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Wine on the Danube
By Robert Whitley
May 14, 2013
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BUDAPEST, Hungary – Upon my arrival in the beautiful capital of Hungary, often described as the Paris of eastern Europe, I planted my travel weary bones on a bar stool at the swank Le Meridien hotel in Pest and told the bartender I would like a glass of dry white Hungarian wine of his choosing.

For one thing, I couldn’t even begin to pronounce most of the names of the wine producers I saw on the hotel’s list of wines. There was that and the fact that my previous exposure to Hungarian wine had been limited to the occasional sample of this country’s revered dessert wine, Tokay, and the dry white Furmint from the same region within Hungary.

I had just arrived in the city, it was late and I believe the bartender was happy to have an audience on a slow Sunday night, for he proceeded to set out four wine glasses in front of me. He then poured small tastes of Furmint, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

He then described each wine in detail and had me taste. I marveled at the quality of each wine, although I confess I was not surprised. Hungary has been making wine for centuries. I would suppose they have it down by now.

What truly intrigued me was the generosity and knowledge of the young bartender.

The following day I took lunch at a small restaurant, Café Kor, near St. Istvan’s Basilica, in the city center near the river Danube. Once again I threw myself at the mercy of a waiter and asked him to recommend the wines to pair with my roasted duck.

To my amazement, he was bursting with information, including esoteric nuances relating to each wine-production zone and the composition of each blend. He suggested a choice between two hearty red wines, so I ordered both. The waiter’s recommendations were spot on, as was his English.

At this point I realized I might be on to something, so I made plans to visit Budapest’s top wine bar, Bock Bisztro, for dinner. The hotel concierge informed me Bock’s was completely booked for the evening, but I took a chance that on a Monday night there might be a cancellation and went anyway.

Bock’s was packed upon my arrival, but I was able to get a small table in a corner, where I proceeded to pore over the list of 60 wines by the glass as a man played Edith Piaf torch songs on an accordion in the background.

I started with a dry sparkling rose wine that could easily have been made in France’s Champagne district. It was, of course, of Hungarian origin. I moved next to a Sauvignon Blanc, mostly to determine whether the excellent Sauvignon from the previous evening had been the exception or the rule.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover the high level of quality seemed to be the rule.

With my main course, a bone-in pork chop prepared Viennese style, I repeated my experiment from the previous evening, ordering four different red wines to taste and compare and learn.

One was an ancient variety called Portugieser, said to have originated in Portugal although no one seems to really know. It was the lightest of the four reds, though plenty sturdy, and reminded me of northern Italy’s Lagrein, with firm acidity and short but sharp tannins and a defining black pepper note.

The waiter organized the wines in the flight according to weight, so he placed a Kekfrankos next in the lineup. Kekfrankos is the same grape variety known as Blaufrankisch in Germany. It was, as I suspected it would be, delicious.

The last two wines were both made from Cabernet Franc, one of them a reserve with more obvious oak influence. I ordered the two Cab Francs because I was very curious about this extremely difficult grape’s compatibility with the climate and soils of Hungary.

Cab Franc in many wine-growing regions yields wines that are lean, herbaceous and often unpleasant. Neither of the Hungarian versions I sampled bore a hint of any of that, and both were wines I would ask for again if only I could order them without mangling the names.

Again, I also was impressed by the knowledge of the waiter and his command of English. This mirrored my experience days earlier in Bratislava, Slovakia, where I spent three days judging wines at the 19th annual Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the world’s largest wine competition.

The capital city of tiny Slovakia, also situated along the river Danube, is charming and cheery. The “old town” district near the river is a largely pedestrian-only zone that is dotted with outdoor cafes serving cuisine every bit as refined as you will find in western Europe, with impressive lists that feature superb local wines.

As in Budapest, virtually everyone in restaurant and hotel service in these two eastern European capitals speaks some English, and most speak it very well, understanding that tourists aren’t very likely to understand or speak Hungarian or Slovak, with their unfamiliar and tongue-tying groupings of vowels and consonants.

Three restaurants in Bratislava that impressed me on the basis of cuisine, service and wine presentation were the casual KOGO and CarneValle and the upscale LeMonde, all in the Old Town.

The cruise down the Danube from Budapest to Vienna is popular with American travelers and is a boon to the tourism industry of the cities along the route. I am pleased to report that not only is the language barrier of no consequence, American tourists will eat and drink very well along the way.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.