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The Hills

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No, not the those hills with the artificial characters who are completely devoid of personality, humor, and often times, taste. I’m talking about the Etyek region of Hungary, a hilly town about 20 minutes from central Budapest. Here, dry white wines reign supreme, and I spent the day tasting them and a few of their red partners in crime with Gabor and Carolyn Banfalvi of Taste Hungary.

The Etyek region is a relative baby when it comes to wine making. It got its start in 1990, and wines from this region are notoriously high in acidity. We began our day at Kattra Pinceszet winery, just off the main drag. Here, we sampled a chardonnay, pinot grigio, olasz (Welsh) riesling, pinot noir rosé, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon. The tasting room was set ablaze by a rather charming fireplace, but that was really all that set any of us on fire at this winery. The wines were okay, but they paled in comparison to those we’d find later in the day.

After closing the door on the first winery, we continued up the hill towards Hernyak Birtok. WHAT a winery. For those of you in California who are imagining a cavernous-like structure with enough room for your graduating high school class, well, that’s not what this was at all. Upon arriving and surveying the menagerie of cats and dogs that roamed about the property, we were whisked downstairs with glasses to the most charming barrel-lined cellar to start our tasting. Here, the winemaker would extract the wines from the barrels by mouth and fill our glasses with his handmade love.

Hernyak Birtok is an artisanal winemaker that employs relatively minimal technology. They specialize in late harvest wines, and only net about 12,000 bottles per year. Some are sold in hotels in Budapest, but most are sold directly from their winery and you have to drive there to get your hands on the prize. “Birktok” means “estate” in Hungarian, and while their property wouldn’t conjure up images of anything Kardashian-like, their “pajama vineyards,” as they call them, are unequivocally charming and breed unrivaled wines.

We ate an amazing lunch here of porcini mushroom soup, gnocchi-like potatoes with a dill sour cream (I avoided much of it, naysayers), pork knuckle with a white carrot confit, and a corn bread dessert with fruit and homemade whipped cream. This was all compliments of their son…the chef in this undisputed family affair. The wines at Hernyak Birtok were first class, and we sampled a sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, grüner, cuvée of pinot noir and chardonnay with sauvignon blanc added later, and a pinot noir. All were divine, and Kattra’s wines didn’t hold a candle to what we had here. In the background, Bijou, their dog, wrestled with one of their cats in a chair adjacent to the fire. It was like being at home…only thousands of miles away.

After begrudgingly packing up and saying bye, we made our way to winery #3: Kezes-Labos. It took a bit of an effort to find it among the rows of storage cellars, but when we did, Carolyn and I both agreed that the narrow, rock tasting room shaped like a barrel was a lovely respite from the intermittent snow. Sure, the winemaker may have been a bit rough around the edges, but he had us laughing with his method for drinking palinka, a Hungarian apricot brandy. “You take it as a shot, and make sure to breathe it out, and that’s how you don’t get drunk.” Hmmmm. The jury’s still out on that one, sir, but the rest of your wines, a really sweet late harvest chardonnay and a regular chardonnay, were quite good.

To finish up our day, we nestled in at Rokusfalvy Fogado, a restaurant, tasting room, and bed and breakfast that weren’t all in the same place. We were briefly met by the winemaker here, and learned that after a career in marketing, he opted to pursue his passion and started the winery and restaurant. Sounds familiar! Being that Etyek is a primarily white wine region, again we sampled a pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, cuvée of chardonnay, grüner and pinot grigio, rosé, but also a first vintage pinot noir from 2008. They were magnificent, and paired nicely with the pinxtos his chef prepared for us.

I got more than my fill of Hungarian wines today, but only tackled a small wine region that was easy to reach from Budapest. As it turns out, there are even more wineries about two hours away from here, so it seems like a third trip to the city is in the cards. You know what they say, “three’s a charm.” So, that settles it. Who’s coming with me?

Taste Hungary

Next stop: Krakow

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