When you think to Hungarian wines, the region of the Matra mountains north of Budapest is not the first wine region you think about, but until not so long ago it was an active wine-producing region with deep roots in the villages, every family tending a vineyard and making its own wine. The village of Gyöngyöspata east of the mid-size town of Gyöngyös (picture on left) saw along the recent history its wine culture dwindle until a small group of young winemakers led by Bálint Losonci invested themselves in this volcanic hills with a philosophy of reflecting the terroir and add no additives during the vinification.
Initially, Bálint Losonci wasn't at all in the wine trade, he was living in Budapest and was considering without real passion to study and work in the usually prized field of law or informatics as these were options of choice at the fall of the communist regime. So from 18 to 22 he studied foreign trade at college but he wasn't really happy about the cursus. Already when he was in primary school, while other boys said they wanted to be astronauts or firemen he was the only one around to say peasant. When he reached the last year of his foreign-trade school in Budapest, he had to spend 6 month training in a business of some sort with some relation with foreign trade. He just saw at that time in 2001 an interview of István Szepsy who was not yet then the famous winemaker he would soon become, and Balint was really deeply impressed by what Szepsy said, by the realities evoqued by his words on terroir and vineyard work. After this, he found a book by Alkonyi Laszlo where many Hungarian estates were profiled and he saw in this book that while major, famous wineries didn't get very good rates there, István Szepsy who was still unknown then got 5 stars. Alkonyi Laszlo was then also running a wine magazine named Borbarát (Friends of Wine) and Balint asked if he could spend training time there. He tasted plenty of wines there and learnt a lot, including about what's behind a given wine : the vineyard work, the yields, the vinification details, all of which not being then questions to ask in the conventional wineries and tasting events. He ended up working full-time for this magazine, and it lasted 5 years, after which he quit because he was setting up his own winery.
You have to know that in the communist era the regime had to make concessions because of the agriculture and viticulture traditions in the countryside, so each adult could own 0,3 hectare of vineyard and make his/her own wine with it. This said, the communist planners destroyed much of the good vineyards of the region using powerful soviet-made tractors in order to plant high-yield crops, and they also moved the vineyards to Eger and to the flat land for productivist reasons.
The Tokaj region was more lucky as the steep slopes there were not fit for these tractors, allowing the local vineyards to survive more or less. In the Matra region everything is almost to reconstruct from scratch as the great vineyard-planted slopes of the early 20th century were erased or abandoned and conquered by woods and bushes. You can still today see the vertical stripes of bushes on the hills which materialize from afar the former parcels, like on the picture on left showing the excellent terroirs above Gyöngyös. Among the young people in this town, few probably know that these slopes were not so long ago yielding excellent wines.
Bálint says that these terroirs with a thin layer of earth have a great potential for wine if someone dares to revive them, and that's what he and his friends are doing in Gyöngyöspata. Balint says that the planting in the flat land that was made in the 2nd half of the 20th century needs more sprayings, like 7 or 8 times a year while on steep slopes, along his own experience, you can do with one ot two sprays, because the breeze, the draining soil makes the diseases unlikely. On the flat land the soil is too rich also, making bigger fruits and yields with softer skins, which makes them vulnerable to disease. A conventional grower in the region typically plows the rich, dark earth and sprays herbicide underneath the row, letting all the fruit grow for as big yields as possible (see picture of this parcel lower right). This conventional vineyard has yields of about 40 tons for its two hectares, and just to compare with his own two-hectare parcel he made only 3 tons of grapes. No need to say that you don't make the same wines with such different yields (not to speak of the heavy correction with additives to polish the former)... The grower sells the grapes to a large winery/negoce. A large part of the very cheap wine found on the market in Hungary comes from Italy, it was particularly true 2 years ago when the yields fell down because of the weather conditions, and bulk wine was imported illegally from Italy and labelled as Hungarian by large wineries which were short in juice.
Asked if he plans to add surface to his present 6 hectares he says he's not sure, there's a limit in the surface he can handle alone, but he's possibly open to add a half hectare if he falls upon a great opportunity. He could hire but the quality of the vineyard work is so important that he prefers to do it himself. The pruning is one of these important steps in the management, he begins early january when he is sure that the sap went down to the roots, but it is sometimes slow because of the weather conditions. snow, melting snow, mud, advancing slowly at the pace of 0,3 hectare a day. He uses 2 part-time employees when needed, they're always the same and know his vineyard well.
The picture above was shot in his 2-hectare parcel, planted with 45 year-old olasz riesling, it is not yet in the best conditions but he says it's the best terroir he has with all these volcanic stones in the soil, which landed in this mixed manner because there was a volcanic geyser above in the geologic past..
Villany, the other wine region of Hungary is less interesting, the terroir is not so good, there's no clay and the mainstream wineries are still quite rich, making high yields and polishing their wines with enolgy techniques and additives. There's not a movement of artisan winemakers there, barely 3 interesting, newly-created wineries, like Wassmann for example. Balint says that international experts have found little character in the wines of the region, writers like Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin, Wojciech Bońkowski or Isabelle Legeron didn't find interesting wines in Villany.
The picture above shows one of his rented vineyards (35-40-year-old olasz riesling), he took it over in a very bad shape, it was abandoned for a few years and he made an arrangement with the owner to begin pay the rent when it is back on track. He has also to partly replant the missing vines and refurbish the trellis system
A few years ago the market for grapes was very bad, with very low prices, and the European Union gave out subsidies to uproot. And now with the market price in better shape (doubled compared to 5 years ago) it's all the way around, the EU is subsidizing the new plantations. We passed one that had received the money but the vineyard with its baby vines looked unkempt with even lots of missing vines. I'm not sure that the EU subsidizes the right farmers (same problem in France), especially that the EU-paid replantings are usually on flat, uninteresting land.
Balint studied in a wine school for adults prior to setting up his winery but the teachers there only taught conventional winemaking and if a student spoke of the possibility to have the fermentation start by itself without lab yeast they would be looked upon as fools. This nonetheless helped him for a few things, even though on the winemaking issue he didn't use the recipes he was given there.
Two weeks ago he made the shoot selection manually, taking off the shoots he considers are in excess, as well as leaves in order to aerate the foliage and the future grapes. I noticed that this area at the Matra foothills is always windy and he nods, saying that it helps avoid disease and keep the grapers safe. Also there is almost never a frost on these slopes, the occasional frost occuring on the flatland further down.
As you can see he lowered dramaticly the height of the vine, it was definitely too high, with the shoot hovering well beyond the wires. He then cut the wood at 50 cm so that the shoots could be comfortably at the average height of these wires and rest on them after the tying. Also, acidity was a bit too high and whith more heat from the neared ground he can have a more balanced fruit.
The hole in the ground is not some kind of tilling of his, it is the work of wild boars who were apparently smelling something particular at this spot, Balint suspects it could be truffles... There's a lot of clover that grows naturally on this place, and he likes it because it's synonym with natural nitrogen. The soil has a big clay component and with the drought of the summer, like elsewhere in the region's vineyards you see cracks in the ground, which aerates but also dries it. In this regard, he likes to keep this weeds cover because it brings a bit of humidity on the soil in spite of the drought. He may also sow weeds with long roots so that when they die in winter the void in place of the roots further aerates the soil.
Here the yields is around 0,6 or 0,8 kg per vine, depends of the vine, a stronger will make 1,2 kg while a weaker one 0,5 kg. He is satisfied with the color of the leaves, they look healthy and happy.
When he took over this parcel he discovers afterwards that there's also a row of dark Kadarka, a variety used here to bring color in the wine. The wineries here compensate the light color of their excessive yields (7 to 8 kg per vine) by using the trick of Kadarka. He vinifies it with a parcel of Turan, another coloring variety has further in the south.
These rows are planted at a 3,5-meter distance (they were planted with big tractors in mind) and he plans to plant an additional row between them, as this is a loss of surface. For the 0,3 hectare of young pinot noir that he planted recently (picture on right) he chose a higher density, the rows being planted close to each other. He plans to buy some day a small tractor, and for the time being, he relies on a friend in the village who lets him use his own (picture on left), an Italian-made Antonio Carraro. He fenced the pinot noir to keep the deers or wild boars away. The pinot noir is a clone 777, a good quality clone.
He has also outstanding colleagues in Eger or Tokaj, working with the most demanding principles on the vineyard and a non-corrected vinification, who samely were singled out in the appellation tastings because their wines were too different from the conventional wineries doing high yields and corrections. What happens, he says is that typically they fail two times and the thirs year they opt to stay out of this weird appellation system that rewards the industrial wines.
Balint's facility is located in the same village of Gyöngyöspata, at a short walking distance of the house where he lives with his wife and two young boys. He purchased this large house a few years ago, after making his wines elsewhere in less-favorable conditions. The house is not in perfect condition but is perfectly fit for winemaking, plus it has a nice vaulted cellar. It was in the early 20th century or possibly before that, a csendőrség post (police quarters), and you can still see the prison cell with a small window with bars overlooking a corridor...
Inside the cellar, there are both barrels and plastic vats, these white tanks are Hungarian made, by a company named Turk. They're very economical compared to stainless-steel and are easy to move around. With the floating lid they can keep whatever volume safe and they exist in different sizes. Very easy to clean too, and very cheap. I'm sure they would do a killing in France too, stainless steel is quite expensive.
We taste a first wine :
__ Olasz Riesling 2013, from one of these white vats. Turbid, still working. The yield that year was 0,8 kg per vine for his Olasz Riesling. He tries in te previous years both oak and neutral vats and he prefers the expression with the vats. In 2013 the acidity was high, so he doesn't mind if the malolactic is done. He doesn't check the occurence of the malolactic anyway.
Olasz Riesling 2013 from other white vat. Turbid. Selection of vines here, with lower yields. Still sweet, like if we were still in october.
Zöld (Grüner Vetliner) 2013, another white. Not turbid, nice golden color. Low acidity, it seems to me. Almost finished.
__ Pinot Noir (not sure of the vintage, 2013 I think). Superb nose, nice color. Clone 777, planted in 2006, yields : 0,8 kg per vine. He didn't like the wine stage 2 months ago and he notices a big change. Mouth : refined, with aromas of alcohol-soaked cherries, prune too. 400 bottles of this (small parcel and young vines). His top pinot noir will sell for 13-15 € retail.
__ Pinot Noir 2013, from a 17-hectoliter white vat on the street level. The base pinot noir, entry-level wine that will cost 8 €. All his reds are unfiltered and unfined. Nice wine too, and good acidity. Onctuous wine. This other pinot-noir parcel was supposed to be uprooted because the former owner couldn't get his targeted yields of 4 kg per vine in spite of all the fertilizers he dumped there. When Balint heard about this "problem", he jumped on the opportunty and volunteered to rent the parcel, and now he says it was his best move, the clone was a low-yield clone, exactly what he was looking for...
Balint tells me that as a manager of a small winery he has to maneuver through the difficult task of filling the paper work for the administration. The workload is the same that for a large winery and almost every year comes some kind of new regulation [I suspect the EC has to do with this...] even though this new government took some steps to simplify the hurdles. The problem is that the administration is a power by itself and resists the political orders, finding ways to make the businesses feel who is the real master. Balint tells me about an interesting comparison in this regard : there's an Austrian winegrower (Weninger Weingut) who happens to have two estates, one in Austria and one just on the other side of the border in Hungary's Sopron region (one kilometer away), everything is the same, the weather, the varieties, the soil, but Franz Reinhard Weninger said that the administration formalities are 10 times more difficult on the Hungarian side. Austria, Balint says, is probably a model in Europe for their dealing with small wineries (and business), they made it very easy for artisan wineries to avoid administrative hurdles not adapted at their size and quality-centered farms, there are much less controls and it really boosts the artisan producers.
__ Turan, the red coloring variety. Flower, rose aromas. Mouth less seducing. Yields are too high here he says, about 2 kg/vine.
Time to go back to the family house and have dinner with his wife and the children, Balint grabs a few bottles so that we can taste bottled wine while having dinner.
__ Kalaka Pince, Tökösmal 2013, 70 % Hárslevelü 30 % Furmint, this wine is not hios, it comes from his fried in the Tokaj region. He used only 30 % of the press juice (the 1st press). Very pure and elegant. Balint says that it is very difficult to make a dry Furmint that is elegant. Nice wine. Costs about 25 €.
__ Furmint 2013 (back to his own wine). Thin glass paper feel on the palate, I like this mouth touch. Very good balance. Costs 7 € only retail. Acidity (natural of course) is 9,5, he says. 2013 was a good year for acidity, he adds, the previous excellent year in that regard being 2008, after that the summers were too hot. Balint Losonci uses only screwcaps as closures on his whites, he says that it seems that the natural cork shipped to Hungary is more prone to TCA and other problems, so he decided to stop buying them and use the very safe screw system.
__ Riesling 2013. Free So2 : 40, because there's 40 gr of residual sugar here. 12 % alc. Tastes much less than 40 gr, and when he brought the sample to the lab for analysis he expected to find 15 or 20 gr. This wine is the first to be totally organic. In 2014 all the wines are made from organic vineyards. But anyway, from the start of hiw winery, he never used any herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Regarding the SO2 he routinely sprays some at the surface of the incoming grapes by security, although I noted that he uses 10 kg boxes for the hand picking. This is not my role but I kind of lobby for the use of smaller amounts of SO2...
Speaking of spraying on the vineyard, he uses some biodynamic preparation and he also uses an homeopatic organic product gathering many plant and mineral extracts (60 or more) that has the color of the earth and is staying a long time on the leaves when he sprays it. It's called Biomit Plussz and he can do without other spraings including copper and sulfur.
__ Nyitni Kek 2013. The name is a play of words. Kekfrankos. Blend of Kekfrankos and Magyarfrankos actually. Balint says he is the only one in the whole Hungary to make wine from Magyarfrankos. It is a hybrid that was experimentally planted in the village. Partly fermented with skins 6 or 7 days, with cap punching, then the rest of the fermentation continued after pressing. Aromas of coffee and kirsh. So2 total 60 or 70, but often less, he says (he puts some both on the incoming grapes and before bottling).
__ Urrateszi Kekfrankos 2011. Color, paler, evolved. Interesting bitterness at the end of the mouth.
__ Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. He quit renting this parcel because the region is not ideal to ripe cabernet sauvignon. Interesting nose with dust notes.