The freshly polished white stone of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament gleams in the afternoon sun, unencumbered by the scaffolding that had veiled its grandeur for as long as I can remember. Across the Danube on the Buda side, the colorfully tiled Matthias Church of the Castle District and the intricately carved masonry of the Fisherman’s Bastion glimmer in the light, meticulously spiffed up in recent years. All around, Budapest shines with renewed vitality. The city is practically unrecognizable when compared to my first trips here in the early eighties, when everything seemed gray and the buildings were still pockmarked with bullet holes dating from the ’56 revolution and WWII.
Over the last couple of decades, Hungary has spent billions to rebuild and restore the city, from its underground metro to its high castle turrets. Budapest is once again the beautiful city I imagine it was during the Belle Epoque, when it was known as the Paris of the East.
The wine industry too has not been overlooked in this massive makeover. In the early 1990s, the industry was in post-Soviet shambles. Today, the number of quality producers has grown from a handful of high-profile producers like Szepsy and Royal Tokaji, to dozens, and they have been recuperating great terroirs, rediscovering traditions and exploiting old Carpathian varieties with borderless energy.
The best place to experience the New Hungary is in Budapest itself, where the wine scene has evolved apace. Just 12 years ago, there wasn’t a single serious wine bar in the city.
Now, sophisticated wine bars have popped up across the capital, with well-educated staff trained in the proper serving temperature and glassware for each bottle. A younger generation of Hungarians thirsty for wine culture, coupled with ever-greater numbers of cosmopolitan tourists descending upon the Eastern City of Lights, has further fueled the burgeoning wine scene.
Here is a short list of the best places to drink wine in Budapest.
One of the first wine bars in Budapest, Drop Shop is also among the most serious—a place where you can ask for a “minerally” wine and the staff will give you a knowing wink. Owner Adam Hébenstreit established his shop and importing business in 2010 to capitalize on growing interest in premium wines not typically available in Hungary. It quickly grew to include a wine bar, “so I could pour by the glass what most could not afford by the bottle,” Hébenstreit says. His wide-ranging list is especially strong in Austrian and Italian selections, as well as in small-production Hungarian bottlings. Classics, from furmint to kékfrankos are covered, and Hébenstreit also champions rarities such as csókaszolo, balafánt and feketefájú bajor. He offers a daily-changing selection of 60 wines by the glass, the bottles kept under vacuum seal; his light reds are properly chilled. The limited menu features cheese and charcuterie.
Nearly ten years old, Doblo is one of the original Budapest wine bars, stationed in the heart of the old Jewish Quarter. It’s also among the most welcoming, with exposed brick, elegant chandeliers, a 40-foot bar and live jazz. Two dozen wines by the glass, all Hungarian, change weekly and include hard-to-find micro-producers such as Imre Györgykovács from Somló and Havas & Tímár in Eger. You can pre-order specially themed guided tastings online. Craft beer, multiple types of fröccs (wine spritzers) and premium pálinka (fruit brandy) round out the drink selections; to eat, there are cheese plates, house-made pâtés and charcuterie. Bottles are available to go at 20 percent off the list price.
Located in what the locals call the buli negyed, or party quarter, near the famous “ruin” bars, Kadarka attracts not only hipster merrymakers but also serious wine drinkers, thanks to a list of more than 150 Hungarian wines by the glass—including eight types of kadarka, naturally. Go early to avoid crowds (reservations are recommended) and before lights are dimmed and voices—and disco—reverberate off the concrete floors. Most wines are sourced directly from producers, and not all are hits, but there are plenty of gems scattered throughout (Maurer, Szászi and Kolonics, among others), many of which are available nowhere else in the city. The kitchen offers a full menu, ranging from traditional Hungarian goulash to burgers.
Opened in summer 2018, MyWine is the latest addition to the Budapest wine scene. Two walls of Hungarian wines line the entrance, all available for sit-down or takeout. Spiegelberg, Ráspi, Barta and Kikelet are highlights. The purposely detail-poor wine list, meanwhile, is designed to encourage questions, like “What’s the Lenkey Bombóly 2007 about?” Servers answer by pouring a taste while explaining. Chances are, there will be a winemaker or two hanging about: It has become a new favorite haunt. Small cold plates and probably Budapest’s best artisanal beer selection complete the experience.
Palack (“Bottle”) is one of the few wine bars on the Buda side of Budapest, next to the famous Géllert Hotel and Spa—making it a convenient post-treatment stop for a glass or three. Multiple flights of three 1.5-ounce pours, each featuring a local producer, rotate regularly, complemented by a list of bottles and by-the-glass choices that cover Hungarian name brand producers (Royal Tokaj, Szepsy, Fekete Béla, Heimann) as well as up-and-comers (Laposa, Skizó, Böjt). The menu is mainly cold plates and panini. For a full menu of traditional Hungarian dishes like chicken soup, rare duck breast and roasted goose liver, visit sister operation 0,75 Bistro (1051 Budapest, Szent István tér 6), opposite Saint Stephen’s Basilica in the center of Pest. The wine list mirrors Palack’s.
John Szabo, MS, has been traveling to Hungary since the late 1970s—first to visit relatives, and later to start J & J Eger Wine Co., where he makes kékfrankos with partner János Stumpf. But his day job is writing about wine and researching the world’s best wine bars.
This story appears in the print issue of jan 2019. Like what you read? Subscribe today.