Another world under the ground

Wine drinking in Hungary


As one of the top 10 wine drinking countries in the world, wine is undoubtedly an organic part of Hungarian life. Deeply rooted in our culture, it has a special spot in our heart. Though we like “crying parties”, wine is an important gift of God at the times of celebrations as well.

The largest amount of wine per capita disappears in Portuguese throats, and obviously French and Italian people are on the top of the list (source: Académie du Vin Library). Hungary comes in at a decent 6th place with 6.8 gallons per person. However, and rather importantly, this figure does not include the thousands of litres of homemade wine drunk by Hungarians, since they never get to the wine shop shelf; they remain where they were born: in the dark of the underground cellars, consumed by the owner and his guests day by day. The rows of cellars with colourful doors are spectacular, and you can find them in every corner of the country.

How much do we drink? A lot.

There has been a wine renaissance in Hungary since the collapse of the Communist regime: as quality wine making restarted, a generation of keen wine lovers and fancy wine bars appeared, mostly in the cities. Members of the Y and Z generations swirl their posh, perfectly shaped wine glasses in hipster wine bars, but the majority of wine drinkers consume wine for obvious reasons: to get drunk. 

Alcoholism here is a serious problem. 21.2% of the nation is affected by alcohol according to the World Population Review. If you tick wine on your Tinder profile in, for example Spain, you will find a great number of charming amorosos sporting their wine glasses like passionate wine connoisseurs. In Hungary, you might get a different bunch of people: red-nosed boozers standing proudly in their mouldy, crooked wine cellars. Still, I advise you to pop in a cellar like this in any village; the boozer will explain how important the mould is in the cellar and he will surely offer some glasses of wine free if you are willing to listen to his anecdotes. They might drink a little too much, yet it can be unforgettable to sit on a bench in front of the cellar, listening to the stories from a long gone world, sipping the wine which tastes good then and there – but don’t take it home. Without the ambiance of cellar and maker, it might be undrinkable. 

Heavenly nectar – or sugary liquid

Wine plays such an important role in Hungarian souls, that it is mentioned even in our national anthem:

“And let nectar’s silver rain

Ripen grapes of Tokay soon.”

The nectar in the text refers to Tokaji Eszencia, an ancient style of natural sweet wines in the world famous Tokaj wine region. However, the general palate is not for the elaborate dessert wines of Tokaj, but for cheap, sugar-added white or red wines. The reason behind this is the mass production attitude of the Communist era; low quality, mass produced wine could easily be made more acceptable by adding some sugar. 

After the changing of the regime, when wine culture started to bloom, wine missionaries had to be patient with the crowds demanding their usual, wishy-washy sweet reds and explain why it is worth discovering the unmasked dry wines. Things have gotten much better, wine tasting events are abundant with quality producers pouring their wines and gradually the generation of sweet red lovers will pass the glass to the more educated and more curious wine enthusiasts.

Gloomy Sunday

Speaking of the anthem, we must accept that the Hungarian anthem is one of the most melancholic ones with lyrics and melody of pain and misery. It tells the story of our ill fate throughout history and it makes everyone cry, not only the champions on the podium. We are great at being sad; just think of Gloomy Sunday, a song composed by Rezső Seress in 1933. The song was so endlessly sad that several people chose it as background music for their suicide, not only in Hungary but after the English version was published, all over the world – though the whole story might be urban legend. 

Sadness is something deeply rooted in our soul; we even have an expression to admit it: “Sírva vigad a magyar”, something like “Hungarians love crying when cheering”. But don’t be afraid: most of us will do with a pinch of sadness, and love laughing and having fun just like any other folks in the world.

A great deal of wine waters the dry throat of the hard working cook

One for the bowl, one for the cook

A great example of our happy face is the love of cooking outside on an open fire in a cauldron. Goulash, stew, fish soup – there is one thing in common: a great deal of wine waters the dry throat of the hard working cook, who usually gives a generous pour to the meal as well. Kékfrankos and Kadarka, the two most important indigenous black varieties go well with traditional Hungarian dishes seasoned with paprika, and to kill time until the meal is ready (a big portion of beef stew may take more than three hours). We drink plenty of white wines; the aromatic local grapes – Irsai Olivér, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Sárgamuskotály, Királyleányka – are especially popular. Family gatherings involve wine drinking, too, though “pálinka”, the national spirit of distilled fruit also plays a significant role. 

The Unpronounceable

Once a Hungarian white wine was labelled as “The Unpronounceable” on the UK market. A superb marketing idea – it definitely made the wine more approachable for British wine drinkers at the time. Or would you rather pronounce the name of the grape of the wine in question? Give it a try, it is made of “Cserszegi Fűszeres”. 

Well, our language is strange and unique, it does not belong to any other language families, no one understands us including our neighbours (Austrians speak German and in all the other neighbouring countries a Slavic language is spoken except for Romania, which belongs to the Latin language family).

Did you know that the word “wine” is something similar in every European language, except for the Greek, the Basque and the Hungarian? “Bor” is easy to pronounce, unlike the Hungarian equivalent of “cheers”, which is another tongue twister. You can measure the alcohol level by saying “Egészségedre”. If you can say it, don’t worry, you haven’t drunk too much yet.

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