Have you ever smelled the rain when it falls on sun–drenched stones? Or the steam rising off natural hot springs? Some wines have that character, what some call minerality. Whatever it is, it’s mesmerizing.
A tip–off came from a credible source: Jean–Philippe Tytgadt, a Belgian with a master’s degree in winemaking. An diehard mineralophile himself, he told me about Lake Balaton in Hungary, Central Europe’s largest inland body of water. Edged on the north side by a series of extinct volcanoes, the potential for minerally wines there, he said, is enormous. As soon as we could, we set off together on a prospecting mission.
After arriving in Budapest, we headed to the lake, an hour or so southwest. Half–timber cottages and thatched–roof houses still outnumber the few garish communist–era lakeside resorts, and it’s clear the “Hungarian Sea” for most means summertime and holidays, sailing, hiking and biking, beachside taverns, thermal baths and late–night disco dancing. We ignored all this and headed straight to the queer trapezoidal hills overlooking the lake.
Tytgadt suggested we concentrate on Somló, Szent György–Hegy and the historically celebrated vineyards of Badacsony right on the lakeshore. These three hillside appellations with their volcanic, south–facing slopes are reputed to produce some of the region’s most distinctive wines. At the foot of Mount Badacsony we get out of the car and are immediately struck by bright sunlight and warm breezes coming off the lake—it feels more like the Mediterranean than continental Europe here. Walking up a steep slope that rises nearly 1,500 feet, I come across a strange–colored vine that I’ve never seen before. JP says they call it kéknyelü, which means “blue–stemmed.” One of the most ancient of the vitis vinifera, it never evolved to the point where it can self–pollinate. In order to ensure a crop, old–time growers co–planted it with another variety, such as budai zšld, that flowers at the same time.
To get a taste of the wine, we stopped into the cellars of Bence Laposa, who makes a range of local specialties from all three appellations under the Bazaltbor label, meaning “basalt wine.” The kéknyelü he pulls from a large, old cask smells like a field of wildflowers, honey and citrus, underneath a mesmerizing whiff of volcanic rock. It’s mouthwatering with its electrifying acidity and salty minerality. Then he pulls a taste of juhfark (ewe’s tail), a specialty from Somló. Traditionally, he says, vintners leave it for years in large old barrels to mellow its steely acidity and let it develop a Sherry–like character. Laposa’s version is fresher, with ripe stone–fruit flavors to cushion the minerality.
Laposa suggests we head just down the hill to visit Huba Szeremley, the largest vineyard owner in Badacsony. Szeremley’s kéknyelü is leaner and more firm, yet still reveals that pure stony flavor. Then we head north, away from the lake, to Somló. There, György Kovács offers us tastes of furmint and harslevelü, two of the principal grapes of Tokaj that are also traditional in this area. His style is dry, and each wine reflects the soil with a fiery, spicy–stony character and generous alcohol. It’s no wonder they used to serve these at royal wedding banquets, believing they’d ensure the birth of a baby boy nine months or so hence.
Continuing back along the lakeshore, we taste wines made from szürkebarát (pinot gris), riesling, muscat ottonel, welschriesling and chardonnay. And many of the wines are astonishing: They share that uncommon flavor of rocks. Here in the heart of old Europe, it seems the soil transcends all, turning these unrelated grapes into close kin that begin to resemble one another in the glass, especially as they grow old. We have found our fix.
This story was featured in W&S August 2009.
This story appears in the print issue of August 2009.
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