The southern-facing Kopár vineyard is on Szársomlyó hill in Villány, a steep, rocky hillside, which looks almost lifeless from afar. With its sharply pointed peak, this hill is emblematic of the Villány region. It’s name translates as barren, but some of Hungary’s top red wines come from this vineyard. One of those wines is the namesake Kopar blend, made by the Attila Gere Winery, which is arguably one of Villány’s best-known wines. Kopar was one of the first wines to be produced in the modern era of Hungarian winemaking (beginning after Communism ended in 1989) to become really famous in Hungary, and to also get international recognition.
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Right from its first release in 1997, Kopar became a symbol of the Villány region, and also Gere’s signature wine. Its name became well-known in Hungary, and was associated with top quality. It became the sort of wine that one would buy on special birthdays, anniversaries, as gifts for important business partners … or for anyone who you really wanted to impress. Full-bodied, and age-worthy, it is still one of Hungary’s most sought after wines, and has a big following in Hungary—with tasting groups getting together for vertical Kopar tastings, and fans buying cases of it to keep in their cellars for years.
NOT JUST A GREAT WINE, BUT A “GRAND” WINE
Every iconic wine has a different creation story. With Kopar, Attila Gere intended to make not just a great wine, but a grand wine. He aimed to create a full-bodied Bordeaux blend, with a flavor profile and style that would be consistent from year to year, and would have great aging potential. He wanted to make a wine that could challenge some of the best wines that he enjoyed on his trips to Bordeaux. Here’s how Attila Gere explains what makes a wine grand: “It is full-bodied, dense, juicy, smooth, and round, with none of the varieties overwhelming the blend. In Villány, in my opinion you need the Bordeaux varieties for this. Portugieser makes good wine, but you can’t make a grand wine from it.”
Kopar was a success from the beginning. It is one of the rare wines in Hungary that is sold en primeur (which means it is sold in advance of its release), due to its high demand. Despite all of the changes and development in the Hungarian wine and hospitality industries over the past 23 years, Kopar has remained pretty much the same. And that is why it is still Hungary’s best known red wine.
THE RECIPE FOR A GRAND WINE
The grapes for Kopar come from four estate-owned vineyards: Konkoly, Ördögárok, Csillagvölgy, and Kopár. The yields are very low, which allows more barrel aging, and results in a more complex wine. Depending on the vintage, most of the blend is aged for 16 to 20 months in mostly small, new Hungarian oak barrels. Currently about 20 percent of the blend is aged in larger and older barrels.
Kopar is only made in the vintages with the right conditions for making a grand wine. 1998 (the year after the wine’s debut) was the first year that Gere skipped producing this wine due to the quality of the harvest. It was made again in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004 with the original recipe, which was approximately 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 percent Merlot, and 20 percent Cabernet Franc. In 2006 Gere changed the recipe, and shifted the blend’s emphasis to Cabernet Franc, which since then provides about 50 percent of the blend (with the remaining being 40 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon). The exact proportions vary slightly from year to year.
VILLÁNY GOES ALL IN FOR CABERNET FRANC
The shift from Cabernet Sauvignon to Franc did not just happen with the Kopar blend. It happened in wineries, vineyards, and blends all over the region around the same time. The region’s love affair with the grape goes back to the beginning of the 2000s, when the late Michael Broadbent (a Master of Wine), famously visited the region. After tasting all of their wines, he wrote an article in Decanter magazine declaring that Cabernet Franc had finally found its home in Villány. Since then, winemakers in the region have singularly focused on the Cabernet Franc variety, not just regulating it to a small component in blends, but making it their signature grape variety and making top-quality single-varietal wines from it.
The Villány region was an early adopter of Hungary’s strict (but voluntary) appellation system. The Védett Eredetű—or Districtus Hungaricus Controllatus (DHC)—was created in 2003 to designate the strictest quality-controlled areas in the country. Villány joined in 2006, adding its crocus trademark to wines which meet its standards. The Villány DHC distinguishes three levels of quality for the region’s wines: Classicus, Superior, and Super Premium. Kopar falls in the Premium category (which specifies that wines must be aged in oak for at least one year, or six months in the case of Kadarka or Portugieser, and grapes must be sourced from lower-yielding vineyards). The Super Premium category was created exclusively for Cabernet Franc, which must be aged for at least two years, including one year in oak barrels, and produced from extremely low-yielding vineyards (maximum 35 hectoliters/hectare).
Due to the adoption of the DHC system, which protects the origin of single vineyard wines, Gere ran into a snag with the name of his wine. Since the grapes in the Kopar blend came from four vineyards (not just the Kopár vineyard), he could not use the name of that vineyard as his brand name. So the accent disappeared from the “a” from the original name of the wine (which was Kopár), and the trademarked name of the blend became Kopar.
THE GERE FAMILY
Attila Gere is an iconic figure in Hungary’s wine scene. The Gere family established the Gere Winery just after the regime change in 1991. Attila and his wife, Katalin (and later their two children), spent the first few years of the 1990s laying down the foundations for the family empire. Gere is not just a pioneer of quality winemaking in Hungary, he is also a pioneer in Hungarian wine tourism. The same year he founded his winery, Gere also established Hungary’s first winery hotel, the Gere Panzió. The family eventually opened a four-star wellness hotel and restaurant, called Crocus Wine Hotel, in the center of Villány. Even before the creation of Kopar, Gere was named Winemaker of the Year in 1994, which is a prestigious award in Hungary. Gere is synonymous with the Villány region, and Villány is synonymous with Gere.
Winemaking in Gere’s family can be traced back at least seven generations. But since his father could not produce wine due the Communist regime’s restrictions, and World War Two interrupted winemaking during his grandfather’s time, Gere didn’t learn about winemaking traditions and know-how from them. He learned from his father-in-law—who made wine at home. It was over a glass of wine in his future father-in-law’s private cellar, that Attila became convinced that great wine could be produced from Villány’s soil and climate. He was convinced that locals were sitting on a gold mine, ready to be discovered. Katalin’s father gifted the couple their first vineyard in Csillagvölgy as a wedding present in 1978.
The Gere Winery has been organically farming its 70 hectares of vineyards since 2010, and they are experimenting with varieties which are unusual to the region, such as Tempranillo. They are also growing exciting ancient Carpathian Basin varieties which are close to extinction, such as Fekete Járdovány, Bakator, Purcsin, Csóka, and others.
THE DREAM, ACHIEVED
During the 1990s, as Gere was exploring the potential of the region, he took many trips to wine regions in the rest of Europe—especially Italy and France—with fellow winemakers from Villány, like József Bock and Ede Tiffán. “I love Bordeaux wines. And we always wanted to make grand wine,” he said. “When we traveled to Bordeaux, we were really impressed with the wines, of course. We tried to figure out what makes their wines so much better than ours. At the end of the day, we realized that their wine is not much better than ours. It was that they used new oak, and had lower yields. Both of those factors made a huge difference.”
By the time he made the first vintage of Kopar, Gere had a good understanding of what kind of wines he wanted to make, and how he could make wines like the impressive ones he tasted in Bordeaux. “I always had the dream of making a grand wine!” The Kopar blend is a result of inspiration from his travels, combined with the Villány terroir. It’s the grand wine that he dreamed about.
“Looking back, I have to say that the 1997 Kopar was not as grand of a wine as the later vintages have been,” reminisced Gere. “We planted 5,000 vines and harvested about 12 bunches from each. Now we have 7,000 vines per hectare, with only seven (maximum eight) bunches per vine. That is about 70 to 80 decagrams per vine. That makes a very concentrated wine that will take new barrel aging very well.”
Kopar isn’t Gere’s most expensive wine— the Solus Merlot (about 1.5 times higher in price) and at the Attila Cuvee (about three times the price) are his most expensive wines. But Kopar is the winery’s signature wine, representing everything the brand and family stands for. It is an elegant, good value wine, produced in a respectable quantity (70,000 to 100,000 bottles per year). It is consistently complex and high quality, and has a great aging potential.
In the late 1990s/early 2000s, as a university student developing a taste for wine, I admired the bottles of Kopar sitting on the top shelves at wine shops in Budapest. Back then, all I could do was look at the bottle—occasionally taking it off the shelf to read the label. Happily, my budget for wine has increased. And I’m proud to be importing this wine (and other wines from Attila Gere) to the US, and selling it at our wine shop in Budapest.
So, what does Kopar taste like?
TASTING NOTE: GERE KOPAR (2017)
The grapes for this wine come from four different low-yielding vineyards (only harvesting 25 hectoliters/hectare!): Konkoly, Csillagvölgy, Ördögárok, and the namesake Kopár vineyard. This exceptional wine is a blend of Cabernet Franc (50 percent) and Merlot (40 percent), spiced up with some Cabernet Sauvignon (10 percent). The fermentation occurred partially in stainless steel and partially in big wooden vats with selected local yeast strains. After fermentation, the wine spent 16 months aging in small barrique barrels of which 80 percent were new and 20 percent were second-use. In the glass, this wine has a deep ruby color with intense and concentrated aromas of black and blue fruit, sweet tobacco, leather, and sandalwood. It has 14.5 percent alcohol; rich and concentrated flavors of blackberry, graphite, and dark chocolate; and a firm tannin and acid structure. This is the perfect wine to lay down and age for several years. If you like bold flavors, you will also love this wine young. Decanting is encouraged. As with every rich red wine, a high-quality steak and good friends are an extraordinary pairing.