Hungary has a terroir all its own, with a heart and soul rooted in the small, family vineyards

Less than three hours from Vienna, you are in a very different world of bor (wine): the Badacsony region on Lake Balaton, Hungary. The Badacsony-hegy (mountain – and the Y’s are silent) is a basalt outcrop along the north shore, once a simmering volcano, now a terroir like nowhere else. These are (mostly) white wines with the heft usually reserved for reds, full bodied but mainly dry, with an intriguing, subtle mustiness that you quickly learn to love. Some grapes are special to the region, furmint and olaszrizling (the Austrian Welschriesling), others are the classic sauvignon and pinot gris, and they too have a unique local quality.

Since the Ostblock opened to the West, bigger growers have kitted themselves out for visitors, the old brick cellars scrubbed clean for tastings and spacious terraces looking out over Europe’s biggest inland lake. There are wines from €5 to €30 – just try the wine you’re about to schlep home with a plate of local ham, kolbász (spicy salami) and fresh peppers while you watch (usually becalmed) sail boats strung out across the water.

So far, so conventional. Worth the trip, but you’re into a well-oiled tourist loop. The real thing is in the szölöhegy (vineyards) themselves, the working cellars built into the slopes. The entrance at ground level leads to the working area at the back, a cool cellar where the barrels mature. These are the micro vineyards where little has changed in a hundred years. They remained private through 40 years of state socialism, but still reflect the egalitarianism of the system: bakers and plumbers, bankers and doctors, all are equal when it comes to coaxing the best out of their grapes.

Hungarian Rhapsody

Your correspondent has spent many hours on muggy October days helping out in one of these pincészet (working cellars). It’s hard work: hand-pumping the wooden slatted press, carrying rubber buckets of must to waiting barrels and racing back before the press’ catchment dish over ows. At the end of the day, you are covered from hair to rubber boot in a sticky sugary film. And as the fermentation sets in the acrid fumes are less than appetizing. But just a few weeks later as the wine clears it is all worthwhile, as friends and neighbors come by for long evenings of appraisal that are the social activity of the season.

To get something of the flavor, saunter through the vineyards on one of the volcanic hegy and stop anywhere you see someone busy in and around their cellar. A mix of German, English and sign language is usually enough to convey that you would like to taste and possibly purchase. The wine is drawn straight from the barrel with a hefty suck on the pipette and released in a gush into a jug, coolly greenish and slightly foaming.

Egészségedre! Just be warned: To keep the wine stable through the long, hot summers the alcohol content is serious at 13 percent and may come in 1.5 liter plastic Coca-Cola bottles, the telltale label only partly scrubbed off. Still, it tastes just as good – long live the post-socialist market economy!

Getting There

Take the A2 out of Vienna, the A3 to Sopron, join the Hungarian Route 84 to the end, then left on 71 to Badacsony. About three hours.

A Typical big Cellar with Tastings and Restaurant

Laposa Domains 8261 Badacsonytomaj, Bogyai Lajos u. 1 Mon-Sun 11:00-19:00 (+36) 207 77 71 33 bazaltbor.hu

Other Places to Visit

The charming Tihany Peninsula, jutting out into Lake Balaton.

Tapolca, a provincial town with clashing remnants of baroque and socialist architecture.

Sümeg, a fairy-tale castle right on Route 84 about half an hour before you get to Badacsony.

Hévíz Spa, a thermal lake with water lilies and fish for company.

Káli Basin north of Balaton, where Attila gathered his hordes before storming Europe.

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English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.