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Sopron was probably founded by the Celts. The Romans called it Scarabantia, and there is archaeological evidence to suggest that they tended vines on the slopes around the town. After the establishment of the Hungarian state, vineyards in Sopron County are first mentioned in an endowment contract dated 1230. A charter signed by King Stephen V in 1270 reveals that the bowmen of Sopron owned extensive vineyards and made large quantities of wine. In 1277, the founding charter of the town of Sopron described vines within the city limits and provided for the levy of tithes on wine.

Settlers from Lower Austria arrived in the area in the 13th and 14th centuries. The sizable German-speaking minority diversified Sopron’s population and naturalized advanced technologies of grape processing and winemaking. In the 14th and 15 th centuries, the wine of Sopron became one of Hungary’s most sought-after export commodities in Europe. By the beginning of the 17th century, the city had adopted protective laws not only banning the local sale of wines from other regions, but even imposing a tax on any wine shipment passing through. The regulations effectively made tavern rights a privilege of local growers, subject to certain stipulations. In the early 1700’s, Sopron exported thousands of hectoliters of wine to various European locations, including Silesia (a region divided between the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland today). Until the end of the 18th century, wine remained the chief source of income of the Hungarian and German citizens of Sopron.
The viticulture of Sopron is recorded in the very first Hungarian treatises discussing wine in a professional manner. In 1723, Matyas Bel correlated rising water levels of Lake Ferto with a better quality and more abundant crop. Correspondingly, he associated ebbing waters with an inferior harvest. The explanation probably has to do with the fact that wetter years were more conducive to berry growth and noble rot.
As elsewhere in the country, the 19th century saw a shift toward quantity-oriented wine production. The process was cut short in the 1890’s when phylloxera reared its head in Sopron, and promptly obliterated nearly all the vines. In the aftermath of the epidemic, wine production took a new turn that makes itself felt to this day in the altered varietal structure of the vineyards, and the diminution of the sector’s significance in the economy and life of the city. To make things worse, the triumphant Allies in 1946 ordered the large-scale deportation of the ethnic German population who had tended most of the city’s vines. The final blow came with the setting up of state farms and centrally managed cooperatives.

Sopron Old TownOld Town – Sopron

Lacking any motivation by pride of private ownership, these outfits were hardly well-equipped to care for the abandoned vineyards. Another consequence of the industrialization was an all-out displacement of traditional head training and cane-pruned high training methods. The privatization drive that followed the demise of the communist regime resulted in improving quality and a sensible reduction of vineyard acreage.
The wines of Sopron—and, to a lesser degree, those of Koszeg—were held in such high regard that growers had reason to guard against theft and burglary by moving their wine into the city for storage. As a result of this security measure, the cellars were not built out in the vineyards, but within the city walls—in particular, under the houses where the growers lived. This custom also made sense in light of the stringent ordinance banning non-local wines within the city walls. With cellars located outside the city limits, the council would have been unable to precisely monitor inventories and sales.

Back in the 18th century, the Furmint grape used to make the best wine in Sopron. In suitable years, late-harvested Furmint was vinified as sweet Aszu, whose popularity abroad and chemical properties that allowed safe transportation over long distances made it an important export commodity. Decimated by the phylloxera, Sopron’s production of Aszu wines dropped from 1000 hectoliters in 1893 to 500 in 1894, and 200 in 1895. Once the pest had made a clean slate of the vineyards, the Soproni Aszu never came back, although the sweet tradition was upheld in Rust west of Lake Ferto. After a hiatus that started in 1919, sweet botrytis wines are made in better years once again around Rust (today part of Austria), more often than not using the Furmint grape.

The last half decade or so has brought explosive change, owing to a dozen growers who set their sights higher, and also to the favorable location near the Austrian border. This allows Sopron residents to directly profit from visitors—mostly Austrian—who jump across the border any time of the year, and whose presence encourages higher standards in all aspects of catering—including the quality of the local wine.

BalfVineyards near Sopron

Uniquely in Hungary, Sopron is home to the tavern-type establishment known as the Buschenscbank. The institution goes back to the 17th century, when the city emulated Lower Austrian regulations by allowing residents who took the civic oath to pour wine—strictly their own product—at their narrower place of residence. The licensed neighborhood taverns were marked by a sign using a branch of fir suspended from a long pole over the entrance. The sign was decorated with a white or red canvas ribbon or a straw cross, depending on whether the house poured white wine, red, or a mature old vintage. The wines were actually served and consumed in the courtyard of the house or, in winter or bad weather, in the main room indoors. The proprietor of the Buschenscbank made it a point of honor to pour his finest wines. No wonder it was often difficult to get a place in the best houses during the peak hours of service.

Area: 1800 hectares.

Climate: sub-alpine character. Frost-free spring, cool and rainy summer, sunny autumn, advantageous for overriping, mild winter with a lot of precipitation.

Vine varieties, wines: Kékfrankos – pleasant tart, velvety.

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)