Arriving in Budapest from Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, in the early 1990s, I struggled to find drinkable wines. Since then, I have witnessed the evolution of Hungarian wineries and winemaking techniques, the opening of the first wine bars and a boom in wine culture in general. Hungarians are proud of their wines, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its capital city, which today offers visitors a wealth of options when it comes to wining and dining well. Here is my pick of the best..
There are a good number to choose from, but just a few merit a visit, in my opinion. In every Budapest wine bar you can expect something cold to eat with the wines, mainly spreads and dips, a cheese platter or some ham. Bottles are always on sale to take away too.
- Balassi Bálint u 27, 1055
‘There’s always a message in the bottle’ My personal favourite. Why? Because it’s one of the oldest on my list. Hungarian and international wines are served by well-trained staff who are always on hand to tell a story about the wine or the winemaker, or just to have a chat. They serve a very good cheese plate too, occasionally with well-matured French cheeses. During the bar’s decade-long history, it has become the importer for some of its producers. I particularly like its Austrian selection.
- Basilica: Szent István tér 3, 1051
- Gozsdu: Király u 13, 1075
‘The new face of Hungarian wine’ Visit one of DiVino’s branches to meet the members of Junibor, a small group of young Hungarian winemakers (bor means ‘wine’ in Hungarian). The members change every month, but are all sons and daughters of well-known winemakers, who have emerged as talents in their own right. The wine bar concept keeps the focus on their wines, with a minimalist design and standardised service. You can find two branches in Budapest (my personal preference is the Basilica, with its terrace), one nearby at an upmarket artificial beach club and three in the countryside. Hire your glass and go to the bar to get it filled and to meet a young winemaker.
- Király u 42, 1061
‘Try Hungarian’ A very simple bar with multi-coloured tables. This is the place to go for a deep dive into lesser-known Hungarian winemakers’ sometimes very impressive wines. The wine selection is fairly priced and extensively covers the 22 wine regions of Hungary – and a bit more. You can taste 144 wines by the glass. This is a real bistro with delicious hot dishes. Don’t miss the spritzers (fröccs in Hungarian), with their many different wine/soda water ratios.
- Káplár u 19, 1024 (corner of Lövőház u)
‘A young and fresh approach’ Established by a young sommelier with limited resources, this place has been a resounding success. He and his sister made the decision to open Kóstolom (it means ‘I taste it’) outside the expensive city centre, in a pedestrianised area within the more residential enclave of Buda. Its busy calendar features tastings and masterclasses, and has helped it to earn a serious reputation, among locals and the expat community in Budapest. About 30% of the list is international – and well-chosen; as for the local wines, Lake Balaton is the focus, but you can find every wine region and all varieties represented. The team is very strong on communication, even offering its PR and marketing services to emerging wineries.
Paying a sommelier is an investment that not every restaurant can afford to make. Some wine-loving restaurateurs create their own wine selections to reflect their own tastes, and there are now a few ‘flying sommeliers’ who offer their services to smaller restaurants to help them maintain interesting wine lists. The latter is an intriguing experiment, but it’s too recent a story to comment on the results. For now, the most dependable wine lists are in fine-dining restaurants.
- Restaurant: Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út 78, 1055
- Wine & Skybar: Deák Ferenc u 5, 1052
Owned by St Andrea Winery, one of the best producers of the Eger region, these two venues mostly promote St Andrea wines. There are two generations at the helm of the estate, and there is a real difference between the wines of György Lőrincz and those of his internationally trained son. Their restaurant offers upscale bistro food, while the rooftop bar in the city centre is designed along the same lines, but jazzed up with great cocktails and stunning views of Budapest.
- Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel, Széchenyi István tér 5-6, 1051
Located in one of the world’s finest hotels, this is a top-quality restaurant that would be at home in any major city. Wine connoisseurs will appreciate the fine balance between the best Hungarian wines and the best-known labels from around the world. The food reflects the same logic: wonderful dishes prepared with finesse and professionalism. http://kollazs.hu
- Sas u 3, 1051
Recently Michelin has shifted its award policy, granting stars to more accessible, bistro-style venues. This restaurant is one of them. Of course, the food is at a very high level, and the wine list follows suit. Service is easygoing and friendly, and the Champagne offer is decent, too. If you are not lucky enough to secure a table, head to its sister restaurant, Textúra, just across the street.
- Piarista köz 2, 1052
Nothing is usual at this restaurant, which finally earned a Michelin star in 2019. There’s a winning formula of high-quality international dishes, simply prepared using Transylvania’s finest produce. The 200-strong wine list is a break from the norm, focusing on natural wines from the Carpathian Basin.
- Székely Mihály u 2, 1061
A one-star Michelin restaurant with fine tasting menus featuring local produce, paired with a huge wine list. Almost every Hungarian wine region is showcased at a reasonable price, with a special emphasis on Hungary’s most celebrated sweet Tokaji wines. There’s a good selection of Champagnes, too.
I highly recommend Bortársaság. It has several shops around Budapest and represents almost all the best Hungarian winemakers. It also sells online (with English translation). Veritas, has a store in Budapest, and is a wine bar and bistro as well. Some small independent stores offer good picks too, but I suggest you stick to the wine bars and outlets recommended here.
Csaba Harmath is a wine educator and restaurant consultant based in Budapest. Born in Hungary, he spent several years in France, where he fell in love with wines and gastronomy, before moving back to Hungary in the 1990s