"They say two million people dwell in Budapest, but only 2,000 live," Attila Tálos tells me, pouring a glass of Hungarian rosé. There's little doubt which category he belongs to. We're lounging in Klassz, the wine bistro Tálos owns, along with nearly a dozen stores, all devoted to Hungarian wine. Bright pop art patterns paper the walls. Outside, a freak sun-shower is turning Budapest into something from the French New Wave. A young woman in a sodden sundress skips past, covering her hair with a newspaper; on cue, a rainbow sprouts across the boulevard. I briefly consider abandoning my mission, which is to visit Hungary's main wine regions and try to make some sense of them. After all, there's enough wine here, right in this room.
In Hungary, there's wine everywherethe funky Furmints of the Tokaj region; the Pinot Noirlike Egri Bikavérs of Eger; complex blends from Villány, Balaton and Szekszárd; and hundreds of thousands of unnamed, unlabeled variations in between. Hungary has always been a country of winemakers. "In almost every family, someoneyour father, your unclehad a small vineyard," Tálos says. "That's how you grew up." But now, more than ever, winegrowing it, making it, drinking it, talking about itis Hungary's singular animating passion. Walking into a Budapest bookstore, I'm not particularly surprised to see a wine sectionnot books about wine, but actual wine bottles. It's a fervor that started in Hungary in the early 1990s, a time when it seemed like anything could happen and everything was a start-up. Family businesses began emerging from the underground. The nameless bottles of the Communist era began acquiring labelsand, along with the higher quality, higher prices.
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Now, the Hungarian wine scene is at the forefront of a broader movement all over Eastern Europe. Over the last two decades in Slovenia, Croatia and even troubled Romania, domestic winemaking has gone from rustic tradition to viable and, in some cases, big business. And what that means for all these countries is the next step: presenting their wines to a world spoiled by wave after wave of high-quality bottlings created everywhere from France to Uruguay. Exactly who or whata producer, a grape, a blend, a countrywill become the former Eastern Bloc's first breakout star is the question everyone here is asking.