When people think of Hungary they probably don’t think about wine. Any familiarity with Hungarian wine generally comes from the bottoms of supermarket shelves, where acrid and awful ‘Bull’s Blood’ gathers dust as fodder for the disappointed bargain-hunter or the penniless wino.
But Hungary makes fantastic – even world-class and award-winning – wine. Tokaji (or Tokaj, or Tokay) is a legendary sweet wine made in the north-east of the country, and it routinely sweeps up medals at international wine competitions. For example, in 2004 in the prestigious VinAgora international wine competition, Hungary took 7 of the top 10 spots in the sweet wine category. Called “the king of wines and the wine of kings” by Louis XIV, to this day the Latin version of the phrase – Vinum regum, rex vinorum – is allowed to appear on Tokaji bottles of particular quality.
But it’s in the sub-Mediterranean south of the country, in the wine region Villány-Siklós (pronounced VEE-line SHE-closhe), that many of the country’s blockbuster reds are produced. Here long, hot summers produce reds bursting with fruit and high in both tannins and alcohol, meaning that many should be cellared for 6-8 years before they really come into their own. Of course the 30 or so top winemakers of the region also produce more approachable wines, and it’s the small scale and approachability of the area itself that makes it so pleasant to visit.
The village of Villány (population 2,517) can be explored on foot in a matter of an hour or two. Lovely white-washed cellars line the main streets, and pretty much every single one of them offers tastings. There’s a tremendous range of quality and price – everything from wine in two-liter plastic bottles that sells for next to nothing to major, high-tech wineries producing outstanding wines with a price to match.
For our 15th wedding anniversary my wife surprised me with a romantic weekend in Villány (I knew we were going somewhere, I just didn’t know where – she told me to get in the car and drive). Since we were only there for the weekend and could go tasting only Saturday afternoon, she had arranged visits to two very reliable, high-quality vineyards.
Vylyan is one of the region’s largest producers, but it’s still relatively small, with 125 hectares of grapes (compare that to say, Australia’s Rosemount Estate, which has over 1,700 hectares under cultivation – more than the entire Villány-Siklós wine region, which has a total of roughly 1,450 hectares of vines. California’s Napa Valley has 17,401.)
Set on a hill overlooking sweeping vineyards, Vylyan makes a handful of whites and a rosé (all of which are tasty, particularly the Herka Chardonnay), but it’s the big, muscly reds that really stand out. We took our tasting outside on the terrace, while electric green lizards scuttled along the stone walls and birds and butterflies flitted about the gardens.
One of the favorites from our tasting was the Pinot Noir, a clean and elegant take on the grape with loads of strawberry and cherry notes. The Duennium cuvée, Vylyan’s flagship red, is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon hand-selected from the best vineyards and made in only the very best years. The 2006 is packed with dark forest fruits, backed by, as the website describes “caramel, tobacco and creamy chocolate mousse.” Delicious.
They’re happy to pack a picnic for you, and we took a big basket of cheeses, salamis, and crusty bread out into the vineyards, spread a blanket, and simply enjoyed the scenery. The blue National Hiking Route cuts right through Vylyan, and they encourage hikers to taste and tasters to hike. There’s also a playground for kids, so they can run around in the shade of towering walnut trees while you sip in peace.
Our second stop was at Sauska (prounounced Shaushka), a place that exploded on the Villány scene less than ten years ago, making outstanding wines right out of the gate.
The story of Christian Sauska is as interesting as his wine. Born not far from Villány, he emigrated to the US in the early 1970’s (speaking almost no English at the time) and after working odd jobs that included being a garbage collector in Massachusetts, landed an assembly line position at an architectural lighting firm. Within eight years he had worked his way up the ladder (while going to night school to achieve both a BS in engineering and an MBA) to become vice-president of the company, which he eventually bought, becoming owner and CEO of Light Sources, Inc., and a gazillionaire in the process. If Hollywood had come up with this script of the American Dream, critics would have bashed it for being implausible.
Returning to Hungary, Sauska obviously poured a great deal of his hard-earned cash into both the making of his wines and his wine-making facilities, which are state-of-the-art not only by Villány but by any standards. The restaurant (they source much of their produce from their own organic gardens) and tasting spaces are simply stunning. Incorporating traditional elements of wood and brick with contemporary design, they’ve created a look that is homey and avant-garde at the same time. We sat on the massive outside terrace, surrounded by flower gardens and vineyards that climb up the slope of Villány’s highest peak, the barren limestone Szársomlyó, and our sommelier talked us through our selections.
The whites come mostly from Sauska’s vineyards in Tokaj, and despite both reluctance and resentment on the part of many wine-makers of the region (We’ve been doing things the same way for 600 years, why change now?), he brought innovation (including blending traditional Hungarian grapes such as Hárslevelű and Furmint with international varieties like Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay) and modern technology that turn out head-turning whites unlike anything you’ve tasted before.
Their reds from Villány-Siklós are what really knock your socks off, though. The Bordeaux-style Cuvée 11, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, is very, very nice, with aromas of red cherry and violets. Their other reds are fantastic, and it seems that Cabernet Franc has found a new home in Villány, with Sauska’s 2009 Cab Franc sending my wife near-orgasmic, meaning that we picked up a couple of bottles despite a somewhat hefty price tag.
Where to Stay:
We stayed at the Gere Crocus Wine and Wellness Hotel, a relatively new boutique hotel with a wonderful spa and fabulous restaurant. The spa is a great place to sweat and soak yourself to purity after a day of wine tasting. Rooms are comfortable, the staff welcoming, and the food divine.
Next door to Gere Crocus is another stunning new addition, Halasi Pince, done up in rustic style but elegant and refined at the same time. Fantastic food and gorgeous guest rooms.
Apart from hardcore oenophiles, Villány probably isn’t a place most people would fly halfway around the world to visit – the vast majority of visitors to Hungary don’t even make it out of the capital – but if you are in Budapest it’s a great side trip. It’s only a couple hours’ drive from the city, and it’s definitely worth tacking another day or two onto your itinerary. Cheers! Or as they say in these parts – Egészségedre!