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Viticulture in this part of Pannonia possibly started before the Roman Conquest, and was certainly highly advanced during the tenure of the Romans here. This is corroborated by the ruins of Villa Urbana, a roman residence from the 2nd or the 3rd century that was unearthed at Balaca-puszta. Clusters of grapes and vineyard scenes are recurring motifs of the ornamental relief and the frescoes found in this villa.
A wealth of written evidence shows that viticulture in the area that is the Balatonfured-Csopak wine region today was well-established in the earliest centuries of the Hungarian nation. The country’s first king, Saint Stephen, presented the nuns of a cloister established in 1018 in the Veszprem Valley with a fine lot of vines near the village of Paloznak, complete with a szolos or “viner,” meaning a serf charged with tending the vineyard. According to a charter from 1082, the Bishop of Veszprem had a holding of vines in Csopak. In 1211, the town of Balatonfiired became the property of the Church when it was acquired by the Tihany Abbey. In later times, the aristocracy owned substantial vineyard acreage in the region, not to mention the kings and queens who also became proprietors.
During the Ottoman Occupation, this strip along the shore formed part of the last line of Hungarian defense against the conquering Turkish troops. The area around the fortified castles were exposed to ceaseless skirmishes, contributing significantly to the eventual reduction of vineyard acreage in the region.
In the first half of the 19th century, Balatonfüred, often called Füred for short, emerged as the “capital” of Lake Balaton, where members of the nobility and an increasingly well-heeled bourgeoisie came from all parts of the country to spend their holidays, take hydrotherapy, and fill up on cultural events. In the summer season, the town ran a fully fledged theatrical program, and often hosted dignitaries of Hungarian politics and literature for a few weeks of relaxation. Each year, an especially large number of visitors convened to attend the so-called Anna Ball, still a popular annual event today. The girl who created a stir with her beauty at this gala had a good chance of returning home engaged. All this hustle and bustle of course provided excellent publicity for the area’s wines, whose fame was carried to every corner of the country by those who spent their holidays in the town.
The phylloxera devastation only caused a temporary setback in the successful production of local wines. For a long time, the area of Balatonfiired and Csopak was lumped together with the Balaton-melleke and then with Badacsony, and only gained independent wine region status in 1959. In 1997, the communities of Mencshely and Tihany were added to its territory.
Balatonfured-Csopak is dominated almost exclusively by white wines today, but this has not always been the case. Red wine production here was quite significant in the 19th century, but was largely abandoned in the early 1900’s. Red wines resurfaced after the Great War, but remained confined to a very small area within the region. Nowadays the leading variety is Olaszrizling, followed by Rizling-szilvani at a distant second. Over the past decade and a half, Chardonnay has gained a lot of ground.
Olaszrizling wines, generally regarded as the most successful in the region, show an interesting variation of character from east to west. Those grown in Csopak tend to be elegant, delicate and light even at higher concentrations of alcohol and acidity. Those around Balatonfiired, Balatonszolos and Aracs have more body and extract but can be softer in certain years. Around the villages of Akali and Zanka, near the western boundary of the region, Olaszrizling can yield a positively heady wine. This overview seems to be valid for the moment, but the varying philosophy, yields and technical sophistication of the emerging private estates may soon cause a few surprises and alter the ways in which we think of the region’s wine styles.
Balaton panorama Koczor terrace
In the shadow of the all-important Olaszrizling, the formerly well-regarded Akali Muskotaly seems to be disappearing from the shelves. It’s a pity, because this wine attained somewhat of a cult following domestically in the troubled second half of the 20th century, on account of the fact that it was available in a semi-dry and a fully dry version very unlike the semi-sweet or downright syrupy Muscat wines that were the name of the game in the era of planned economy. Mention must be made of Mihaly Figula s innovative Semillon, a non-native variety that seems to be very promising in this region. The two red-wine enclaves are the Tihany Peninsula and the vicinity of Dorgicse, producing red and rose from Kekfrankos, Merlot, and Zweigelt.
The wine region’s total area of 6,341 hectares includes 5,792 hectares of Class I sites, but only 2,100 hectares are actually planted. One reason for this low level of utilization is the fact that many excellent vineyards were divided up by non-local owners for building weekend cottages. These sites are lost to wine production for a long time to come, perhaps forever.
Area: 2143 hectares.
Climate: a lot of sunshine, weather serving vine production.
Vine varieties, wines: Italian Riesling – nice to look at; greenish-white, fragrance resembling reseda, with spicy taste, full-bodied, round. After several years enriched with a secondary bouquet of plum smell. Furmint – fine fragrance, rich in acids, high sugar content. Rieslingszilváni – pleasant, intensive fragrance, mild, rich bouquet.
For more interesting information:
> Hungarian wines and wineregions (authors: Zoltán Benyák, Tibor Dékány)
> Terra Benedicta 2003: Tokaj and Beyond (authors: Rohály Gábor, Mészáros Gabriella, Nagymarosy András)