Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe, is the closest that landlocked Hungary has to a sea. In the summer, it draws crowds of vacationers to swim in its cool emerald waters and relax on its beaches. This large body of water moderates the climate of the surrounding countryside—making it not only a favorite destination for vacationers, but also providing a beneficial climate for viticulture. The Balaton wine region (or PGI – Protected Geographical Indication) comprises six districts with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)—Badacsony, Balatonfelvidék, Balatonfüred-Csopak, Nagy-Somló, Balatonboglár, and Zala. Together, they represent around 10,000 hectares of vineyards.
Geography and Climate
Balaton’s northern side is hilly. Its western areas, including Badacsony and parts of the Balatonfelvidék, are dominated by curiously shaped volcanic buttes and cones, the remains of long extinct volcanoes that spewed lava from under the Pannonian Sea, which once covered the area. The southern shore is flatter and is more dominated by holiday homes, beaches, and development. The vines here are generally further from the lake.
The shallow lake creates a unique climate with its vast surface reflecting the sunlight, providing greater humidity and ensuring cooler summers and warmer winters. The Bakony range to the north protects against cold westerly and northerly winds, helping to create the sub-Mediterranean climate which benefits the lake.
Soils around the lake are diverse and include volcanic and basalt soils on the northern side (around Badacsony and the Káli Basin) as well as loess, red and brown forest soil, limestone, Pannonian sand, and marl.
Vines have been grown around the lake since the first century BC, flourishing during the Roman Empire and then the Middle Ages when monastic orders also cultivated vines near the Balaton. Wine was even produced here during the Turkish occupation, and indeed helped fuel the resistance against them. The 19th century was Balaton’s heyday and it was characterized by verdant vineyards, cellars and small press houses nestling among the vines. Balaton wines were exported to all corners of the monarchy. The waters of Füred were famous worldwide, and the local spas were always full. Back then it was not so common to actually swim in the lake. Wine lovers of the age said they could recognize the wines of the various hills–Badacsony, Csopak, Szent György, etc.–by their taste, which is how they were marketed at that time. And, of course, everyone had their favorite. Viticulture was more focused on the hilly northern shore, but when phylloxera struck and ravaged the Balaton area, many people resorted to making wine on the less traditional sandy terrains of the southern shore, conditions in which phylloxera is less likely to thrive. So the demise of the traditional areas of the north had a positive effect on winemaking on the southern shore.
When vineyards were replanted after the turn of the century, many traditional varieties such as Somogyi Fehér, Juhfark, and Kéknyelű were pushed to one side or eliminated entirely. Varieties that still dominate today, such as Olaszrizling, Ezerjó, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Müller-Thurgau took their place.
Unfortunately, the 20th century brought further dramatic changes to the Balaton, when it became a centrally located resort for the working classes. The water level was regulated while holiday facilities and beaches were constructed. People could no longer travel abroad because of the travel restrictions instated by the Communist government. So Balaton became a summer focal point. Vineyards were changed to large-scale production, and cooperatives cultivated the flatter land at the foot of the hills. Higher, better sites were left to go wild and wineries were turned into holiday homes. Unfortunately, speculation and development continued after the political changes of the early 1990s, continuing to diminish the vineyard area. However, Balaton is now fighting back. The Balaton Circle, an association of wineries, restauranteurs, local producers and hotels, is trying to make sure Balaton remains alive throughout the year, not just during the summer, by focusing on local gastronomy, culture, and wine. Better wines are being produced, and Balaton is being reborn.
Styles of Wine
The variety most characteristic of Balaton is Olaszrizling (aka Welschriesling). The region, led by the Balaton Circle, has even created a brand for the variety, named BalatonBor. This includes a three-tier hierarchy of wines–regional, village, and vineyard-selected–along the Burgundy model. Regional wines, which are fresh, fruity and produced in a reductive style, are only denominated as Balaton PGI. Village wines (or Hegy Bor) can show more localized characteristics and may demonstrate oak notes. Whereas the vineyard-selected wines (Dűlős Bor) are more terroir driven. Olaszrizling is grown all around the lake and is often found in the summer wine spritzer, fröccs, which is an essential part of any day spent relaxing by the lake.
The varietal mix is dominated by white grapes, especially on the north shores of the lake. The range of varieties grown in the Balaton PGI is vast and encompasses many styles of wine. However, each PDO has a more limited selection of permitted grapes and boasts its own specialties and styles.
The historic, yet nowadays rare, Kéknyelű is gaining ground again in Badacsony, along with its take on Pinot Gris, Szürkebarát. Wines from Badacsony and the Káli Basin are typically minerally, rich, full-bodied wines thanks to the basalt-rich soils.
The town of Csopak has made Olaszrizling its flagship variety and produces elegant wines with fine acidity.
The hill of Somló, a little out on a limb some miles north of the lake, cultivates the once famed Juhfark along with Furmint and Hárslevelű.
Balatonboglár, the only region to the south of the lake, has a greater mix of varieties and styles than the northern regions. Its whites are generally lean and light and its reds are full-bodied yet elegant. It is also increasingly focusing on sparkling wine production, particularly the lightly sparkling frizzante style, which is perfect for summer holiday sipping by the lake.
The less well-known Zala region, which was once Hungary’s largest wine region, can be found to the west of the lake, with its hilly landscape and numerous floodplains producing mostly full-bodied, juicy, vibrant white wines from a wide range of varieties.
Read More About Some of The Important Grapes
Breakdown of the Balaton PGI
Balaton PGI: Includes nine PDOs and the Balatonmelléki PGI
- Balatonmelléki PGI: Since the Balaton PGI was approved, this PGI has not been used much.
- Balatonboglár PDO (2,800 hectares) mainly produces bulk sparkling and still wines.
- Badacsony PDO (1,430 hectares) is one of the top volcanic regions of the country.
- Balaton-felvidék PDO (1,031 hectares) is a good value region, producing mostly whites.
- Balatonfüred – Csopak PDO (1,640 hectares) is a top region for Olaszrizling.
- Tihany PDO (95 hectares) is Hungary’s smallest wine appellation.
- Káli PDO (453 hectares) is a sub-region of the three northern Balaton PDOs.
- Zala PDO (671 hectares) is located west of Lake Balaton.
- Nagy Somló PDO (442 hectares) is a region grouping three un-continuous hills.
- Somló PDO (326 hectares) is a sub-region of the Nagy Somló PDO; it comprises one of the hills.
Recommended Wineries in Balatonboglár and Zala
Ax Wine (e)Motion, Bujdosó Winery, Bussay Winery, Garamvári Estate, IKON Winery, Kislaki Wine Manufacture, Konyári Winery, Légli Estate
Check back for articles on the Balatonfüred-Csopak PDO, the Káli PDO, the Somlo (and Nagy Somlo) PDO, and traveling in the Lake Balaton area.
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).