Pannon-demic Outbreak: Bott Frigyes, Wetzer, Kolonics, Apátsági and Heimann

Bott Frigyes and his son Frici
Bott Frigyes and his son Frici

The final container of 2018 is a coincidental snapshot of some of my favorite things happening in the region. We’ve added another Somlói tier than falls in between Fekete Béla and Apátsági with Kárloy Kolonics (I know….pronounced Kolo-nitsch). We’re finally venturing into Slovakia’s Južnoslovenská region with Bott Frigyes and we’ve finally convinced Peter Wetzer to cough up some Tokaji Furmint and single vineyard Soproni Kékfrankos. Last but not least, a new vintage of our go-to Szekszárdi Kadarka from the tireless Heimann family – a grape that I believe will be a signature red from all over Central Europe going forward.

BOTT FRIGYES, Južnoslovenská, Slovakia
2017 Bott Frigyes Hárslevelű
2017 Bott Frigyes Kadarka
Bott Frigyes Kékfrankos

I’ve always been curious about the pre and post Trianon Treaty wine traditions of Hungary. In short, after WWI, Hungary lost around 71% of its territory to Romania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia (Slovakia), Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia) and Austria. Over 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves outside of Hungary. I’m by no means treading into political/nationalism waters here, but instead focusing on the grapes and traditions that never stopped or are now coming back to life beyond the present day borders of Hungary. On the southern slopes of the Mužsla Hills in Slovakia surrounded by the Garam, Danube and the Ipoly rivers, is one such example: Bott Frigyes.

Bott and his son Frici are growing Furmint, Hárslevelű (Lipovina in Slovakia), Juhfark, Kékfrankos, Kadarka (cuttings are incidentally from Balla Géza in Romania who is also ethnically Hungarian), Tramini, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sárfahér and Olaszrizling. In other words, nearly everything I’m drawn to in the Pannonian basin.

Even the neighboring village of Béla is where Judit and József Bodó of Bott Pince began their winemaking career (ethnically Hungarian but born in Slovakia) before moving to Tokaj. Long story short, a whole bunch of things all came together with Bott Frigyes coupled with great farming, honest winemaking, and delicious wines.

Sampling Furmint with Peter Wetzer
Sampling Furmint with Peter Wetzer

WETZER, Sopron & Tokaj, Hungary
2017 Wetzer Tokaji Furmint
2017 Wetzer Kékfrankos
2017 Wetzer Kékfrankos Blumenthal

Every time I visit Peter I learn about his next big dream and always taste some sort of brand new experiment. At the same time, he’s firmly rooted in the old winemaking traditions of Sopron, is addicted to old vineyard maps from the 1800s, and is a 5th generation winemaker making wine in his family’s 120 year cellar beneath his home. He has an infectious enthusiasm that spills into the vibrant nature of his wines. He even pulls a few shifts a week at the local gas station to support the whole enterprise.

While the vast majority of his production is Kékfrankos, he also dabbles in both Somló and Tokaj. We are lucky enough to offer a very limited amount of his Furmint from the Kis-Hegy vineyard in the village of Mád, Tokaj. This is a very iron rich volcanic site yielding a textured, raw, and alive Furmint.

2017 was also a great year for reds in both Sopron and neighboring Burgenland (ie. Pfneisl). While we will always get his estate Kekfránkos (many small parcels around the town of Sopron) for as long as humanly possible, it’s also time to show the site reflective range of this grape from another terroir: Blumenthal. Where the estate fruit comes mostly from schist, limestone and loess soils, the Blumenthal is defined by gravel and silt. The fruit comes in with much more ripeness and structure. I rarely get excited about a 14.5% Kékfrankos, but this is one of those times.

Károly Kolonics in the cellar
Károly Kolonics in the cellar – Photo credit Kolonics Pinceszet

KOLONICS, Somló, Hungary
2017 Kolonics Karvaly Juhfark
2016 Kolonics Hárslevelű

Somló is endlessly fascinating and humbling for me. How such a small appellation (less than half the size of the Jura) can yield such distinctive wines and characters never fails. Károly Kolonics fits this mold and adds a missing link in our Somló offerings.

Ironically, he’s basically the next property south east of Fekete Béla in the Apátság-dűlő. A 4th generation winemaker who grew up in nearby Devecser but spent his weekends and summers in Somló. His grandparents were born and raised on the hill. His Somlói lineage goes back notably to his great grandparents who emigrated to the US before WWI. Once the war threatened Hungary, they mailed back as much money as possible. There was an issue with the postmaster and none of the money went to the family and the estate was lost to the Abbey. The family eventually got their land back. The labels are photos of the great grand parents from the late 1800s.

Today, Kolonics farms about 9 hectares of Olaszrizling, Furmint, Juhfark and Hárslevelű in thick basalt crumble soil. The area is also covered in chestnut and walnut trees at an altitude just above the frost line. No herbicides, pesticides, cover crops are cut by hand, and he uses orange oil and hand sprayed SO2 when needed.

His barrel regiment of large 1500L Hungarian oak and Acacia barrels, many around 60 years old, are adorned with the names of Kings and Saints of Hungary. According to Károly, “I usually say that when you taste a wine and you speak about the barrel you do not speak about God but of his dress.” As for winemaking, grapes are destemmed, pressed, and then usually spend 6-8 hours of maceration before the native fermentation begins. All wines are barrel fermented and aged, full malo and only racked once before bottling.

The wines are certainly a nod to the style of Fekete Béla (rich and densely and layered), but picked a little earlier and with less than half of the élevage which is a nod to the style of Apátsági. Being able to taste a fresh Tornai Juhfark then follow up with Apátsági, Kolonics and Fekete Béla is my argument (so far) for how special Somlói wines are.

Harvest with the Apatsagi family
Harvest with the Apatsagi family

APÁTSÁGI, Somló, Hungary
2016 Apátsági Hárslevelű
2016 Apátsági Furmint
2016 Apátsági Juhfark

Speaking of Apátsági, we are very happy to have the new 2016 vintage. As Zoltán says, “People have been growing grapes on Somló for a thousand years. Therefore, I’m not taking an enormous risk in doing the same thing.” That said, 2016 was catastrophic with around 70% hail damage. They rushed out and sprayed chamomile tea and other organic treatments, but such is the cost when you’re farming organic and bad weather hits. The prices are a tad higher to help mediate this, but the grapes that survived have produced exceptional wines. Zoltán picks later than anyone else we work with on the hill, but the sweet/salty acidity they are able to keep in balance is astonishing. The chemical analysis and the way the wines taste and feel don’t make any sense. It also keeps the theme of me not fully understanding but loving the intensely mineral, smoky and oxidative freshness of Somló alive.

Sampling Kadarka with Zoli Heimann
Sampling Kadarka with Zoli Heimann

HEIMANN, Szekszárd, Hungary
2017 Heimann Kadarka

Zoltán Sr. was living in Budapest during the land redistribution post Communism. His father was pensioned in Szekszárd, so he decided to sell his house in Buda and move down as well. Starting with just .5 hectares (.25 allowed person during Communism) they started their first commercial vintage in 1991 with the late Tibor Gál Sr. advising them. His wife Ágnes was the first formally trained winemaker in the family and can still can be found on the sorting table and helping her son Zoltán Jr. (now in charge of winemaking) with all aspects of the cellar. And while they started with mostly Merlot, Cab Franc, and Kékrankos, Kadarka was always the most refreshing and unique.

Zoltán Sr. still remembers when the whole house would smell like Kadarka when they opened the fermentation vats when he was a boy. Largely ripped out during Communism, there are now 29 clones being rediscovered and Heimann has 7 planted. I was lucky to taste the very first 2006 Kadarka last winter. They are on the right track and the 2017 harkens back to those fresh smells filling the house.