Category Archives: People

BMW test pilot turned winemaker

2016-06-05-12-00-41Crafting artisan wines on the basalt hill of Somló

If there is one region in Hungary, or indeed the world, that has the potential to hold its own against Tokaj, it has to be Somló, the country’s smallest appellation. A dormant volcano, once spewing out streams of lava under the Pannonian Sea, is now a characteristic basalt butte, topped by the ruins of castle, standing out from the flat plain of the Hungarian Kisalföld. The steep slopes of the Somló Hill are densely planted with tiny vineyards divided by stone terraces and peppered with small press houses. Poppies blow in the gentle breeze.

The wines of Somló are something special, characterised by honeyed fruits, dried herbs and exotic spice; they are heady, complex and dense with smoky salini2016-06-05 15.42.25.jpgty and minerality, sometimes developing a petrol-like intensity with age, akin to Riesling. Once you taste them, their magic will remain with you for ever. Celebrated since the twelfth century, their high acidity stabilised them so they could be successfully exported. They were a Royal favourite with the likes of Maria Theresa, Joseph and Queen Victoria. Famed in the past for their medicinal properties, they were stocked by Hungarian pharmacists and used to promote longevity and treat anaemia, high blood pressure, paralysis and liver complaints. The region unfortunately never totally recovered from the devastation of Phylloxera, later followed by collectivisation. However, it certainly has the potential to make world-class wines and regain its former reputation.

The wines gain their special character in part from the ancient basalt, volcanic soils with some sea sediment. The climate is moderately warm with just enough sunshine to ripen the grapes, the vines are caressed by winds, and the topsoil is quite thin on the top of the hill, allowing the sun to heat up the basalt bedrock, thus keeping the roots warm during the cool nights and helping to preserve a high level of acidity in the grapes. It is now mostly planted to white varieties typical in Hungary, such as Olaszrizling, Furmint, Hárslevelű. However, the region has another varietal card to play. Juhfark is the win2016-06-05-13-33-07e region’s most characteristic variety. Only grown here, it is named ‘Sheep’s Tail’ thanks to the long curvy form of the grape clusters. It was believed that if you drank Juhfark, you would be blessed with a son, so it became the favoured wine of the Hapsburgs in order to ensure their succession.

Legendary winemakers Béla Fekete and Imre Györgykovács have been crafting distinctive wines in the region for some time now, but there is another personality who has been helping to put Somló back on the map.

Partway up the hill, in the middle of the Ilona vineyard, lives the charismatic István Stephan Spiegelberg. István, as he is known by Hungarians, Stephan by Germans, was born in Berlin to a German father and a Hungarian mother. Laughing about these two names of his, he says, ‘If I’m here, then I’m German, if I’m there, then I’m Hungarian. I’m always a foreigner!’ He studied electrical engineering, but realised it wasn’t for him, so headed to Budapest where he worked as a technician for a folk-dance theatre starring Márta Sebestyen, owner of the haunting voice in the music of ‘The English Patient’. Returning to Germany, he end2016-06-05-15-39-02ed up in Munich where he worked for BMW in the research lab and later as a test pilot. They were looking for someone who didn’t like to drive, he quipped, otherwise they would most likely brake too quickly. Funnily enough, Munich is where I first met István, at a Hungarian folk dancing event, long before he rose to fame as a winemaker.

So, how does a BMW test pilot end up making wine on a volcanic butte with so little money currently that he says he can’t afford to whitewash the cellar and buy new furniture. As is typical in Hungary, István was despatched every year to spend the summer with his granny, and said granny just so happened to live at the foot of the Somló Hill, although she didn’t actually have any vines. István fell in love with this magical place and in 1993 bought a cellar constructed in 1823 with no running water or electricity as a weekend house. He became a winemaker by accident. Like many in Hungary, he began just making wine for himself. However, he had too much for himself and decided to bottle some, which soon proved popular. He started taking his ‘hobby’ seriously in 2004 and moved to Somló completely in 2007. Since 2010, he has been a superstar, he smiles, when he won Winemaker of the Year, followed by a trail of other awards. István is not only a legendary figure on the hill and in Hungar2016-06-05-15-44-55y, but also internationally, his wines have reached the US via Blue Danube and he was also named in the 2014 Top 100 List of Wines&Spirits Magazine. Yet, he didn’t study winemaking at any point, he’s self-taught, although he did get some guidance from the iconic Béla Fekete, who lives nearby. His winemaking, however, is all his own style. His wines are like him, unconventional yet elegant, stylish and multi-layered. He has always worked on experimental stuff, believing there are simply a few rules that help if you want to make good wine.

He does most of the work himself on his two hectares, although only one is currently planted. This is where he is most likely to be found, sporting his signature straw hat. He is moving towards organic viticulture and biodynamics, although he says that he wants to be somewhere in the middle, between industrial and totally biodynamic, as he believes that this does not reflect the terroir either, and Somló has a very distinct terroir indeed due to its soils, yielding wines with a distinct stony, salty character and often piercingly high acidity. István believes that wines made here lose their varietal character afte2016-06-05-15-52-13r time, increasingly reflecting the Somló terroir as they age. His wines are different from other Somló wines; they need time. He picks later than his neighbours and when we visited in early June, last year’s vintage was still fermenting. His cool barrel fermentations using native yeast can take up to one year to complete; he is a believer in slow winemaking. He still hasn’t sulphured the wines and maybe won’t even need to do so as he changed to biodynamics this year, he mentioned. They also go through malolactic fermentation, which is rare on the hill, so his wines are generally less acidic than others. Sometimes they also spend two years on their lees in barrel. He matures the wines in his cool ventilated cellar, to the strains of Gregorian chants as he believes they appreciate this. He still presses everything by hand, has very few pipes and racks manually if possible, a firm believer in minimal intervention. He uses a mixture of old and new 500-litre barrels, Austrian style but made in Hungary, buying a few new ones every year.

He greets us with his 2012 Furmint, his ‘morning wine’, he calls it, as it only has 11.5% alcohol. An attractive, structured wine with a clear salty, mineral character complementing the apple fruit. He doesn’t make it every year, as he has the least2016-06-05-15-54-40 of this variety. If he doesn’t have enough for at least one barrel, then it’ll go into a blend. His Furmint is on southwest-facing slopes along with his Juhfark and Olaszrizling; he rents another hectare on the northern side of the hill, where he has Chardonnay and Hárslevelű, which he turns into a blend.

His Olaszrizling, he says, is generally liked by Germans and Scandinavians. The minerality of the hill tempers the lower acidity of the grape, and the ubiquitous Hungarian variety gains uniqueness when planted on Somló, becoming more structured and delicate with an oily texture and a savoury, herbaceous character.  The Chardonnay is clearly a Somló wine, with the terroir and its mineral saltiness overriding the varietal. The Hárslevelű is a rich, full-bodied nectar of honey and peach with salty, stony undertones, and the Juhfark, the region’s flagship variety and the key variety for István, is rich and full-bodied yet elegant, with honey and perfumed quince complemented by salinity. The showstopper, however, was István’s 2011 Naszéjszakakák, ‘Wedding Night’, its name honouring Juhfark’s lege2016-06-05-13-36-08ndary attribute which may well be needed on the night in question, a beautifully balanced blend of Juhfark, Hárslevelű and Furmint with spice, honey, rich, ripe fruit and serious stony salinity.

István has two houses, idyllically surrounded by vines and fruit trees. He lives in one and rents the other to tourists. He also has two cellars, one filled with barrels and demijohns of fermenting wines where the wines age gracefully with their musical accompaniment; lit by candlelight playing on the sculptures which decorate its old walls, visiting it was quite an experience, as was the roasted suckling pig served in the other cellar, where he hosts larger groups for tastings, also illuminated by numerous candles gracing the wrought iron chandelier. It’s certainly worth a detour up the hill to meet István and sample his wines.

Junibor welcomes new member to its fold

At the beginning of December, the Association of Young Wine Makers, Junibor welcomed ababiczki-laszlo new member to its ranks. László Babicz was selected at the AGM, the first member from the Mátra wine region, the largest of Hungary’s historic wine regions. László inherited his vines from his grandparents and has been involved with winemaking since his school days. He was able to take this to a professional level with the support of his parents and grandparents.

Tamás Hernyák, president of the association, points out that ‘Junibor is a community, so they try to select new members who will take part in joint programmes and activities and help to build the community’.

His wines will soon find themselves on the shelves of DiVino, the chain of winebars with which Junibor works in close cooperation, taking part in its everyday life, for example with evening events where they welcome guests and offer them the opportunity to taste barrel samples and wines which are only available at the cellar door.

Junibor members present their new wines

On 16 November, Junibor members presented their new wines to guests at the DiVino Gozsdu wine bar in Budapest.

mtszl_ff-9215Junibor, the Hungarian Association of Young Winemakers, was formed in 2008 to bring together young winemakers and create a community helping to provide professional development for the next generation of winemakers. Junibor members have to be talented young winemakers aged under 35 when they are chosen and can only remain in the association until they are 40. They are very often the offspring of another generation of prominent winemakers. They currently have around 30 members from 11 wine regions in Hungary.

mtszl_ff-9310.JPGIts history has been intertwined with the DiVino chain of winebars, the first one opening facing St Stephen’s Basilica in 2011, with the aim of offering only Hungarian wines, including the best wines of the Junibor members. The chain has grown over the last five years, with new locations opening in Győr and the Gozsdu Udvár in Budapest, which offers 120 wines by the glass, and was where the tasting was held.

mtszl_ff-9133Zsolt Gere from Villány showed an attractive youthful Muscat Ottonel using bought-in grapes and his Marton Napi Újbor, a Portugieser. The Portugieser was not a light wine, like usual, but a thicker wine with more tannins, yet elegant and playful. The bunches had been big with large grapes and there had been a couple of shrivelled grapes in each bunch. It saw no oak, went through malo and was then bottled, bright, fruity and fresh. He admitted that it had been a difficult year, with spring frost, and they had been happy to save the grapes. Their Cab Franc, Sauvignon and Merlot should be capable of producing premium wines, whereas the others will probably fall into the good category.

Peti Frittmann from Kunság brought along an aromatic Irsai Oliver, which was light and mtszl_ff-9148balanced and a Neró rosé. The grapes for this had been harvested early and resulted in a very floral rosé with plenty of red fruit and rose. Peti said that the cool year had contributed to the intensity of the aromas and the retention of acidity. He also produced a rosé blend from Medina and Zweigelt, which was fresh, crisp and fruity. The reds that they were able to harvest later were good too, he said, also maintaining a good level of acidity.

mtszl_ff-9279Tomi Kovács from Szent Donat in Csopak had a pair of vineyard-selected wines. A Kódex Olaszrizling from the Slikker vineyard, fermented partly in oak and partly in stainless steel, very attractive fresh wine with good acidity, lingering minerality and almond notes on the finish. The other wine was a Furmint from the Márga vineyard, partly aged in pyrogranite bowls, which he tells me, are a little like concrete eggs, allowing the wine to breathe, thus micro-oxidise, as if it were in oak but imparting no influence and so allowing the grape and terroir to shine through. Certainly the Furmint demonstrated excellent varietal purity and lovely minerality from the Márga soils. He said that they had experienced a lot of hail and had not even been able to harvest anything in some vineyards, although they had managed to save about 30-40% in Slikker. The harvest took place three weeks later than usual, and the quality was excellent where there had not been any hail.

Flóra Jekl from Villány poured a Primo rosé made from Kadarka, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Fresh and fruity, a bit tutti frutti with a touch of spice. She told me that she would also make a gyöngyöző (lightly sparkling) wine from this. Her Portugieser was light and fruity with fresh acidity.

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Tomi Kis from Somló brought along a Somlói Juhfark from the Gróf vineyard, an attractive nutty wine with plenty of yellow fruit and minerality. Tomi reported that they had suffered more than 60% damage due to hail, and the result will be a small quantity of good wines. To make matters worse, they waited until the last minute to harvest, and then the birds came!

Ákos Kamocsay presented wines from the mtszl_ff-9200.JPGMór wine region. A Rhine Riesling, still cloudy and young, that will be bottled next year, so very much a sample. The Chardonnay, also a sample, is being aged in 500l used oak and will spend 8-12 months in barrel on its lees and then go into stainless steel. Quite smoky and toasty with plenty of fruit along with zippy acidity and perhaps a touch of tannins. He said that Mór had also experienced a mixed year, afflicted by both frost and hail, but those who had not suffered damage had harvested good, healthy grapes.

As usual, Csabi Miklós was surrounded by a gaggle of admirers, so it was rather difficult to mtszl_ff-9164.JPGexchange any words with him, but he conjured up a barrel sample of his Demi Moor Királyleányka, which with lovely peach fruit and a touch of residual sugar, he said was intended to be a gastro and festival wine. His Ezerjó, the key wine of the Mór region, was fresh, lemony and appley with a touch of residual sugar and some saltiness on the finish.

mtszl_ff-9196.JPGDóri Bussay from the Zala region had a barrel sample of her Pinot Noir, still displaying some yeasty notes. The aim here, she says, is to have a fresh, fruity wine, so it will move barrels frequently. They were lucky and only had about four vines affected by frost as they are on a plain rather than in a valley, and the hail there came with rain, thus not much loss. The wine exhibited nice cherry fruit, was quite full bodied, with smooth tannins. It will have 8-10 months in oak and 2 months in bottle before release next August.

Csaba Vesztergombi had a Királyleányka, bottled that day, attractive and balanced, with mtszl_ff-9247.JPGplenty of stone fruit, very drinkable. He also showed a Pinot Noir rosé, gaining its colour simply from being pressed. Fresh, attractive fruit, elegant, bright and very quaffable.

Tomi Hérnyak from Etyek brought along a Sauvignon Blanc, which generally does well in Etyek due to its cooler climate, and displayed lovely varietal character, although still a bit yeasty. Tomi says that they can make good varietals and aromatic whites this year in Etyek. The autumn was hot and sunny, which was a saving grace after the earlier part of the year. He also had a late-harvested Zöldveltini, which had lovely citrus flavours of lime and lemon and some green peppercorns. Balanced, spicy and with good acidity.

mtszl_ff-9324.JPGBence Dúzsi from Szekszárd had a rosé from Blauburger, Portugieser and Zweigelt. Pale, attractive fruit, restrained on nose, but more intense on palate. Fresh and very quaffable, with perhaps a spritz of CO2. The red estate wine (Birtokbor) of 50% Kékfrankos, Cab Franc, Sauvignon, Merlot and some Pinot Noir aimed to show the winery’s characteristic varieties, and was rich and fruity with a hint of toasty oak.

Andi Gere from Villány had DiVino branded Irsai Oliver, light, summery and aromatically fragrant, and a rosé from Kékfrankos, Merlot, Portugieser and Pinot Noir, restrained and elegant, but with enough bright fruit to balance the fresh acidity. She also had a barrel sample of Portugieser, which will spend a further three months in oak. Attractive fruit and some toast and coffee, but with just a touch of bitterness and slightly flabby acidity.

Angelika Árvay of Tokaj had a Sauvignon Blanc which had only been harvested on 26 September. The grapes were bought-in, but they did the harvest themselves. It has only seen stainless steel and will hopefully be bottled in January or February. Attractive varietal character and lovely fresh acidity. A tank sample of Sárga Muskotály was the last wine. It needed lots of aeration as it was very yeasty, but some lovely grapey aromas shone through, with a touch of salt and some residual sugar.

The crowds were now building up, so it was time to head off, but all in all an impressive collection of still very young wines.

(Photos courtesy of Junibor and Árpád Pintér)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hungarian Aristocrat & The Mexican General: Wine+Friendship in The Bear Republic

Some interesting info about one Hungarian’s contribution to Californian wine-making

CHEAP WINE CURIOUS

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Upon my second foray in this friendly competition, I have experienced a wine blogger community that is a knowledgeable and encouraging group of bon vivants. I have been fortunate to personally engage with several influential and talented wine writers and I am grateful for the acquaintance. I see the camaraderie and overall good will amongst these colleagues and I hope one day to be friends with all of them. Kudos to @Dracaenawines for last month’s well earned win and for providing a great theme for this month’s challenge – a theme that describes a virtue they have afforded me – friendship!

Nothing is more heartfelt than a friendship that endures through the highs and lows of life. May sound trite, but it is truly when you know who is really a friend. Prior to this challenge, I became intrigued by a historic friendship that embodies this…

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