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Somló: a Tiny Volcanic gem of a Wine Region

Drinks

To say I never get bored of visiting Somló is an understatement, and there’s plenty going on here to keep enticing oenophiles back. It’s hard not to feel the magnetic pull of the hill’s basaltic rock, especially when you taste the wines made by a remarkable cast of characters.

Indeed, Somló, the smallest of Hungary’s 22 wine regions, makes some of the country’s biggest whites, the best of which are concentrated, pure, and entirely distinctive.

Catching sight from a distance of the 435-meter-high Somló Hill, a flat-top volcanic peak, which rises dramatically out of the surrounding plain, is a magical moment in itself and never gets old.

From there, it only gets better as you inch closer and can pick out the patchwork of tiny vineyard plots that pack the hill, with press-houses and wineries scattered around.

Somló Hill was created when the surrounding land was carried away by erosion while the igneous basaltic tuff stood firm. The basalt had been formed from the result of volcanic activity under the Pannonian Sea. The region also comprises two other hills: named Kissomló (literally “Small Somló”) and Ság Hill.

The soils are predominantly based on that prized volcanic basalt and tuff bedrock. Loess, Pannonian sand, ferrous clay, and black “nyirok” soils make up the topsoil. Somló Hill resembles the similarly-formed (and also basalt-based) Badacsony Hill, just half an hour’s drive away, but Somló doesn’t benefit from Central Europe’s largest lake strongly influencing its microclimate; Badacsony Hill overlooks Lake Balaton directly.

Somló Hill does have a breeze that helps dry out the vines and prevents fungal diseases from taking devastating hold and spoiling the grapes, but the recent hot spell that followed weeks of rain provided ripe conditions for the dreaded downy mildew to thrive.

The winemakers and grape growers were out in force, spraying the vines in defense against the mildew during my visit earlier this month. Károly Kolonics, fresh from claiming positions one and three in the U.K.-based Decanter magazine’s list of Hungary’s best value wines, drove straight in from the vineyard on his tractor to meet me.

He had been spraying his vines organically with a combination of sulfur, copper, and orange oil. A high proportion of Somló’s grape growers use only organic treatments, yet another positive attribute of this tiny terroir. The non-interventionist natural wine movement is well represented on the hill by the Abeles and Tomcsányi cellars.

Novelty Sparkler

A novelty from the Kolonics Winery is Juhsecco, a lively, fruity summer sparkler created by adding carbon dioxide via the “bicycle pump” method to still wine made from the region’s signature Juhfark grape.

Talking of which, Kolonics’ spontaneously fermented Juhfark 2018 received 6-12 hours of skin contact and is full-bodied, spicy, and herbal with a waxy texture. Master of Wine Jancis Robinson named it as one of her desert-island wines.

Juhfark (literally translated as “Sheep’s Tail”) currently accounts for around 12% of Somló’s total plantings. It was once prized for its supposed knack of aiding female imbibers in conceiving male offspring; Queen Victoria a great fan and frequent Juhfark drinker.

When under-ripe, Juhfark can be rustic and aggressively acidic, but a growing number of winemakers are now getting this grape very right, making wines with impressive body, structure, and substance, revealing distinctive notes of rhubarb, banana, and pineapple and a stony character.

Tomi Kis of Somlói Vándor feels he has found special plots on the hill’s western side that nicely collect the heat to counterbalance the grape’s natural searing acidity and yield the most complex wines: Somlói Vándor’s 2019 has everything going for it, both in abundance and balance.

While Somló has the Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes in common with Tokaj, there’s also Olaszrizling, which on its day can undoubtedly match the more illustrious aforementioned pair for quality in this terrific terroir. While being undoubtedly Somló, the wines from these grapes also retain their varietal character in spades.

Take a Hike

It is a pleasure to walk up Somló Hill, checking out its funky basaltic rock formations. These include the Barát Szikla (Monk’s Rock), which actually does resemble a monk. Uphill and to the right of it, the Kőkonyha (Stone kitchen) is where the local hill dwellers where once said to cook.

Located right below these remarkable basalt “organ pipes,” Bálint Barcza’s tasting terrace was taking shape on my visit, and he took time out from supervising the building of a stage for live music to show me his wines.

I’d previously tasted a few wines from him that were spot on, but others less so; now, there isn’t a weak link in his fully organic range. An fantastic add-on to tasting here is to walk up between the organ pipes and savor the view back down the hill.

Heading a few hundred meters east of here, just below St. Margit Chapel (Szent Margit kápolna), the marvelously maverick István ‘Stefan’ Spiegelberg, who is half-German and half-Hungarian and used to regularly visit family on the hill on summer holidays while growing up in Berlin, has recently opened his new wine terrace. Its tastefully eclectic design provides the ideal setting for sipping his intense yet über tasty wines.

A great place to gain an overview of Somló wines and of wines from the wider volcanic world in general (and anything else that takes the owners’ fancy) is the Somlói Borok Boltja. Located in the middle of the south side of the hill, it is run by the inimitable Eva Cartwright. She is hosting her popular Midsummer Night tastings this weekend (June 19-20); search for Somlói Napforduló Szombat Éjjel - Somlói Borok Boltja on Facebbok events for more information.

Another good starting point is Tornai Pince, located towards the bottom of the hill, which has a fabulous museum that charts the development of local winemaking, and award-winning wines to match.

For the finest traditional sparkling wines in the country, head to Kreinbacher, which has successfully brought in French know-how and technology to craft elegant sparklers with a local touch, placing the Furmint grape at the core.

Other hidden gems to uncover, such as Imre Györgykovács’ Nagy-Somlói Tramini, smash the assumption that you can’t make high-quality wine from this aromatic grape.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of June 18, 2021.

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