I WAS asked by an American wine journal recently to compile a list of my ten favourite wine books. I included three or four that I use for reference, and the same number of interesting antiquarian books. I included as tenth The Philosophy of Wine, by Béla Hamvas.
Hamvas was a Hungarian philosopher whose work was banned by the Communists. He wrote this “prayer book for atheists” at the end of the Second World War. He said: “I am aware of the difficulty of my task. I know that I cannot even utter the word ‘God’. I must speak of him by using all sorts of other names such as kiss, or intoxication, or cooked ham. I chose wine as the most important name. Hence the title of the book . . . and hence its motto — after all, two will remain, God and the wine.”
Hungary has had some difficulty in creating a distinct image for its wines on the British market since the Communist era. I used to drink Bull’s Blood in vast quantities; now I scarcely see it. This wine comes from the town of Eger, where the offices for the co-operative cellar were in what had been the Bishop’s palace. Eger’s wines, Hamvas says, suit all occasions. “When I drink an Egri, I immediately start to dream about great and heroic deeds.” If you want to see if the wine still has the same magical powers, the Hungarian Wine Society offers a Korona Egri Bikavér 2010 for £12.95.
The one region that has managed to emerge with a bright image is that of Tokay, largely with the help of substantial foreign investment. Although it is the noble sweet wines that have the greatest reputation (and the highest prices), there are also some wonderful complex dry wines with hints of ripe apricots on the palate. Perhaps the best producers of this style are Royal Tokaji, whose Dry Furmint is available at Majestic, Waitrose, and Laithwaites for about £9.99 a bottle.
The native grapes can be hard to pronounce. I can get my tongue round the Furmint and the Kadarka, but give up with the Cserszegi Fuszeres, the Királyleányka, and the Kéknyelű. This last, of which no more than 100 acres are planted, grows on the shores of Lake Balaton, and gives a wonderfully distinctive white wine. I can recommend the Szeremley Kéknyelű 2009 (Hungarian Wine Society, £18.99).
Many of us may be drinking Hungarian wine unawares. Indeed, Laithwaites offers a broad range of Pinot Grigios. Their most popular is a Campanula 2014, at £6.99 a bottle. Waitrose has a useful Hungarian range, reasonably priced. I recommend their Chapel Hill Pinot Noir 2013 (£7.49) for summer, lightly chilled, and the Torley Grüner Veltliner 2013, a spicy, appley white wine now on special offer at £5.79.
As Hamvas says, “It clearly follows that atheists not only cannot, but also must not, be persuaded by force. They are wayward people, full of worries and self-delusions, and one must handle them with considerable care.” The pathway that he suggests is that of Hungarian wines, but he does not suggest that that pathway should be only for atheists.