I am standing in a steep south-facing vineyard just beneath the extinct volcanic butte of Mount St George (Szent Gyorgy-Hegy) in western Hungary.
The panoramic view is incredible – perhaps the best in Hungary – with the shimmering turquoise waters of vast Lake Balaton in the distance with its hilly north shore. In the foreground is Szigliget castle perched atop one of the volcanic hills and surrounding wetlands national park.
It is high summer here with temperatures reaching 36 degrees C with intermittent monsoon rains. Everything is unusually green and lush. My host winemaker Robert Gilvesy of Gilvesy winery (pictured below), a Canadian-Hungarian who settled in Badascony in late 1990s, has been up since dawn tending to the Olaszrizling, Furmint, Sauvignon Blanc and Kadarka vines he grows on basalt volcanic soils:
“2023 has been wet with a lot of disease pressure”, says Gilvesy. “As an organic grower we have to be particularly vigilant in the vineyards, but luckily Balaton’s main grape Olaszrizling is less prone to disease”.
All along the north shore of Lake Balaton in its seven subzones, I hear the same story about this wet vintage. “This year we have already had 700 mm of rain – and normally we just get 600mm in a year”, says winemaker Barna Barabas of Zelna winery.
As I head east on the north shore, I taste a wide variety of Olaszrizlings from aromatic dry whites to intense complex minerally examples. Balaton’s most planted grape (40% of plantings) is known as Welshriesling outside Hungary, but it is completely unrelated to Rhine Riesling.
In the tiny village of Koveskal in the Kali basin, winemaker Gyula Palffy (pictured below) of Palffy winery is another longtime Balaton organic grower. Palffy’s vineyards were certified organic eight years ago; his best Olaszrizling is single vineyard ‘Mal’ from limestone soils with its floral notes, hints of lemongrass and salty minerality.
Heading further east into Balatonfured subzone, one of the newcomers here is Zelna winery run by enterprising young Barna Barabas (pictured below) with wife Lilla who focus on premium Olaszrizlings from limestone-based vineyards overlooking famous Tihany peninsula of Balaton (pictured below). They gained organic certification for their 17 hectares of vineyards in 2018 and last year their Organic Vineyard Selection Olaszrizling scooped a Platinium medal in Decanter Wine Awards.
In the north east corner of Balaton is pretty chic Csopak subzone, where the rich and famous of Hungary come to play in their summer villas and one of the most expensive areas for vineyards. Olaszrizling dominates here grown on red sandstone soils. Leading producer Homola (pictured below), run by Attila Homola, is expanding his 15 hectares aiming to develop sparkling wine production. Amongst his still wines, Homola’s Safrankert (saffron garden) Olaszrizling 2020 with rich generous fruits and vibrant acidity is one of their best.
Crossing Lake Balaton from Tihany peninsula by ferry (see below) brings me to the southern part of the lake where the landscape is less hilly. Balatonboglar is home to producers like Legli, Garamvari and Konyari, with vineyards further from the lake on gently undulating hills.
Otto Legli of Leglibirtok (pictured below) is Hungary’s best known producer south of the lake, renowned in Hungary for crisp dry Olaszrizling/Chardonnay Legli Blanc blend. “I initially made money with peach trees and bought my first vineyard in late 1980s”, says Legli. “I was the first to go for quality here”. Today he farms 21 hectares of Olaszrizling, Rhine Riesling, Furmint with more international grapes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grown here.
Southeast of the lake, one of the largest producers is Feind with a slick new winery and150 hectares planted with 22 different varieties. French winemaker Maxime Belrapaye makes well-priced Olaszrizling, Kekfrankos and Cabernet Franc, but Feind are also experimenting with disease resistant Riesling hybrid grapes like Johanniter and Hibernal.
Lake Balaton is Europe’s largest lake. This freshwater rift lake is the summer playground for Hungarians, but surprisingly little known outside the country as a tourist destination or wine region. This hidden gem has plenty of wineries with tasting rooms and restaurants to amuse the wine and food lover with a wide variety of white and red grapes. Currently few Balaton wines are available in the UK – but this looks set to change.
For an immersive experience into the wines of Lake Balaton, the Edinburgh-based Wine 52 subscription club www.wine52.com are offering a specially-curated Balaton case until 19 August, including wines from leading wineries Feind, Homola and Fehervari with 3 bottle pack offers from £36.
Alternatively try one of these Balaton bottles now available in the UK :
Olaszrizling 2022 Feind
£7.50 The Wine Society
Floral, peachy, vibrant and fresh with a nutty finish; suit those who like Chenin Blanc or Viognier.
Organic Vineyard Selection Olaszrizling 2021 Zelna
£14.40 Best of Hungary
Light floral elderflower notes, honey, citrus, fresh zippy acidity, easy approachable style with flinty notes.
Teranyi Rhine Riesling 2020 Gilvesy
£23.95 Davys Wine Merchants (for 2018 vintage)
Single vineyard Rhine Riesling from 50 year old vines, aged in Hungarian oak; intense lemon, lightly honeyed, dry, lingering finish.
Kekfrankos 2021 Feind
£8.95 The Wine Society
Bright intense cherry and raspberry fruits, soft silky tannins, lightly oaked, smooth juicy slightly peppery red.
By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman on 5 August 2023
Join Rose’s Escorted Wine Tour to Hungary in 2024 www.rosemurraybrown.com