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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

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.

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