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Tasting in the volcanic hills above Lake Balaton

Liz Gabay is a British Master of Wine, wine writer, educator, judge and consultant. She lives with her family in Provence and wrote three of the Wine Travel Guides to Provence. A regular visitor to Hungary, Liz was invited there recently to give a masterclass. For once, she got the chance for some independent wine travel, you can read the rest of her story here.

Lake Balaton vineyards

Vines at Badacsony on the north short of Lake Balaton ©Mick Rock/Cephas

This was not my first trip to the wine region around Lake Balaton in western Hungary, but this was the first when I would be independent with a car. I had arrived a day early before giving a masterclass at the VinCE wine festival being held in the Festetics Palace grounds in Keszthely: “book me a few visits with some interesting producers”, I  asked Agnes Nemeth – the editor in chief of VinCE magazine.

Before wine became a tourist attraction in its own right, Lake Balaton was the holiday location in Hungary. Sailing, bathing, horse-riding, walking, cycling, sightseeing around castles (Sümeg north of Badacsony) and nature reserves (south of Kesthely lies the swampy marshland which filters the muddy water of the river Zala before it flows into the lake), eating out at local vendéglő (inns) and relaxing in spas (Héviz to the north of Keszthely has the second largest thermal lake in the world), the area is full of activities.

At the western end of the lake is the grandest attraction at the Festetics Palace in the town of Keszthely, a remnant of the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prince Festetics was married to the ex-wife of the Prince of Monaco, and ancestor of the current Prince Albert, and together they held court and created a cultural circle – reflecting the fact that the town is equidistant between Budapest and Vienna.

Planning a Balaton wine tour
Unlike wine tours in say France, Germany, Italy, Spain or an Anglophone country, Hungarian is not the most natural of languages for the wine tourist. As this region is close to Austria, German is usually understood. However, a glossary of important wine words in Hungarian is useful – even if the pronunciation is not correct!

Winery = Borászat/pincészet cellar = pince wine = bor
grapes = borszőlő barrel = hordó Vintage = szüret
white = fehér red = piros rose = rózsa
sweet = édes dry = száraz Tannic = csersav

Guidebooks and official wine trails in the Lake Balaton area do not seem to exist, so some advance planning is helpful.

Hungarian wine regionsA brief historical background helps in appreciating the wines of Lake Balaton. In a very simplistic way Hungary was divided into sweet wines from Tokaj in the northeast, restrained reds from Eger in the north, big reds from the Villany and Szeksard in the south, sparkling wines from Etyek near Budapest, and white wines from Balaton.

During the nineteenth century Balaton was regarded as one sole wine region with no differentiation between the various terroirs. Today there are nine different sub-regions and the there is a growing trend for making wines with distinct regional character.

Under the Communists Lake Balaton was primarily a white wine producing region, concentrating on the high yielding variety Olaszrizling. Today, many producers still concentrate on white wines, which does seem a little strange considering the region is often compared to the Mediterranean with its hot summer temperatures, mild winters and warmth of the large shallow lake. Traditionally the wines were fermented and aged in old oak barrels and were described as ‘fiery’ – a rather unusual description for white wines and I was never sure whether this referred to some legendry high alcohol or the volcanic soil.

Balaton relief map

Relief map showing the volcanic hills on the north shore of Lake Balaton ©Liz Gabay

Exploring Badacsony
My trip concentrated on the north shore of the lake, around Badacsony hill (438m), the most westerly sub-region (apart from the very small area around Heviz). The hill is one of several extinct volcanoes, including the hill of Somló (also producing excellent wines and about an hour to the north), which formed under the Pannonian sea. In fact a relief map of the area looks more like a boil infested landscape.

Visiting a small range of vineyards perfectly illustrated the history of the region with their mix of traditional and international varieties

Folly’s Arboretum and Winery to the east of Badascony: in the late 19th century, Doctor Folly from Pécs in southern Hungary, bought some land by lake Balaton and planted trees from around the world. Today, the fifth generation of Folly’s run the Arboretum and very small vineyard. My favourite wines were their spicy and perfumed Szürkebarát (Pinot Gris) and a crisp fresh floral Buda Zold with lime-zest notes.

Lake Balaton wine tasting

Entrance to Laposa winery, by Lake Balaton ©Liz Gabay

Laposa is a medium sized family estate with a tasting room in a small cellar, lined with tables and chairs, with the family present both friendly and welcoming. I loved their wines’ almost steely mineral clean cut acidity, reflecting the basalt terroir. The Olaszrizling, combined this with aromatic citrus and floral notes, while the Rhine Riesling had attractive candied lemon fruit.

Szeremley is one of the largest estates on the north shore of Lake Balaton, founded after the fall of Communism. The wines are showcased through the estate restaurant, on a beautiful terrace shaded by vines overlooking the lake. The menu starts with a simple tasting of a few wines. Szeremley make a complete range from dry and sweet white wines to full bodied red. The dry white Zenit and the softly sweet Zeus have the same parentage (Ezerjo x Bouvier) but from different batches.

Amongst their white wines is one made from the variety Kéknyelű – an almost lost variety which was ‘saved’ by Szeremley and there are now 30ha of Kéknyelű grown in the region. Its greatest claim to fame seems to be that it needs another variety – usually Buda Zold – to fertilise and that it is difficult to grow. When young, it tastes quite neutral and acidic but when allowed to age it reveals real star quality. I tried an outstanding example from the mid-1960s, unfortunately not commercially available.

The Mediterranean climate lends itself to the growing of figs, apricots, vines…. and even Tuscan grape varieties. On the neighbouring hill of Szent Gyorgy there is a small vineyard of just 2ha, and called 2HA. This is evidently not a commercial winery. Török Csaba, the owner works in Budapest during the week, so visits are strictly by appointment. Not being reliant on commercial sales means that Török has been able to indulge his winemaking passions producing some excellent Sangiovese and Syrah wines. Not only has there been some tut-tutting about his not making white wine, but also his use of non-local varieties.

Musician entertains the diners in a casual restaurant ©Liz Gabay

Local foods
The local ingredient in the Balaton region is fogas (pike-perch) which is fished in the lake and served simply grilled or in fish stews. The traditional long horned Hungarian cattle grazing in fields between vineyards appear in local beef dishes, and there is pork too, appearing in rich stews or as big sausages spiced with paprika. Langos is a wonderful mid-tasting snack, fried pizza-style bread which I particularly like smothered with garlic butter. Soups are an absolute staple in Hungary, and I enjoyed a delicious sweet corn soup. Hungarian cheese is distinctive – variations on Halloumi style cheeses – young, smoked or mature often served fried.

During July and August many of the hotels and guest houses are full, but there is abundant accommodation in the area ranging from campsites to large modern hotels. I stayed at the Lotus Therme Hotel in Heviz. An all you can eat buffet breakfast and dinner, indoor and outdoor pools, spa, healthy and beauty treatment and a variety of sports maybe lacks local character but was very comfortable. Prices in guest houses start cheap – some as low as 8 euros a night – and they can be found on various accommodation booking sites.

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