Hungary’s diverse volcanic soils—and the deliciously unique wines coming from them—is one of the features that make the Hungarian wine-scene so exciting. Within Hungary’s 93,000 square-kilometers—which is more or less the same size as the US state of Maine, but smaller than the island of Cuba—there are at least five volcanic wine areas. The volcanic regions of Badacsony, Somló, and Tokaj all produce unique styles of wine which are very different from each other, but share a strong volcanic swag. The Eger and Bükk regions also have volcanic soils which can produce great wines, but theirs have a less evident volcanic taste. Fortunately for the Magyars, these are all inactive volcanoes which cannot cause any harm. But their soil structure helps produce some of Hungary’s most exciting wines.
What is a Volcanic Wine, and How Does It Taste?
We call volcanic wines the ones that are produced from grapes grown on soil which is of volcanic origin. There are hundreds of different types of volcanic soils, so there can be a huge difference between these wines in terms of flavor, minerality, and texture. To speak about volcanic wines as a generic term is like speaking about cheese generically. Parmigian and mozzarella are both cheeses which originated in the same country and are made more or less with the same ingredients. But they have drastically different flavor, texture, and aging potential. The same occurs with volcanic wines!
There are volcanic soils which produce grapes that show a stronger mineral taste and a more evident volcanic profile, like basalt and andesite. But other soil types, such as tuff, produce more mellow and even fruit-driven styles. Most volcanic wines share the wonderful feature of having a crisp and elevated acidity. Volcanic soils seem to help retain acidity in the grapes, so the wines are usually very refreshing and crisp, and very rarely heavy and dull.
3 HILLS. 3 GRAPES. 3 ICONIC WINES.
Hungary’s three most famous white wine regions—Tokaj, Somló, and Badacsony—all have volcanic soil, but they each have their own type of volcanicity.
I invite you to feel and experience these distinct volcanic characteristics by pouring yourself a glass of each these three volcanic wines so you can taste and compare them: a dry Furmint from the Tokaj region, a Kéknyelű from the Badacsony region, and a Juhfark from Somló region.
Better yet, invite a few friends to join you! Now that we can gather with friends again, this can be a perfect excuse to (finally!) catch up with your closest wine friends, have a couple of glasses of great wine, and experience volcanic Hungary for yourself.
1. Dry Furmint From the Tokaj Region
Of these three volcanic regions, Tokaj is the largest and has the most diverse soil types. The Mád basin, one of the most famous areas in Tokaj, possesses the strongest and most evident volcanic soil. The white wines produced here have a distinct minerality which sets them apart from the wines produced anywhere else within the region. Mád’s soil is mostly iron rich andesite, which is a distinctive brick red color.
The Grape: Furmint
There are six permitted white grapes in the Tokaj region, and Furmint is the most important. Furmint’s origins are not yet clear, but it is probably an autochthonous grape to Hungary, probably originating in the Tokaj area. Along with Hárslevelű—its partner-in-crime and blending buddy—they are the only two varieties that can be found in each of Hungary’s volcanic regions. But Tokaj’s Furmint is by-far the best-known and, arguably, the best.
What Does This Volcano Taste Like?
The Tokaj region produces a great range of wine styles, but the dry ones show their volcanic taste the best. The dry Tokaj style is the most elegant of the three we are comparing. It has a subtle chalky minerality paired with Furmint’s classic pear and quince flavors.
Wine To Try:
Go for a single-variety Furmint or a Furmint-Hárslevelű blend produced (if possible) in the Mád basin. If you can’t find an example from the Mád basin, any single-vineyard type from anywhere in the Tokaj region can do the trick. For example, Karádi-Berger’s Palandor single-vineyard Furmint is not from the Mád basin, but it still shows the elegant minerality and racy acidity that Tokaj’s volcanic soil gives to its wines.Read More About Furmint
2. Kéknyelű From The Badacsony Region
The Badacsony region was created by 10 different volcanic hills, which are called “witness hills” in Hungarian. They each have slightly different types of soil, but they all share a light-grey colored basalt soil base, which is usually mixed with clay and loess. The region gets its name from the biggest and most impressive of all the hills: the mighty Badacsony hill, located on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. Next in size (and importance) is the Saint George Hill (Szent György hegy), located behind the Badacsony hill and farther away from the lake.
The Grape: Kéknyelű
There are several grapes planted with great success in the Badacsony area, but none is as unique to the region as Kéknyelű. This ancient Hungarian variety was close to extinction during the Socialist era because its low yields made it unsuitable to the mass-production mindset of the time. Most Kéknyelű vines were ripped out during this time. Fortunately, some survived and now there are 48 hectares planted within Hungary, and 46 of them in the Badacsony region.
Kéknyelű is one of those rare grape varieties whose flower doesn’t produce pollen. So it must be planted next to another variety which flowers at the same time, and can share its pollen (which is blown by the wind) so it can be pollinated, and then grow fruit. Budai and Rózsakő are the varieties which are usually planted next to Kéknyelű. Kéknyelű wines have restrained citrus and floral aromas, with a distinctive aluminum-like aftertaste. In the right hands, it can produce deep and complex wines. When not much care has been taken with it, Kéknyelű wines can be simple, austere, and very dry.
What Does This Volcano Taste Like?
Badacsony wines are typically somewhere between the very mineral Somló wines and the fruity Balafonfüred style. They have a great balance between fruit flavors and smoky minerality. Due to its location near the lake, Badacsony has a moderate climate and a long ripening season, producing wines with a higher alcohol and glycerin content. This gives them an oily, creamy texture, and an almost sweet-taste (due to the glycerin), even though most of the wines are bone-dry.
Wine To Try:
Nyari Winery’s Kéknyelű comes from Saint George Hill. The Kéknyelű is planted (and co-harvested) with Rózsakő, fermented with its natural yeast, and aged in large oak barrels with its lees for one-and-a-half years. It’s a great example of a complex, long, and balanced Kéknyelű, and it has the classic Badacsony balance between fruit and minerality.Read More About Kéknyelű
3. Juhfark from The Somló region
Somló is the smallest of the three regions. The Somló PDO is technically a sub-region of the Nagy Somló PDO, which is composed of the Somló hill and two other smaller hills. Somló hill is a single volcanic bump, which is about a 40-minute drive north of Lake Balaton. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere—surrounded by corn, sunflower fields, and canola fields. Somló’s wines have the most distinctive and easily recognizable taste of all Hungarian wines: a strong gun-flinty minerality, next to a restrained fruit profile, and a medium-to-light texture.
The Grape: Juhfark
The Juhfark variety is practically a synonym for the Somló region. This ancient Hungarian variety probably originated on the Somló hill, which is where more than half of its plantings in Hungary are found (100 of the 190 hectares). Juhfark translates as ‘sheep’s tail’ and it owes its name to the shape of the grape cluster, which bends at the end like a sheep’s tail.
Juhfark has a neutral flavor profile, and according to several Somló winemakers, that is why it is so popular in Somló. Its lack of fruity flavors reflects the influence (and flavors) of the soil.
What Does This Volcano Taste Like?
Somló wines have the most obvious volcanic taste of all of Hungary’s wines. It’s a strong gun-flinty, rocky minerality which bursts out of the glass. Somló’s wines also have a beautiful crisp and elevated acidity, with a long salty after taste. Whenever I serve a Somló wine to guests I always wait until they have the first sniff of the aroma. Usually the first impression is “wow!” Somló’s wines have the kind of aroma that is usually not expected from young white wine—almost no fruity aromas, and a lot of wet-rocks and river-stone aromas. These are definitely not wines for those who love fruity wine! But they can be an extraordinary choice for more adventurous wine tasters.
Wine To Try:
Any Juhfark from Somló (sometimes labeled simply as Nagy-Somló PDO because that appellation requires less paperwork). For an oaky, rich, and age-worthy version, try Kolonics Winery’s Juhfark, which is aged in acacia barrels for one year. The acacia wood gives a nice caramel, creme brulee-like taste that goes well with Juhfark’s moderate acidity and the Somló region’s strong minerality. It’s delicious!Read More About Juhfark
Now You Know
Volcanic wines are a thing. They are a very big thing in Hungary. And they can be so different and delicious. Next time somebody asks you if you want to have a volcanic wine, you can ask them back: do you mean volcanic like Parmigian or like mozzarella?