Somló – Wines of the Volcano Gods

Somlo Google Earth
If you type “Somló, 8481 Doba, Hungary” into Google Earth, you will virtually hover over an irregular oval in a sea of quadrilaterals. For those who have forgotten geometry, Somló hill and the vineyards circling its flanks look just like what they are: a long-extinct volcano rising from a flat patchwork of otherwise angular fields.It is a striking geological formation, about three-quarters of a mile in diameter, whose combination of ancient seabed and volcanic basalt soils set Somló apart as a uniquely white-wine region—and the only dedicated region whose wines more than hold their own with the better-known whites of Tokaj.

At Blue Danube’s recent trade tasting in Manhattan, I had the opportunity to sample six Somló wines from two producers. The grape varieties are familiar from Tokaj, to the east—Furmint, Hárslevelű, Olaszrizling (Welschriesling)—with the addition of the rare Juhfark, which grows only in Somló. The two producers, Fekete Béla and Spiegelberg, are clearly different in style. Also, the Furmints are notably lighter and leaner than the Tokaj examples I tasted, and are higher in acidity and minerality, a trend I suspect would extend to the other varieties equally.

Kit Camargo at Terroir

Fekete Bela
Fekete BélaThe trio of wines made by Mr. Fekete are slightly older (vintages 2007 and 2008) than those of Spiegelberg (2010), and each carries the slight touch of oxidation that adds, for some tasters, an extra spice of interest to its flavor. Fekete’s wines directly channel Somló’s terroir—at their base is a clean minerality that lingers on the palate once the top aromas disperse. The 2007 Furmint is a clear example: bright dried apricot, muted honey, and hay aromas tantalize the mind with sweet ideas, but steely acidity and mineral notes soon sweep in to dispel any soft notions. This is a bone-dry ode to the land, with the zing of a wine made for food. This rigor shows in all three of Fekete’s wines, with the 2008 Hárslevelű possibly the most mineral, and the 2008 Juhfark a fascinating array of dried fruit and honey on the nose and high floral aromas on the palate combined with that high acidity, slight oxidation, and a flavor of viny vegetation that seems primordial.

The wines of Istvan Spiegelberg are fresh-tasting and show slightly more the hand of the winemaker. Fekete’s alcohol level is higher, at least in these vintages, but Spiegelberg wines have more weight on the palate. The vibrant acidity and mineral foundation are their shared Somló trademark. Spiegelberg’s beautifully integrated 2010 “Wedding Wine” blend of Jufark, Hárslevelű, and Furmint carries the delicate floral qualities of the Jufark grape followed by vanilla aromas that suggest oak aging. The dry Furmint has tangy sweet-sour apple and honey flavors, and the Olaszrizling is a marvel: an intensely sweet aroma of dried apricot and honey, although totally dry, and a round and creamy texture offset by acidity.

Istvan Spiegelberg

Acidity Is the Key
Somló wines need food, but I was stymied when I tried to conjure Hungarian foods to complement them. Instead, I focused on the wines’ earthy flavors and vibrant acidity and found a model to follow: Champagne. The earthy notes will highlight mushrooms or root vegetables, while the acidity works one of two ways, searing through any butter, cream, or cheese you’d care to dish up, or acting like a wedge of lemon over light fish dishes and salads. (For smoked salmon on buttered toast with crème fraîche and dill, it does both.) Think “Champagne” and pair these wines with hearty foods such as butternut bisque, cream sauces, bacalao, and dim sum dumplings, or lighten up with white fish or scallops prepared with a little bacon. Truffle fries? Oysters? Go ahead, the volcano gods would approve.

Kit Camargo