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Csopak: Complex Olaszrizling with a Lakeside View

Lake Balaton is brimming with more than its fair share of distinctively delicious wine thanks to its wide range of mesoclimates, soils, grape varieties and talented winemakers. Csopak, on the lake’s northern shore, is notable for its varied soils and its ability to produce outstanding Olaszrizling – two words not often used together, but that certainly apply here.

The Szent Donát winery, one of Csopak’s key movers and shakers, is a great destination for wine lovers to get to grips with this terrific terroir while enjoying the stunning views out over the lake and of the Tihany peninsula. The fairy-tale like estate building with a thatched roof not only contains the cellar but it also houses the renowned and highly innovative Márga restaurant, which is named after marl – one of the main soil types here. The restaurant sources its ingredients locally and is part of an initiative to promote a Balaton-style fish soup, which is on the menu and is white (not red) in color.

“Our aim is to show the nuances between the vineyards with their different soils and unique characteristics, and that Balaton is about more than the lake, and to also showcase the Bakony region,” says Tamás Kovács, St. Donát’s winemaker. The Bakony hills themselves, located to the north, play an important moderating role whereby cool air rolls in off the hills to temper the humidity of Lake Balaton. This serves to preserve the all-important freshness and acidity, which gives the wines structure, length and ageability. While they probably did not fuss much about acidity levels, the Romans certainly did know a good site for winemaking when they saw one and when you see these vine-friendly slopes that rise above the Balaton, it comes as no surprise that they made wine here.

The soils from which most of the Olaszrizling comes can be roughly divided into two main types. There is the red clay soil, which has been formed from decomposing Upper Permian sandstone and the topsoil is distinctively red in color. This contrasts sharply with the light-colored marl- and dolomite limestone-based vineyards that come from the Triassic period. “The red clay makes wines that are more elegant and floral, while the wines from the limestone are more linear with more body and more robust aromas,” asserts Kovács. He adds that the red clay retains water while it quickly drains through the marl-limestone, and that the soils have different PH levels to each other.

Such factors should in theory provide the conditions for wines from the same grape variety to be distinct from each other. Indeed, the acid test for assessing single vineyard wines is not just whether the said wine is good, but if one wine tastes different to the next, and these wines certainly did have marked differences, despite being vinified in the same way – both in a combination of used oak and steel tank, and left unfiltered. See two single vineyard Olaszrizling suggestions at the end of this article.

Very top Level

To be labelled ‘Csopak’, the wine can only be made from Olaszrizling, plus up to 15% Furmint. Csopak is divided up into three quality categories: generic wine which can be from any of 30 vineyards spread across five villages; Hegybor (hill wines) from the top vineyards; and Dűlőbor or single vineyard wines at the very top level – these are given the stamp of the Csopaki Kódex (Codex). For its part, Szent Donát only makes wine in the two upper categories. The whole estate, which comprises 12 hectares in ten different vineyards around Csopak, Tihany and Kál, is expected to be certified organic within three to five years with the single vineyard wines already coming from organically cultivated grapes. All Szent Donát wines, with the exception of the rosé, are spontaneously fermented.

Szent Donát also works with Furmint and Kékfrankos grapes, the wines of which are classified as part of the larger Balatonfüred-Csopak region. The Márga Furmint Selection from the 2015 vintage comes from the marl and dolomite soils of the Nagykút, Hegyalja and Szitahegy vineyards. It seriously impressed with its great texture, depth, and freshness with juicy tropical fruit (mango and pineapple) to supplement Furmint’s more typical quince and pear notes. In an interesting twist, half of it was fermented and aged in neutral pyrogranite stone vessels that allow gentle exposure to oxygen, while 30% went into used French oak and 20% into stainless steel. Incidentally, the planting of Furmint around the Balaton is not a case of jumping on the bandwagon, as it was a fixture before the phylloxera louse wiped it out in the late 19th century. A wine like this shows that Hungary’s most lauded white grape has a serious future around the Balaton.

The soil picture gets yet more colorful with the volcanic black basalt soil (like that of Badacsony) on the Tihany peninsula, which juts out far into the lake. With the combination of basalt’s natural heat retention qualities and the warming influence of the lake, red wine grapes can be fully ripened. However, there’s a significant and beneficial diurnal temperature range with the cool air sweeping in at night to stop the wines from getting jammy. The Kékfrankos Magma has a cool, refined elegance to it.

Other excellent Csopak cellars, among others, include Jásdi, Guden, Petrányi, and Homola, with the wines at the latter made by Tokaj talent Attila Homonna.

St. Donát Slikker 2015

From red clay. Medium intensity on the nose, with generous mouthfeel. Fruity, floral, juicy and vibrant. Soft and smooth on the palate with just the right amount of oak. HUF 5,000 from the St. Donát website (szentdonat.hu/kiszallitas/)

St. Donát Kishegy 2015

From marl and limestone soil with some clay and loess. Powerful aromas that are less fruity but more on the savoury side. Green herbs, briney, umami notes throughout. Wilder and edgier than the silky Slikker with firmer mouth-watering acidity. Very complex and long. HUF 6,000 from the St. Donát website (szentdonat.hu/kiszallitas/)