Balaton Wine Festival
Fraser Doherty joins in the fun
Photography: Zsolt Stefkovics
Wednesday 05 January 2022
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Coming from the world of craft beer, as one of the founders of Beer52, I’ve visited fun beer festivals around the world, and had some of the best times of my life at them too. The format is well-loved and familiar: great brewers are invited to pour their brews in a big hall, with some live music and food trucks thrown in for good measure. Selling out months in advance and with merchandise to buy at the end of your session, it is ultimately a successful commercial affair. A chance for brewers and promoters to get together and sell pints of beer and for drinkers to discover their next favourite brewery.
So, being new to the world of wine, I wondered how a traditional wine festival would differ. Heading over to the annual wine harvest festival on the shores of Lake Balaton in western Hungary, I decided to find out for myself. Cycling along country roads, criss-crossing idyllic vineyards, I reached the town of Badascony. What I and my fellow explorers would discover was that there was a more bucolic scene than the typical beer festival you might find in a disused railway siding in Birmingham. Traditional dress and dance were on display, all to be enjoyed with servings of local delicacies washed down with lashings of municipal wine, provided gratis by the town’s wineries.
Community members of all ages as well as visitors from Hungary and abroad all come together at festivals like this one to celebrate the year’s harvest. As we soaked up the atmosphere along with the recent vintage, we find ourselves transported to an ancient land. Giving thanks for the harvest and the bounty of wine it has brought takes on a spiritual, almost quasi-religious tone. Having been cancelled by the pandemic the year prior, guests also said their thanks for this traditional event going ahead once more.
WINEMAKERS ON PARADE
The highlight of the day was sure to be the parade. We stake out our spot on the pavement and as we wait for it to arrive, the anticipation builds. First are the horsemen, drawing attention of the crowd with their whips. Making terrifying cracking noises as they flex their arms, everyone stays well out of the way of the procession. Ancient Hungarian folk songs are performed by choirs in full regalia, interspersed with wineries’ own imaginative floats, dispensing jugs of wine to an eager crowd.
Gunfire can be heard as a band of musketeers draw near, sporting the kind of moustaches that only men with cowboy hats and meter-long rifles can pull off. With a tipsy crowd and the smell of gunfire in the air, the party is just getting started. Flag-throwing, stilt-walking, juggling and all manner of medieval performances entertain the throngs of families lining the road for hours to come.
We find ourselves being led happily into a field, where a stage and tables have been erected, flanked by stalls selling local wines by the glass. A perfect setting to taste our way through the indigenous varieties this region has to offer.
The largest lake in Europe, and extremely beautiful, Balaton is a popular holiday destination in this landlocked country. It also helps to moderate the temperature of the surrounding countryside, creating an ideal climate for viticulture. There are six Protected Designations of Origin, or PDOs, here: Badacsony, Balatonfelvidék, Balatonfüred-Csopak, Nagy-Somló, Balatonboglár and Zala.
Each side of the lake has its own unique micro-climate. Across the water on the northern side is hilly while the western side, where the festival is taking place, is home to extinct volcanoes.
The lake itself also helps the vineyards by reflecting sunlight, creating both humidity and ensuring cooler summers and warmer winters. The soils around the lake are diverse, with different areas having volcanic and basalt soils, while others have loess, red and brown forest soil, limestone, Pannonian sand (from the ancient sea which once covered the area) and marl.
At the fair, we start with most characteristic style of the region: Olaszrizling (also known as Welschriesling) from the winery Varga. Translating as ‘Italian Reisling’, confusingly the grape is neither from Germany nor Italy. It is Lake Balaton in a glass – in the past snubbed by the discerning as a cheap tourist table wine, the good ones like this have notes of mandarin, along with morish minerality and saltiness. Discovering more indigenous grapes like the fruity Ezerjó, fresh and zesty Juhfark and the floral Kéknyelü makes for an enjoyable afternoon.
On stage, the heads of the eminent local winemaking families and other esteemed community members, are paraded with a literal fanfare from a bank of trumpeters. As is customary at such a civic occasion, the mayor in all his finery proceeds to thank a seemingly never-ending list of supporters. A giant display of grapes and vines which has been paraded around town all day on the shoulders of two traditionally dressed townsfolk is presented to the audience as a sort of good luck snack.
Folk music takes centre stage as the evening gets into full dancing-on-tables swing. We drink up the wine and rejuvenate ourselves after this incredible experience with a serving of lángos, a thin and crispy deep fried disc of dough. This delectable little arterial terrorist is coated with pureed garlic and is something of a mainstay of any trip to Balaton and a perfect way to round off our day. Highly recommended.
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