The cellar smelt dry and the chill covered our arms with goose-bumps as we sat on a long wooden bench and listened. The goose-bumps weren’t only from the temperature they were also from the stories being told by Peter, our Hungarian guide, tales of revolution and blood spilt, mingling with the wine that ran over these stone flags.
Festetics castle, in the town of Balaton, Hungary, was refurbished and opened to the public in 2005. It had taken seven years to restore it to its original pre-communist glory, of rich aristocracy and heady wine-making, the quality of which hasn’t been seen since the Russians put bullet holes through the casks in 1944 after the owners fled.
For the peasants installed by the Soviets to produce wine, it was quantity not quality that counted and so Hungarian wine gained a reputation of being ‘rough and ready’ but all that is changing as land is redistributed, maybe not to the original owners but at least the vineyards are going to wine-makers. The Northern shore of Lake Balaton is perfect for wine growing with its volcanic soil full of minerals, and the sunshine reflected back from the lake bathing the vines twice. The volcanic ground stores the heat by day and gives it back out at night so the grapes become sweet, producing a wine with high sugar content. We sat in the gloom and sipped our way from ‘Woodcutters White’ through a special local honeymoon wine to Bull’s Blood and finally to a Parlinka – a strong liqueur to ‘lift our spirits’ before we staggered out into the sunshine.
By instinct now we found ourselves at the door of our hotel, appropriately called Bacchus. The ground floor was a wine museum, wine cellar and a restaurant serving surprisingly tasty dishes such as ‘pig backbone soup with home-made paste’ and ‘sour cabbage spilled with seed-oil’ or maybe tonight, ‘plate wine-grower style garnished’ was what we needed after a heavy afternoon’s wine-tasting.
We rarely had any idea of what we were eating all week but with the quantities of wine it always came with, it hardly mattered. Even a walk in the countryside would feature someone insisting you taste their homebrew after which you wobbled on your way clutching the plastic bottle of the stuff they’d persuaded you to buy for about fifty pence.
Every house had a cellar or a bunker covered in grass attached to it and although few people spoke English, being more used to German visitors, somehow we understood each other after a glass or two, resulting in more tales being told by the serious story-loving locals and not all of them had endings as promising as the wine-makers future.