Zoltan Heimann cuts an impressive figure, tall and powerfully built his close cropped white hair and beard separate him from the crowd. Garrulous and endlessly quotable, he has dragged the region of Szekszard into the Hungarian wine scenes limelight. Not only has he galvanised an whole group of younger growers but he's also made some pretty fabulous wines.
Trying to taste wine and talk with him at the Buda wine festival is an exercise in patience as almost every other person walking by has to stop to chat. Every now and again he'll put a bottle on the table and whisper apologies, it's the head of the national bank or some other notable that he just has to have a quick word with.
Occupying slightly less of the limelight is Agnes his wife, no less imposing, though slightly quieter, this is very much a two person team and any time spent with the both of them reveals a couple, both focused and dedicated to their soil and land.
The Heimanns have roughly 40 ha of vines with a very interesting selection of varietals. Zoltan explains, it's their duty to revivify the region, and this means sorting out the plantings. Along with Kadarka, they have Merlot, both Cabernets, Kekfrankos, Syrah, and experimental plantings of Tannat and Sagrantino.
Large portions of their vineyard has been replanted, with more in the planning stages. They're vineyard land is comparatively well consolidated being in 2 main groups, most of it visible from their house on the top of the hill. They have plantings on the highest of the Szekszard hills, with the 290 metre marker lying in the block of 'French Merlot' which goes into their top cuvees. The choice of Tannat and Sagrantino as experimental plantings has been quickly justified as anyone who's been lucky enough to taste Franciscus or their Barbar blend will tell you, both varietals combine well with the existing stock adding respectively, an exotic bitter cherry, herbal and medicinal core to some silken Cabernet Franc, and as tight earthy tannic heart to a blend of the regions other grapes.
As for the indigenous grapes, the Heimanns have been at the forefront of the search for better clonal stock for Kadarka, a grape with which they regularly make very seductive wines.
Zoltan was elected president of the growers association some five years ago, at the time there was a degree of resilience to the appointment, though this was mainly from the older growers, who hadn't quite come to terms with the change in focus needed to prosper in the modern world of wine. His first tenure has been a great success with the number of growers bottling their own wine going from around 50 to close to 200, and a much more organised and cooperative approach to marketing the region (anyone who's followed Hungarian wine marketing will know that organised and cooperative are words rarely found in the same paragraph as marketing).
My visit to the winery coincided with possibly the worst vintage of the last 20 years, blame has been tentatively laid at the foot of the Icelandic volcano that erupted in early May, with the theory being that the ash clouds that covered Europe caused major climatic changes, particularly to the central European basin, Hungary, the Czech republic and many other central Eastern European countries have all experienced very cold and incredibly wet summers. Speaking to growers across the country the rough figure quoted is 50% loss of crop, though obviously there are small growers who have fared much much worse. In the case of the Heimanns, they have no Kadarka this year, nine tenths of the crop was left on the ground, and that which was harvested was so low in sugar and phenolic ripeness to be relegated to their siller wine. The later harvesting varietals, whilst still healthy are in need of a good month of extra sunshine. This doesn't look like it will be forthcoming.
Resilience is built into the Heimann DNA, that and starting things from scratch. Zoltans great grandfather was blinded just before the end of the great war, returning home to try and rebuild his life, he was further crushed by the great depression of the late 1929/30. After weathering the economic storm, he and his son were then pulled into the maelstrom of the second world war. Zoltan's grandfather was drafted to fight on the eastern front at the age of 41. After spending some time at the receiving end of Russian hospitality he finally returned a mere 48k. He was the same height as Zoltan (they are a tall family), the strains of being a prisoner of war led to him suffering several debilitating cancers including that of the colon, and needing a bag fitted. Zoltan's father was only 15 when his fathers death forced him to take over the estate. This was during the communist era, when times resolutely refused to improve for Hungary. However he rose to become president of the local cooperative. The collapse of Communism didn't really improve matters for the Heimanns, as the state ownership of the land had stripped them of most of their estate. So from the ½ a hectare that his father had saved they were forced to repurchase all their land at market values. Zoltan and his wife Agnes, then had the unenviable task of replanting, stripping promising sites bare and replacing the vines with more suitable varieties. Their constant forward vision has resulted in a winery and estate the will hopefully break the chain of hardship. Indeed the winery is set up with a view to being converted to gravity controlled flow should his son desire to install it.
The Heimanns make several ranges of wines, from an easy drinking beaujolais style early release that is pretty much solely for the Hungarian market through to some very top end cuvees that are extremely low production and stay in the cellar to be given to friends and family (there are perks....).
Viognier 09, steel tank and no malo to improve crispness. Very fresh almost apples and pears on the nose with a very crisp and clean palette. A very modern wine.
Fuchsli 09, this is a Siller wine, which is a German/middle European style of very dark rose. It's made with Kekfrankos and Kadarka and has lots of strawberries and cream characters on the nose with darker red fruits making an appearance on the palette and a little lick of tannin an the finish. Zoltan claims that making the siller wine style is help it stand out in a crowded rose maket, but I suspect it's more to do with the more intense rose working better with soda water for spritzers...
As for their Kekfrankos plantings, like most of the region they have quite a bit, though their most promising vineyard was purchased in 2005 in a very bad way, with roughly 40% of the vines missing and the rest very overgrown. However they were so impressed with the quality of the fruit that they decided to cut the vines right back to the stumps and let them re-establish themselves from water shoots. Right now the vines have their first crop since regrowing, which is heavy as the Heimann's didn't want to put the vines through the trauma of crop thinning just as they were coming back to health.
The 08 showed violets, smoke, spice with cassis fruits and stewed plums on the nose, on the palette it had an interesting combination of medium plus tannins and a lean austere yet almost exotically spiced fruit.
Tasting the barrels of Kadarka in the cellar, it was very instrumental looking at the increasing intensity of the fruit character as we moved up through the quality scale. The top end wines, which go into the top blends, are stunning, showing a great consistency of palette concentration and oodles of dark spicy fruit.
The Heimanns have quite a lot of Merlot planted, with their “French” clones planted in some of their best vineyard sites, indeed it is Merlot that occupies the highest plantings in Szekszard.
The wines go from textbook plummy and sweet fruited varietal examples, to serious opulent and full bodied examples that would challenge in many a blind tasting challenge. Indeed one of the highlights of my visit was tasting 3 different barrels of their top Merlot, which is earmarked for a tete du cuvee blend to ba called Agnes (in honour of Mrs Heimann). The Taransaud new oak showed lots of sweet oak characters and lush fruit, where as the Vicard was much less aromatic but demonstrated a more consistent length and more body on the palette. Finally a Hungarian barrel from Kadar demonstrated a slight rusticity and unrulyness. I'm very excited to see how this wine will end up.
Syrah 07, a warm year this and with a touch of bottle age to the wine this now shows a chocolate and plummy nose, a nice earthy leathery bent ahile on the palette it's full flavoured, though a little hot. According to Zoltan the best Syrah is a bit like a pretty 18 year old Gypsy girl who's not washed for a week, sexy but at the same time quite disturbing...
The 2008 which is from a cooler vintage was very different. Crushed black pepper lurking around inky dark fruit, a gorgeous creamy ever so slightly medicinal (think camphor) palette with just the slightest hint of earthiness at the finish.
The 09 from barrel was different still, showing meaty leathery dark fruit. Much closer to a Barossa archetype than the Hawkes Bay that the 08 resembled.
Heimanns top wines are their blends, these are the ones that I feel really show off the potential of Szekszard as a world class region.
Britokbor 07 (50 % Cab F, 30% Merlot and 15% Kekfrankos, plus some other stuff)
This showed a rich and ripe nose taking in sour dough bread, violets, cherries, crème de cassis, a hint of raisins, then on the palette loads of dark cherry fruit with an earthy, meaty and complex long finish.
Heimann Barbar 07 – (equal parts Merlot, Tannat, Cabernet Franc with 10% Kekfrankos) this is a wonderfully earthy, ferrous little beast of a wine, sweet red berried fruit, lots of ripe tannins, and then it opens up to reveal violets and spice.
100% Tannat, called Stilusgyakorlat (roughly translates as experiment in style, a bit like RWT). This is a 15% monster, intense and creamy with loads of dark fruit and licorice, a nice medicinal edge and a palette oozing dark fruit, minted coffee and licorice. Interestingly enough the tannins, though huge, are extremely ripe. Similar, though not the same, as the top Bodegas Juanico tannats from Uruagay.
Franciscus 07, a blend of 2/3 Sagrantino, with 1/3 Cabernet Franc. A wonderful spicy herbal medicinal explosion on the nose, with an edge of big dryish tannins that is mollified by the creaminess of the Cab Franc. Quite unique and very good.
Franciscus 08 (from barrel) the blend is reversed this year to 2/3 Cab Franc and 1/3 Sagrantino, and consequently the dominant character is the violet scented dark berry Cab Franc fruit, but with a lovely polish of medicinal and slightly bitter sweet herbs.