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The first relics of a local viticulture date back to Roman times. One of them is an 11-ton marble sarcophagus, with a decoration on a side panel illustrating a bearing grape-vine growing out of a double chalice. In another sepulcher, the inscription on a sacrificial chalice placed next to the body proclaims a curious wisdom: “Make an offering to the shepherd, drink, and you shall live.” During the six centuries that elapsed between the winding up of the Roman colony and the arrival of Magyar tribes, the migrating people that passed through and sometimes stayed on in the area apparently carried on the legacy of tending vines. This is suggested by the round earthenware flasks found in the graveyards of the Avar, a now extinct nomadic people originating from central Asia. These canteen-shaped vessels probably contained wine to smooth the way of the Avar warriors to the nether world.

Subsequent to Roman times, the first unambiguous evidence for viticulture here is the founding charter of the Benedictine Abbey from 1061, in which King Bela I lists the royal grants to the Church—including three vineyards named Csin, Bika, and Foves-telek. The monks established up-to-date cultivation methods and built a fine, enormous cellar using the local sandstone saved from the construction of the monastery. This was the predecessor of the cellar underneath Garay ter today. The ecclesiastic estate continued to cultivate the vineyards to exacting standards, as attested by the 1267 charter of the Szekszard Abbey.

The southern Slav culture of red wines, ilong with the Kadarka grape, was introduced to the region by Serbian refugees flee-l-j from the Ottoman invaders. Wine production continued relatively undisturbed in 1541, when the Ottoman Turks turned Szekszard into an administrative center known as the sanjak. In fact, some of the vineyards were acquired by Muslims, who thought that ownership was even more profitable than levying taxes on someone else’s wines. These times probably gave rise to the tradition of the collective vineyard watch, which uniquely survives in the villages of the Sarkoz, the area just east of the Szekszard Hills. The service was performed by the maidens stowed away in the hillside vineyards, where they could feel safe from Ottoman warriors. Banded together, the girls managed to keep away thieves of all description, winged or human.

It was also during the Ottoman Occupation that the admirable technique of “sealed fer-mentation” evolved in Szekszard. The crushed grapes were poured into vats tapering toward the top for fermentation. The cap was periodically punched down using a type of wooden plunger called the csomdsz or csdmoge. Oncefermentation was complet, the nearly dry surface of the cap was daubed with mud. The extraction of tannin and color continued underneath the air-tight seal, resulting in dense, stable wines with a remarkable ability to withstand long-distance transportation. These positive developments aside, the plundering Ottomans eventually managed to depopulate Szekszard and its surroundings. When the conquerors left, the seven Hungarian and two ethnic Serbian families who ventured back in 1695 to undertake reconstruction cultivated 55 “plots’-probably no more than 20 acres in total. In the early 18th century, the Benedictine abbots gave tax breaks to local growers, stimulating plantation and attracting ethnic German settlers to the area.

In 1812, the wine community adopted Articles of Viticulture to regulate the procedure of plantation, vineyard work, and wine-making, codifying a common law that had been tacitly understood and practiced in the region for ages. The Articles also enacted stringent provisions conceived to protect property and wine quality in the best mutual interests of the growers.

It was in the 19th century that Kadarka emerged as Szekszard’s leading wine, inspiring such immortal works of art as Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Another musical genius, the Hungarian Ferenc (Franz) Liszt was for decades a regular guest at the house of Antal Augusz in Szekszard, where he often availed himself of some of the noblest old vintages of the local red.

This first grand chapter of viticulture in Szekszard ended in 1875 with the onslaught of the phylloxera. The pest eradicated the mass-producing white grapes—Szlankamenka, Dinka, Bakator, Mezesfeher, Lisztesfeher, Rakszolo, Jardovany, Csokaszolo—clearing the way for more Kadarka, which became the predominant grape of Szekszard after the Great War. Some Kekoporto, Kekfrankos, Medoc Noir, and Cabernet (both Sauvignon and Franc) were also planted as part of the reconstruction effort, but these grapes were far outweighed by Kadarka throughout the region.

Viticulture in Szekszard remained relatively successful after World War II, albeit not immune to the dead-ends and false starts that characterized the planned economy. Due to large-scale planting projects, black grapes now account for 63% of the region’s total acreage, although in the larger wineries Kekfrankos trained on the high cordon has almost completely displaced Kadarka, which fell out of favor as a problematic late-ripening grape that is sensitive to both rot and frost. Things have changed radically since 1947, when Fornady hailed Kadarka as “yielding such a sweet must in better years that it will take a long time to ferment, making a wine that is thoroughly enjoyable even in the off-dry version.”Today, Kekfrankos remains the most widely planted grape in Szekszard, followed by Zweigelt , Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Kekoporto. The acreage devoted to the formerly decisive Kadarka has shrunk to 57 hectares. Clearly of secondary importance and popularity, white wines can show decent form in better years, but they will remain invariably low in acid and soft in character, vet fairly high in alcohol—possibly because of the warm climate. The leading white grape is Chardonnay, followed by Olaszrizling and Rizlingszilvani.

Although Szekszard’s soil is not conducive to high acid levels, the excellent, full-bodied red wines of Szekszard tend to be rather vigorous owing to the high tannin extraction during extended maceration. In recent years, crisp but quite fiery roses have appeared, diversifying the selection of almost black, tannic red wines. Practically limited to a few smaller family wineries, Kadarka makes an unusually aromatic, spicy red wine with a wonderful ruby color and mild acidity. This grape was traditionally also vinified as siller or fuxli, occasionally even as a blanc de noirs white. The name fuxli—also known among ethnic German growers as fixli or fuchsli—referred to the color of this low-alcohol, refreshing wine, comparable to a rose. (.Fuchs means “fox” in German, but these wines had nothing to do with the “foxy” taste often associated with labrusca varieties.) Fuxli was made from black grapes by quick processing, sometimes with some white blended in. A shade darker than fuxli, siller is a fresh, fruity wine that resembles a very light red in color and on the palate. It is made by macerating the must on the skins for 24 to 48 hours, depending on the ripeness of the fruit, then transferring it to wooden casks to complete the fermentation.

The full-bodied and intense Szekszardi Bikaver is a blend of two or three grapes (Kadarka used to be a frequent ingredient). The recipes are secret and vary from grower to grower, although the wine community is gearing up for the adoption of a “Szekszardi Bikaver Code” in the foreseeable future. Under current regulations, Szekszard is the only region apart from Eger entitled to use the Bikaver name. This privilege makes all the more sense considering that Szekszard had actually trademarked the name before it gained currency in Eger.

The distinctive cellars of the area are carved in loess, although vaulted cellars were constructed as well. The finest example of this latter type of cellar is the Varpince in downtown Szekszard, which goes back to the foundation of the Benedictine Abbey in 1061. Architecturally speaking, the old cellar row at the Leanyvar vineyard in Sioagard survives relatively intact. The “Pink Wine House” near the northern city limit of Szekszard was built in the historicist style, and is a protected monument today. In recent years, some of the smaller and midsize growers, including Heimann and Takler, have embarked on building impressive cellars with an artistic flair.

Area: 2210 hectares.

Climate: Mild, long winter, extreme, but dry summer, a lot of sunshine.

Vine varieties, wines: Kadarka – old, famous variety. By today it has become a rarity but its resettlement has already started. Kékfrankos – rich fragrance, harmonious, full-bodied, high tannin contents. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc – fine, characteristic fragrance and bouquet, fiery, velvety. White wine is made of the varieties Chardonnay and Italian Riesling, they are full and rich in aroma. The Bikavér (Bull`s Blood) of Szekszárd is of ancient origin, it is made of 2-3 red wines.

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)