Tucked away in the far southwestern corner of the country, the Zala region is one of Hungary’s smallest and least-known regions. There are few commercial wineries in this region, which is comprised of several scattered geographic areas (with about 2,000 acres of vineyards planted). A large portion of the region straddles the Mura river, which forms the Croatian and Slovenian borders (and moderates the climate). Since Slovenia and Croatia are just a stone throw away, it is not surprising that influences from these countries show up in the style of Zala’s cellars and its wine styles and culinary traditions.
Zala is characterized by gentle, rolling hills; lots of greenery and wildlife; and scattered patches of vineyards, which are sometimes hidden in forests. It is Hungary’s wettest region. The climate is moderate, with extreme frost and heat unusual (floodplains of the Zala river moderate temperature fluctuations). Zala’s proximity to the Austrian Alps gives the region a cooler climate than that of nearby Lake Balaton. This cooler continental climate makes for rich, elegant wines with crisp acidity, lots of aromas and fruitiness in the glass, and moderate alcohol.
The soil here is mostly rich brown forest soil, mixed with clay and loess, and patches of sand and clay sediment topped by loess (remnants of the former Pannonian Sea). About three-quarters of the grapes are white varieties, with Olaszrizling being the most popular. There’s also a good amount of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Tramini, Királyleányka, Chardonnay, and Grüner Veltliner. Pinot Noir is the most important red variety, and there is also Kékfrankos, Csókaszőlő, and Syrah. Zala wines were traditionally aged in large oak casks and kept in simple thatched wooden barns.
Winemaking here dates back to the Celts, continued with the Romans, and was then taken up by different ethnic groups, including Hungarians. The region developed great fame for its ürmös bor (a local version of vermouth) in the 1700s, which was made from aromatic red grapes and herbs. Zala was historically mainly a red wine region, but that changed after phloxera. In the late 1800s winemakers in Zala began focusing on white grapes. Before the cooperative was established in the 1960s (which happened throughout Hungary), the thriving region was considered one of Hungary’s top wine districts, with every slope covered in vines.
In its heyday (before World War Two), many Croatians owned vineyards there, and they were able to easily cross the border to tend to them. Over the past half-century, the vineyard area has drastically, and steadily, declined. The region slowly became overshadowed by the flashier and more touristed wine regions around Lake Balaton. This is perhaps why Zala is such a charming place to visit today—with untouched forests, unique wildlife, traditional thatched houses, and plentiful pastures of cows and sheep. The locals take great pride in foraging for herbs, mushrooms, and berries, which often show up in the region’s culinary specialties.
THE BUSSAY WINERY
Bussay is a small family winery, but within Hungary it is perhaps the most recognizable name from the Zala region. From Bussay’s cellar—located in the Csörnyeföld village—there is a stunning panoramic view of their vineyards, and the plain between the Mura and Drava rivers (where the Slovenian and Croatian border is located just a few kilometers away. This winery was founded by Dr. László Bussay in 1988, and until his death in 2014 he was a leading figure in the region. Bussay was also the local doctor. László’s daughter Dóra now runs the winery, and she has also followed in his medical footsteps, serving as the village doctor. At the winery she has a partner in her husband, Tamás Kis (who also makes wines at his own winery in Somló, Somló Vándor). Bussay has 5.5 hectares of vineyards, and has been fully organic for the past three years.