Sopron is somewhat of an outlier compared to other Hungarian wine regions. Lying just across the border from Austria, it shares its viticultural traditions with Burgenland, the region of which it was once the capital, Ödenburg. Like the Burgenland, its main red grape variety is Kékfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch), which makes up around two-thirds of its vineyard area. Indeed, the city identifies itself so much with the variety, that it has proclaimed itself the Capital of Kékfrankos. The city itself also has an Austrian feel and is home to a kind of wine tavern called Buschenschank, which is not found anywhere else in Hungary. These taverns date back to the 17th century when licenses were given to citizens to serve their own wine in their homes–often in their courtyards, but also inside during winter. Sopron’s vineyards continue towards the town of Rust (just across the border, in Austria) and many winemakers are of Austrian or even Croatian descent.
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Sopron lies in the northwest of Hungary, directly on the border with Austria. Its 1,579 hectares of vines are planted on the slopes of the Sopron and Kőszeg Hills and around Lake Fertő, as Neusiedlsee is known in Hungary, at altitudes of 150 to 400 meters above sea level. It is basically a direct continuation of the vineyards around Rust and the Leitha Hills in Austria. The best area for viticulture is in the north between Lake Fertő, Balf and Fertőrákos. However, there are also vines to the east of Sopron. Vines are generally planted on the northwestern and southwestern slopes where there is less risk of frost.
CLIMATE AND SOIL
Sopron’s proximity to the Alps basically makes it a sub-Alpine region with a moderate continental climate, meaning lower median temperatures and higher rainfall than elsewhere in the country with cooler, wetter summers. While Lake Fertő has a major tempering effect on the local climate, ensuring that winters are relatively mild, summer is moderately hot, and fall is generally long and hot. The warm air trapped above the lake helps ensure a climate that is favorable for viticulture, whereas misty mornings also promote the development of botrytis. The mountains nearby also guarantee breezes, indeed sometimes downright windy weather, and thus lower humidity away from the lake. Wines produced further from the lake generally have higher acidity and are less full-bodied.
The region boasts a variety of types of soils, and its vineyards are generally quite stony. Although eroded brown forest soils dominate throughout the region, there are also patches of heavy clay and loess. The best vineyards, including the Spern Steiner, are found around the lake, where there is less loess and brown forest soil and more mica schist and gneiss, which gives the wines great minerality. There are also good microclimates on the sheltered southern and eastern slopes of the Sopron Hills. Limestone can also be found in the valleys.
Viticulture has been practiced in the region since Roman times, when Sopron was known as Scarabantia. Documents from the 13th century, including Sopron’s founding charter, detail extensive vineyards, vines within the city limits, and permit the levy of tithes on wine. Settlers from Lower Austria arrived around this time, resulting in a sizeable German-speaking population and advanced winemaking practices. By the 15th century, Sopron wine was one of Hungary’s most sought-after exports. Winemaking here owes a lot to these German settlers, who were known as poncichter (from the German Bohnenzüchter, which refers to growers who planted beans between the rows of vines. Prudently, the city had adopted laws by the start of the 17th century which banned the sale of wine from elsewhere, making the tavern business the privilege of local growers, while also exporting large quantities of its wine across Europe.
Wines of Sopron and Kőszeg were so highly regarded that growers began to store their wines within the city limits, building cellars under their houses, as they were so afraid of theft from buildings out in the vineyards. This also enabled the council to precisely monitor inventories and sales in light of the ban on sales of ‘foreign’ wine.
Wine remained the chief source of income for both Hungarian and German-speaking citizens in Sopron until the end of the 18th century. The legend of the name of Kékfrankos also comes from this time, when the poncichter would only accept the French soldiers’ high-quality blue franks in payment for their wine. Interestingly, Kékfrankos was actually only widely planted in the region much later. In the 18th century, Furmint was the grape of choice in Sopron, and late-harvested grapes were vinified as sweet Aszú in good vintages. This was an important export commodity, as a result of its ability to survive transportation over long distances. This tradition was lost in Sopron after phylloxera raised its ugly head and decimated nearly all the vines. However, across the border in Rust, sweet botrytised wines are being made again, often using Furmint.
New grape varieties were subsequently planted, but the wine trade no longer played such a significant role in the city’s economy and life. The new social class that emerged with industrialization wanted cheap wines and the astute Sopron growers, quick to respond, replaced the low-yielding whites traditional to the area in favor of Kékfrankos, which produced consistent quality even with large-scale production. Indeed, before phylloxera, red wine only accounted for 10% of wine produced, and that was Portugieser, then known as Kékoporto. The situation was also exacerbated by the loss of exports to the states of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and wine production went into crisis.
After World War Two, the ethnic German population, who had tended most of the vines, was deported. Subsequently, the state cooperatives lacked real motivation for managing these abandoned vineyards, introducing industrialized cultivation as elsewhere. The result was a sea of mediocre wines. The 1990s saw a series of privatizations and the accompanying quality improvement, which continues until today. There are a good handful of growers who have been instrumental in this, many of which are located very close to the Austrian border. This has also encouraged the raising of standards, thanks to the crossover of tourists and winemakers alike.
STYLES OF WINE
Nowadays, Sopron is predominantly a red-wine producing region, where Kékfrankos clearly reigns. There are also small amounts of Zweigelt and Cabernet Sauvignon, but these run a distant second and third. Despite its relatively recent fame in the region, Kékfrankos is widely considered native to Sopron. However, it is more likely of Austrian origin. Its Austrian twin is also garnering much of the praise today too, as Hungarian versions are often more austere, lean and less immediately appealing. Sopron’s cool climate and partly calcareous soils typically yield wines dominated by red berry fruit and fresh spiciness, with high, dynamic acidity but elegant, restrained tannins as well as somewhat lower levels of alcohol.
The most commonly grown white variety is Zöld Veltelini (aka Grüner Veltliner), which had dominated the entire region at the beginning of the 20th century. Fair amounts of Chardonnay have also been planted, Sauvignon Blanc is starting to show well in the region, and there are increasing amounts of Irsai Olivér. Sopron whites are generally fresh and aromatic with good acidity. Some rosé is also made from Kékfrankos.
Whites: Chardonnay, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Furmint, Irsai Olivér, Királyleányka, Korai Pirosveltelini, Leányka, Pinot Blanc, Rhine Riesling, Sárga Muskotály, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Zöldveltelini, Zenít
Reds: Blauburger, Dornfelder, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Kékfrankos, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zweigelt
Hauer, Iváncsics, Jandl, Lővér, Linzer-Orosz, Lővér, Luka, Pfneiszl, Ráspi, Taschner, Vincellér, Franz Weninger, Wetzer