|Eger's 'Valley of the Beautiful Ladies' - where the wine literally runs down the streets!|
|The Valley, from afar.|
Wine production in Hungary has had its ups and downs. The Romans introduced vineyards here and in the 10th century the first Christian monastries quickly turned their hand to viniculture. The influx of techniques and grape varieties from people fleeing the Ottoman empire in the following centuries - especially Serbs and Romanians - resulted in a diversity and quality of wine that peaked in the 19th century. This is when the Hapsburg empire sourced the tipples of the upper classes of Austria and Russia from Hungary. But then disaster struck: first the phylloxera aphid caused a wine blight that devastated European vineyards, and especially those in this area of Hungary. Then the First World War and the subsequent Trianon Treaty reduced Hungary's borders by over two thirds, meaning many of its chief vineyards were now officially in neighbouring states. The Second World War meant many vineyards were abandoned or destroyed, and when the Russians took over in 1947 they collectivised the wine industry. Every peasant received three hectares of land, but without the skill and knowledge of the large vineyards, these soon fell into disrepair. Wine production was forced to meet Soviet quotas and this had a disastrous effect on the quality. In Tibor Fischer's novel 'Under the Frog', set during this period, the quality of the Hungarian wine is reflected in a bar that is called 'You Can Even Make Wine From Grapes'. But the fall of the Iron Curtain and especially the entry to the European Union in 2004 reversed Hungarian wine's fortunes.
|Cellar 20 - Greg Haz|
Evidence of this is everywhere in Eger. Most restaurants only serve wine from the region, and the diversity comes from the array of vineyards (over 200) and the blends of grape varieties. The Valley itself (named after a fertility goddess and her followers) houses a huge range of cellars - some that exceed those of the Loire in terms of product, decor and the expertise of the staff. Others are a little more 'rustic' and unpolished.
|Kulacs Csárda Panzio - charming with excellent food and wine.|
We begin by lining our stomachs for the vini-frenzy to come. Kulacs Csárda Panzio has variable reviews online, but I find it charming with some top-class wine and food. My partner exclaims that her catfish paprikash - a Hungarian staple - is the best she's ever tasted, and the cheese board starter outclasses Michelin-starred restaurants in Budapest with both quality and range of the cheeses included. The Bulls Blood wine that I have to accompany my goose leg is also one of the tastiest variations that I have over the rest of the afternoon's tastings.
|Kulacs Csárda's interior.|
Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood) is the most famous wine from the Eger region. It's made from a mix of grapes, so every cellar and every bottle could be completely different to the one you last tried. The name is mythically associated with the famous battle against the Ottomans. It is said that during the siege, Dobó poured all the wine the defenders had stored into one vat (hence the mixing of grapes) and then fed it to his soldiers to 'inspire' them to ride out and take on the Turkish hordes. The (sober) Ottomans saw the Magyars bearing down on them with red-stained beards and spread the rumour that their foes were drinking bulls' blood to give them strength for the battle. Whatever the truth in this, the name has persisted. And the wine is delicious - at least in the first three or four cellars we visit. Magister (Cellar 39, named after the university dean who co-owns the vineyard) and Kiss Kristina (Cellar 37) are particularly lovely with friendly, knowledgeable staff. Here, they explain exactly what grapes have been used in their Bikavér blend, and there is plenty of fruit and spice to swirl around the palate. In terms of white wines, the Egri Csillagok ('Star of Eger' - same as the famous novel about the siege) is a sauvignon-style white, while the Cserszegi fuzszeres (literally 'spiced wine') lives up to its name, dry with a spicy aroma, a bit similar to Gewurtztraminer.
|Glug-glug-glug... at Cellar 37 Kiss Krisztina.|
But wine tasting here is not like in other wine areas across the world where the portions are small and where tasters are even encouraged to spit not swallow. Many of the cellars will give you a (paid-for) full deciliter, so our mini-tour of the various cellars soon becomes an afternoon pub-crawl, all the blends of Bikavér starting to mix in both tummy and head. When I tell a Hungarian friend I am here, she texts me to warn that it is one of the "Black holes of Hungary!". I later ask her what she meant, and she says she was referring to her pre-EU experience where the 'wine' was often little more than meths mixed with grape juice and you really would awake with no memory of the previous few days! The present Valley is far from this, but glass after glass does take its toll.
|The hostess of Cellar 2 shows off her decanting skills.|
|The 'Beautiful Lady' herself bids us farewell.|
Then, glowing with wine-generated warmth against the cold evening, we walk back to town, past the stained red tarmac of the carmine river that first greeted us.