Drinking Your Way Through Central Europe

Drinking Your Way Through Central Europe

In our society’s inexhaustible race towards the new and innovative, be it in art or architecture, food or drink, we sometimes lose sight of the enduring appeal of the old. And so traditional French bistro fare takes a back seat to the latest “molecular” movement; the Libeskind-designed Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum overshadows the century-old building on which it sits; and flavored vodkas, so-called “Imperial” beer styles and cryogenically produced dessert wines assume the space previously allotted to the drinks which inspired them.

But as much as the new and modern lures us forward, we appreciate, too, that there is no understanding of progress without awareness of the past. Fortunately, where drink is concerned, retreating through time is often no more difficult than boarding a plane. In Hungary, for example, millennia of wine production have resulted in a broad palate of flavors, some renown, such as the sweet “King
of Wine, Wine of the King” from Tokaji, and others more obscure but historically no less significant.

There is no denying the long-standing influence of the sweet golden nectar of Tokaji, the world’s original unfortified dessert wine, according to fairly conclusive documentation dating from the 16th century, but that shouldn’t lead visitors to overlook the increasingly impressive dry whites emerging from the same region. Similarly, the post-Communist consolidation of wineries has led to a steady rise in the quality of classic Hungarian red varieties like Kékfrankos and the once-ubiquitous “Bull’s Blood” grape, Kadarka.

Further north, where verdant vineyards turn to lazy fields of flowing grain, distillation finds a home in Poland, arguably its first home where making spirits from anything other than grapes is concerned. Vodka is, of course, the drink of choice in Krakow and Warsaw, although lager and imported wine now also vie for table space, particularly among the young. Many Poles will tell you that they invented vodka and many Russians will claim the same, each with some validity, but one point of origin in central Europe is beyond dispute. In 1842, in the Bohemian town of Plzen, now Czech and known in English as Pilsen, the blonde lager was born.

Oddly, it was a German brewer hired by the town burghers who actually first combined newly available pale golden malt with the local soft water, saaz hops and, pivotally, the bottom- fermenting yeast he brought with him from Bavaria, thus creating the beer we now know as pilsner. That beer, Pilsner Urquell (literally “original pilsner”) is still brewed in Pilsen today, and served across the Czech Republic and around the globe. We hereby present your itinerary, in case you should find yourself footloose and thirsty in Central Europe. 













Pilsner Urquell has begat innumerable offspring, including such Czech beauties as Budweiser Budvar, known on this side of the Atlantic as Czechvar, and Bernard Svetl´y Lezák, not to mention enough smaller market wonders to make the journey to Prague well worth the effort.

Unlike some others in the so-called "Vodka Belt” countries, Poles see nothing wrong with flavored vodkas; they’ve been adding
herbs and other seasonings to their spirits for centuries. One of the most popular is Z°ubrówka, the pale green vodka flavored with a grass native to Poland and preferred by grazing bison, hence its nickname of “bison grass vodka.” Try it on its own or in a “tatanka” with unsweetened apple juice.

Much as American hipsters turn to former working-class beer brands to prove their cool, potato vodka, once derided as a poor man’s spirit, is on the rebound both in Poland and abroad . Chopin is one example. Other Polish vodkas are likely to be rye based, like Sobieski and Extra Zytnia, which gives them a character more spicy and assertive than the rounder, sweeter potato vodkas.  















Czech brewers tend to designate their beers not by style, but by the and a lemon wedge. density of the wort (unfermented beer) measured in degrees Plato. So a single brand may boast versions of 12º, 16º and 24º (respectively about 5%, 6.5– 7% and 10% alcohol by volume). The most common exceptions to this rule are cerné, a black, sweeter style, and tmavé, a deep amber brew, and regardless of strength or hue, the vast majority of Czech beers are lagers.

Pilsner Urquell has begat innumerable offspring, including such Czech beauties as Budweiser Budvar, known on this side of the Atlantic as Czechvar, and Bernard Svêtlý Lezák, not to mention enough smaller market wonders to make the journey to Prague well worth the effort.


Visitoris exploring Hungary’s enological landscape are advised to visit Lake Balaton, a fast-emerging region near near the Austrian border producing dry, minerally whites that could eventually rank among the best in the world.

Terroir Club
When you’re ready to buy some bottles to take home or to your room, this is the place to visit. Specializing in small wineries and so dealing in limited quantities, many of the wines here are biodynamic and most are organic, sourced principally from Hungary and neighboring nations. As reflected in the name, emphasis is given to wines that best reflect their regions’ terroir.

Klassz                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  When the revered restaurant Vörös és Fehér closed a few years ago, its place in the wine firmament was taken over by Klassz, a joint venture between Hungary’s leading chain of wine shops and restaurateur Roland Radványi. The lengthy and predominantly Hungarian wine list is entirely available by the glass, with bottles also on hand for purchase at the table or to go, and the bistro-style menu is well

Ráspi Budapest
The definitive place in which to experience the marriage of Hungarian food and wine, this attractive restaurant features the wines of owner József Horváth’s own estate, also called Ráspi, as well as those of other leading Hungarian wineries, all paired with a seasonal cuisine grounded in the country’s roots and traditions. Sophisticated yet homey, Ráspi offers a snapshot of Hungary’s gastronomic past and a peek at Budapest’s culinary future.

Published on September 3, 2010