Reaching for the stars in Pécs

Fostering new and old traditions

The Pécs wine district in the south of Hungary is probably not the first region you think of when you think of innovation in quality wine. However, it should be. Down in Pécs, high on Miklós-hegy is the picturesque, if somewhat rundown, old building of the University of Pécs Research Institute of Viticulture and Oenology, surrounded by vines in all directions. It was my second visit to the institute – thankfully, this time on a warm sunny day as opposed to the last time when we had been forced to shelter in the doorway due to the icy wind. The occasion was to celebrate the launch of their Nadir 63 pezsgő (traditional method sparkling wine).

Now, you’d assume that sparkling wine was something of a novelty in the Pécs area as you rarely come across it, but that is not actually the case, as Pécs was historically one of the centres of sparkling wine production in Hungary, after Pozsony (now Slovakian capital Bratislava). László Héver, the institute’s chief winemaker, is looking to revive this almost forgotten tradition with this sparkling wine made from Zenit.

This is what is in fact the novelty. Zenit is a 1954 crossing of Ezerjó and Bouvier, the goal of which was to create an early-ripening quality variety that was suitable for mass production. The goal was successfully achieved and Zenit is used to produce light fruity whites, sweet late harvest wines and now a sparkling wine.

Its name, Nadir 63, comes from counterposing the concepts of Zenit (the highest point), i.e. the vineyard at the top of the hill, and the lowest point of Nadir, the cellar down at the bottom of the hill. The difference in altitude between the two is 63 metres. Just as you need balance in wine, you also need both the zenith and the nadir in astrology.

The base wine came from the 2017 harvest and spent two years on its lees. The wines were shaken up every six months and then laid back down to rest. Recently disgorged, the 600 bottles, minus a few tasting samples, are now ready for release. The Zenit produced a lovely pure, elegant wine with zesty acidity, lemon, green apple, honey and discrete brioche notes.

This year they have also harvested their two hectares of Zenit for both still and sparkling, but László also tells us that they plan to start looking into the possibility of using it to make pálinka and a grape distillate similar to brandy.

Creation of new and revival of ancient varieties

The institute is not only looking at different ways to vinify Zenit, but since 2000, also has a 20-year programme aiming to create new varieties that should be as high quality as traditional varieties, but more resistant to powdery and downy mildew. They have had eight of these certified so far, such as Andor, Jázmin and Pinot Regina (a back crossing of Pinot Noir).

They are also one of the champions of ancient Hungarian varieties such as Csókaszőlő and Járdovány, both of which are delicious and deserve to be resurrected. Incidentally, Vylyan in Villány and Bussay in Zala both also cultivate and produce wine from Csókaszőlő, while Villány’s Attila Gere produces a Fekete Járdovány.

The research institute also boasts the second largest grape gene bank in Europe (after Montpellier) and the sixth in the world, which includes over 1600 varieties, including table grapes and crossing materials.

We take a wander up through the vineyards despite the heat, passing a vine grown from a cutting taken from an ancient 450-year-old vine in Pécs, the Rosa Menna di Vacca table grape variety, brought to Hungary by the Turks. We taste a dry Olaszrizling produced as wine for mass for the Pauline order, followed by an aromatic Jázmin, a crossing of Bianca x Petra with more than 15 years of research behind it.

After lunch, we visit the Nadir, their cellars at the bottom of the hill, above which they have a collection of 102 Carpathian Basin varieties as well as Armenian, Georgian and Japanese varieties.

Centuries-old cellars and flex cubes

The ecclesiatic estate and its cellars ended up in the hands of the state in 1949, before coming under the remit of the University of Pécs in 2008, and the wines are still made in the 300-year old cellars. Most of the wines are made in micro batches, and stored in the two experimental branches of their cellars. There are a range of porous plastic containers, known as flex cubes, 400 individual demijohns as well as some more usual oak barrels, many of which simply bear a code. Naturally, there are also some ancient large casks, which are no longer in use, and some more standard-looking stainless steel tanks of varying sizes.

Near the old casks, László points out that, although of course they now produce micro batches of experimental wine, in Communist times, all white grapes from Hungary’s three R&D centres went to Budafok and became Kövidinka, while all red was turned into Kadarka. Whether he was joking or being serious, I’m not quite sure!

Near the old casks, László points out that, although of course they now produce micro batches of experimental wine, in Communist times, all white grapes from Hungary’s three R&D centres went to Budafok and became Kövidinka, while all red was turned into Kadarka. Whether he was joking or being serious, I’m not quite sure!

However, we emerged back into the sunshine to taste a couple more of their excellent wines, including the light and fruity red Csókaszőlő, a variety I’d like to see more of in the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s