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Hey, ho! Let’s all go Volcanic and Organic

It is easy to dismiss the Chardonnay grape as uninteresting and too ubiquitous to make unique wine, and adhere to the ABC philosophy (Anything but Chardonnay) when choosing what to drink. However, when you taste a good one you realize why this Burgundy-originating variety is planted all over the winemaking world.

Vineyard in Somló, Hungary.

It’s basically a bloody good grape! When you an encounter a great one, it is one of those grapes that can act as a fine articulator of terroir yet also be unmistakably itself with a current of vinous electricity running through it – a charge of pure, unadulterated Chardonnay.  

Such was the case at Borjour’s Somló Nagykóstoló tasting, held at the Stefánia Palota on November 8, when István “Stefan” Spiegelberg poured a spontaneously fermented and barrel vinified Chardonnay from the 2017 vintage that perked up the palate with a generous amount of fruity freshness.  

It costs HUF 6,000 directly from the cellar (spiegelberg.hu), which is the same price as his other impressive wines made from the more conventional local varieties of Olaszrizling, Furmint, Hárslevelű and Juhfark, the latter being almost exclusive to Somló.  

Somló is Hungary’s smallest region, but it is certainly capable of producing big, explosive wines from its volcanic basalt soils. Of the region’s young guns, the wines of Bálint Barcza appear to have stepped up a gear with the 2017 vintage.  

His Furmint 2017 is pure and juicy, with lime, pear and green apple notes and a very smooth yet textured palate. It was spontaneously fermented in the tank, then aged in used oak for three to four months, with the oak barely detectable, yet helping the wine pick up texture and complexity though allowing oxygen gently in. This is a good buy at HUF 3,800 a bottle direct from the winery, barczabor.hu.

Back in 2014, one of the legendary figures of Somló Hill, the much-loved Béla Fekete, who was then approaching his late 80s, sold his winery to the trio of Ákos Dölle, György Emmert and Gábor Riesz, who were intent on preserving the great man’s trademark style.

Several years on and Béla bácsi (“Uncle Béla”), now in his 90s, still consults at the winery and the wines are as rich, layered and complex as ever. You can still also find the last wine made and bottled by Fekete himself, the Hárslevelű from 2013, for HUF 4,150 from Borårum. (Incidentally, the previous vintage 2012 is still available for HUF 3,150 from Bortársaság.)

Traditional Methods

Fekete Wines almost totally eschew the use of modern technology to vinify mainly in a traditional manner, using an old press and old barrels, although the 2013 Hárslevelű did see a bit of stainless steel.

After skin contact of between two and four hours, spontaneous fermentation was carried out in Hungarian barrels of 1,000 liters, followed by 12 months of ageing in the same type of barrels, and then another two years in stainless steel tanks before bottling, presumably to keep the wine fresh and prevent it from prematurely oxidizing.

The Fekete Wines are built for the long haul and are aged for years in the cellar before release, which serves to chisel down the sharp edges as the acidity mellows and aged notes give the wine that additional “X” factor.

Fekete Wines will be one of 40 Hungarian producers pouring their wares at “GoVolcanic”, a three-day event that will be held at Holdudvar, on Budapest’s Margitsziget (Margaret Island), from November 29 to December 1.

The other Hungarian regions represented are Mátra, Tokaj, Bükk and Balaton, with Hungarian producers from Ménes and Szerémség (in present day Romania and Serbia) also in attendance.

They will be joined by a host of foreign wineries from Etna, Vulture, Soave, Lessini, the Canary Islands, the Azores, Tekov, Slovakian Tokaj and France.  

Additionally, there will be vinous presentations held by the likes of John Szabo (a Canadian Master Sommelier with Hungarian roots and author of “Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power”); Elizabeth Gabay, Master of Wine; and U.S. wine blogger Alder Yarrow.

Astounding Wines

The guest of honor will be another Somló legend, Imre Györgykovács, who is rarely found outside of the region, where he has long turned out astounding wines from his sole hectare of land.  

His Nagy-Somlói Tramini 2017 (HUF 6,150 from Bortársaság) is a remarkable wine as it flies in the face of the assumption that you can’t make high quality wine from this aromatic grape.  

Vinified in old barrels, it certainly does capture the rosewater, lychee and floral aromas associated with the grape but without overpowering the olfactory senses. Then, it gives and gives on the sublime, structured and very long palate that balances out the aromatic appeal of the nose.

Meanwhile, the annual Mitiszol? (literally “What are you Drinking?”) is the year’s big Budapest tasting of so-called “natural wines”, i.e. wines made without the use of pesticides and herbicides and such like artificial products, with natural treatments such as copper, sulfur and orange oil used to spray the vines.  

It will be held this year in a new venue for the event, in Bálna, on Saturday (November 16). The idea is that by using natural organic and biodynamic treatments, the soil comes back to life and the terroir can better express itself in the wine, while the consumer also gets a clean, uncontaminated product.  

The natural wine movement continues to be as polarizing as it is exciting. The treatments do not quite totally blast away the bugs and fungal diseases that blight the grapes in the same way as pesticides might do, sometimes resulting in a few twists of nature bringing about some funky flavors.

ABC can also be used to refer to Anything but Cabernet, that is Cabernet Sauvignon, a key component of so-called Bordeaux blends. Hungarian takes on the Bordeaux blend will be poured at the Bordói November Nagykóstoló (Grand tasting), which will be held at the Corinthia Hotel on Saturday (November 16).

Of the Bordeaux varieties, it is Cabernet Franc which appears most at home in Hungary. This year’s “Franc & Franc”, which puts the lesser known Cab under the spotlight, will be held in the grape’s Hungarian epicenter of Villány from November 22-23.