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Hungary's Surprising Wine Culture

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I was looking forward to Hungarian beers and visiting various pubs on my trip to Budapest this past summer, but what I hadn't expected was a country with an intense wine culture.

I don't even like wine -- the white is often too sweet for a girl with a beer preference and the red is too potent. Like rubbing alcohol. When I showed up at Schiessl restaurant with my Contiki group, however, it was hard not to get into the spirit of the moment when huddled in an ancient wine cellar with a translator proclaiming the merits of the local vineyards.

Wine was actually introduced in Hungary by the Romans, and the area was well-known for its vineyards until World War II devastated the country (hence why I wasn't expecting so many delicious varieties). But over the last couple of years, Hungarian wines have been winning international titles and taking the world by surprise.

The closest wine region to Budapest is the Etyek-Buda wine region and at various wineries (like Rokusfalvy Winery) you can opt for a wine tasting and tour combo, often matched with dinner.

But some of Hungary's best wines come from the foothills of the Zempien Mountains, in the north. With long, warm autumns that contribute to perfect "noble rot," the botrytised grape grows abundant. The wine here is aged in small barrels in cellars in soft volcanic tuff, where fungus on the walls regulates humidity.

If you're a white wine junkie, check out the Transdanubia Region where you can find Chardonnay, Olaszrizling, Riesling, Suavignon Blanc, and more. The Balaton Region is where you go for the stronger elixirs, with full-bodied whites in high acidity (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon among them). Another region of interest is the Tokaj, famous for its sweet wines and because it has the world's oldest classifications system.

But if you want a real taste of the Hungarian stuff, head to the North and visit Eger, the maker of authentic Bikaver (Bull's Blood). Winemakers here work hard to keep the original untainted by its cheap copycat counterparts found throughout the country, so if you're buying, look for the Eger label.