Sunday, 19 September 2010

How we roll in Szekszard country

Szekszard is in the far south of the Hungary and lies about 10km from the Danube, the region itself is really a series of small hills (290 metres being the tallest) and the valleys that interconnect them. The soil tend to be deep loess, occasionally reaching depths of 30/40 metres. This is red wine country, the richness of the soil makes it hard to retain the acidity in the white grapes.

The town itself is a charming little place with a long history. The Romans brought viticulture to the region, and by the 11th century it was important enough for Bela I to found a Benedictine monastery (for the early Christian kings the network of monasteries were an essential part of the modernisation and civilisation of the country), the remains of which can still be seen. The town lies at the foot of the hills, and a short drive is enough to have you in the heart of the region. It's a very friendly and human sized landscape. With houses dotted between the vines, indeed one of the problems the region suffers is the proliferation of hobby growers, small patches of vineyards tended at the weekends by increasingly elderly growers, as the younger generation shows less and less interest in spending their weekends pruning, these are falling into disrepair, particularly problematic as in worse years they are a disease reservoir creating problems for growers nearby. The other issue is that many have small buildings and sheds nestled in the rows. This makes it hard and quite expensive to integrate the vines into larger and better managed holdings.

Viticulturally the region is quite diverse, as mentioned earlier the bulk of the plantings are red varietals, though of the whites Olaz Riesling is the most planted, and I have had nice examples of both Viognier and Czersegi Fuszeres (not a varietal I can see succeeding in the UK market).
Of the reds the traditional Hungarian varietals are Kadarka, Kekfrankos (the same as Blaufrankish from Austria), Zweigelt, and there's some ill advised plantings of Blauburger (a Kekfrankos x Portugeiser) a high yielding and pretty bland crossing. Then there are the international brigade. These are mostly Bordelais varietals, Cabernet Franc leads the pack, with many excellent examples demonstrating that it may well have found a home from home here in southern Hungary (what is it about the Loire getting usurped qualitatively with its prize varietal possessions, it's a bit like the English with sports.... bring them international renown then sit back and watch other countries do them better). There are extensive Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon plantings too, all three of which are considered classic varietals for the region. Finally some of the more forward looking growers are experimenting with Syrah, and in one case Tannat and Sagrantino.

Like most of Hungary the transition from the Soviet era mindset hasn't been without problems, however the region has been blessed with the irrepressible Zoltan Heimann, currently president of the growers association, which under his leadership has seen the number of growers bottling for themselves grow from about 50 to nearly 200. The Heimanns have been instrumental in raising the quality and renown of the region, and I'm pleased to say that they show no real inclination to stop, further more their son Gabor has recently graduated from Geisenheim and is currently in Tuscany broadening his view of the international wine world.

There are a core of growers that are producing serious wine which stands up very well against international competition, the largest of these would be Takler, though Esterbauer and Vestergombi deserves mentions too. Finally and possibly most interestingly there are a couple of young smaller growers who are generating a lot of excitement with their wines. Csaba Sebestyen and Miclos Palos, though approaching their wine making from slightly different angles are both producing exceptional wines that deserve to be sought out and seen by a wider audience.

Sadly, my time in the region has coincided with possibly the worst vintage of the modern period. Hail in the summer left the vines damaged and rot prone, warm and damp weather sent peronspora raging through the vineyards, often giving growers less than a day to respond, those that hesitated or didn't have good enough canopy management suffered very large crop losses. Frustratingly the well aerated canopies that were necessary to avoid mildew problems also meant that there wasn't that much in the way of leaves, which in turn has meant for many growers what they are harvesting is of a much lower must weight than desired.

The sole mitigating factor is that in the cellars, shielded from all but the most dedicated drops of water there are barrels of the 2009 to taste. 09 was a stunning year for Szekszard, with the only problems was that sugar levels shot up at the end of the summer giving wine makers like Agnes Heimann all sorts of headaches as must weights needed lowering just to get the fermentations started. Indeed Ferenc Takler had to use Veronese yeasts for his Cabernet Sauvignon, only yeasts trained up on Amarone levels of sugar were going to cope and last the distance to the 17% final alcohol levels.

There is a bewildering number of wines and styles produced in this small region. At the entry level there are a host of varietal wines, mostly well made and demonstrative of correct varietal character. The international varietals work well at their respective price points, but aren't really going to set the world on fire. However there are Kekfrankos' that are easily of a level with the very best produced in Austria, I have a soft spot for the slightly difficult Kadarka, and as I mentioned earlier, Cabernet Franc is regularly exceptional. Finally the blends, this is where for me the finest wines lie. From the traditional Bikaver (Bull's Blood) through wines labelled simply as cuvee (hazasitas or birtokbor) to proprietary blends, Heimanns Borbar particularly stands out. There are wines that deserve a wider audience.
A small selection of Szekszard's best wines:

Heimann Viognier 09 – from a northerly slope, stainless steel ferment and no malo ensure that this is fresh as a daisy with lovely pear fruit aromas.

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.

Takler Bartina cuvee 06 – a blend of Kekfrankos, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc with 16 months of new oak, it's a brooding dark and complex wine with blackcurrants, cigar box, spice and is full bodied with copious but ripe tannins.

Sebestyen Pince, Ivan-Volgyi Bikaver 07, a single vineyard Bikaver (50% Kekfrankos, 10% Kadaraka, 25% Merlot and 15% Cab S/F), gorgeously scented dark berries, extremely elegant with beautifully knitted tannins and slight hint of earthiness on the finish.

Palos Miclos Bormuhely, Bodzasi dulo Kekfrankos 07 – full bodied and complex, minerally dark berries, blackcurrants and morello cherries on the nose. Some fresh tannins and an excellent core of acidity keep this direct. The most elegant of 3 very good single vineyard Kekfrankos' that make for a very enlightening horizontal tasting.

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