Somló is one of Hungary’s emblematic historical wine regions. Its unique, mineral-rich terroir, indigenous varieties and numerous small producers make it one of Hungary’s most exciting white-wine regions. Its wines have long been renowned thanks to their allegedly beneficial properties. They were sold in pharmacies to treat a variety of ailments, and their supposed ability to help conceive a male child gave them the nickname of ‘wedding night wine’.
Situated in northwestern Hungary (Veszprém County) to the north of the western reaches of Lake Balaton, Somló is one of the country’s smallest wine regions. Nowadays, it comprises three truncated volcanic cones—the hills of Somló, Ság, and Kis-Somló—under the 559 hectare Nagy-Somló PDO. However, it also contains a smaller, stricter appellation, the Somló PDO, which covers the 326 hectares of vines above the road encircling the 432-meter-high Somló hill itself.
The dark bulk of Somló Hill looms dramatically out of the surrounding flat Kisalföld (or Lesser Plain). The solitary hill, created millions of years ago by the same volcanic forces that spawned the hills of the Badacsony region, has stood watch over the flat farmlands surrounding it for millennia, earning it the name Witness Mountain. The more religious have dubbed it ‘the hat that the Lord left behind’. All sides of its steep slopes are covered with vineyards (from about 170 to 350 meters, petering out in the last 50 meters or so) in a patchwork of terraced smallholdings. The top crus—like Aranyhegy dűlő, Apátsági dűlő, and Szent Ilona dűlő—were historically on its southern side.
Climate and Soil
Somló’s climate is influenced by the various hills and the nearby Marcal river. It is generally temperate, with an early spring and a moderately hot summer extending into a long sunny autumn. One of the hill’s secret weapons is the black basalt bedrock which retains the heat of the day and radiates it back like a stove, keeping the vines warm on chillier days. Humidity is also low thanks to the constant breeze, so many growers can work organically. Indeed, there are plans afoot for the appellation to go completely organic.
The volcanic buttes are covered by sediment from the former Pannonian Sea (which once covered the area). Sand, gravel, and clay are mixed with basalt, basalt tuff, and calcareous tuff from the bedrock, which has been degraded into debris. The hill itself is primarily basalt, its debris, and volcanic tuff, while sand and clay loess dominate at the skirt of the hill, although these are also enriched with trace elements and minerals carried down from higher up the slopes. In some places there are no real soils, simply small pieces of basalt—which is known as ‘corn basalt’—which lick into the surrounding soils like tongues of lava. This gives the wines great concentration and explains why some plots of land are significantly more expensive than those alongside them.
There are slight differences between the soils on each side: the east is covered with more wind-blown loess, thus yielding lighter wines, while the south and west have more classic, dark, heat-retaining soils yielding very ripe grapes, and the west is stonier, giving the wines greater minerality.
Records of Somló’s history are quite patchy. Its fortified castle, built to defend Veszprém from the south, was first mentioned in 1093. King István I founded the convent order of St. Benedikta, which subsequently became the largest vineyard owner on the hill. Wine production was documented there from 1135. The three chapels on the hill, still landmarks today, were built during the 14th century and provided orientation points and became sites for harvest blessings. Viticulture survived the Ottoman occupation, with records showing that 121 growers had to pay the occupiers a ‘hill tax’ in 1570. The first wine law was enacted here in 1629, which listed fines to be paid in the case of various offenses, while later decrees in the 18th and 19th centuries regulated communal norms, buying and selling plots and vines and the hill’s hierarchy of officialdom. Ownership of vineyards on the hill was primarily divided between the church and the aristocracy, with very little property owned by middle class citizens. Families such as the Zichys and the Eszterházys had land on the hills, often worked by serfs, which hindered development for centuries.
Somló was also once known for its Aszú wine (and serfs didn’t have to pay tithes on such wines), and were once said to rival those of Tokaj. Somló wines traveled well thanks to their high acidity and extract, and their medicinal properties were renowned. Both the Habsburgs and Britain’s Queen Victoria were known to indulge.
Like many other regions, phylloxera left its mark here and transformed Somló’s varietal palette. Prior to phylloxera’s arrival, at least 30 different varieties were cultivated. A successful cooperative was founded in 1933, but this was nationalized along with everything else in Hungary. Nevertheless, there were fewer large industrial plantations here than elsewhere, with the Badacsony State Farm only controlling around 35 hectares. By the late 1980s around 80 percent of Somló’s viticultural land was in private hands. The region, however, has been slow to recover from this time since most vineyard holdings are tiny and many are owned by hobby winemakers, making some rather rustic wine.
Things have changed for the better in the last 10 to 15 years. The number of serious winemakers has grown considerably, and we are beginning to once again see why Somló wines were so famous historically. The hill is still dominated by small producers, but there are a couple of larger players too, who have made serious investments in the region.
Styles of Wine
Somló is dominated by white varieties with only about seven hectares of red grapes. Traditionally terroir had greater significance than the grape varieties. Somló wines were field blends marked with just the name of the region. It was Somlói first on the labels, before the names of Juhfark, Olaszrizling, or Furmint. Nowadays, wines are often made from a single variety, although some traditionalists believe that Somló wines should be blends. The main attributes of a Somló wine are its characteristic salty minerality, high (often piercingly) acidity and great age-worthiness. They are generally rather austere in their youth and need a few years to open, developing into complex wines with a steely spine, smoky, stony flavors, and sometimes a petrol-like intensity similar to Riesling. The wines are generally aged in large, old oak and often spend time on their lees, lending them a generous, creamy, full body.
Single-varietal wines, generally bone dry, are made from the varieties that made Somló famous in the past, such as Juhfark, whose relatively neutral character is a marvelous translator of the nuances of terroir. Furmint also conveys Somló well, with delightful savory, herbal, mineral character. While Olaszrizling is generally softer and fruitier, but still with the characteristic Somló acidity and saltiness. Hárslevelű and Traminer are also widely produced, although aromatic Traminer is currently somewhat out of fashion.
Somló is now also one of Hungary’s pezsgő hotspots, with the hill’s biggest producer, Kreinbacher, turning out arguably the country’s best traditional method sparkling wine based on Furmint with the help of a consultant from Champagne.
The most important ones are Furmint, Hárslevelű, Juhfark, and Olaszrizling. Others include Bánáti Rizling, Budai Zöld, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Csomorika, Ezerjó, Irsai Olivér, Kabar, Királyleányka, Korona, Kövérszőlő, Muscat Ottonel, Pátria, Pinot Blanc, Piros Bakator, Pozsonyi Fehér, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Rózalia, Sárfehér, Sárga Muskotály, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Gris, Traminer, Zengő, Zenit, Zéta, and Zöldveltelini.
*Fekete Wine Cellar, *Kreinbacher, *Somlói Apátsági Cellar, Barnabás, Imre Györgykovács, Meinklang, *Spiegelberg, Tornai, Somló Vandor, *Károly Kolonics, Hollovár, *Royal Somló Vineyards, *Somlói Vándor, *Kőfejtő
A range of wines from the *starred wineries are available for sale at The Tasting Table Budapest!
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