Crafting 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 salinity 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 wine 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 ended 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 Hungary, 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 after 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 least 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 legendary 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.