Wine Bars of Budapest
It is almost too easy to fall in love with Budapest. The city, resting on sloped hillsides along the Danube, is dominated by a dynamic, unrelenting energy, exuding both history and globalism.
The cuisine hails from all parts of the globe and restaurants can be found on nearly every street corner. Reminiscent of New York City, there are Caribbean curry spots and Iranian groceries sharing the block with traditional Hungarian and Jewish restaurants. And, interestingly enough, more burgers joints than I had ever thought possible.
But of course, there is wine. Hailing from the 22 Hungarian wine regions, wines are gracefully poured as you sit alongside Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica, and other Renaissance and Baroque architecture, built centuries ago. Budapest emits a warm and inviting atmosphere, greeting tourists with art, history and civility. I was immediately smitten.
Yet I’m not alone in my surprising love for the city. Culinary explorers and adventure seekers from across the globe come for a travel experience, yet are unexpectedly embraced by the warm reception of this Hungarian capital, nestled in Eastern Europe.
Budapest has perfected the art of modernity and revolutionary change, by simultaneously embracing globalism and preserving tradition. The city is driven forward by entrepreneurs who demonstrate their humor, artistry and cultural diversity. Lining the city’s bustling avenues, colorful street art fill the gaps on the worn, cracked facades of centuries old buildings.
The juxtaposition of Jewish history and modern skyscrapers reflect the country’s cultural and political upheavals over time. This contrasting dynamism defines the uniqueness of present day Budapest.
From 1949-1989, Hungary was named ‘Hungarian People’s Republic’ and was under Communist, Soviet control. The Soviet state took over the wineries and local businesses, leaving little to offer for the international export market. There were restrictive constraints on any global movement of people or products.
Yet today, Budapest breathes a new life. It is a city wrapped in history, revolution and change. And fortunately, their wines are now getting the global recognition they so desperately deserve.
Budapest encapsulates the revolutionary spirit of eastern Europe, tearing through the constricting communist restraints that had previously held back their progression as an independent, democratic nation.
Budapest is a melting pot in all senses of the term, from the older Jewish neighborhoods serving goose liver and cholent, to the more globally branded restaurants offering steak tacos and sushi. Neon signs glow at all hours of the night, enticing the international throngs of tourists to grab a bite in between sightseeing. The eclectically furnished, brightly lit pubs are a welcome relief on a hot summer day, as they pour up local Hungarian craft brews.
But what I admire about Budapest is that it is still a working city, not just a tourist hub. Walking through the streets of the old Jewish quarter is not an exhausting stroll through the gauntlet of selfies and tour groups. Sharing a train with locals heading to their jobs made the experience feel more sincere, particularly in the older parts of the city. The extensive network of trams and metro trains facilitate movement in the city, allowing both tourists and locals to explore Budapest’s hidden gems.
Every day proved to be a delicious, culinary adventure while each unique encounter proved to be friendly and engaging. In sharing the stories of their upbringing and the country’s history, the entrepreneurs and business owners exuded a pride of the Hungarian culture and the country’s fight for a democracy.
I’ve only spent a short time in Budapest, yet as an expat and wine professional, I immediately felt at home. Eager to ask questions, I was excited to explore and taste everything, as I finally had an opportunity to sample these wonderful, Hungarian grape varietals.
The Wine Bars
The wine bars in Budapest reflect the evolution of the changing wine world in Eastern Europe. They reflect a shift in the culture, one that thrives off innovation, globalism and cultural appeal. From the furniture to the wine lists, each bar displays a marked vision and purpose. Additionally, they provide an outlet to try some delicious, small production wines, some of which are remarkable.
Venues cater to both native Hungarians and tourists, promoting a harmonious integration between foreigners and locals. This welcoming atmosphere easily facilitated lively conversations with the neighborhood regulars, shop purveyors, and winemakers.
The wine lists feature primarily Hungarian wines, categorizing them either by region or by grape varietal. As most of the producers and wines were completely off my wine radar, I did my best to absorb as much information as possible, eager to uncover these mysterious grapes.
Join me as I delve deep into the revolutionary wine bars shaping the Budapest wine culture.
On the Sunday evening of our arrival, we dropped our luggage at the hotel and headed straight over to Doblo wine bar, located in the heart of the Jewish District.
I was initially struck by the bar’s sheer beauty. Doblo reminds me of an exclusive NYC Soho loft, featuring two floors of exposed brick walls, a high ceiling and banquettes lining the bay windows. Oftentimes, a bar like this can feel cluttered, yet Doblo maintained an open air vibe that left plenty of space for the guests to relax and unwind.
The appealing interior design had been outfitted with purpose. It is not a simple task to create this type of atmosphere, where modernity meets tradition. Brightly colored, antique lamps depicting Godzilla are found adjacent to framed reproductions of Frida Kahlo. This contrasting aesthetic displayed a sense of humor, one that reflects the personality of the city. Nevertheless, there was a functional and artistic purpose in its ultimate design.
What surprised me most was the impeccable, attentive service. Upon entering through the doors, we were immediately welcomed by a polite and knowledgeable server, who seemed proud to serve up their local offerings.
We sipped our glasses of Furmint, Hárslevelű and Kékfrankos, while enjoying a delicious plate of jamón serrano and locally sourced cheeses. The day quickly turned to night, as the bar geared up for their nightly live music sessions. An electric and exciting atmosphere, it is a must visit for those who are curious to try some extraordinary wines while surrounded by a piece of colorful history.
Wines To Try at Doblo
Györgykovács Imre ‘Hárslevelű’ Somló 2017 : The wine had a lovely, dandelion yellow color, and a bouquet reminiscent of an aged Chenin Blanc from the Loire. It was rich, unctuous and mineral driven, with plenty of balanced acidity. Hints of pear and white peach were pleasant, yet not overly fruity on the palate. A perfectly integrated white wine to sit and contemplate the day. It was also a perfect match for the almond stuffed olives on Doblo’s meat and cheese plate.
Ipacs-Szabo Birtok ‘Inni Jó’, Villány, 2017 : I was amazed at the complexity and flavors of this red blend, composed primarily of Cabernet Franc. The wine had a dark brick red color, reminiscent of wines from southern Italy. The aromas of black currant and black berry were prominent on the nose, yet the wine had a meaty, savory structure, spiciness, and finely integrated tannins.
Inni Jó bears its name from a rather cute story. After first sampling the wine, the winemaker proclaimed ‘The wine is good to drink.” His younger son then exclaimed “Drink is good!” As the family chuckled at the son’s outburst, they decided to name the wine ‘Inni Jó,” meaning “Drink is good.”
Strolling up Király street, it’s nearly impossible to miss the colorful, outdoor seating and inviting atmosphere of Kadarka Wine Bar. Offering over 100 wines by the glass, it is a delightful jaunt for any wine lover. The comprehensive wine list can seem daunting, even to a wine professional like myself. And although there was a bit of difficulty in terms of pronouncing the names of the producers and grapes, do not fear! The staff are readily prepared to offer personal recommendations and suggestions.
I was floored by the range of vintages, regions and varietals that Kadarka offers on their menu. Never had I experienced an eastern European wine bar with such an extensive “by the glass” list, as the sheer maintenance of this type of inventory is a feat in and of itself. Yet Kadarka made it seem effortless, as each wine we ordered was absolutely delicious.
Sometimes, you have a wine experience that halts time. For me, these moments are rare as I have a tendency to overthink, overwork and overtaste. Yet there are wines out there that create a pensive nostalgia, convincing you to stop, pause and reflect. At Kadarka, that wine was the 2009 Béres “Omlás” Furmint from Tokaji. Deep golden in color, the aromas exuded a mature quality, similar to an aged Viura from Spain. I had never tasted an Eastern European wine like this before. One sip of this wine transported me to another place, one of solitude and calm reflection. It caused me to stop and think, and I couldn’t have been happier.
This was obviously a wine that was in constant evolution, developing exotic aromas and tertiary flavors as it revealed its complex character. Hints of beeswax and shaved almonds morphed into aromas of white flowers and wet stone. The body was both delicate and textured, with a mineral core, bright acidity and an extremely long finish.
Next time you head to Budapest, if you need a moment of serenity, grab a table outside at Kadarka and don’t miss a sip of this irresistible wine.
Wines To Try at Kadarka
Béres “Omlás” Furmint, Tokaj 2009 : As earlier mentioned, this is an incredibly powerful wine, with a rich structure and emerging tertiary flavors. It is not a simple wine by any means, but something complex and thought-provoking. Pro tip: Let the wine open up in the glass before giving a proper evaluation, as a first impression can reveal a closed tightness of the bouquet.
Tüske Cabernet Franc, Szekszárd 2012 : I am a self-declared sucker for excellent Cabernet Franc. Yet oftentimes, the grapes can be picked early or there is inadequate vineyard management, leaving a pyrazine note on the bouquet. This pyrazine, or vegetal note, common in Cabernet Franc, is reminiscent of green bell peppers. Yet this Cabernet Franc from Tüske was absolutely stunning. The wine had a dark, garnet color in the glass, with aromas of violet, black pepper and black currant fruit. It was both smooth and rich, as the bottle age had facilitated the softening of any harsh tannins. The Szekszárd region typically produces heavier red wines, like Cabernet Franc, Kékfrankos and Cabernet Sauvignon and I was eager to sample the region’s offerings. Tüske’s Cabernet Franc was the quintessential example of Hungarian Cabernet Franc : Delicate aromas, soft texture and earthy flavors. It also paired wonderfully with Kadarka’s spicy goulash soup.
Similar to most of our beloved restaurants and wine bars in the world, we happened upon Wine & U completely by coincidence. It was fairly late in the evening, and we were headed back to our hotel from an organ concert at St. Stephen’s Basilica. We decided that it was best to unwind and enjoy a nightcap before slumber set in.
Lazily meandering down Holló street, we heard the strumming of an acoustic guitar and guests chatting away.
We noticed a chalkboard sign, offering wines with personality (my favorite!), and thought to give it a shot. This serendipitous decision may have been one of the best we made during our trip.
As a tourist in a foreign city, Wine & U is one of those rare finds. Typically, afternoons and evenings are passed in over crowded pubs or restaurants, dodging tour groups and desperately trying to get a waiter’s attention. In any city, the true dining gems most frequented by locals can be harder to find.
Yet in wandering the streets late at night, we stumbled upon Wine & U, a bar that combines a female owned enterprise, inviting atmosphere, friendly service, and delicious wines. Perfectly situated on the Pest side of the city center, Wine & U is located on a quiet street away from traffic and tourists.
What sets this wine bar apart from the others is the passion shared by the owners. Szylvi and Tündi are gracious and knowledgeable hosts, eager to share stories and compare wine preferences.
We spoke for over an hour, talking about our backgrounds and our passion for the wine industry. Their curiosity and love for wine is widely apparent in their menu selection.
They exclusively serve wines with a story, as they work with winemakers who share the same passion and love for the industry. It is a must visit for anyone looking for fantastic conversation and even more superior wines.
Wines to Try at Wine & U
Sándor Zsolt Bükki Turan Bükk, 2017- Turan is relatively unknown as a single varietal wine, even within Hungary. These dark blue, thick skinned grapes are typically used in the famous “Egri Bikaver” red blends because of their pronounced purple, inky color. I was a bit hesitant to try it, yet Tündi, the shop owner, proclaimed it as one of her favorites. It was then that she poured me a sample. The bouquet exploded out of the glass with aromas of blueberry fruit, blackberry and juniper. It reminded me of both Malbec and Mencia, as the pronounced blue fruit was intoxicating. The wine was slightly tannic on the front end, yet juicy and acidic on the back palate. It was fresh, funky and interesting, perfect for sipping on a cool summer night.
Lenkey Pincészet Furmint, Tokaj 2010- After one week in Budapest, I learned one thing : Aged Furmint is where it’s at. This 2010 Furmint was fascinating: fresh, bright and lively yet mature and graceful. Aged in barrel for 18 months and then cellared at the winery for 7 years, this is the current release for this family run winery. Aromas of poached pears and white peaches filled my senses, as the palate unleashed a richly complex, mineral texture. Although the golden color was not as deep as some other matured Furmints I’ve tried, the appearance maintained a light daintiness as it danced in the glass. Beautifully integrated acidity led to a prolonged finish. Under 1,000 bottles of this wine made, so hurry up and head to Wine&U to try a glass.
The sights, sounds and tastes of Budapest have instilled a curiosity in me, to discover more about this incredibly diverse, historic region. I look forward to future travels to Budapest and beyond, engaging with those molding and shaping the Hungarian wine industry. Until next time, Budapest!