Hitchhiker's guide to wine

Hitchhiker's guide to wine

Wine is a wholly remarkable substance and one of its primary wonders is its ability to transport you, via taste, to far off lands. I am, I admit, a chronic hitchhiker on the wine trail, never content to stay in one place. But it’s a great time to be traveling, as wine is cropping up in all sorts of exotic locals: China, India, Brazil, even Virginia. So, on a recent rainy day I decided to thumb a ride to Georgia (former Soviet, not former Confederate) and Hungary, two regions that actually have long histories of winemaking, now largely forgotten.


Grapes were first cultivated for wine, it is generally acknowledged, in Georgia’s fertile valleys. Circa 4,000 BCE, Georgia was the Napa Valley of the South Caucasus. Local oenophiles aged their wine in clay vessels buried in the ground and drank it out of animal horns. Wine was so much a part of life there that when the area converted to Christianity in the 4th Century CE, the first cross was supposedly made of grape vines. For years, wines from Georgia were highly prized in the USSR, so much so that they were heavily faked. In 2006, post-Soviet Russia banned Georgian wines from import, supposedly to stem the tide of knock-offs. Georgian wines are making a comeback, it’s rumored, but evidence of this is scarce here in Charlottesville. I tried two wines from Teliani Valley, the one Georgian winery easily obtainable here: a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2006 Saperavi. The Cab was largely devoid of fruit and tasted a bit like dust. The Saperavi (the most important of the 500 native varietals) showed more promise, with a lovely dark color, intense black fruits and soft tannins. Not bad, but not recommended over, say, a good beer.

Hungary’s winemaking history only stretches back to 400 BCE or so. Quality-wise, however, they’re way ahead of Georgia, led by the famous Tokaji Aszú. Tokaji is one of the world’s great dessert wines, a favorite of kings and old-school celebs like Beethoven, Goethe, and Bram Stoker. Recently I had some that was thought to be at least 100 years old. It looked like pond water, but tasted like really, really yummy pond water.

Hungary has some excellent wines, many of which are available in town (I especially like the crisp white grape Irsai Olivier). But the one traditional Hungarian wine I most wanted to try was Egri Bikavér, which translates to “Bull’s Blood of Eger.” The name supposedly dates to the 1550s when the Hungarians, miraculously fending off the stronger Turks, were rumored to gain strength by mixing bull’s blood into their wines. I admit that I was motivated mostly by the name, hoping for something heavy and rustic that would inspire me in battle. Instead I got Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that tasted thin and weak, prompting a battle over whether or not to finish my glass.

I guess sometimes hitchhikers have to stand in the rain for a while. Not every ride you catch takes you exactly where you wanted to go. But that’s no reason to quit. Remember the hitchhiker’s motto: travel to strange places, meet interesting wines, and drink them.