Being one of life's great cheapskates, I decided against hiring a car and took a two-hour â‚¬6 bus ride out of Budapest to Eger, the historic wine region of Hungary. This was a decision I would later regret.
A formidable Neanderthal lumbered onto the already full bus. He could easily have been the world's most terrifying human. He lunged passed, grunted then looked back at the empty seat beside me. I felt a stab of despair when he returned and oozed himself into it.
Immediately he sat down he began thrusting biscuits into his beard, which evidently found his mouth.
The bus fired up and inched out of the city. It was so hot and airless that even the flies lay down on their backs and just quietly gasped. I prodded the driver and asked that he turn on the air conditioner. Evidently it had only one setting "“ hot.
Within a few miles my neighbouring caveman's head began to bob and weave dangerously. Soon he settled down and buried his chin on his chest and mired himself in a cobweb drool from beard to belt-buckle. I, on the other hand, was pinned up against the window. My leg became so hot I could hear the cellulite crackle.
The curious stares of three open-mouthed children woke him in the end. His wild flailings sent them fleeing with shrieks at the discovery that the dribbling hulk was indeed alive.
Soon I arrived at my destination, par-roasted, and stepped from the bus into humidity which felt like glue. This was frankly not what I had in mind when deciding to sample some Hungarian wines. I had derived the distinct impression from the brochures that this trip would mostly take place on a veranda somewhere, whilst turbaned servants presented me with an assortment of crystal glasses containing numerous wines for sampling.
Then I saw my guide, Hildi, a short voluptuous brunette, frantically waving at me. She hastened across, excitement evident in her step. We exchanged smiles and greetings and immediately struck off down the road in search of a coffee shop, in order that I may perform a cursory grooming.
We strode through narrow streets and past beautifully preserved Baroque monuments, whilst my enthused guide told me of the regions history.
"Here my ancestors fended off the Turks for the first time during the 170 years of Turkish occupation," she said, waving a hand towards the surrounding gently sloping hills, were fortresses guarded much of Eger's history.
Later we took a cab ride ten-minutes out of town where we were to meet JÏŒzsef Simon, a renowned wine-maker of the region.
Eger, often described as the bastion of wines, comprises of some five thousand hectares of vineyards, all of which lie on the southern slopes of the BÃ¼kk Hills. The Egerians have been carefully tending the vines covering the slopes around the city for near on a thousand years.
We passed through immensely deep-green sloping vineyards, a lushly scenic landscape which spoke of a wine region of world renown.
The cab driver announced that we had reached our destination. I looked about, slightly confused. We had pulled off from the road leading up an embankment; on either side were doorways into the hillside.
"There must be a misunderstanding," I said. "This is not a wine estate."
"No, it's not," Hildi said. "These are Eger's wine cellars."
Eger's forefathers were resourceful. They carved caves out of the soft rhyolite-tuff rock in the hills, where they stored their wines at constant temperatures of around 10-12Âº C.
A giant of a man, ruddy and gruff, thrust a meaty hand at me, shaking it vigorously. His hoarse walrus-type voice welcomed me and introduced himself as Simon – JÏŒzsef Simon.
I stepped through the doorway he indicated into a windowless icy chamber some 3 or 4 metres below the surface. The cellar, some 25-metres in length and 6-metres wide had a dark stone flag-floor and honey-coloured roughcast walls. Trestle tables and benches lined the walls on either side. Towards the rear, dark oak wine vats rested on their sides, one atop another, till they reached the cave's roof, maturing in the restful darkness.
Whilst JÏŒzsef attended to clients, Julia, his wife, busied herself setting the trestle tables for a bachelor party they were hosting later that evening. She claimed JÏŒzsef would educate the party in the finer details of discerning a good wine.
I enquired about the mouldy smell and was told it was the fungus living in the cellar. "Gases develop during the maturation process, this creates mould on the walls, which in turn enhances the aroma of the wine," Julia claimed.
Julia, an immensely good natured soul, had a sweetly unobtrusive manner about her. The trestle table before us soon became a lavish buffet spread with baskets containing homemade breads, platters of goat's cheese, slices of meat, peppers, sticks of spring onion and small tomatoes.
I asked after the hours JÏŒzsef keeps.
"He is in the vineyard most days as the sun rises," Hildi translated. "And he comes home when the sun goes to sleep. He has worked like this since before I knew him."
Contemplating the other aspects of the business, I asked if Julia had any involvement with the daily running of the vineyard. She looked at me with a touch of wonder and smiled.
"My husband, he tends to the grapes and I do the paperwork, orders, sales, transportation and a little cleaning up around the place." Clearly Julia was not afraid of getting her hands dirty and was flirting recklessly with understatement.
I playfully enquired if the vineyard came before all else.
Julia threw her head back and gave a throaty laugh. "The vineyard is my JÏŒzsef's first wife, and her produce, his children. I have grown to accept this. He would not be the man I married if he did not have this secret love."
Her confident gaze and kind eyes betrayed no malice. And I felt she secretly loved the vineyard too.
I caught the eye an elderly gentleman hovering at the cellar's entrance. Evidently he could not decide if he wanted to enter. He walked away then moments later returned, but still chose to hover with intent.
With business now concluded, JÏŒzsef loped across and began the ceremonial opening of the first bottle. I refused politely saying I was only here to interview him and that I would not take up much of his time.
"Nonsense," he growled. "We cannot speak with the dry mouth." We all nodded in agreement. A small cry of pleasure escaped me when the bottle finally released the cork.
The first taster was Pinot Gris "“ a crisp white, with an extremely fruity nose and a body revealing a fresh palette.
"Hungary’s wine growing traditions date back centuries", JÏŒzsef claimed. "But the long period of Soviet domination took a serious toll." He nodded gravely then took a sip of wine and grew momentarily thoughtful. "New investment and renewed enthusiasm for quality is now bringing the Hungarian wine industry slowly back into the international spotlight," Hildi translated.
A further traditional uncorking revealed a new Chardonnay, light-gold in colour and fragrant in layers of vanilla, melon, and citrus, yet slightly acidic.
JÏŒzsef educated me in Eger's winemaking history and explained that Viticulture began in the region as early as the 11th century, when monks in the bishopric of Eger brought grapes indigenous to their own country with them into Hungary. The knowledge of cultivating vines and wine-making was added to by the Walloons who settled in Eger following the Mongol invasion of Hungary (1241-42). The cultivation of wine was not interrupted even during the Turkish occupation, since wine was an important source of income for the Turks. But after they had been expelled from the region, wine-growing began to develop again.
JÏŒzsef gestured at the still hovering figure in the doorway to come down and join the table. He was introduced as Alex, a rugged and amiable fellow, with a leathery complexion and a shock of white festive hair. We swapped smiles. He had brought his own wine glass which he ceremoniously placed before JÏŒzsef.
"Alex is a neighbouring wine farmer; my competitor in fact. He heard that a journalist was interviewing me and wants to hear what is being said," JÏŒzsef smiled. "His wines can all but aspire to be equal to mine," Hildi translated. This statement evoked a lively exchange between JÏŒzsef and Alex, which ended in raucous laughter and a private toasting.
A superb merlot appeared "“ a luscious, deep ruby colour with a ripe, spicy aroma and an intense pallet of black cherries and plums, with a hint of coffee. "This," claimed JÏŒzsef, "is an excellent accompaniment to spicy foods."
Evidently this statement cheered Alex who pootled off somewhere but soon returned with a cast iron pot of rabbit stew, which precipitated the opening of JÏŒzsef's flagship wine 'Don Simon' which won an award in 2000. The Don is an intense, vivid crimson, with a smooth fruity bouquet and wild spices on the palette.
The table began babbling excitedly. Hildi noticed my stupefied expression and explained that this was how things happened in Hungary.
I drew JÏŒzsef back into our discussion and heard further how, over the past decade, the wine growers of Eger demonstrated both at home and abroad that their wines are equal to the challenge of foreign competitors.
"The spice, fire and relatively high acidity of our red wines typify's the celebrated BikavÃ©r (Bull’s Blood). This is why local wine-growers put most of their energies into producing it," Hildi translated.
As he was uncorking a bottle of BikavÃ©r, JÏŒzsef told one of the many Bull's Blood tales. "It was so named because the invading Turks thought our fearless soldiers' red stained mouths and moustaches were as a result of drinking the blood of bulls, which was where they also thought the Hungarian's gained their strength in battle. But of course, our soldiers knew the perils which lay ahead and took the sensible precaution of anesthetizing themselves with several glasses of Hungary's best red wine before going into battle."
Bull's Blood is an intense ruby blend with a characteristic spicy bouquet which comes after years of ageing in wooden casks. It's definitely a rich masculine wine, slightly sweet yet acidic, with a dry palate, and a warm mature velvety taste, and like its creator, full bodied and well rounded.
JÏŒzsef told that this wine was made from grapes found only in the Eger wine region, and owes its distinctive flavour and aroma to the special climatic conditions and the volcanic soil. Its distinctive character results from the blending of several grape varieties, combining, for instance, the full-bodiedness of the Blaufrankischen, the spiciness of the Cabernet Sauvignon, and the velvetiness of the Merlot; then harmoniously aged in oak casks.
It is rightly said that Eger's BikavÃ©r stands among its fellow red wines like a deeply glowing, blood-coloured ruby in the centre of a coronet adorned with brilliant gems.
JÏŒzsef felt sure that Eger's wine region ideal for quality wine-growing.
"The fame of Eger's wines are due to many factors affecting the area," JÏŒzsef pointed out, "the protection of our southern slopes, for example, enables the grapes to ripen well, which makes for good sugar-acid proportion."
I contemplated the cheerful party sitting at the table before me; a wine-farmer irrevocably committed to his calling, with an industrious wife by his side, the neighbouring farmer who was undeniably influenced by his friend's knowledge and my spirited guide, evidently hard-wired into a virtual encyclopaedia somewhere. Even though we needed to communicate via an interpreter, we did so with a curious lack of urgency. I found this immensely reassuring. Perhaps it was the informal atmosphere. On reflection though, I realised it was the renowned Hungarian hospitality.
My 15-minute interview had turned into a 3-hour celebration of Eger's excellent wines. And so, under an azure sky and baking sun we said genuinely fond farewell to one another.
As the cab reached the bottom of the hill, I turned to look back at the three figures standing beside the road, still furiously waving.
The bus drive back to Budapest was more agreeable, partly due to the empty seat beside me and a working air conditioner. I wondered vaguely what became of the Neanderthal, then quickly dismissed him from any further thought.
I recall JÏŒzsef's words when he spoke of his experiences under communist rule. "When I was a child I had to learn Russian. There was no other choice. Now my children can learn whatever they please and can travel abroad. Under socialist rule we could apply to travel outside of Hungary only once every three years. Our family motor vehicle was a common socialist car, the two-stroke Trabant. We had never heard of Michelin tires "“ in the socialist era, everything was Russian, there were no names."
When asked after his views of Hungary joining the European Union he contemplated my question for a while. "The change has been costly but I can already see positive changes. Soon, I hope, international wine-connoisseurs will visit Hungary and come to Eger and experience the elegance and harmony of our wines."
Personally, I wish they could bottle their incredible hospitality – their wines are but the pillars which rest on it.
Eger is proud of her wine heritage and has a rich programme of events throughout the year celebration her station in life.
Other than art festivals, folk programmes, and youth entertainment, which run throughout the year, Eger also has wine gastronomy programmes like the Feast of the Egri Bikaver on St Donat's Day in July, and the wines of the region presented for tasting in August, and the new wines which are placed on the Basilica's altar on December 27th then consecrated, closely followed by a wine tasting on December 29th-30th.
Photography by Cindy-Lou Dale