Don’t fear the Juhfark

Kolonics Juhfark
Juhfark from the barrel

The book Wine Grapes refers to Juhfark (Yew-fark) as “perhaps the least modern or internationally appealing of Hungarian varieties.” Sold! We now have five very different Juhfarks. Overkill? Knee-jerk buying? Blind faith? All plausible in tandem with loving to drink them.

With hindsight, these selections also represent a learning curve. Not a curve based on quality, but rather on adding or subtracting elements from this grape to better understand what the hell is going on. There’s nothing else like it Hungary or a distinct relationship to another known grape. When we first started with Fekete Béla in 2012, I couldn’t find evidence of another Juhfark ever on the market.

Juhfark in Hungarian literally means sheep's tail
Juhfark in Hungarian literally means sheep’s tail

Somló, where the vast majority is grown and where most of ours come from, has over 1200 individual growers, just over 40 commercial producers, and the whole place is about half the size of the Jura. Not an easy maze to navigate. Now we’re encountering the grape more and more along Hungary’s Lake Balaton, Neszmély, and Etyek-Buda appellations along with southern Slovakia and Austria’s Styria.

For me, winter is arguably the best time to drink Juhfark. Part of that is that I mostly visit Somló in the dead of winter, but also because it can handle heavy foods and still be refreshing. Juhfark can range from 16% with RS to approaching acidified mineral water. The trick is taming the beast, but there’s no escaping the tart funk meets amplifying all things volcanic.

Equally important, it’s a great grape of distinction to raise for a toast and thank you all for another year of support, risk taking and my deep appreciation. Keeping this all in mind, I’d like to quickly break down these five Juhfarks:

Tornai in winter
Tornai in winter

The Tornai family has been working with vines on the crumbling basalt slopes of Somló since 1946. The 2015 is mostly fermented reductively in stainless steel and then blended with a small portion fermented in 500L Hungarian oak. Zero botrytis, zero extended maceration, and zero extended élevage. As with all Somló wines, there’s no escaping the salt, smoke and hard water, but there’s brightness, and the tart funk that makes you keep returning to Juhfark. A great introduction to the grape.

Gyula Szabo in the vineyard among cover crops
Gyula Szabo in the vineyard among cover crops

2017 Káli-Kövek Juhfark is grown near an old basalt mine (Hegyestű) only a few kilometers from the nearly 50 mile long Lake Balaton, better known as the ”Hungarian Sea.” The Mediterranean like influences from the lake coupled with volcanic soils have been yielding high quality wines here since the Romans. Almost entirely free run fermented in Hungarian oak, it then ages for 16 months in oak. Again, zero botrytis, zero extended maceration, and barely any press fraction, this almost drinks lighter than the Tornai, but the acidity, kiss of residual sugar and volcanic layers highlight how much stuffing this grape can hide in 12% alcohol.

Tasting with Károly Kolonics in the cellar
Tasting with Károly Kolonics in the cellar

The 2017 Kolonics (Kolo-nitsch) Juhfark brings us back to Somló. Planted in the deep basalt crumble soils of the Aranhegy dűlő, the vineyard is peppered with chestnut and walnut trees. The fruit is quickly picked, destemmed, and then basket pressed into 1500L Hungarian oak and Acacia barrels (many over 60 years old) for fermentation and aging. Here there is some botrytis, but no extended skin contact or long oxidative aging. Far more dense and structured than previous two, there’s still fresh aromatics and fruit woven into the salt and smoke.

Béla Fekete in the cellar
Zoltán Balogh of Apátsági

The 2016 Apátsági Juhfark is almost picked like a late harvest and somehow comes out technically drier than the previous two wines. Perhaps it’s the farming and the moldy walls in the cellar that keeps the native yeasts going, but whatever gets so much ripe and botrytis ridden fruit to get this dry and layered is incredible. It smells like it’s going to be sweet, but then the texture and acidity make an abrupt course correction. The frost of 2016 devastated much of the harvest, so what we have are the carefully selected survivors. Less quantity but super special.

Béla Fekete in the cellar
Béla Fekete in the cellar

No Juhfark discussion can omit one of the icons of Somló, Béla Fekete, aka Béla Bácsi (Uncle Béla). I’d mention him even if we didn’t import his wines just for context and a benchmark in his school of thought. Now approaching 94 years old, this 2012 Juhfark marks the second to last vintage he made from start to finish. Nearing the end of an era. Picked almost overripe, no sorting out botrytis, slowly pressed, fermented and aged in 1000L Hungarian oak for 12 months, then an additional 3 years of aging in tank. This is liquid stone, spice, and everything nice. Historically the wines of Somló could be found at the pharmacy curing kidney and liver failure, anemia, digestive trouble and a variety of other ailments. Béla is the living proof in the Somló pudding.

This has been a cursory look at the grape, people, and places at best, but one of the grapes that keeps me excited about wine and constantly learning something new.