Harvest 2021: All’s Well That Ends Well, Just About


Grapes have been harvested – and still are in some cases – up and down the land. All in all, Hungary’s winemakers are a relatively happy bunch, given the quality of the crop after what was a tough beginning to the vintage. That said, they will certainly not be cashing in on a bumper vintage, for the most part.

From Szekszárd, Zoltán Heimann Sr. of the Heimann Családi Birtok told the Budapest Business Journal that the quality of the grapes harvested has been good so far, but the quantity is lower than in typical years thanks to the cool weather during flowering in the spring, and then the dry summer.

Both factors led to smaller bunches and individual grapes forming than usual. This does mean that the grapes are concentrated, however, albeit with the downside that this can lead to problems during fermentation: the winemaking team has to be constantly vigilant to intervene if and when necessary.

Not only have the grapes been more concentrated, but the window for harvesting has been more condensed, with the different grapes ripening at or around the same time.

Horst Hummel, a German lawyer-turned-vintner, who makes biodynamic wines in the warm southwestern region of Villány, spoke of a remarkably small harvesting window, with all grapes ripening within a short period of each other.

All his grapes were harvested by the time I ran into him at a Natural Wine tasting event in Budapest last week. Wineries are used to having something of a more even spread of ripening of the various grape varieties, enabling them to manage (the often limited) processing capacity of the winery more efficiently.

Hang Time

Another challenge related to this set of affairs is to ensure that the grapes are not left hanging too long unharvested since the alcohol level can rapidly soar.

“We want to avoid high alcohol levels, which gets difficult when everything is ripening at the same time,” said Heimann.

With heavy rains forecast, the Heimann family and their team were hoping to have brought all the grapes in by the time this paper was published.

Regarding the grapes grown, Heimann explained that the family was putting ever-more focus on indigenous grapes, citing the influence of his son Zoltán Jr., who has traveled extensively, working with and studying wine in the process.

“The Kadarka and Kékfrankos look really gorgeous and have fabulous acidity, thanks to cooler nights at the end of August and in September that mitigated the warm days,” said Heimann Sr.

The always witty winemaker also quipped that there’s a broader problem to contend with than the vagaries of the weather. “We need more customers and more people to drink our wines,” he said.

In nearby Tolna, Zalán Mucsi of the Grál Borpince said his grapes were set to be highly concentrated, but a significant amount of rainfall in the run-up to the harvest diluted them somewhat. This would typically be a slightly negative outcome, but it could work out for the best as the grapes were already ultra-concentrated.

“It will rather lead to slightly lighter, fresher wines with very nice drinkability,” said Mucsi. A lighter style of wine, in which more than one glass can be enjoyed at a time before the onset of palate fatigue, is indeed what many crave as tastes move away from bombastic blockbusters to the airy and more ethereal.

At a tasting in Budapest on September 15, Zsolt Palkó, the winemaker at Villa Sandahl from the Badacsony region, told the BBJ that the grapes harvested had been healthy and good-looking. He added that the growing season had started later than usual by some two to three weeks, while the warm September accelerated sugar accumulation, leading to a surprisingly early harvest, given the late beginning.

Conventional wisdom has it that the longer the growing season and the greater the ‘hang time,’ the better, as the grapes can accumulate deeper and more complex flavors. It, therefore, remains to be seen how the current vintage will turn out, Palkó acknowledged.

Complex Riesling

One thing that seems to be sure is that Sandahl’s Rieslings have staying power and bags of complexity. The winery’s owner, Krister Sandahl, is a Swede. By profession a computer engineer, he has spent his career developing programs for electronics products, although he always had a keen interest in tasting the wines of the world before coming to Hungary to set up his own winery.

“I’m now developing wines,” he joked. “We’ve succeeded to minimize the failures when it comes to winemaking,” was his modest assessment of what have turned out to be some of Hungary’s finest Rieslings.

The wines also have longevity. A case in point is Magic Rain Riesling from the 2011 vintage, which is remarkably clean and pure with a pleasant touch of petrol to complement its layers of citrus fruit and floral notes, without any signs of oxidation.

It does indeed have that “flowers after rain” lightness of touch about it. It costs HUF 6,800 from Rieslings like this show how Hungary has become quite a serious player with this fabulous German grape, making rich, oily, and layered wines that are also lively and zesty.

When I called Ádám Varkoly from the family-owned Árpád Hegy Pince in Szerencs, in the Tokaj wine region, just ahead of going to press on Tuesday, he was just back from harvesting Furmint that will be made into dry wine.

“It’s been a difficult year, with the coolest spring for 100 years, but then a dry and hot summer brought nice grapes, although the last week of August was very cold, leaving high acidity,” Varkolyi explained.

His just harvested Furmint grapes have a high acidity level of 7.5 g/l, but that will not present a problem. “This is Tokaj; we like high acidity,” he said, adding that the wines will, fortunately, have the body to match the acidity.

Regarding sweet wines, Varkoly explained that the conditions, with sunny, windy days, are ideal for excellent botrytis, the famed “noble rot” that shrivels the grapes and concentrates the color, sugar, acidity, and flavors, enabling Tokaj Aszú wines to be made.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of October 8, 2021.

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