I ALWAYS love the anticipation of visiting a new country and fought the urge to doze bought on by the 6am departure from Aberdeen. Our final descent into Budapest was over a flat, green land.
First thing on the packed two-day itinerary was lunch in Budapest at the Bock Bisztro, owned by the Bock Winery. Four deliciously creative courses later we set off on our journey, heading from the Pest side of the city, over the Danube, through Buda and south towards the vineyards of Szekszárd.
Our two-hour journey took us past agricultural land and field after field of my favourite sunflowers, the flat plain eventually giving way to hillsides of vines.
Our accommodation for the night was at the comfortable Takler Winery and Guest House. Takler is a family-run estate now in its 10th generation.
Szekszárd is a predominantly red wine making region, its microclimates changing from valley to valley, with warm with long autumns for ripening. Some grapes are familiar – Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon with small plantings of Pinot Noir and Syrah. Others may be new to you – Kadarka and Kékfrankos (the Blaufränkisch of Austria). Styles from the region can vary from the soft, light and fruity to the more serious oak aged and broody, but one thing that often shines through is a balance and elegance.
A bumpy drive took us through the vineyards to the top of a hill planted with Cabernet Franc, the heat of the early evening sun sent me scurrying for shade behind the vines. Our hosts for the evening were father and son Ferenc and Andras Takler who took us around their vineyards before heading back to the winery for a tour of the cellar, and of course a tasting of their wines. We soon found out that Hungarian hospitality extends far beyond the nine wines on the tasting sheet as additional ones were added throughout the evening. It's a theme which continued over the next couple of days.
So, if it's Tuesday, then it must be Villány – a town and wine region to the south west of Szekszárd. At the Bock Winery and hotel we were welcomed with a rather good sparkling wine – a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the local grape Hárslevelü. The hotel also hosts a spa with pool, jacuzzi, sauna and steam rooms. Perhaps next time...
A five-minute walk from Bock through the rural town took us to the Malatinszky Winery where we were met by winemaker Csaba Malatinszky. The winery was built in 1997 and for the last three years organic principles have been followed in the vineyard and winery. Previously a sommelier, Csaba spent time working in the Medoc, hence the interest in red wines and therefore Villány.
Five hundred litre Hungarian oak casks are used in the winery as, according to Csaba, "they support the terroir" so the oak is less and the terroir comes forward in the wines. The oak forests are close to Pécs and the resulting casks give more structure and less aromatics on the nose.
We tasted a lovely range of wines over a lunch of bruschetta and osso bucco at the Malatinszky Terrace Restaurant in the town before a short stroll back to the Bock Winery. My room overlooked the vines.
A steep ascent took us to a prime viewing spot over the Devil's Creek vineyards where Bock sommelier Robert Tamas poured us a refreshing Bock Rosé 2010 and then a rare treat, the nearby Bock family cellar was opened up to us and from the depths Robert extracted a 1992 Portugueser, a 1997 Cabernet Franc and a 1991 Bock Cuvée (the estate's first Bordeaux blend). The labels may have started to fade but the wines were going strong.
Back at the hotel, an array of wines was shown alongside yet another excellent meal and in the company of the genial Jozsef Bock himself.
The following morning, we said goodbye to those at Bock and began the three-hour journey north to the region of Etyek-Buda, the closest region to Budapest. Our final destination before heading to the airport was the Nyakas Winery.
Production here switches to predominantly white wines and I can say that it's a while since I have tried Irsai Olivér!
What a wonderful eye opener this trip was. I have long been a lover of the glorious sweet wines of Tokay in the north east of Hungary but I'm now a convert to wines from across the land. We met with wine makers passionate and forward thinking about their art, tried memorable wines and ate locally sourced, skilfully prepared food. I do love my job!