Summer nights in Budapest are muggy, best spent at one of the city’s charming kerts, casual outdoor bars that spring up throughout the city around this time of year, lounging in a hammock with a plastic cup of fröccs (pronounced “froetch”). In Budapest, summer is the official season of fröccs, Hungary’s bubbly wine and soda-water cocktail, a refreshing antidote to the sweltering temps. While these fizzy drinks are consumed year round, their restorative powers are most effective in the warm-weather months, when they’re required sipping everywhere from upscale restaurants to chill picnics to trendy ruin bars.
What is a fröccs?
A classic fröccs contains two ingredients: soda water and wine. The specific varietal of wine can vary, but the best versions are made with some kind of unoaked white or rosé of Hungarian origin — maybe a crisp olaszrizling or a lushly tannic kékfrankos. The wine is served chilled (adding ice is a no-no), splashed with soda water, and voila, you have fröccs.
If this sounds like a plain old wine spritzer to you, well, there’s a reason: These bubbly blush or golden-colored beverages are actually the original wine spritzer, predating our modern obsession with frosé, and even your mom’s sugary wine coolers, by more than a century. The story goes that Hungarian inventor-engineer-priest Ányos Jedlik (who pioneered industrially carbonated water, not to mention one of the world’s first electric motors) invented the drink at a dinner party in 1842. It was there, amid other notable Hungarians, including famed poet Mihály Vörösmarty, that Jedlik allegedly became the first human to combine soda — all the rage by this time, dispensed from old-timey siphon bottles — with wine. It was a hit.
He initially called the drink “spritzer,” an Austrian-German word for sparkling water. But Vörösmarty scoffed at the use of German word for a great Hungarian invention, and — harnessing his wordsmithing talents — dubbed the drink “fröccs,” derived from the Hungarian word “fröccsen,” meaning “to splash.” The term and the drink caught on, and soon you could find fröccs wherever wine was sold — in bars, cafes, and restaurants — and the drink eventually emerged as a symbol of national pride. In one poem, Vörösmarty equates fröccs’s ascending bubbles to Hungary’s right to independence.
Why should you drink them?
Hungarian wine is often touted as one of the viticulture world’s best-kept secrets. It dates back at least as far as the Romans — who likely planted the first vines in the Carpathian Basin, which includes present-day Hungary and parts of Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria, in the first century A.D. — and counts Louis XIV of France and Thomas Jefferson among its fans (the most expensive wine Jefferson ever bought was a Tokaj, made in a region of northeastern Hungary that’s now a Unesco World Heritage Site). While it hasn’t yet earned the mainstream brand recognition of France and Italy, the country’s wine industry — with 22 distinct regions and hundreds of varietals, from sweet Tokaji Aszú to full-bodied Egri Bikavér — is, according to the 2015 book Hungarian Wine, the 17th largest in the world.
So why would anyone want to take this national treasure and water it down? This was my exact thought when I arrived in Budapest for the first time about a year ago, just as summer had started. I was excited to wash away my 30-plus hours of travel with some acclaimed local wines. My cousin, my host for the next few months, guided me west, toward the Danube River. Our destination was Kiosk, a trendy outdoor riverfront bar with a direct view of Buda and the Citadel. Boats zipped along our sightline. But instead of a glass of furmint, a dry white, or the earthy, tannic red kékfrankos, I received a small plastic cup of bubbly fröccs. What have you done to my wine? I thought.
My anti-fröccs bias had to do with spritzer’s cloying, nuclear-hued cousin: the wine cooler. A bourgeois American fad in the 1970s and ’80s, these quirky bottled drinks, tasting like soda pop and with names like “splash” and “breeze,” were pumped with artificial flavors and bludgeoned with sugars. Today, the wine cooler is in the midst of a revival, with craft versions popping up in artfully designed cans, but most Americans still associate any mixed bubbly wine drink with that notorious hangover hooch. Myself included.
Fröccs, however, is something else entirely. Here, the soda water, meant to hydrate drinkers wilting from the summer heat, doesn’t cloak or distort; the bubbles and slight dilution instead bring out subtle flavors and qualities you wouldn’t otherwise notice. My first fröccs, made with a house rosé, was subtly sweet, with hints of strawberry, and delightfully fizzy. That effervescence is perfect with food, cutting right through hearty traditional Hungarian dishes like goulash, chicken paprikash, or hulking stuffed cabbage rolls. And because of the lower alcohol content, you can sip them leisurely — and prolifically — without going face-first into the Danube.
How to drink fröccs
As I mentioned, at restaurants, you’ll often find tables pre-set with bottles of soda water topped with old-timey nozzles for diners to add to their wine in whatever ratio they wish. Most wine bars, however, offer a number of seltzer-to-wine ratios with their own specific Starbucks-esque terminology, often listed on the wall with helpful diagrams. The classic versions call for an even ratio of wine and water (kisfröccs) or a 2:1 ratio (nagyfröccs) — that’s two parts wine to one part water, and my preferred combo. There’s also a super=light version (sport fröccs) containing 1 deciliter (3.4 ounces) of wine to 4 deciliters (13.5 ounces) of water. On the other end of the intoxication spectrum is Krúdy fröccs, named after Gyula Krúdy, one of Hungary’s most famous novelists and, evidently, prolific drinkers. His version calls for a whopping 9 deciliters (30.4 ounces) of wine and 1 deciliter of water.
Whatever ratio you choose, expect yours to arrive in a plain water glass or even a plastic cup. No fancy garnishes or stemmed wine glass here. Fröccs, you see, are meant to be as easygoing as the city itself. To enjoy them best, I recommend kicking back somewhere along the riverbanks, taking in the sights and sounds of Budapest, and letting your worries, like the rising bubbles in your cup, drift upward and dissolve. Then quickly order another one because hey, you can.
Special thanks to Offbeat Budapest