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On the eve of the 2015 harvest (promising) and the launch of a new marketing campaign to promote the Southern Hungarian wine region of Villány with its star wine, the cabernet franc, Andrew L. Urban harvested this story.

In this southern corner of Hungary 2.5 hours on the M6 from Budapest but so far little known by the rest of the world (outside wine shows), The Villány-Siklós * Wine Route connects some 2,700 hectares of vineyards with 58 varieties of red and 18 white grapes, producing some extraordinary wines that are acclaimed by international wine judges and a growing number of the public. Its leading variety, cabernet franc, makes for consistently world class wines, thanks to the right location and topography, good soil, ideal climate – and caring hands.

Cellar doors in a row

On a scorching summer Sunday, the row of charming cellar doors on Baross Gabor street are either closed or virtually empty. The Fritsch Cellar is open, winemaker Horváth Sándor alone in the small but attractive tasting room, hunched over his laptop. He is always open, as his business card says.

He sells all his wines from here, and only from here. He makes five reds and two whites, the former from grapes he grows himself with his family, the latter from grapes he sources from others. Stairs lead down to his candle lit cellar, also small but full of atmosphere. (Fritsch may be a small winery, but it has won its share of awards, notably its 1999 and 2000 reds.)

The street is empty because summer is not the high season here for cellar door trade, even though the annual Devil’s Chasm (Ördögkatlan) Festival (August 4-8, in 2015) runs at 20 locations in five of the villages in the region, a mix of arts, crafts, music and wine. Spring is busy, as is autumn.

While those cellar doors are convenient by their proximity, they do not tell the whole story: the largest and most prominent producers have larger and more prominent establishments elsewhere, not all within walking distance of the Villány village centre like these.

The area has developed considerably in recent years, now boasting 51 cellars and 40 places offering accommodation in the Villány region. It is a charming collection of villages and vineyards, many run by families and its visitor information disseminated by the Villány-Siklós Wine Route Association.

The Villányi Franc appellation has Ministerial approval, and will be displayed with its logo on bottles of premium and super premium cabernet franc wines from the region (about 20 winemakers) with the tagline: "Villányi Franc is the embodiment of elegance and harmony." along with the QR-code of the website.

On November 20 & 21, 2015, the Wine Route Association plays host professional winemakers from the Loire as well as locals plus journalists, for a cabernet franc conference in Siklos castle. The second day will be devoted to wine tastings for the public, featuring cabernet franc wines from the Loire as well as Villány-Siklos.

Attila & Andrea Gere

In the Gere winery storage cellar on the outskirst of Villány, amongst dozens of large barrells and smaller barriques, Attila Gere holds a glass syphon with which he draws a sample of wine from one of the barrells marked as 2014 vintage. He lets wine into our glasses: all three of us, Attila, his daughter Andrea and me, are wearing warm, sleeveless jackets, which I take to be a sign that we will be here in the cool of the cellar for some time. Outside it’s over 30 C.

Normally, a tour of the winery is by appointment only: public wine tastings are conducted at the Crocus Gere Hotel in Villány village, no appointment necessary. Standard and premium menus are available. But this is not normal, we are talking about the future of Villány winemaking, as well as the all important past.

The Geres like to mix music with wine, and host a yearly jazz festival in June, with headline artists from around the world. In 2015, for the 4th rosé festival, they encouraged everyone to wear pink, had special trains from Pécs and welcomed over 8,000 people to enjoy it. Of the winery’s annual output of 500,000 or so bottles, 150,000 are rosé, the Frici, and the sparkling Frici Rosé (merlot & pinot).

Since 2010, the Gere vineyards have been wholly organic, officially certified in 2014, and the results are exceptional, he says.

Gere hotel & spa

The Hungarian Crocus is a plant unique to the region, which can only be found on the south slope of Szársomlyó Hill. It is the first flower to welcome the spring and the first flower to bloom. It is the symbol and logo of the region. It has been appropriated as the logo for the region’s world class resort in the middle of Villány, the Crocus Gere Wine Hotel & Spa, a 38 room luxury accommodation with a 13.5 metre swimming pool, sophisticated wellness centre complete with massage menu, Finnish sauna etc, gourmet restaurant – and wine tasting bar. Perhaps its biggest challenge, says manager Zoltán Pauli, is to keep the chefs, who are constantly being poached by foreign establishments. A rather annoying compliment …

Sampling the menu, it’s easy to see why the chefs attract attention, if my experience is any guide. For just one example, the brothy cream of fennel soup with delicate squid pieces and local mushrooms is worthy of the gourmet label, light in body, complex in flavour.

The place has a relaxed and comfortably stylish vibe. The glass domed indoor pool opens through French doors to the grassy sundeck, the rooms are spacious and the service smooth.

There are several other accommodation options, and if the new marketing campaign begins to bite, more will be needed. Wines will never be in short supply.

Another certified organic vineyard is a short drive away, under the care of Csaba Malatinszky. The French in Medoc taught him how to be a wine grower and winemaker and he has made the most of it: Csaba Malatinszky could well be tagged Hungary’s Monsieur Cabernet Franc; and as if that weren’t enough, London’s respected Decanter magazine grandly declared his 2010 Serena the best old world white wine of Europe.

To make unique wines, Csaba Malatinszky believes, they have to bear the invisible yet distinct signature of the winemaker, which can only happen if he or she is personally, physically involved in the whole process. “The energy coming from the winemaker is unique,” he maintains, which is why wines even from the same region, such as Hungary’s acclaimed Villány, can all be different … and of high quality.

He went to Medoc winemakers because he admired their wines. He worked with Bordeaux University to refine planting methods. He fell in love with Cabernet Franc and he believed that Villány offered an ideal place to grow the grapes he wanted.

In the mid 1990s, he bravely borrowed investment finance for a five year term at the exorbitant interest rate of 28%. “I had the confidence to go for it. I believed in it.” He also opened a small but tastefully designed wine shop in Jozsef Attila street in the city, “which provided revenue and an administrative base.” It still provides both these things. It also provides an ideal place to conduct our interview, surrounded by bottles in wooden wine racks bearing identity tags.

Fritsch cellar

Of the 120,000 or so bottles he produces each year, he exports between 60 – 70 %, mostly to Japan, China and the UK – in that order. He puts this down to good reviews from wine writers and judges, which feed his reputation. “In the Far East, packaging is also important, and our labels, incorporating my family crest, are classical, suggestive of tradition.”

Malatinszky has no intention of increasing the size of his vineyards, which comprise three blocks of 10 hectares each in the Villány-Siklo region, precisely because he wants to keep it small enough so he can keep his hands on the vines – literally.

“I always had a wine in my head,” he says, “and it all starts with the soil and the vines. I was looking for an extraordinary place to grow and make Cabernet Franc. Villány is it.”

* Villány is NOT pronounced as the English word ‘villany’; the ny is a compound letter that sounds like it is in Banyan tree; the letters ‘s’ in Siklós are pronounced as ‘sh’ as in all Hungarian.

Published November 12, 2015

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Malatinszky vineyard in Villány region

Malatinszky in his city wine shop

cabernet franc-to-be

Malatinszky’s 150 year old wine press cellar

(All photos by Andrew L. Urban)

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