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Villany preceded other areas in Hungary not only in the sense of being the first region where small growers began to bottle their wines, but also in attracting foreign investment, in the prices achieved by its wines and, last but not least, in its promotion of a massively tannic red wine style. Although this style has had its detractors, it is certainly a valid proposition. It is for good reason that red wines around Hungary have come to be seen and judged in terms of whether they live up to the standards of Villany in concentration, aging potential, and price.
White wines are a different matter altogether. On a southern latitude like this, it is difficult to make a fine white with a sound acid/alcohol balance without tricks and tweaking in the cellar. At the very least, it takes a very well-timed harvest, and often a lot more. Growers in the Siklos District have been pulling this off for centuries, but the fact remains that, down south, it is much easier to excel in the red wine genre. As always, the final assessment will lie with the consumer.
Even though Villany remains largely unexplored archaeologically, excavations in the early 1980’s delivered unambiguous proof that the Romans cultivated vines in the area. The best-known find is the remnant of an altar unearthed as part of a Roman villa near Nagyharsany, which records the plantation of 400 arpensis (about 45 hectares) of vines by the master of the house named Venatus and his son. The deep plowing in preparation for large-scale plantation in the I960’s had actually turned up evidence for a sporadic viticulture predating the Romans, from the Neolithic Age to the period of Celtic settlement in the Iron Age. Unfortunately, the ploughs often damaged the artefacts, reducing the amount of useful information they could provide.
Grape-growing in the early years of the Hungarian Kingdom is evidenced by the 1065 founding charter of the Pecsvarad Abbey, which provided the Church with a contingent of vine-dressers. Following the Mongol
Invasion, the vineyards of the Villany area were gradually restored, albeit at a variable pace depending on the location. This we know from a ranger s document dating from 1352.
Later, the occupying Ottoman forces curbed wine production without completely abolishing it. In fact, the constant skirmishes proved much more detrimental to the vineyards than the Islamic religious ban on alcohol itself. As the population was decimated along with the vines, there was a shortage of hands left to attend to the remaining vineyards. In this way, things in Villany took a long time to get back to normal after Ottoman rule in the area had ended with the Battle of Szarsomlyo in 1687. As elsewhere in the country, the majority of the abandoned estates devolved on the court in Vienna, where the monarchs used them to make gifts to worthy subjects. One of the beneficiaries was Eugene of Savoy, the commander who had distinguished himself in the campaign against the Ottomans. When he died without an heir, his huge estate reverted to the daughter of Maria Theresa, and then to her husband, the Archduke Carl Albrecht. Encompassing 26 villages with a center in Bellye, today Bilje in Croatia, the estate was leased from the Treasury by two Armenians, who found that “the sloth and ignorance of the Serbs” hindered the efficient cultivation of the property. Nevertheless, the Bellye Estate continued to exert a decisive influence on Villany’s economy for three centuries. The other great property in the area, comprising 24 villages and managed from Boly, was owned by the Batthyanys, but the Duke of Montenuovo collected some of the income by entitlement through marriage.
Cellars in Villány
The first wave of immigration had brought southern Slavs to Villany even before the Ottomans were driven out, and by 1715 some 40 Serbian families were firmly established in the village. Starting from 1740, German settlers arrived, introducing advanced agricultural know-how, hard-working habits, and a grape, known today as Kekoporto, which was destined to become a key factor in the region’s wine and life. Surveys show that by 1767 ethnic Germans outnumbered Serbian settlers in Villany. In 1864, the village had 1745 residents. 35 years later, the population of 2200 comprised 74% Germans, 18% Hungarians, and about 8% Serbians.
Villany experienced its first golden age during the 1850’s and 60’s, followed by a second period of boom after the phylloxera epidemic. At this time, the village and its vicinity attained nationwide significance owing to its overhauled varietal structure, and its Europe-wide export of cuttings of fruiting varieties grafted onto resistant American rootstock.
The appalling deportation of ethnic Germans in the wake of World War II rivaled Zsigmond (Taussig) Teleki was born in the southern Hungarian town of Pecs in 1854. For a while he worked as an apprentice in his father s grocery store in Villany, but soon left for Budapest, where he financed his secondary education himself. Working in Vienna and then for a wine merchant based in Wiirzburg, Germany, Teleki traveled in Europe extensively, and honed a perfect command of German, English, and French. He returned to Hungary six years after the outbreak of phylloxera, and established an experimental stockyard in Villany. The famous rootstock variety Berlandieri x Riparia, bred by Teleki, proved perfectly suited to producing high quality grapes even when planted in the desolate, intensely calcareous hillsides of Villany. When Teleki died in 1910, his sons Andor and Sandor carried on the stockyard with great success until World War II, maintaining subsidiaries in six countries, and even running an export business overseas. Ironically, Franz Kober in Oppenheim eventually collected most of the recognition by subjecting Teleki’s clones to further selection.
The atrocities committed by the Ottoman invaders hundreds of years before. Fortunately, a few families, such as the Tiffans, were able to escape deportation by leaving their homes and hiding out in the area for years, until it became safe to return.
The area around Siklos is known today as the white wine district of the region. Just before the phylloxera, white wines here outnumbered reds two to one in most years, although in former times red wine production had been more important in this district as well. In 1895, the vineyards around Siklos occupied 691 hold (394 ha) or about one tenth of the farmland under cultivation. Established in 1855, the local wine community numbered 445 members by the end of the 19th century.
In 1935, the 820 hold (about 467 ha) of vineyards had more than 600 owners, and amounted to 11% of tilled land. Although Olaszrizling was the most common grape, Kadarka clearly outshone it in popularity. These varieties were followed by Oporto (today called Kekoporto), Chasselas, Rizling-szilvani, and Banati Rizling. Among the growers, mention must be made of Sandor Jantsits, whose production topped 1,200 hectoliters in some years. His son, Dr. Sandor Jantsits, a man of extraordinary erudition, remained a decisive force in the region until I960, and made a lasting contribution to Villany with his model estate.
The harmful legacy of the collectivized economy will likely continue to be felt for decades in plantations with low densities and widely paced rows, originally designed to accommodate oversize tractors that have no business being in a vineyard. Even the uninitiated, when taken for a brief tour of the Kopar, will hardly fail to register the differences between a collectively cultivated tract and a privately owned plot. Today, some 60% of the region’s vineyards are controlled by privately owned family wineries. Within the private sphere, enterprises producing
cleaner wines for the market coexist with small individual growers, who are left to their own devices and can rarely afford to bottle their products.
The Wine Community membership of 2630 does not include every grower in the region, because people typically sign up only if they produce more than the family’s consumption. While it is too early to gauge the impact of recently amended nationwide regulations categorizing wine as an excise product, it seems certain that many of the smaller parcels will fall fallow as a result of red tape.
Villany’s natural disposition to receiving visitors gave rise to the first Wine Trail Association in the country. The booming wine tourism of Villany owes much of its success to the decent facilities, the neat cellars, the kind of hospitality one would encounter in Austria, and of course the superb quality of the wines themselves. The only regrettable circumstance is the lack of distinctive regional dishes that would go particularly well with the momentous reds, but the emerging vogue for game may rectify that before long. Although Villany is a remote region—at least from Budapest—and not particularly easy to access, a visit is a must for anyone who wants to make a more than a superficial acquaintance with Hungarian wines.
Area: 1800 hectares.
Climate: sub-mediterranean character. Hot summer, mild winter with a lot of sunshine. Frequent hails.
Vine varieties, wines: Kékoportó – has already lost its importance. Kékfrankos and Cabernet Sauvignon – dark ruby colour, robust, full-bodied, spicy bouquet. Hárslevelu – white wine with flower fragrance. Italian Riesling – long, warming white wine. Leányka – fine, elegant, robust.
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)