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Etyek Wine Region: Where Limestone and Cool Weather Equal Bubbles
Budapest is one of those special cities which you don’t have to travel far from to reach scenic vineyards, charming wine cellars, and delicious ultra-local wine. In fact, two districts of Budapest are even technically included in the Etyek-Buda region, the wine region sitting in the shadow of Budapest.
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Historically, Etyek has long been known for producing sparkling wines. Hungary’s largest sparkling wine producer, Törley, started producing sparkling wines from grapes grown in the region in 1882. Since then, the area has continued to focus on this style. Etyek’s limestone soil and overall colder climate make it, arguably, Hungary’s best region to grow Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. These are the most important types of wine produced in the area, both as still wines and sparkling wines. Even the Sauvignon Blanc is used to produce Asti-like sparklers.
AN EXTRAORDINARY APPELLATION
The Etyek-Buda wine region—which is usually called Etyek, for short—is a small region (1,652 hectares of vineyards) with PDO status. The region is located west of Budapest, stretching from the Buda hills to the surroundings of Lake Velence (Hungary’s second largest lake, after the mighty Balaton) in the southwest and to slopes of the Gerecse hills in the northwest. This is a hilly area—not mountainous—but full of beautiful rolling hills. Limestone soil is more predominant here than anywhere else in the country.
The Etyek area is one of the coldest climate regions of Hungary, with an average temperature of 9.5° to 10.5° C (49° to 51° F). The minimum average temperature to grow grapes is 10° C. This is due to its location near the 47th northern parallel—winegrowing stretches just until the 50th northern parallel—and to the cold winds arriving from the north. The region also has a higher than average rainfall for Hungary, with around 600 millimeters of rainfall per year (the average is 450 millimeters).
This terroir and these weather conditions result in wines that have fresh crisp acidity, chalky minerality (due to the limestone soil), restrained fruit, and that overall cold-climate-wine-feeling. There is another well-known wine region of the world which has similar meteorological and climatic conditions—which are perfect for producing sparkling wine.
ETYEK VS. CHAMPAGNE
This tiny Hungarian region has some similarities with Champagne, the world’s foremost region for sparkling wines. Both regions are cool-climate. Most red grapes do not thrive in colder climate regions since they cannot fully ripen. So these regions are typically dominated by white grapes. This is why the cold regions of the world—like Germany and Canada—produce mostly white wines.
How does this connect with sparkling wines? Quality sparklers are produced by carrying out two alcoholic fermentations—one in a tank, and a second in the bottle. The first fermentation must produce a base wine which is low in alcohol since the second fermentation will also produce a bit more alcohol. Imagine producing these wines in a warm climate with super-ripe grapes. The wines would be extremely alcoholic! Also, sparkling wines need acidity—it is the most important thing for a sparkling wine. Sparkling wine gets this acidity by being produced with slightly unripe grapes. How do you get grapes like that? Grow them in a cold climate.
This is why Etyek focuses on white grapes and sparkling wines. Eighty-two percent of its vineyards are planted with white grapes. The red grapes which are planted are mostly the cold-climate-loving Pinot Noir (117 hectares). There’s also a bit of Kékfrankos and Cabernet Sauvignon. The plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon (a grape which needs a warm-climate) are probably due to the trend towards heavy-red wine production in the 1990s.
But Etyek is far from being a Hungarian copy of Champagne. There are several big differences. Wineries in Champagne are focused exclusively on “traditional method” sparkling wine production (which is when the second fermentation takes place in the bottle), and almost all of their wine has bubbles. Etyek, however, produces a lot of sparkling wine, but not all of it is produced using the traditional method. Much of it is produced in the Frizzante style, which means that the bubbles (or the CO2) are infused into the wine just before bottling (instead of being naturally created by a second fermentation inside the bottle).
Also, Etyek uses several different grape varieties—both aromatic and non-aromatic ones— to produce bubbly wine like Irsai Olivér, Szürkebarát (Pinot Gris), Olaszrizling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. In comparison, Champagne almost exclusively uses three non-aromatic varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier. Etyek also produces lots of still (non-bubbly) wine, and it is one of the Hungarian regions where the most Zöldveltelini (Grüner Veltliner) is planted (129 hectares).
The Etyek region is divided into three sub-regions—Buda, Etyek, and Velence—which produce wines with different styles. These sub-regions can be used as labelling terminology, but do not bear separate PDO status.
The Buda area includes the Buda-hills territory, just west (and within) Budapest. Similar to Vienna—which has a PDO region of its own within its borders—these areas of Budapest (the XXII. and XII. districts) could also make wine and label it under the Etyek-Buda PDO appellation. The Buda area is mostly known for its sparkling wine cellars, and for the Törley sparkling wine house and museum, located in Budafok, the neighborhood on the edge of the city (XXII. district) where to this day most of Hungary’s sparkling wines are produced.
Etyek is the area surrounding the Etyek town. The town holds several old cellar rows, which can be visited by tourists. The Öreghegy (“Old Hill”) part of town is where several of the most high-profile wineries are located, and where they have vineyards planted.
The Velence sub-region is further southwest, around Lake Velence, stretching almost to the university town of Székesfehérvár. This area produces wines that are slightly riper and richer, due to the lake’s moderating effect. Most of the producers here are small family-owned businesses which operate on the hobby level. Most of their wines are consumed locally.
Etyek’s best features were not always considered a strength. During the time when full-bodied red wines were the most popular style, the southern-Hungarian red wine producers looked down on Etyek for not being able to produce this popular style, and for only being capable of producing ‘base wine’ for sparklers. Ironically, elegance and bubbles are once again popular. Now, even wineries in southern-Hungary are trying to make the type of bubbly wines which Etyek excels at.
Since József Törley established his sparkling wine cellar back in 1882, the region has changed dramatically. But the same spirit which brought it fame back then—elegance, finesse … and bubbles—continue to make it such a unique and exciting place to make wine.