No, it’s not a typo, it’s deliberate. It’s about two volcanoes, distant in time and space. One is well-known around the world, while few are aware of the existence of the other. One is ancient and now sleeps like the dead, the other is alive and could kick into action at any time. One lies by the sea, above a sprawling city, while the other rises out of the Kisalföld plain in Hungary, just like the hat God left behind. They each have their own stories to tell and indeed their own tails. But let’s begin with the less discovered.
One of the regions in Hungary that lies closest to my heart is also one of its smallest. The black basalt volcanic butte protruding from the flatlands surrounding it is home to a myriad of small winemakers as well as a couple of large ones. Covered with verdant vines, press houses and wineries, it is a world unto itself. Narrow roads, often sunk between walls of black volcanic rock, just like a surreal, maybe underworld version of sunken English country lanes, where there is only room for one car at a time, wind up the sides of the black hill. This world is Somló. Where the rest of the world seems far away and the hill seems to stand watch over the plain around it, just like the Hungarian name for this type of volcanic butte, ’witness mountain’. Sometimes it feels like time is standing still up here on the hill, certainly there is no running water up on its sides, so those living here collect rainwater to meet their needs, or fetch water from one of the local springs. It certainly makes you think about how you expend resources while you are up here.
Unless you are really into wine, then you are probably blissfully unaware of Somló’s existence. Although, blissfully is perhaps not quite the right word, I would say that I am blissfully aware of its existence, as are a growing number of wine lovers, especially those, like me, who are in love with volcanic wines. Somló’s uniqueness, both as a place and in terms of the wines that its soils yield, has earned it a cult-like following, and a growing number of young, experimental winemakers are setting up shop on its slopes. Somló is starting to earn back its reputation of yore, when its wines were transported far and wide and even rivalled those of Hungary’s shining star Tokaj!
But what of this tail? This tail is Juhfark, the hill’s iconic indigenous variety, and fast becoming its flagship. Be careful how you say it out loud though, as it will raise a few eyebrows amongst English speakers. Juhfark translates as ’sheep’s tail’, or more accurately ’ewe’s tail’, thus named thanks to the shape of its tightly packed, long curved bunches of small berries which are said to resemble a sheep’s tail. The variety is synonymous with Somló nowadays, although it was more widely planted prior to phylloxera. Its relatively neutral character is perfect to showcase Somló’s basalt, mineral-rich, volcanic terroir, on which it thrives. When young, its frankly bracing acidity can overpower everything in the wine, especially in a poor year, coming across as rather sharp, herbal and austere. While in the right hands, and especially with a year or two in cask as well as a few years of bottle age, it can boast fragrant stone fruits, a creamy texture, full body, wonderful spicy complexity, honey and almond, as well as the hallmark saline, smoky minerality of Somló itself. It seems that after a while, regardless of the variety, every wine simply becomes a Somló wine.
Looking for a male heir?
Somló’s followers today are enticed by the uniqueness of its wines and the otherworldliness of the hill, rather than the supposed medicinal properties of Somló wines, which were believed to cure a whole host of ills. Not only that, drinking Somlói was allegedly the way to guarantee a male heir, so was a favourite tipple of the Habsburgs and even British Queen Victoria – the so-called nászéjszakák bora, or wedding night wine, a white field blend, was revered far and wide for this property. Although drinking Juhfark may no longer be a way to guarantee your new-born will be dressed in blue, if you like your wines volcanic and individual, then you should really dip your toes into the world of Somló and its Juhfark.
But what of the other volcano and its tail?
The fox’s tail of Campania
The other volcano is better known for its scenic location on the Bay of Naples and its burial of Pompeii in 79 AD. Although Somló Hill is long extinct and is no longer surrounded by the Pannonian Sea, Vesuvius is still very much alive. Although asleep at the moment, nobody knows for sure when this volcano might reawaken.
Vesuvius is located in Campania, a hotbed of volcanic activity, just like the lands to the north of Lake Balaton once were. Campania also boasts its own tail – this time the ’fox’s tail’, or Coda di Volpe. Again, named for its opulent bunch, curved at the end, which resembles a fox’s bushy tail. Like Juhfark, it is a relatively neutral variety whose wines reflect the terroir where it is grown. As Juhfark is an archetypical Hungarian variety, Coda di Volpe is a true native Italian grape, which was apparently known and appreciated as far back as Ancient Rome, when it was known as Cauda Vulpium and thought by some to have produced the famous Falerno. Or was this a totally different variety, as the earliest mentions with the name Coda di Volpe go back to 1592? Italy is well known for its myriad of indigenous grapes which go by many names, or bear the same name as many others, or are confused with many others. So, who knows…
It is little found outside Campania, where it primarily grows in the provinces of Benevento, Avellino, Napoli and Caserta, but most abundant in the first two. However, let’s remain with our volcano analogy and return to Vesuvius where it can be found in the Lacryma Christi and Vesuvio Bianco DOC blends. Here, people may also claim that their Caprettone is Coda di Volpe, as this now seems to be the trendier of the two, and anyhow, the two varieties have long been confused, but then, this is Italy. On mineral-rich, lava soils, its wines are austere, salty and high in acidity, although on non-mineral soils, the wines can be rich, creamy, complex and tropical. So, some parallels to Juhfark here? Coda di Volpe generally has low acidity, so benefits from the higher acidity imparted by volcanic soils, which the screechingly high acidic Juhfark does not necessarily need.
Of course, being Italy there is also an even less well known variety called Coda di Pecora, or sheep’s tail, which was long felt to be identical to better known and more abundant Coda di Volpe – in this case, the cluster looks like the tail of a sheep. This grows in the vineyards of northern Campania, in Caserta. And of course, this too was for a long time believed to be one and the same as Coda di Volpe
But let’s stop our brief journey to southern Italy now, hoping we can return there in more detail once normality resumes, and go back to Somló for a short taster of three Juhfarks.
Csetvei Nagy Somlói Juhfark 2018 (11%)
The youngest of the three. A light-bodied wine still showing its youth with fresh zesty lemon and mineral notes with a saline finish. Would benefit from another few years in bottle to put on weight and develop additional complexity.
Csordás Fodor Nagy-Somlói Selection Juhfark 2017 (12%)
Rich and generous on the palate with ripe tropical fruit, peach, mango, grapefruit and a touch of butter. Smooth and textured with zippy grapefruit acidity and a mineral, smoky finish.
Tornai Top Selection Grófi Juhfark 2017 (15%)
One of the larger players in Somló, this is one of their single-vineyard Juhfarks. Boasting a hefty 15% alcohol, it’s packed full of peach, ripe yellow apple, honey, almond and marzipan. A serious, complex wine with a long salty finish.
And if you’d like to sample more Juhfark and can make it into Hungary in October, you should set your sail for Somló and the Juhfark celebration in mid-October. You can read about my visit to the 2017 celebration here.
The wines were supplied courtesy of the Somló Wine Shop, who boast a great selection of volcanic wines.