A Japanese friend I recently met amid the late-summer amalgam of humid heat, mucky air and urban frenzy suddenly assumed a rather wistful faraway look and expressed the desire to get away from the whole maddening throng and disappear into nature.
Most of us sometimes feel that way, but finding those serene, unsullied havens gets harder and harder. Inevitably they’re invaded by the very throngs we’re trying to avoid. They become popular, crowded and noxious, and no longer the great little getaways we once enjoyed snuggling into like a pair of well-worn foot-friendly slippers.
One of the fringe benefits of being a wine lover is that sooner or later the grape sends out its siren call, luring the oenophile to winelands so magnificent that you can’t imagine why no one else is crowding your space. It’s because people who aren’t wine lovers usually gravitate away from where the wine is and go where the crowds are instead.
One needn’t drink wine, however, to enjoy wine country (even though it might help). In so saying, I quietly rejoice in memories of wine-sipping on verandahs facing rolling vine-clad hills basking in the preharvest sunlight, or at cafes overlooking the river with vineyards in the distance. Wine makes the occasion.
Best of all, none of this costs much money. In wine country, wine is affordable, invariably. In any country with a wine tradition, it would be offensive to be a “wine-gouger.” No self-respecting person would stand for it. In a traditional wine culture, wine is so irreducibly a component of daily life that it’s taken for granted.
A singular case in point is Sopron, a small town in northwest Hungary nestled against the border with Austria, about 80 minutes from Vienna by train. Among Sopron’s many distinctions is the fact that it was much favored by Franz Liszt, the renowned pianist-composer. Even without the Liszt link, it must be said, Sopron has much to distinguish itself, and much of that is wine.
The Sopron wine region is not to be missed — with its 1,800 hectares it would be hard to miss it in any case. It lies at the foot of the Alps in an area with mild winters, cooler summers and more rainfall than the rest of Hungary. Red wine production dominates and the climate makes the wines more acidic and firmer than the norm. Tannin levels, too, are fairly high.
If you’re ready for some red wines with what is often called “backbone,” then you’ll be all the more at home in Sopron with these acidic, tannic, ruby-colored reds. (Hint: Go for the older reds with some aging to soften the acid and tannin and bring out the body.)
As for the Sopron region’s white wines, remember that higher acidity helps make whites fresh and lively. Without this, white wines can be hopelessly boring.
A few minutes from Sopron’s city center by car are a number of good wineries, and just 20 or 30 minutes by car or city bus are some remarkable historic sites and castles including one deservingly described as the “Versailles of Hungary.”
Many Hungarians will tell you that Sopron is their favorite city in all of Hungary, a rather impressive fact when one considers the imposing presence of Budapest, that glorious supercity.
Sopron’s city center itself, easy walking distance from the train station, has numerous architectural attractions and a tourist bureau as well, about 30 meters off the city square. Talk to them. Ask their advice. They’re friendly and helpful, and the bureau itself is fascinating, with its Roman artifacts on display.
Without a doubt. Sopron is one of the most easily accessible towns to navigate in the world, and good wine is everywhere at incredibly attractive prices to boot. Even during high season, prices for hotels and pensions are reasonable, and during the off-season — now, that is — you could have a spiffy, fairly spacious pension room with a private bathroom/shower near the city center for 3,000 yen per night or less.
Near or on the square in Sopron are a number of fascinating buildings: The Fire Tower, the Lutheran Church, the Ursuline Church, the Church of St. George, the Sopron Synagogue and much more. Sopron has architecture and history.
Barely visible beneath a sign on one side of the square opposite the Fire Tower is a cozy go-down sort of bar-cafe run by a cheerful middle-aged couple who serve simple but hearty and delicious Hungarian dishes, Hungarian table wines and various beers. Here, in one of my favorite little dens in Central Europe, one can eat and drink quite a bit for the equivalent of about 500 yen. The hearty a la carte dishes cost about two-thirds of that, and for the remaining third one can buy a liter of fresh table wine. A glass of wine is cheaper than a glass of beer. They’re both so absurdly low priced that it hardly bears talking about.
At one of the better restaurants a family of four can enjoy excellent full-course meals with wine, dessert and coffee or tea for 6,000 yen or less.
Sopron is an Epicurean delight. Of special interest is the fact that gold medal-winning master chef Laszlo Bajan of Gyula Bausz’s restaurant has created an original masterpiece using boiled soybeans and soy flour — and it’s good with wine. It’s less than a minute from Hotel Sopron, a very good hotel, by the way. Nothing in Sopron is very far from anything else. Within the city a 500 yen cab ride can remedy most problems with distance. City buses cost about 40 yen.
Prices in general are attractive everywhere in Sopron. People are spontaneously friendly, as Hungarians tend to be, and no one is out to rip you off. This is a town where what you see is what you get. You’ll love it, and the wine. Find a little time to drink a little wine, perhaps even in Sopron, a great little getaway.
Cheers! Bon appetit!