Kál Basin (Káli Medence) PDO: A Guide to the Wine Region

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The Kál Basin (Káli Medence) is beautiful hilly area to the north of the Balaton, punctuated by small villages and numerous nature reserves boasting unique flora and fauna. It sits on the same volcanic formation as Badacsony, with gently undulating terrain with numerous basalt cones and hills. The most famous is Fekete-hegy, or Black Hill, a promontory of lava jutting into the basin like a landlocked peninsula. It is covered with vines and press houses on its southern slopes and forests on its north. The 15-hectare Kornyi Lake sits in its center, as well as the remains of spectacular rock seas, which have shrunk over time as their rocks were pillaged to be used as millstones.

The eight settlements in the Kál Basin also fall within the boundaries of three other wine regions, but due to its unique volcanic landscape and historical relevance, it has boasted its own 453-hectare PDO since 2009. Its northernmost villages of Balatonhenye, Köveskál, Mindszentkálla, Monostorapáti, and Szentbékkálla fall into the Balatonfelvidék PDO, which is split in two by the Badacsony PDO and incorporates the Kál Basin villages of Salföld and Kővagóörs. And the village of Monoszló is in the Balatonfüred-Csopak PDO.

The area and several of its villages were named after Kál horka (one of the conquering Hungarians) who made winter camp in the region at the time of the Hungarian Conquest. There were a total of seven ‘Kál’ settlements, but four were destroyed during the Turkish occupation.

 

Photo credit: Pálffy facebook page

Climate and Soil

The Kál Basin’s climate is governed by its proximity to Lake Balaton to the south and the High Bakony Hills to the north, which protect against the cold north winds. The humidity and reflected sunlight from the lake, the north-south valleys trapping heat during the day, and the cool air flowing from the Bakony and the wooded northern slopes at night mean that grapes ripen fully yet retain good acidity. Warm sunny days and long ‘golden’ autumns help shrivel the berries for late-harvest wines, while humidity from meadows and Lake Balaton also aid the development of noble rot.

The region boasts outstanding geology and a variety of soil structures. Permian red sandstone characterizes the southern hills, huge basalt hills loom in the north, sandstone conglomerates dominate in the west, and various forms of limestone and dolomite are in the east. Basalt lava debris mixes with tuff and brown forest soils. Fekete-hegy is covered with a special type of volcanic soil, known as black nyirok. And the olivine crystal characteristic of the basanite rock found in both the Kál Basin and on Somló is high in magnesium and iron.

White varieties are traditionally planted on the basalt and basanite rocks, which are rich in minerals and micro elements, resulting in some of Europe’s most characterful white wines. Red wines are traditionally produced from vines cultivated on the smaller areas of calcareous soils.

 

History

The region’s rich viticultural history dates back to before the Romans, under whose cultural influence viticulture also flourished. You can still see remains of Roman villas and settlements in the area. It continued untroubled until the Hungarian Conquest at the end of the 9th century, and was then boosted by the local and county social structures which were established during the Middle Ages. The region was a source of wine for the Árpád dynasty, which exempted seven villages from paying taxes, even though they were still obliged to provide wine for the royal (királyi) table. Nobility, such as the Esterházy family, owned vineyards here as did the Archdiocese of Veszprém. Monasteries, like those in Salföld and Almád, produced wine for their own use or obtained grapes from local growers. Wine-producing settlements were obliged to adhere to strict vineyard regulations based on a county authority decree issued in 1752. Whereas, in 1835, well before the Bordeaux classification, vineyards were graded according to their quality potential and the prices of specific wines. The volcanic southern slopes of the Kál and Tapolca Basins were listed as first class.

Until the mid-19th century, Furmint (or Szigeti, as it was known around Balaton) was the dominant white variety, followed by Szagos Sárfehér and Juhfark. Siller was made using Blauerwildbacher (also known as Ködszőlő) and reds from Csóka Szőlő and Kékburgundia (Pinot Noir). Olaszrizling, Szürkebarát (Pinot Gris), and Kereklevelű (Chardonnay) began to spread due to the influence of Styrian, Moravian, and Western Hungarian (now Burgenland) merchants. Olaszrizling vines were said to have been introduced from Carinthia by Balatonhenye chaplain Jároly Raksányi. He planted them on Fekete-hegy; five years later, he planted 100,000 more, so it had clearly thrived.

Demand for high-quality wine production grew both domestically and abroad, and wine from this nowadays little-known wine region was exported as far afield as Styria and Tyrol. Winemakers and merchants were supported by professional and viticultural education in Keszthely and Tapolca.

Although the area was depopulated after World War Two, it is now experiencing a revival with the number of quality wineries, accommodation, and restaurants growing.

Styles of wine

White varieties are predominantly cultivated in the region due to the 1893 wine law following phylloxera (which struck in 1888), which, as elsewhere, resulted in a major shake-up of the varietal mix.

Olaszrizling is the Kál Basin’s leading variety, with Chardonnay, Szürkebarát, and Zöldveltelini also widely cultivated. Káli wines are full-bodied and fiery, similar in style to those from Badacsony. The region’s broad diurnal range results in wines with fresh acidity, while its volcanic bedrock and soils contribute fine minerality. Even in hot years, the wines are fruity with intense flavors and a unique terroir-driven character. Wines may undergo partial or full malolactic fermentation depending on the vintage, often with long ageing on the lees, resulting in harmonious, balanced wines.

Three categories of PDO wine may be produced:

  • ‘Káli’ white, rosé, and red
  • ‘Káli Királyi’ white, rosé, and red—these are produced with lower yields, higher alcohol requirements and only certain varieties. The category was reintroduced after centuries and is now protected by legally binding quality standards.
  • ‘Káli Királyi Főbor’— a late-harvest-style wine made from shriveled and/or botrytized grapes. This traditional genre is now enjoying a renaissance. Főbor (meaning principal wine) was also the ancient name for Szamorodni-style wines in Tokaj.

The eight settlements and certain defined vineyards may be named on the labels.

Varieties

Whites:

Budai Zöld, Chardonnay*, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Juhfark*, Furmint*, Hárslevelű, Irsai Olivér, Kéknyelű*, Kövérszőlő, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat Ottonel, Olaszrizling*, Pinot Blanc, Piros Bakator, Riesling, Rózsakő, Sárga Muskotály*, Sauvignon Blanc, Szürkebarát*, Traminer*, Zenit*, Zeus*, Zöldveltelíni*

(* can be used in Királyi red and rosé wines)

Reds:

Cabernet Franc*, Cabernet Sauvignon*, Kadarka, Kékfrankos*, Merlot*, Pinot Noir*, Portugieser, Syrah*, Zweigelt*

(* can be used in Királyi white wines and főbor)

Photo credit: Pálffy facebook page

Recommended Wineries

*Pálffy Estate and Winery and Káli Kövek Winery


Wines from the Pálffy Estate and Winery are available for sale at The Tasting Table Budapest!


Want to taste and learn about Hungarian wines? Visit The Tasting Table Budapest. Order from our menu, or book one of our daily tastings: Wine, Cheese, & Charcuterie Tasting and Essentials of Hungarian Wine Tasting). 

Want to experience it firsthand? Taste Hungary has daily wine tours featuring the TokajBalaton & SomlóVillány, and Eger regions. 

Photo credit: Pálffy facebook page

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