Did you know that Budapest has its very own winemaking district? If you take the 47 tram from Deák Square to the get off before the end of the line, you’ll find yourself in Budafok. This suburb not only just a home to a limestone honeycomb-like sub-terrain containing numerous wine caverns, but it’s also the heart of Budapest’s champagne cellars and sparkling wine production.
Budapest’s Wine District
The XXII District lies on the city’s most southern boundary on the Buda side. After travelling through what feels like an endless concrete jungle, the rattling yellow tram puts you down in an area dominated by rolling hills, quaint houses and an impressive looking chateau on the hillside. The latter is nicknamed the “Champagne Castle“, after being the residence of the famous Törley family, who were responsible for bringing the traditional French sparkling wine making tradition to Hungary. Metres away from the castle, whose pointed turrets make it look like something out of a fairytale, lie the cellars and the factory where this iconic Hungarian “champagne” is produced. On the first Saturday of the month, its museum and cellars swing open its doors to the public in the guise of a tour.
The tour is split into three parts: the museums, the cellars and the tasting. The museum is cleverly curated in a way that captures the spirit of Budapest’s champagne cellars spirit by making its visitors physically move through champagne experience. The entrance is shaped like a champagne cork, and the main part of the exhibition is a giant recreation of a bottle of Törley sparkling wine, and towards the end it ends in a champagne glass, all of which are cleverly constructed from metallic panels. The exhibition is a mix of old time memorabilia, such as vintage advertisements, old bottles and snaps of the family and associated relics.
The Törley Story
József Törley spent significant time in the Reims, the capital of Champagne territory in France and turned his ambition to bringing wine and its technology to Hungary. In the gentle hills around Etyek, a rural winemaking area located just outside the city, he found its vineyards carried similar characteristics to those back in Champagne. The soil and climate conditions are very similar its French counterpart and perfect for growing the grapes that would make a prime bottle of Champagne-style wine. However, producing the ideal grapes was not enough to recreate the French authentic, and luck would have it that the geological setting of nearby Budafok provided optimal conditions. Just like in the Champagne region in France, Budafok sits on a limestone area, where today kilometres of cellars run beneath the district.
These limestone cellars carved underneath Budafok offered the perfect conditions for sparkling wine production. So with some help of French specialists, along with colleague Louis François who worked as Törley’s cellar master before launching his own business, the new Hungarian “Champagne” was in good shape.
In fact, at the dawn of the 20th century, Törley’s sparkling wine plant was the most advanced of its kind in the country, and even became the Habsburg drink of choice, earning the cellars the title of “suppliers to the imperial and royal court”. And by its 25th anniversary in 1907, Törley wines were already being exported across the world, even becoming a popular tipple in Paris at the time too!
It was only in 1944, towards the end of the Second World War that the factory saw a huge set back. The main building was bombed and things didn’t get better for a while. After the bombing and the war came the nationalisation of 1950s communist Hungary, which also stumped production. But recently the Törley sparkling wines have been making a comeback and has been regaining its former popularity.
The Journey in Each Bottle
We came back out into the main courtyard after the museum and it was time to go underground again into Budapest’s champagne cellars.
The cool cellars are lined with endless bottles of sparkling wine set at varying intensity of angles set between the heavy stone arches. Here, the sparkling wines are made using the traditional method.
“Good champagne or sparkling wine begins with good wine,” our guide Tamás tells us, “People have this wrong idea that any wine will do, but when it comes to making champagne it’s important to have a good, healthy base wine with a clean taste and a neutral character. It’s important that the wine has an identical quality. This base wine is made by blending and becomes the base for secondary fermentation. This will be a dry wine with low sugar content and high acidity.”
As we stand surrounded by bottles, we’re told about the second fermentation process, where this cuvée wine naturally produces carbon dioxide in the bottle. In order to do this sugar must be added, usually dissolved in wine, and this sugary addition is known as a triage liqueur. This is then added to the base wine along with yeast.
The bottles up here apply the Méthode Traditionnelle, which means the wine ferments and matures for 3-4 years while stacked in a horizontal position in a cool environment at 14ºC . The bottles in which the wine ages is actually the bottle you’ll eventually take home, but after all those years, the yeast consumes itself and leaves a sediment behind, so how does this get taken out of the wine?
The sediment is then moved to towards the bottle tip on a riddling rack, where the bottle is turned and moved slightly over a period of days, even weeks in varying angles, until it all gathers at the head. Then, the neck of the bottle is plunged into a salt solution at -25ºC. This causes an ice plug to form, which traps the sediment and is popped out of the bottle all together, and the bottle is then sealed up and ready for the commercial market. Although, this form is known as “Brut Nature“, which contains no added sugars and is basically Champagne in its purest form, but usually it’s flavoured for varying sweetness with added sugar content.
After touring round the upper cellars, we come to a narrow spiral staircase which plummets down into the lower cellars. The temperature drops and large crates of sparkling wine in the making lie in dusty stacks. Here the Törley sparkling wines are made using the Méthode Transvasiée, when they are aged in Magnum bottles for 9 to 12 months for the second fermentation. After ageing, they are emptied into a cooled and pressurised tank, where their sugar content is adjusted and the sediment is filtered off. After this process the sparkling wine is rebottled.
Törley also use a third method for making sparkling wines, the Méthode Charmat. Here the wine is simply fermented in pressurised tanks. The sediment is filtered, the sugar content is then adjusted to taste and then sealed in the bottle.
The Taste Test
Finally, we got the chance to try the different wines. The best, in my opinion, was the Brut Nature. It has a clean, crisp taste and the perfect drink for an aperitif. The delicate bubbles give it a creamy, almost buttery taste.
The second, made with the Méthode Transvasiée method is the Törley Demi Sec. Slightly sweeter with a fruity taste, and pleasant to drink. The third, a rosé made via the Méthode Charmat is sweet with a strawberry aroma. Perfect for a spring picnic!
So after tasting, and doing a taste back of my favourite (the Brut Nature, of course), I left the shop at Budapest’s champagne cellars three bottles heavier (one of each!), smiling giddily back on the tram.