The Volcanic White Wines of Somló

Driving through the Northwest Hungarian countryside from the Austrian border towards Budapest, most of the scenery is pretty repetitive and flat until you reach the Bakony mountains, with only a few small hills dotting the countryside. Halfway through this flat landscape, one steep, craggy hill stands out, looming over the landscape: the Somló mountain.

The mountain was formed millions of years ago, when most of Hungary was covered in water, known as the Pannonian Sea. As the sea slowly drained, lava erupted from underneath the surface. The settling layers of volcanic ash and lava formed several mountains, including the mountains of the Tokaj wine region, Badacsony, the hills north of the Balaton lake, and of course, the mountain of Somló.

Looking at the outline of the hill, you can still recognize the shape of an extinct volcano that has eroded over millennia. Coming closer, the black basalt cliffs and steep terraces reveal the mountain’s past. The upper part of the hill is covered in a forest with the ruins of the old Somló castle located at the top – a popular trekking spot in the summer. The “skirt” of the mountain, on the other hand, is planted full of grapevines, often divided into tiny parcels with a few rows each, owned by small private vintners.

Winemakers have known for centuries that the mixture of steep, sunny terrain, tough basalt soils, sunny climate and cool breeze from Lake Balaton are ideal for making intense, powerful white wines. Researchers around the world are still debating about how soil types affect flavors in wine, but the character of Somló wines unarguably mirrors the basalt soils that the mountain is made up of. The wines grown here are intense, volcanic and dry, with an enormous aging potential and a unique, flinty character.

Somló is one of Hungary’s smallest wine regions. Officially, only local white grape varieties are allowed, although some wineries like Kreinbacher are experimenting with red grapes such as Kékfrankos and Syrah. The most typical varieties include Furmint, Hárslevelű, Olaszrizling (Welshriesling), Juhfark and Tramini (Gewürztraminer). Due to the strong character of the region, it’s commonly said that the wines from Somló taste primarily like Somló, and only secondly like their respective grape varieties.

The iconic grape of the area is Juhfark, found almost exclusively here. The name means “sheep’s tail”, and comes from the long, thin shape of the grape bunches. Juhfark has a relatively reserved style, producing wines with a mild aroma and crisp, intense acidity. It’s especially good at bringing out the flavors of the volcanic soils it’s usually grown in, and it can age for many years. Legend has it that drinking Juhfark from Somló (Somlói Juhfark) on a wedding night will ensure that the newlyweds’ first child will be a boy.

The two wineries currently in our range are two very different operations: Kreinbacher is a professional, modern winery, with a cutting-edge winery and sparkling wine cellar built half-underground, into the side of the steep hill. They focus on traditional grape varieties and styles, but show them in a modern, sophisticated form. They also produce some of the best sparkling wines in Hungary in a region that wasn’t previously known for sparkling wines.

Imre Györgykovács, on the other hand, is one of the classic names of the region, making unique wines on only a couple of hectares. He’s now half-retired, but we’ve written about him extensively in the past:

Everything about Somló feels like a fairytale: the jagged black mountain jumps out of the scenery, like someone put it there, standing alone on an otherwise empty plain. The roads curve unrealistically up to the mountain crest, while cottages from another era line the way. And in the middle of this fairytale is Imre Györgykovács and his wife, Gyöngyi. Together, they cultivate grapes in a tiny vineyard of only 1,5 hectares, which has been just big enough for them to handle themselves. They never wanted to expand, because they felt they could only focus on a vineyard this size.

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While these wineries may seem very different, they have a lot in common: like most Somló wineries, they are devoted to growing healthy, organic grapes. From 2023, the whole wine region will switch to certified organic methods – the first for a region in Hungary. Kreinbacher, while one of the largest wineries in the area, also works closely with small vintners, helping the grow and harvest grapes and using them in their wine. Since a few years ago, when Imre Györgykovács decided to partly retire, Kreinbacher now helps him throughout the winemaking process.

Somló wines are one of the hidden gems of Hungarian winemaking. They need a few years to age and usually require some time and after opening, but give them some patience and they’ll reward you with a uniquely rich and intense flavor, a uniquely local character and a real sense of place.

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For German speakers, here’s a great travel diary of Somló from Reisewege Ungarn.