Summer Vacation(s) Ep. 6

Out of the vast plain of the Pannonian Basin rises a volcanic hill. Sixty million years ago or so, the basin was a sea and the hill an underwater volcano, later a volcanic island. Today, the water gone, the plain remains.

The name of the hill is Somló. On its basalt slopes, a little over 800 hectares of vines are farmed as a patchwork of smallholdings by a thousand growers.

It never saw the industrial consolidation of other Hungarian wine regions under Communism; at its peak, the state farm only worked 35ha. (The high-water mark of its fame saw the hill’s vines split by—who else?—the church and the aristocracy. The first recorded reference to winegrowing, in 1135, follows the construction of a hilltop fortress to defend Vezprém from pagans to the south, and the establishment of a convent dedicated to St. Benedikta. Vinegrowing even survived under the Ottomans, and the wines’ prestige and audience hit its apex as a product of empire under the Habsburgs.)

What are the wines of the hill like? Almost entirely white, first off—only 7 hectares of Somló are red. Phylloxera winnowed the three dozen or so traditionally-planted varieties significantly, and today you’ll more frequently find a variety on the label instead of the field blends that would have been the historical norm. Whether the prized juhfark that was born on the hill, or the furmint, olaszriesling, and hárslevelü you’ll find as well in Tokaj and Burgenland, the wines are typified by searing acidity and high levels of salty, mouthfilling dry extract. Premodern wines traded at distance would have been as likely to be sweet rivals to Tokaj as they were dry.

After the larger, more sweeping explorations of the previous episode, drilling down on a particular, tiny region like this one is a way to think about how different, wines from the same place, made in the same style, on the same soils, can be.

The interactive remote session was on August 6, 2022. Here are a few questions we asked while we tasted:

1. All of these wines are grown on volcanic soils—in fact, on a former volcanic island. Have you tasted wines grown on basalt or other igneous rocks, or from other volcanic islands, before? Do they have anything in common with these wines?

2. How did these bottles change with air and time? With food? Did you notice different things about them after they came to temperature versus straight out of the fridge?

3. Have you had white wine like this before? If not, did anything surprise you?

4. Wine people often use ‘minerality’, or ‘mineral-driven’ to describe white wines like this. Sometimes they might be referring to acid structure, sometimes to certain reductive flinty-smoky-chalky aromatic compounds, sometimes to saltiness or textural dry extract—and sometimes simply to the idea of a wine’s character coming from the geology that it’s grown on. Do these wines taste ‘mineral’ to you? In what way? Do any of the ways ‘minerality’ is used above strike more a chord than others?

(For more on minerality, check out this recap of an in-person tasting in November 2021, “Licking Rocks”, including one of the favorite memes I’ve ever made.)

How it might look on a wine list
BÉLA FEKETE, furmint SOMLÓ 2015

In one sentence
The last vintage before retirement of the ‘grand old man’ of Somló.

Who made it? Béla Fekete. (In Hungarian, family names are normally put first, and given names second, which is why the label reads “Fekete Béla”.) Béla, one of Sómlo’s iconic grower, started piecing together his tiny (4 hectare) estate in the ’70s. Today, approaching 90 years old, he still lives on the property, although he officially retired as of the 2015 vintage; the winery was purchased by two young men who continue the work.
Out of what? Furmint, Hungary’s most celebrated grape variety and most renowned further north in the sweet botrytized wines of Tokaj.
From where? The ancient volcano of Somló.
Made how? Two hours of skin contact; spontaneous fermentation and aging in large Hungarian oak barrels for a year; racked into stainless steel for another two years before bottling; 653 bottles made.

How it might look on a wine list
KIS TAMÁS x MORIC, furmint/olaszriesling/hárslevelü, “Hidden Treasures Nr. 2” SOMLÓ 2016

In one sentence
A collaboration with one of Burgenland’s cult winemakers puts Somló whites on center stage.

Who made it? Tamás Kis, who bought a small 5-hectare property in Somló in 2010. This bottling is a collaboration between him and Roland Velich of Moric, a renowned Burgenland producer of ageworthy, structured blaufränkisch. His “Hidden Treasures” series seeks to highlight overlooked growers in both Burgenland and Hungary and leverage his international acclaim to bring more attention to these regions. The wine is vinified at Tamás’ place.
Out of what? Furmint, hárslevelü, and olaszriesling (also known as welschriesling and, in Croatia, as grasevina). Furmint is Hungary’s most prized white grape, and was once more widely planted across the border in Burgenland, when that region was still Hungarian. Known for sweet, noble-rot wines (in, say, Tokaj), it also provides the acid structure and spine for dry whites.
From where? The ancient volcano of Somló.
Made how? Spontaneously fermented, aged in a mix of stainless steel and large-format Hungarian oak, please hold for more details.

How it might look on a wine list
APATSÁGI, juhfark SOMLÓ 2019

In one sentence
A richer, later-picked side of Somló’s heirloom variety.

Who made it? Zoltán Balogh, who farms a 3-hectare estate that belonged to the Benedictine Pannonhalma Archabbey before Communist agricultural redistribution and was replanted by five farmers in 2001.
Out of what? Juhfark (sheep’s tail, for the shape of its clusters), a high-acid, late-ripening variety virtually extinct and not even officially authorized as a variety in Hungary until the 1990s. Half of the scant 200 hectares of contemporary plantings are in Somló, where it was born. (As high-acid and late-ripening, it joins savagnin, assyrtiko, romarantin, and manseng in the chenin sweepstakes.)
From where? The ancient volcano of Somló.
Made how? Spontaneous fermentation in large-format oak barrels, where the wine ages on the gross lees for at least a year (just like Béla Fekete, above). Bottled without filtration and with SO2 only at bottling.

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