human life that can bring back the years," Kiss says, holding his glass to the light. "The 1978 sunlight is in this wine, and the great rains, and the cellar's coolness. The wine can bring back all these tastes. Smell this wine and go back twenty-eight years."

My last day in Balaton, I drive north through the morning mists to meet Lajos Oszvald at a roadside restaurant. A Budapest-based architect, now 64, Oszvald came late to commercial wine making. Formerly a hobbyist, he now makes about 10,000 bottles each of Juhfark, Furmint, Hárslevelu" , and Olasrizling, the permitted white varieties of his zone, and a few contraband bottles from more unusual grapes. Not long ago, a major distributing company in Budapest agreed to handle his wines.

We drive to his little bomb shelter of a winery, dug into the side of a hill, up a steep dirt road just wide enough for a single car to pass. This is Somló, technically a different region. "A hundred years ago, the method was to plant as many as forty types of grapes and vinify them together," Oszvald says. "But some have disappeared." One of his older wines includes a blend of several dozen other grapes, with names like Csomorika, Kövér, and Sárfehér. He doesn't believe he could get any of those grapes today.

Oszvald's wines are as crisp and minerally as any I've ever drunk. They taste like fresh water running down the side of a slate wall. I compliment him on their astounding clarity, which reflects the terroir in which the grapes are grown to an extent that any producer in Burgundy or the Loire Valley would be proud of, and he shakes his head. "The distributor didn't like them," he says. "Too much acid. Too mineral." He can't reject the verdict of the marketplace, because his cellar is filled with wines like these from older vintages that he hasn't managed to sell. So from now on, he says, he'll make most of his wines to the distributor's specifications—and a few bottles for himself, and for people like me.

Wineglasses in hand, we stand and stare at the land spread out before us. In the patchwork-quilt patterns receding into the distance, I see thousands of years of viticultural history. I wish wines like the Juhfark I'm drinking were as common in Colorado, where I live, as Napa Chardonnay, but I also understand that it is their scarcity that helps give them value. If Juhfark were poured by the glass at airport bars and sold on special at the local Costco, I never would have made it to Hungary.

As if he's reading my mind, Oszvald says: "When you go somewhere, you should drink wines that taste like where you are." And here I am, I tell him, astride the vast Pannonian plain, with an artisanal vintner beside me, good Hungarian food in my stomach, and wine in my glass that tells me I could be nowhere else.

Bruce Schoenfeld has written for Wine Spectator and Sports Illustrated.

When to Go

Central Hungary has a prototypical Continental climate, untempered by ocean breezes. July and August on Lake Balaton are steamy and crowded, and winter is chilly and forlorn, but the months from March to June are mild, and fall is magnificent. Each September, the Hungarian Viniculture Foundation sponsors a wine festival in Budapest, with tastings of wines from Lake Balaton and beyond.

Getting There

From March through October, Malév Hungarian Airlines flies a daily nonstop out of New York's JFK airport to Budapest, which is some 70 miles northeast of Balaton and linked to it by a well-paved highway. Delta also has JFK–Budapest nonstops five days a week. And, beginning this month, low-fare carrier Ryanair will fly directly to Lake Balaton from London's Stansted Airport.

Where to Stay

Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest
The best hotel in Hungary and perhaps all of Eastern Europe: a soaring Art Nouveau masterpiece, less than two hours from the vines. Perfect for a first or last night. 5–6 Roosevelt Square; 800/332-3442 or 36-1/268-6000;; doubles from $417.

Betekints Hotel
Located in Veszprém, 15 miles northeast of the Tihany Peninsula at the east end of the lake, this conference center with resort amenities offers spacious rooms and is the top alternative to the faceless accommodations closer to the shore. 4 Veszprémvölgyi St.; 36-88/579-280;; doubles from $105.

Where to Eat

Hotel Bacchus
The local cuisine (grilled perch, pickled cabbage salad, potato dumplings) in this subterranean hotel dining room ranks among the best in western Balaton, though the wine selection is disappointing, considering a wine museum is attached. 18 Erzsébet Királyné St., Keszthely; 36-83/510-450;; dinner for two $40.

A true find in the charming historic center of Veszprém, with nouveau versions of traditional Hungarian dishes such as pork loaf and pig's knuckles. Extensive list of Hungarian wines. 14–16 Buhim St.; 36-88/561-900;; dinner for two $80.

Szent-Orbán Borház
Huba Szeremley's somewhat sanitized version of a typical area restaurant is the only place to try meat from the local "gray" cows he has rescued from near extinction. 5 Kisfaludy St., Badacsony; 36-87/431-382; dinner for two $60.

Where to Sip

With a few exceptions, wine tourism in the Balaton region is anchored in the 19th century. Winery phones usually go unanswered, probably because the majority of Hungarians these days carry cell phones—with unlisted numbers. Your best bet is to find an English speaker at a wineshop or restaurant and ask for winery recommendations and help with communicating, and then let one producer lead you to the next. It can be frustrating, but in this age of bus tours and tasting rooms as cottage industries in nearly every major wine region around the planet, such a wantonly disorganized approach is part of the thrill.

Szeremley Estate
The most tourist-oriented of the Balaton wineries, but also one of the most scenic places to try Hungaricum. 51–53 Fö St., Badacsonytomaj; 36-87/571-210.

Figula Wines
A modern winery on an ancient site, making Rieslings and other white wines with zing. 44B Siske St., Balatonfüred; 36-87/343-557;

What to Read

Beyond the rudimentary data in guidebooks, English-language information on the Balaton is scanty. To get a sense of life in post-Communism Hungary, and a nice, if brief, evocation of the overtouristed side of the region, read the chapter on the country in Eva Hoffman's Exit Into History (Penguin, 1993). For a rich picture of local wine making (and drinking) in the early Communist years, and of country life during that period, check out Zsuzsa Bánk's novel The Swimmer (Harcourt, 2005).

T+L Tip

Hungarians list last names first; Mihály Figula would announce himself as "Figula Mihály."

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