Hungarian Wines Are Getting Their Shot at the Spotlight

John Capone | March 3, 2016 | Story Wine and Spirits

Decades of Communist rule didn’t kill Hungary’s centuries-old winemaking tradition, but the country’s reputation for mass-produced, sickly sweet wines nearly did. Today, however, that’s finally changing: Thanks to sommeliers and wine buyers eager to introduce “new” bottles to their customers, Hungarian wine is enjoying newfound respect on the well-vetted lists of restaurants like the Progress, Petit Crenn, Lord Stanley, Octavia, and the Slanted Door, and occupying hallowed shelf space at institutions like Bi-Rite and Bay Grape. “What’s most encouraging is that many of these wines don’t linger on lists; they move and get reordered,” says Eric Danch, a sales manager with California-based importer Blue Danube Wine. “We’re seeing this in numbers; there’s undeniable growth. This year, we’re bringing in at least eight brand-new producers.”

For better or worse, Hungarian wine is often equated with sweet tokaji aszú. Although the wine can be sublime, it can also be a cloying, saccharine mess. And, more to the point, it’s just a small fraction of what Hungary has to offer. Since Communist control—which extended to wineries—ended in 1989, a number of thriving boutique producers have sprouted. “Where Hungarian wines were once relegated to the ‘other European’ section,” says Danch, “now a furmint or kadarka is included in the ‘by the glass’ section next to chardonnay and zinfandel. Buyers seem to have more confidence, which is passed on to consumers.”

When Flora Gaspar, owner of North Beach’s Da Flora, first traveled to Hungary in 1977, she fell in love with a local, unlabeled red that she found at a lakeside tavern. But when she reached Budapest, similar bottles were nowhere to be found, and she realized that the wine she’d loved amounted to a bootlegger’s product. After Communism’s fall, “small estates were returned to families,” Gaspar says. “New owners arrived who were interested in reviving fine regional wines, and quality returned.” Decades after her first attempts, Gaspar says, today “I can serve Hungarian wine with pride.”

Jeff Berlin, the wine director at Rockridge’s À Côté, is also a longtime Hungarian-wine booster. When the Mediterranean restaurant opened 15 years ago, Berlin had scant options from Hungary. So he poured sweet tokaji and bikavér (“bull’s blood”), a dry, tannic red. A year or so later, the first dry furmints began to appear. Thanks to Blue Danube, which was founded in 2002, Berlin now features stunners like Eszterbauer kadarka from Szekszárd, which he compares to a “rustic, spicy, floral pinot,” and Zoltán Demeter’s Veres furmint, a white of great complexity and balance.

It’s fitting that these wines have a home in California, because the creation of our premium-wine industry arguably owes a big debt to Hungary. Way back in 1856, Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant who would later become known as the father of California viticulture, settled in Sonoma, bringing his native country’s winemaking tradition with him. A year later he founded Buena Vista Winery; in its vineyards, he planted some of the state’s first fine-wine vines. Eventually, Buena Vista fell into disrepair. But its fortunes changed in 2011, when Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of the Boisset Collection, bought the old stone winery; in 2012, it produced its first bottles in four decades. When Boisset talks about its restoration, which was completed in 2015, it sounds almost as if he’s talking about the reputation of Hungary’s wine industry. “The building was on the verge of collapsing, but we completely retrofitted it to preserve it for today and for the future,” he says. “It’s so exciting to see it all come to life again!”

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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