Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg in Somlo
After having spent many years in the cities of Berlin and Munich in Germany, the German Hungarian Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg now lives the life of a boutique winemaker on the slopes of the Somlo Mountain in Hungary and produces outstanding wines there. I had the pleasure to visit him, to have lunch with him and taste his superb wines.
Wine in Hungary Over the Centuries
Wine was introduced to Hungary a long time ago, by the Romans. During the Turkish occupation beginning in the early 16th century, displaced Serbs brought the red Kadarka grape to Eger, which was the basis for the red wine blend that later became known as Bull's Blood. It was also during the Turkish occupation that the Tokaji region became known for dessert wines. After the Ottoman Empire ceded Hungary to the Austrians in 1699, the Germanic influence was felt with the introduction of grape varieties such as Portugieser (Kékoportó). From 1882, the phylloxera epidemic hit Hungary hard. The 2oth century saw the introduction of modern grapes such as Zweigelt. Under Communism quality was neglected in favor of industrial production. Since 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, there has been a lot of new investment and renewed interest in the traditional varieties. In general, red grapes have been on the rise, although Somlo is known for its white wines.
Hungary’s Wine Regions
Hungary has 22 designated wine regions, in all 4 corners of the country. Many people consider the red wines from Szekszárd and Villány in southern Hungary to be the cream of the crop. Around Lake Balaton, you will find the Balatonfelvidék, Balatonfüred-Csopak, Balatonboglár, and Badacsony regions. Further to the North, the Somló hill and Sopron region also offer fine wine. The vineyards of the Tokaji region were classified long before Bordeaux, already in the 1700s, with vineyards grouped into 3 categories depending on the soil, sun exposure and potential to develop noble rot. Noble-sweet Tokaji has been Hungary’s crowning glory for hundreds of years. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, noble-sweet Tokaji was a cherished wine enjoyed by the European Courts. Winemakers in Tokaji are struggling now to adjust to new market conditions.
Picture: The Wine Regions of Hungary
With 800 hectares, Somlo is one of the smaller wine regions of Hungary. Most of the vineyards are on the slopes of an almost symmetrical, cone-shaped, dormant volcano, crowned by the ruins of an 11th century castle, rising from the plains of the Tapolca Basin. It is a fascinating view when you approach the region.
The region’s climate is continental and diverse with hot and humid summers, dry autumns, rainy springs and cold winters. The soil is basalt, clay and sand with increasing percentages of basalt as elevation is increased. Mainly autochtone Hungary grapes are grown here: Juhfark (Sheep’s Tail), Hárslevelű (Linden Leaf), Furmint and Olaszrizling (Welchsriesling). The Somlo wines tend to be dry and full-bodied, with a salty pure mineral character, bright acidity and a rich texture.
Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg
István’s was born in Berlin, Germany. His father is German and his mother Hungarian. He spent the first 20 years of his life in Berlin. During that time, he visited his grandmother in the Somlo region regularly, fell in love with Somlo and developed his Somlo roots. He knows the region almost like people who grew up there. He later worked as a lighting technician in a theatre and as a disco DJ in Hungary. When the Berlin Wall came down, he moved back to Germany and spent almost 20 years in Munich, working, inter alia, as a test pilot for BMW for close to eight years.
Pictures: Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg in Somlo
In 2007, his life took another turn and he settled in Somlo, where, a few years earlier, he had started to create the little kingdom he now lives in. In the beginning, it was thought to be just a weekend activity, but it has turned into a full-time job. Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg in Somlo, Hungary, has become a nationally and internationally recognised boutique wine maker.
Istvan has now been making wine in Somlo for about a decade. The property was initially bought by his parents in 1993.
An Afternoon at Somlo with Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg
We arrived in Somlo at about noon, coming from Halbturn in Austria and left late in the afternoon for Budapest in Hungary. The Somlo hill area is very rural. There are no paved roads, just small paths wide enough for one car only.
Picture: Arriving in Somlo
Istvan received us the Hungarian way - with a little cheese snack and home-made Eau de Vie. Both were delicious.
He then took us on a tour of the property. Istvan owns 2 hectares of land. He grows vine on 1 hectare of land, all in the vicinity of the two houses on his property. There are also old wine cellars and we spent quite some time in one of them. Istvan lives in one of the two houses and rents out the other one to tourists.
Picture: The 2 Houses
He has renovated both houses over the past years and cutely decorated. He has done a very nice job and sometime you feel more in a museum than in a modern house, although all of the modern amenities are there, including internet. The house he lives in also has comfortable kitchen which serves as dining room for people that stay longer and eat at the premise. We had lunch there. It was a feast!
Pictures: Living Room in the Guest House and Kitchen in the Main House
The outdoor area around the houses, bordering the vineyards, invites you to just hang out there and relax. You can eat pears, plums and other fruit directly from the trees and bushes. The view is gorgeous. There is also a stone oven, where Istvan grills meat and fish, and bakes bread.
Pictures: In the Outdoor Area
Istvan has no direct access to running water and water needs to be collected when it rains and brought up the hill in tanks. So, Istvan uses water very consciously and he asks his visitors to do the same.
Istvan makes and ages the wine in one of the old cellars of the property. There is also another cellar in which he conducts his tastings when larger groups come and a smaller tasting room for smaller groups. Bother tasting rooms are very appealing.
We spent some time in the cellar, where Istvan makes and ages his wine and went through a series of barrel tastings. There was Gregorian music in the background all the time and Istvan explained that Gregorian music is played 24 hours in the cellar. He claims that the music has an impact on the wine.
Pictures: In the Tasting Rooms and the Wine Cellar
We finished the tour with a delicious lunch.
Pictures: Lunch with Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg
The Wines of Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg
Istvan grows 3 grape varities: (1) Furmint. It is overwhelmingly grown in the Tokaj region, but also in Somlo and other regions. It tends to have a high sugar level and when fully fermented high alcohol level. In my view Furmint is among the great dry whites of the world. (2) Olaszrizling. The most widely planted variety in Hungary, with refreshing acids and a bitter almond character. Olaszrizling is known as Welschriesling to the Austrians and is not to be confused with Riesling, which is known as Rajnai rizling in Hungary. (3) Juhfark (Sheep’s Tail). An ancient Hungarian grape most expressive on volcanic slopes. Regarded as most rustic wine of Hungary. The best wines are found in Somló.
Pictures: The Somlo Wines We Tasted
Istvan explained to us that he follows an approach of minimal intervention in both the vineyard and the cellar. Grapes are hand-harvested. The wine is fermented in 500 liter used Hungarian oak barrels. No artificial yeasts are used. All wines age at least 12 to 16 months in the large oak barrels before they are bottled.
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