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The Charm of Somlo

I'm an American. Like most Americans, my wine journey started with California wines. First drinking them. Then, because I wanted to know more about them, visiting Napa. Cruising Highway 29, dropping into tasting rooms and tasting the flights of wines with all the other folks who were doing the same thing. Over time I learned that the wineries we really wanted to visit were the ones that didn't take drop-ins--they required appointments well in advance. We enjoyed those trips. But it's a big world, wIth lots of interesting places and lots of wonderful wines. To keep going to the same wine region over and over strikes me a bit like getting all your exercise running around a circular track--there's nothing really wrong with it, but wouldn't it be more interesting to jog along different trails through the mountains, along rivers and down shorelines? And so, for the last 15 years we've chosen to visit wine regions all over the world. I was intrigued to see Matt Kramer's article this summer highlighting four wonderful wine regions to visit: Santa Barbara, the Douro Valley, Ribeira Sacra and Tokaj. With our recent visit to Tokaj, we have been to all four and strongly agree with him.

But Matt, on this recent trip we found a lesser-known region that's at least as charming as the four you listed--perhaps even more. It is Somló--the tiny community on a cone-shaped volcanic mountain that rises out of a plain north of Lake Balaton in Hungary. Until recently, it was Hungary's smallest appellation (it's now second smallest). I discovered Somló searching the literature about Hungarian wine. Alder Yarrow had published an article about the region in his award-winning blog Vinography. He was highly enthusiastic--and since I knew he had experience with Hungarian wine, it caught my attention. He described wines that were unique--fresh, minerally and delicious. Wines that authentically represented the place they were from and the people who made them.

And so I decided to include Somló on our agenda. But how? Normally, I know ways to reach winemakers to make appointments--or, if I don't, I know someone who does. But not Somló. Most people I asked about Somló said: "Where?" The wines of Somló have little presence in the wine shops and on the restaurant wine lists in the Washington DC area. So I reached out to Alder--and he put me in touch with Eva Cartwright, owner of the Somló Wine Shop pictured above. It was a great favor. She proved to be remarkably generous with her time, charming, spirited and passionate about the wines of Somló.

Eva was born and raised in Somló, but moved to London as a young woman (which explains her flawless English) and achieved success in the corporate world. She was married there (which explains her last name). When the marriage ended, she began splitting her time between London and Somló. Her time in the UK had given her context in which to appreciate the wines of Somló. She realized they were excellent--worthy of inclusion with the best white wines of Europe. But no one knew about them. Even in Hungary, few knew about them or where to find them. And so, in 2012, Eva started the Somló Wine Shop--located halfway up the mountain. There, she offers 150 or more wines, all made on the hill.

It is a unique terroir. There are vineyards on all sides of the ~1500' conical mountain--sometimes called Witness Mountain. Indeed it has witnessed considerable wine history, as there have been grapes grown on it for an estimated 2000 years. The climats are slightly different, depending on altitude and orientation--but all are significantly influenced by the basalt rock that underpins the hill. The vineyards tend to be small--often very small. Some are owned by a producer--some are shared between several producers. But sharing is not the same as co-operating. As John Szabo (MS) wrote in his excellent book Volcanic Wines, most producers "operate with defiant independence, like their own islands on this mountain-island, and the useful concept of collective marketing is utterly foreign." That's changing a bit--but perhaps only a bit. Eva's shop is a unifying factor. Besides being an advocate for the region, Eva is friend to many of the producers...big sister to some...and, as she put it, "mom" to a few. And it's these young winemakers Eva thinks will play a significant role in moving Somló wines ahead. They include Tamás Kis of Somlói Vandor, Bálint Barcza of Bálint Pince and Péter Tóth of Köfejtö. The three--who studied together--are cooperating on experiments and sharing insights.

That experimentation will, no doubt, bear fruit. But let me be clear. These wines are already very good! At least all of the wines I tasted (and there were dozens) were marvelous. No doubt there are some among the many small producers that aren't quite as good. But the bigger opportunity for progress might be in marketing. As I indicated, winemaking is many centuries old in Somló. Perhaps they could benefit from the example of Oregon. It is only about 50 years since David Lett planted the first pinot noir vines in Oregon--yet by working together, the producers in Oregon have already made their wine industry an international powerhouse. One example of their methodology is the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). Thirty years ago, Oregon producers began collaborating on an annual wine festival that would bring top pinot estates from Burgundy and around the world, along with wine lovers and the wine press, to Oregon. They knew that all of them would benefit if everyone saw that Oregon's wines belonged in the company of the world's best. Indeed, Eva has taken a step in that direction with the Midsummer Night Wine Festival she founded--offering a chance for wine lovers to come celebrate on the beautiful mountain and share the best wines of the region. Somló might also benefit from additional governmental advocacy. For example, the Oregon Wine Board is very active in promoting Oregon's wines (as similar organizations are in Bordeaux, Champagne, etc). If there's any major effort advocating the wines of Hungary--and especially Somló--I didn't see it. And that's too bad. More people need to know about these wines! As I said, they're marvelous.

The grapes in the vineyards on the hill at Somló include furmint and harslevelu--as do the vineyards in Tokaj--and olaszrizling, a soft and fruity grape known as welschriesling in Austria (unrelated to the better known riesling). But the signature grape of Somló is juhfark--Hungarian for "sheep's tail" because the long and tightly clustered bunches which curve at the end bear resemblance to a sheep's tail. Juhfark, which is only grown in any significant quantity in Somló, is considered something of a transparent grape--it takes on the characteristics of the place it is grown. In Somló, the juhfark grapes get good sun, producing a wine of richness--on a frame of strong minerality with the hints of saltiness that can be found in some volcanic soils. I know there are experts who say you can't taste minerality. I defy them to go to Somló and tell me that's not minerality. The result is a wine that tastes ripe and fresh at the same time. Unique and interesting. Indeed, the terroir of Somló is so powerful that the wines, regardless of grape, share characteristics. As Eva pointed out (and our tasting reinforced), as they age, the defining characteristic of wines from the region is Somló more than furmint or juhfark or harslevelu or whatever grape they're made from.

We tasted with four of the best wineries: Bálint Pince, Somlói Vándor, Apátsági Pince and Spiegelberg. As I indicated, Bálint is one of the young guns. He makes wines from all of Somló's grapes. His furmint was complex and delicious, but I particularly enjoyed his Gyalog blend.

Tamás Kis of Somloi Vandor generously hosted us for dinner (Vandor is Hungarian for "wanderer"--he "wandered" to Somló in pursuit of his girlfriend). What a treat to sit on the porch of his cottage, taste his wines, and eat a delicious dinner of paprika chicken and homemade pasta prepared by his girlfriend's father! Tamás is clearly a winemaker on the rise. His wines are outstanding--and he understands the importance of promoting them. He has made trips to the US to pour them and hopes to make another next spring. People who meet him and taste his wines will be believers.

Among the best known of Somló's producers is Apátsâgi (Hungarian for "abbey"). Zoltân Balogh bought the historic property from the former abbey and kept the name. Tibor Fazekas and his daughter Dora make the wines and were generous in pouring them for us. They're rich, ripe and distinctive--combining that richness with the strong structure that underpins all the wines of Somló.

And we had a wonderful opportunity to taste wine with Istvan Spiegelberg (who has been known to introduce himself wryly as "Steven Spielberg"). Spiegelberg, who is half-German, half-Hungarian, was born and spent considerable time in Germany. But his family had a home in Somló, where he also spent considerable time. In 1993, he began making wine as a hobby. A decade later, he got more serious. In an area marked by interesting characters, Spiegelberg is a particularly interesting character. He works largely alone...farming a few hectares and making wines the way he wants (for example, the barrels are serenaded by soothing Gregorian chant). The results are stylish and delicious. I'm not the only one who thinks so. He was named one of Wine & Spirits Wineries of the Year in 2014. Like most Somló producers, he only makes a limited amount of wine, so it was particularly generous that he offered to show us what mature Somló wines taste like, opening bottles that were almost ten years old. There can't be many of those left. Not surprisingly, given the ripe fruit and strong structure, the wines had gained balance and harmony with time. Really wonderful!

If you love wine and enjoy visiting wine regions, Somló should absolutely be on your list. If you're interest is serious, I suspect Eva would offer advice and help you with your planning. She has a site on the web (google "Somló Wine Shop"). She does have two guest rooms above the shop that can be rented. If I were traveling without my wife, I'd love to stay there--it would make a very interesting, authentic experience. My wife has some challenges with stairs, so the new, modern winery hotel at Kreinbacher was the better choice for us (and our friends who have accompanied us on many of these adventures). Nice place, good restaurant. Somló is about a two-hour drive from Budapest.

If you can't get there--or in advance of your trip--some of the wines of Somló are available in the US. If you can't find them in your area (and you should tell your wine shop you want them--the more people who ask, the more likely we are to see them) check the websites for importers Blue Danube Wine and Palinkerie.

We've been blessed to go to some special places in search of good wine. Somló is a really, really special place.

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