Most people we met en route to Hungary darted straight for Budapest, the capital city. Our engagement anniversary date is July 13th….. and we wanted to do something special in the wine country. Why? Because we were engaged at Matanzas Creek Winery in their beautiful lavendar gardens. Well, that’s easy! We will just swing by St. Stephen’s (10th century) town of Eger. But seriously, this is not a straight forward destination from places like Zdiar, Slovakia. Christie found the best route, which took over six hours and consisted of a bus to Poprad, train to Kotice, train to Fuzesabony, and train to Eger.
Eger feels like a cross between Mikulov and Olomouc in the Czech Republic. It has Olomouc’s vibrant university scene meshed with tons of historic buildings. Add wine country, thermal baths and there you have Eger. Eger’s wine tourism brings an older “cafe crowd” very much like Mikulov. So, if you’re not in school and have some time….. Eger could be perfect for you!
Immediately upon arrival, we started having issues with communication. “Magyar” is a very unique and difficult language to understand. It is of Uralic origin and shares a few hundred words with Finnish and Estonian. In other words, we played Magyar pictionary with a few folks. Similarly confusing, the Forint currency yields 232/1 USD. We quickly learned that their coins are king. Most interestingly, a few people voluntarily talked about their dislike for Romania. Brett has been there a few times and we plan to visit Bucharest & Transylvania next week. Sure enough, Hungary is only 30% of what it was pre-WWI. Transylvania was a huge part of Hungary and now a topic of bitterness.
Wine Tasting Experience
In celebration of our engagement, Christie handpicked several wineries to visit around Eger. We had also discussed visiting Tokaj, which is known for its dessert wines. Eger is one of 22 wine regions throughout Hungary and best known for its red Egri Bikaver. Tourists are told to visit the “Valley of Beautiful Women” where locals pour traditional varietals straight from their cellar barrels. She realized that the best winemakers were not in this area.
Our first stop was Koporos Boraszat Winery (20,000 bottles/year) about 3km outside Eger. We flagged down a taxi on the street to later find out that this behavior is very strange. Locals always call ahead of time to book taxi transport. Tomas & Monika greeted us warmly with a nice Rose. We talked a bit over sheep and cow cheese before touring the cool cellars. Tomas showed off his necklace with an outline of the Hungarian territories prior to WWI. Favorite reds include the popular Kadarka, Kékfrankos and the famous Egri Bikaver or “Bull’s Blood”. We learned that export is difficult outside of maybe Poland. Koporos was proud to do some business with France. Like Israel’s wine country, we found local wineries searching for new markets in India and China. If only the US could swap a small amount of Mondavi wines for the best of Israel & Eastern Europe!
The “Bull’s Blood” consists of at least three of the following 13 grapes: Kadarka, Kékfrankos (or Blaufränkisch in German), Blauer Portugieser (Kékoportó), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Menoire (known as Kékmedoc, or Médoc Noir before), Pinot Noir, Syrah, Turán, Bíborkadarka and the modern Austrian hybrids, Blauburger and Zweigelt. We tasted and purchased the Superior Egri Bikaver with five varietals. Complex, earthy and spicy is exactly how we like our red wine.
The story behind the “Bull’s Blood” is quite heroic and still a source of national Hungarian pride. Turkish invaders in 1552 took control of Hungaria, except for Eger. Eger was defended from its mountainside castle by 20,000 men. The Turks had an army of over 80,000. The king gave his men red wine to drink during battle. Legend says the Turks were confused and scared by what appeared like vicious red blood all over the Hungarian men’s faces.
Gal Tibor is the youngest winemaker in the Eger Wine Region. He recently took over for his late father whom suddenly passed away during a trip to South Africa. Tibor was obviously thinking about the brand and even changed their label to better match his modern chic style. The wines were good, but the experience was very sterile and lacking the fun personality that we enjoy. Production is at 140,000 bottles/year.
Thummerer Pince is this very high end winery with a huge underground cellar and Friday night tasting dinner. We joined about 25 people from Hungary, Poland and the United States for this event. The host prepared a special vegetarian meal with catfish and vegetables. Their wines were outstanding as we moved from Chardonay to Egri Bikaver to Grappa. The long tasting day ended perfectly as we chatted it up with a few people from the states. It was amazing to experience such fine wine culture given that most wineries are maximum 20 years old. Communism put a swift halt to family tradition, but viticulture obviously continued in discussions at the dinner table.
Things to Do, Sites to See
A major attraction for locals and vacationers is the thermal baths. We spent a few hours people watching around six pools of various temperature. There was even an indoor wave pool where adults and kids alike would play “Iko Iko” around in circles as the water pushed them along. Each pool had its own design and “healing power”. I joke because the pools felt more like a swim club for gossip than some fountain of youth. While swimming around we listened to a music festival with awful local Hungarian rap artists.
Eger Castle has been destroyed several times by the Mongols & Turks. The current rendition was excavated around the Great Depression. Our climb atop the hill provided tremendous views of the cities courtyards, churches and special Turkish Minaret. The Cathedral of Eger was built in the early 19th century with bold Classicist sculptures and pillars. Underneath, lies the “City Under the City” with the Bishop’s wine cellar collection. Well, our evening cellar tour revealed zero wine storage due to issues with water moisture.
Our Cathedral cellar tour was super touristy, but provided seven traditional white Egri Leanyka tastings. Each tasting took place between explanations of the tunnel system used for wine and military purposes. It supposedly went down to -30 celsius, so we made sure to finish up each glass. Speaking of drinking, we became friendly with a nice Hungarian couple named Adam & Nora. They were vacationing and asked if we wanted to go out after the tour.
And soon we learned about the “Unicum” herbal liquor. Almost lost to Communism, the Zwack family entrusted a friend in Milan to keep the original in production. While, the Communists used a different formula in Hungary. The formula consists of 40 herbs and ages in oak. The flavor is closest to a Jagermeister, but with “healing power”. A few shots and a beer later, Adam was climbing statutes in the main plaza. It was like we knew eachother for centuries. Again, some negative feelings towards losing Transylvania to Romania after WWI surfaced. I wondered why my pocket weighed five pounds with coins. Adam explained, “it’s all about the coins” and how Hungarians used to trade wine with the coins. Such a great time and loved every minute of Eger.