Of all the Eastern European countries, Hungary has arguably the most renowned wines. These include the famous Tokaj brand, often referred to by the famous quote, “the wine of kings, king of wines.” There is also the full-flavored Bull’s Blood wine which flows forth from the Szépasszony-völgy, alluringly translated as “Valley of the Beautiful Women” near the historic city of Eger. In southern Hungary there is the Villany-Siklos wine region where a Mediterranean-like climate produces red and white wines that garnered international awards. A bit further north, the city of Szekszárd is home to the robust red Szekszárdi Vörös (ox-blood wine). These are just a few of the famous wines that have been created from the fertile soils and rare micro-climates of the Carpathian Basin.
At present, Hungary is home to no less than 22 distinct wine regions, multiple wine trails and thousands of cellars that are home to the world’s most storied vintages. Connoisseurs of Hungarian wine know that truly great wine is not just a popularity contest, in many cases it is the exact opposite. To sample one of Hungary’s vintage treasures many wine aficionados head to the northwestern part of the country where, at a small village spoiled by generous amounts of sunlight and surrounded by natural beauty, they arrive at a place called Somló.
The Connoisseurs of Somló
Somló is both a paradoxical and paradisiacal place. It’s paradoxical in the sense that this small village located in the Tapolca Basin has a long and rich history. This is a place where geology has worked wonders to create a landscape that yields fabulous white wines. The village lies along the slopes of a dormant volcano which is part of a fertile micro climate. This topographic prominence is known as Somló Mountain and is at the heart of an 832 hectare (2,055 acre) area that happens to be the smallest of Hungary’s wine regions. Basalt rock from 4 to 5 million year old lava flows underlay the area. This foundation, coupled with sandy loam soil and a warm, windy climate are the basis upon which the wines of Somló have been created for two millenniums. This is a place where rarity and vintage are paramount. The wines that flow forth from the area are mainly the product of two C’s: climate and cultivation. These have allowed the many different inhabitants of the Tapolca Basin to enjoy robust, flavorful wines from Somló since antiquity.
The paradisiacal element of Somló comes from both the soil and the associated landscape. Many varieties of grapes are cultivated in the volcanic soils. These are used to make exclusively white wines. Then there is the unique landscape that soars above the surrounding plains. While Somló Mountain is only 270 meters (885 feet) in height, due to the comparative flatness of the surrounding plains, the outcrop towers above the vineyards. The top of the mountain is home to the ruins of an 11th century castle which is associated with one of the many legends the area’s wines have spawned. It is said that the Benedictine convent which was founded here by Hungary’s first Christian king, Saint Stephen (Szent Istvan) had to be disbanded due to the nun’s affinity for the wine. Surely their excessive drinking was done only for the wine’s reputed curative powers!
Nuns Under the Influence & Gender Benders – The Somlo Effect
The first written documentation that concerns wine making in Somló also comes from the 11th century. By that time, wine had been cultivated in the area for over a thousand years. The Romans were not only the most advanced civilization in military and engineering, but also in viniculture. Many centuries later another empire, that of the Habsburgs, acquired a taste for Somló wines. Their affinity may have had as much to do with myth as it with refinement. Somló vintages were known as “wedding night wine.” This legend stated that if a husband consumed the wine on his wedding night, it would lead to the birth of a son. The House of Habsburg may have taken this to heart.
Two of the most famous Habsburg Rulers were great lovers of Somló wines. The Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, was known to partake of them with regularity. He had only one child, but it was a son! The wine was also held in high regard by Empress Maria Theresia who was known for her great fertility. No word on whether or not she forced her husband to consume it on their wedding night. They must have been doing something right since she ended up having sixteen children. Only five of these happened to be boys though. Whether or not Somló wines have gender bending powers is open to question, but they certainly have a power over those fortunate enough to cultivate or imbibe them. In an increasingly globalized world where size and scale seem to be the only things that matter, where mass is valued more than micro, Somló is a refreshing outlier.