Somló, the smallest of Hungary’s 22 wine regions, is a giant on the Hungarian wine scene. Its uniqueness is immediately apparent as you approach the 435-metre-high Somló Hill; a sawn-off, flat-top volcanic peak that rises dramatically out of the surrounding plain, which is topped off by the ruins of a castle.
Somló Hill was created when the surrounding land was carried away by erosion while the igneous basalt tuff stood firm. The region also comprises two other hills: named Kissomló (lit. Small Somló) and Ság Hill. The soils are predominantly based on that prized volcanic basalt and tuff bedrock which sometimes goes all the way to the surface. Loess, Pannonian sand, ferrous clay and black ‘nyirok’ soils make up the topsoil.
Somló is densely planted with vines on 550 hectares of bijou plots that yield powerful acid-driven age-worthy wines from indigenous varieties on perfectly situated vineyards, which often ensure ripe fruit. Somló is highly fragmented in terms of ownership of those plots. For example, the Kreinbacher winery – which is also noted for making outstanding traditional method sparkling wine and even award-winning Syrah in a white wine region – has 43 of those hectares spread across a remarkable 200 parcels.
While Somló, located in Hungary’s northwest about half an hour’s drive from the basalt Balaton lakeside location of Badacsony, has the Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes in common with Tokaj, there’s also Olaszrizling which on its day can certainly match the usually more illustrious aforementioned pair for quality in this terrific terroir. However, it is the untamed, uber acidic yet highly unique Juhfark grape that is pretty much exclusive to Somló and is as distinctive as it rare.
Juhfark (literally translated as Sheep’s Tail), which currently accounts for around 12% of Somló’s total plantings, was also once prized for its supposed knack of aiding its female imbibers in the pursuit of conceiving male offspring, with Queen Victoria a great fan and frequent Juhfark drinker. When underripe Juhfark can be rustic beyond belief and aggressively acidic. At its best and when it is able to ripen fully on the best sites to bring sufficient fruit to counterbalance the grape’s searing acidity, Juhfark has impressive body, structure (built on that erect acidic backbone) and substance, revealing distinctive notes of rhubarb, banana and pineapple, and a stony character.
It is a delight to walk up Somló Hill with its funky basaltic rock formations to check out. These include the Barát Szikla (Monk’s Rock), which is actually resembles a monk. Uphill, to the right of it, the Kőkonyha (Stone kitchen) is where the local hill dwellers used to cook.
Somló will be one of excursions that will be part of the 10th International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC), which will be held April 10-11 in Budapest.
Robert Smyth is a Budapest-based wine journalist, writer and communicator. He is the author of Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World (Blue Guides, 2015). He has been been covering wine for more than 15 years and writes on Hungarian and international wine for the Budapest Business Journal (BBJ), Winesofa.eu, VinCE Magazin and Wine Connoisseur, among others. He’s also served as deputy editor of the Circle of Wine Writer’s Update and edited David Copp’s Wines of Hungary and contributed to the same author’s Tokaj: a companion for the bibulous traveller. He holds the WSET Diploma and Advanced certificates from London’s Wine and Spirit Education Trust, run tastings for Tasting Table and also guide tours for Taste Hungary. He regularly judges at Hungarian and international competitions and also translates wine text from Hungarian to English.