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Wine's Next Frontier: Hungary's Lake Balaton

Benoît Peverelli Béla Fölfödi, Szeremley's winemaker, holds a traditional tasting pipette

Photo: Benoît Peverelli

What Kiss is fighting against, in nearly every sense, is the incursion of the modern world into the wine-making process. No stainless-steel fermenting tanks or new French oak for him, let alone the high-tech toys, such as reverse-osmosis machines and computerized ripeness analyzers, that have become standard at wineries around the world. Philosophically opposed to wine's worldwide distribution system, he sells only at local festivals and to friends and visitors to the winery, just as he might have done a century ago. Unlike the Szeremleys, with their restaurant made so charming as to seem Disneyfied, he offers no tourist amenities; as we walk through the living room of his house toward his wine cellar, he doesn't even turn on the lights. With his untucked shirt and uncombed hair, he looks as if we caught him taking a midday nap.

But what wines! Weeks later, when I think back on my visit to Lake Balaton, these are the wines I will remember. A transcendent Juhfark, bold and peppery. A Budai Zöld with the bite of a Granny Smith apple. A sharply acidic Furmint from 1995 that Kiss insists needs another decade in the bottle. Tasting one after the next, I realize that Kiss is a wine archaeologist, if that occupation can be said to exist. As he serves me wines made from grapes such as Irsai Olivér and Zefír and Cserzegi Fu"szeres, he talks of "little towns of ten and twenty houses" with tiny vineyards that were too small or difficult for the mass harvesting machines to reach. "They've been there forever, producing just a bit of wine for the use of the town from varieties that aren't found elsewhere," he says. "I will save these grapes! That is my goal. It is something my generation has to do."

He opens a wine from a variety called Tonai Szaraz. The grapes come from the Zala region, near the Slovenian border. "One year I visited and saw the vines, but the grapes already had been crushed," he says. "I've been back for the grapes every year since. It's enough to make only eight hundred bottles, but if I don't do it, who will?" The wine has the soft floral notes of Furmint, but with a bracing intensity. If it were on the shelf in my local liquor store, I tell him, I would walk in every month and buy a case of it. Twenty dollars a bottle, 50 dollars, it wouldn't matter. "I know," he says. "When people taste my wines, they say, 'That's a Hungarian wine.' After that, they aren't satisfied with wines that could come from anywhere."

Before I leave, Kiss opens a bottle of Kiralyfurmint from 1978 that has been in his cellar for at least two decades. It has the seal of the Communist government on it—a faded paper collar, all tones of gray now except for a stripe of sky blue, picturing a shield and a star—and it looks to be in nearly pristine condition. Poured into a glass, the wine is such a bright gold that it practically glows. "Wine is the only product in human life that can bring back the years," Kiss says, holding his glass to the light. "The 1978 sunlight is in this wine, and the great rains, and the cellar's coolness. The wine can bring back all these tastes. Smell this wine and go back twenty-eight years."

My last day in Balaton, I drive north through the morning mists to meet Lajos Oszvald at a roadside restaurant. A Budapest-based architect, now 64, Oszvald came late to commercial wine making. Formerly a hobbyist, he now makes about 10,000 bottles each of Juhfark, Furmint, Hárslevelu" , and Olasrizling, the permitted white varieties of his zone, and a few contraband bottles from more unusual grapes. Not long ago, a major distributing company in Budapest agreed to handle his wines.

We drive to his little bomb shelter of a winery, dug into the side of a hill, up a steep dirt road just wide enough for a single car to pass. This is Somló, technically a different region. "A hundred years ago, the method was to plant as many as forty types of grapes and vinify them together," Oszvald says. "But some have disappeared." One of his older wines includes a blend of several dozen other grapes, with names like Csomorika, Kövér, and Sárfehér. He doesn't believe he could get any of those grapes today.

Oszvald's wines are as crisp and minerally as any I've ever drunk. They taste like fresh water running down the side of a slate wall. I compliment him on their astounding clarity, which reflects the terroir in which the grapes are grown to an extent that any producer in Burgundy or the Loire Valley would be proud of, and he shakes his head. "The distributor didn't like them," he says. "Too much acid. Too mineral." He can't reject the verdict of the marketplace, because his cellar is filled with wines like these from older vintages that he hasn't managed to sell. So from now on, he says, he'll make most of his wines to the distributor's specifications—and a few bottles for himself, and for people like me.

Wineglasses in hand, we stand and stare at the land spread out before us. In the patchwork-quilt patterns receding into the distance, I see thousands of years of viticultural history. I wish wines like the Juhfark I'm drinking were as common in Colorado, where I live, as Napa Chardonnay, but I also understand that it is their scarcity that helps give them value. If Juhfark were poured by the glass at airport bars and sold on special at the local Costco, I never would have made it to Hungary.

As if he's reading my mind, Oszvald says: "When you go somewhere, you should drink wines that taste like where you are." And here I am, I tell him, astride the vast Pannonian plain, with an artisanal vintner beside me, good Hungarian food in my stomach, and wine in my glass that tells me I could be nowhere else.

Bruce Schoenfeld has written for Wine Spectator and Sports Illustrated.

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