Hedonism throughout the ages in the charm of wine

An article by Dr. Emese Lovász, archaeologist-museologist.

Well, of course, wine has featured on the list of the greatest pleasures for centuries… but let us not return to the ancient Greeks, let’s begin in a time and place that is closer and tell the tale of a people who are alleged to have drunk away an entire empire. We’re talking of the Avars who in the 6th century were the first to unify the Carpathian Basin divided as it is by the Danube, thus establishing the Avar Khaganate. Their fierce warriors kept the enormous Byzantine Empire in fear and forced them to pay 20 000 gold pieces in tax every year. Incredible strength and wealth that contemporaneous Russian chronicles record were pulled to ruins due to disagreement and excessive alcohol consumption… although it could be said this was purely malicious rumour, born of jealousy, as since that time only bad wine has been produced there.

Map: Avar settlements, Between 567 and 680, Between 680 and 805, The border of the Avar Kaganatus at the end of the 7th century

Let us move on a little to our conquering ancestors’ adventure in Sankt-Gallen when the single naïve monk who remained in the monastery described the Hungarians who were ravaging the area as especially good people. Having drunk the barrels they found in the cellar, in their boisterous good mood they span into dance and even climbed the church tower (believing the sparkling metal roof to be gold) – and the monk ate and drank with them more than he had ever before in his life.

Next is a king who caused the Árád House line of kings to die out: Ladislaus IV (Kun László IV) who, due to his uncontrollable temper, only felt good among his beloved Kun people. He didn’t sleep with his wife, even when the lords contrived to lock them in a room together but with his wine-stinking head he spent the time with his three (!) Kun lovers. And how did he die? That’s right, by the hand of his favoured people…

 What wines did they drink in the middle ages? A customs record created in the city of Esztergom dated 1288 lists the wine regions of the time. Where was Tokaj at the time? Zala, Somogy, Sokoró, Buda and the famous Syrmian white wines are top of the list. And only white wines, as just one red grape is mentioned, the “wild black” or “jackdaw”.

The court priest noted that King John Sigismund Zápolya, a sickly ruler who loved wine, once said: “Oh dear oh dear, where have we come to…. We’re drinking red wine too!”

Illustrations from the time show that vine cultivation and preparations for harvest were not so different from today. Nor was what happened when someone looked into the bottom of the glass more often than they should have…

We can also talk about famous drunks. For example, Count Ádám Batthány who at the age of just 17 was awarded the title of chief cup bearer at the court of Louis II of Hungary. We should not be surprised at records showing an average of 3.5 litres of wine ordered for his lunch, but if he was in a good mood then 74 litres were drunk at the 12-person table…

It was written of ruling prince of Transylvania Mihály Apafi that: “He drank a bucket of wine (about 11 litres) but he never got drunk, he only took off the velvet high hat and, as though he was exhausted, the power of the wine steamed out of the top of his head… and after that he drank even more!”

As well as the enormous drinking sessions, the stomach was also called on to work in the old feasts: one who was able to eat all that was a man indeed. All kinds of roasts followed one another with sweet and sour sauces, cabbage dishes, breads, cakes, cheeses, and many types of fish could swim happily in the wines and beers.

Surviving menu cards with lists of the dishes from the early 20th century record for us the luxury of pleasures. In October 1926 the International Hotel Society held a reception evening with a menu that was “international” – and that would well praise the imagination of a top chef today.

 Among the wines is one that deserves special attention: a 5 puttonyos Aszú made in Tolcsva in the vintage 1889! Sweet, incredibly flavourful, wonderful delicateness – are the tasting notes for the wine that was 37 years old at the time and may have aged in the barrels of the Dessewffy-Görgey-Szirmay Vine and Cellar Company.

The refined decadence of life, wines and noble sparkling wines, the country estate, hunting, great shows of hospitality… The aristocracy as a class of society disappeared in Hungary within just a few years after 1945 – and with it it seemed all that had come into creation in so many areas of life over the centuries was gone. It seemed the wine culture of the Tokaj Wine Region had been lost too…

However, in a period that has lost its values and assets, there is a burning need for the old examples that evoke the memory of a liveable, caring life…