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Spotlighting Sopron, Szekszárd and Somló

Drinks

Sopron, tucked away in the northwestern corner of Hungary, can be a little off the radar for Hungarian wine lovers, seemingly having more in common with Austria’s Burgenland, which itself was part of Hungary, pre-Trianon.

The self-professed title of “Capital of Kékfrankos” is perhaps a little cocky, given that Burgenland’s Blaufränkisch provides the benchmark for this pan-Central European red-wine grape.

Nevertheless, Sopron is home to a number of exciting producers, some of whom actually come from the Burgenland, working on some choice places of growth with mica-schist and limestone soils.  

At the end of September I visited with Birgit Pfneiszl, an Austrian winemaker of Hungarian descent who runs a Sopron winery carrying the Pfneiszl family name, together with her sister Katrin. All the grapes were already in, and she spoke of excellent quality, although in a reduced quantity, a similar assessment to other producers in this region of Hungary.  

Távoli Világ (literally Faraway World) from 2015 is not a Kékfrankos but it is Birgit Pfneiszl’s “CV in a bottle”, made from the grapes associated with the far-off corners of the winemaking world where she’s either worked or interned as she built up her wine experience.

There’s Shiraz (South Australia), Zinfandel (California), Carménère (Chile), Malbec (Argentina), Sangiovese (Tuscany). Birgit, who was educated at Klosterneuburg College of Oenology in Austria, planted the latter when she settled in Sopron, making wine on the shores of Lake Fertő.  

Távoli Világ, which costs HUF 3,290 from Monarchia, is a field blend, meaning that the grapes of different varieties were picked and vinified together.

This method works very well as no one grape sticks out and the result is a wine that is very much Sopron in character, with good acidity, medium tannins, restrained alcohol (at 13%, less than the typical New World interpretation of the aforementioned grapes), and vibrant (especially red) fruit.  

Classy and Concentrated

While Pfneiszl’s Kékfrankos – Ugrál a Kenguru 2015 (HUF 4,090 from BorPont – bortnekem.hu) is classy and concentrated, if a tad oaky (it was aged for 22 months in Hungarian oak barrels), the Merlot “Classic” 2018 (HUF 2,390 from Borháló) – vinified only in steel tank – is delightfully fresh, fruity and is a real “session” red wine, if that term can be switched from the grain to the grape.  

Pfneiszl will be one of 15 Sopron wineries who will be pouring their wines at Borjour’s walkaround Sopron Show in Budapest at the Hotel Nemzeti Budapest on October 25.  

Before that, 16 of Szekszárd’s finest wineries will be on show at another walkaround, Szekszárd Palackban, or Szekszárd in the Bottle, tasting on October 22, which will be held at Société Budapest on Sas utca.  

While there, look out for the first Bikavér from Szeleshát, an estate that didn’t previously have one its armory due to not having the all-important (for Szekszárd Bikavér) Kadarka grape among its plantings. That has now changed as Szeleshát’s fledgling Kadarka vines have come of age to contribute 5% to the blend.  

The debuting 2017 Bikavér Prémium is immediately appealing on the nose; quite complex but also fruity, with red and black fruit, with the Kadarka certainly making itself felt with its fragrant rosehip note.

The blend is smooth, and also sufficiently robust to appeal to fans of bigger wines, though the alcohol burns a tad on the warming southern palate. It’s likely to mellow nicely as it’s still quite young and although a bit tight, it has a spicy mouthful.  

The rest of the blend is made up Kékfrankos (45%), Merlot (20%), Cabernet Franc (20%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%). The grape varieties were separately fermented by controlled fermentation in tanks, and then blended before being moved to barrels for ageing; half of the wine went into large French barrels of 4,000 liters, and half into small 225 liter Hungarian barrels, both for a year. The oak is very well integrated.  

It costs a very reasonable HUF 3,900 a bottle from the cellar and delivery is free in Budapest if you buy a minimum of six bottles. It will hit the shelves later at Bortársaság, well in time for Christmas.

Little and Large

Somló, meanwhile, may be Hungary’s smallest wine region, but some of the country’s biggest whites are born out of its basalt. One such wine I recently tasted is Barnabás Pince’s Hárslevelű 2017. This is one of those rare white wines that actually gets better as it warms up, so rich and complex it is, with no faults to hide.  

Harvested in the middle of October, it was spontaneously fermented in six-year-old barrels. It also manages to capture elements of the grape variety and Somló’s terroir. There’s the honey, citrus and floral aspect of Hárslevelű that’s enhanced by the flinty, oily and nutty Somló touch. It’s smooth, slightly creamy, really full bodied and dense with a certain mushroom-like note.  

It costs HUF 3,500 a bottle from the winery (winemaker Barnabás Tóth delivers personally to Budapest) or HUF 4,350 from demijohn.hu.

I tasted the Barnabás Hárslevelű at the DemiJohn tasting on September 30, but Tóth will be back in Budapest as one of 22 Somló producers at Stefánia Palota on November 12. This Borjour-organized tasting is one I really look forward to.

This miniscule but magical wine region is a hotbed of vinous activity with mavericks like István ‘Stefan’ Spiegelberg making marvelous wines, and young guns like Bálint Barcza (Barcza Pincészet), Tamás Kis (Somlói Vándor Pince) and Péter Tóth (Kőfejtő pince) having firmly established themselves.  

For anyone who missed last month’s Budafoki pezsgő- és borfesztivál (Budafok sparkling wine and wine festival), it’s good to know that this Budapest wine suburb with a cellar network of almost 100 km has mini-festivals running throughout the year, on the first Saturday of each month. The next is on Saturday, November 2.  

While the grapes may come from elsewhere, you can experience the classic Hungarian wine cellar atmosphere without leaving the city. For a small fee, there’s a bus running from opposite the Bálna Budapest building (on the Pest embankment of the Danube in District IX). 

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