September 14, 2017

Juhfark

One of the greatest treasures of Hungarian wine is one that is not very well-known outside the Hungarian borders. No, it's not Tokaji wine – that is probably the greatest treasure in Hungary, but you have to remember that it is also a Slovak wine as well, as the borders of the Tokaj wine region extend to Slovakia as well. The wine I have in my mind is instead something very Hungarian, but also something so scarce you might have difficulties finding it – even in Hungary!

This treasure I speak of is – of course – Juhfark! That spectacular white grape variety that holds its spiritual home in the Somlói hills, capable of producing some stunning, world-class wines!

Juhfark, you say? Somló? Uh-huh. I think a little introduction might be in order here?

Do you know why the Rieslings from Rangen Grand Cru are so much more tightly-knit than those of other Grands Crus of Alsace? Do you know why Soave Classicos feel so much more focused and mineral compared to the wines from the surrounding Soave region? Do you know the saline tang in Canary Island wines or the Assyrtikos from Santorini? Do you know that piercing texture you can find in reds and whites of Etna? These aforementioned characteristics have very little to nothing to do with the vineyard slope, grape clones or winemaking techniques. What is the common denominator in these regions is the volcanic soil: vines grown on volcanic soil just tend to produce grapes with much more mineral, acid-driven and tight-textured – at times even austere – character.

Nagy-Somló or just Somló (pronounced shomlo) is one of the rare spots in Europe – along with the aforementioned regions – where you can find vines planted on purely volcanic soil. This wine region consists mainly of a dome-shaped hill, Somlóhegy, rising in isolation from the vast expanse of Pannonian plain like a colossal (1,5 km long; 1 km across) potato cut in half. This is because millions of years ago the basin, in which this hill is located, was a shallow Pannonian Sea and what currently is the Somló hill used to be an underwater volcanic vent, spewing volcanic matter out from the earth. What little geological contours the seabed – or the plain that followed as the sea dried up – have eroded away with time, but the harder volcanic soil of Somló has resisted erosion, still rising more than 400 meters above the surrounding plain. There are also smaller volcanic hills of Sághegy and Kissomlyó nearby that belong to the Somlói wine region, but all the wine produced in these lesser-known hills is sold through cellar doors and consumed locally.

Vines have been cultivated on the Somló hill for close to 2000 years with documents describing specific grape varieties to the region dating back to the 8th century, so the reputation of the wines from this unique region isn't exactly a new thing. The vines are planted all over the hill, with the southern vineyards getting more sun exposure, producing fleshier wines, and the northern vineyards producing lighter and more acid-driven wines. The region currently consists of no more than 820 hectares (2050 acres) but these vineyards are farmed by a whopping 1200 farmers – a huge number of them only very small producers, selling their crop to the bigger producers. The biggest producers here are Kreinbacher (40 ha / 100 acres) and Tornai (50 ha / 125 acres), together owning more than 10% of the plantings in Somló and purchasing grapes from a further 20-40 ha farmed by local small growers. Out of the more than a thousand growers, there are only some 50 who own more than a hectare (2,5 acres) of vineyards and only 42 are actually registered to sell bottled wine.

Historically there have been numerous grape varieties grown on the Somló hill – up to 46 different varieties – and the traditional way of making wine was to make precisely calculated, interplanted field blends of these different varieties so that a vineyard could consist of up to 40 different varieties per hectare. The old-school way of making so-called Somlai Bor was to harvest these field blends together and age the resulting wine for a long time (several years) in large oak vats. However, this style was lost upon the arrival of phylloxera and the remaining local varieties were lost forever when the remaining vineyards were uprooted under the communist rule and replanted with higher-yielding varieties. Today most of the low-quality varieties have been once again uprooted and replanted with the varieties traditionally grown in the region: Furming, Hárslevelű, Olaszrizling, Tramini, and – our theme variety of this post – Juhfark.

Juhfark (yuh-farck) is said to be one of the rather few varieties that are capable of expressing the terroir remarkably well, along with such classic (and often very mineral and high-acid) varieties such as Chenin Blanc, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir and Riesling. It is hard to say how true this is, as there are only 170 hectares (430 acres) of Juhfark in existence, a great majority (150 hectares / 380 acres) of that in Hungary, with a lion's share located in Somló. This means that Juhfark might be very terroir-specific variety, but finding any Juhfark outside the terroirs of Somló for a comparative tasting can turn out to be a most difficult task. However, if the Juhfarks of Somló, aka. Somlói Juhfark are considered to be the best examples of this variety, I really don't think there is no need to really search for examples from elsewhere.

What makes these wines so unique is the aforementioned volcanic soil of Somló, which gives the wines both high acidity (which is evident if compared to the duller, lower-acid wines made from the grapes grown in the plains around the Somló hill) and very noticeable mineral character, giving the wines of Somló – especially Juhfark – tremendous structure and stunning aging capability. Although Hungarian white wines can often be high in acidity, this is all too often the result of a very early harvest. Instead in Somló, the grapes can be harvested much later, resulting in wines which have higher potential alcohol, higher level of ripeness and much more body with no loss of acidity. This, combined with the traditional – sometimes even quite rustic – winemaking practices, even including some degree of skin contact, can lead to wines with lots of power, mineral bitterness and noticeable amount of dry extract. These kinds of wines can be forbiddingly harsh and robust while they are young, but they often come together if given enough cellar age. It is no wonder that Somlói wines were so popular centuries ago: wines with this much structure and acidity could actually survive transportation across Europe, whereas the other Hungarian white wines could barely survive transportation beyond the neighboring village. Historically the traditional Somlói wine was one that was aged for years in old oak casks (still before the World War II the minimum aging dictated by the law was 5 years in oak) which not only contributed to the body and richness of the wine, but also gave them good defense against premature aging through slow, controlled oxidation. Such long aging regimes most likely gave the wines slightly oxidative – perhaps even a bit Sherry-like – character, but also tremendous cellaring potential. Unfortunately such wines are not made any longer, as stainless steel tanks and small, new oak barrels have replaced the big oak casks and the long cellaring is now at the hands of the consumer, not the producer.

Finally, a few anecdotes about Juhfark before moving on to the wines. First of all, "Juhfark" translates to "sheep's tail" – this is because the conical grape bunches supposedly are reminiscent of a sheep's tail. Secondly, the Somlói wine – and Juhfark in particular – have been thought to have various medicinal properties including help for blood pressure or stomach problems. The wines are also widely known as "wedding night wines" because of the belief that the wine helps in conceiving a baby boy.

Here is a small selection of different Juhfark wines that I have tasted, in no particular order:

Royal Somló Nagy-Somló J 2011
  • Royal Somló
  • Country: Hungary
  • Region: Nagy-Somló
  • Grape(s): Juhfark (100%)
  • Price: 5900 HUF (19,15€) / 0,75
  • Tasted on: 16th of September, 2016
The Royal Somló winery was founded in 2006 by Omar and Peter Csizmadia-Honigh when they purchased a 1 ha (2,5 acres) plot on the southern slope of Somló. Although these two Dutch-Hungarian guys live in London, they help with the viticultural tasks when needed. The winery itself is run by Peter's father, Károly Czismadia, who takes care of the winery and the vineyards year round. The Juhfark plot they own is still quite young and normally it produces enough fruit for 500-1,500 bottles of wine. However, in less-than-optimal vintages no wine is released. The winemaking is pretty hands-off and natural in style.

The "J" in the name stands for Juhfark. The grapes are normally harvested between late September and mid-October, depending on the vintage – in 2011 the grapes were harvested on 24th of September. The must had brief skin contact after the crush, followed by a transfer to three, old neutral oak barrels of 800, 630 and 150 litres, in which the wines were fermented with natural yeasts. The wines were bottled in July 2012, after 10 months of barrel aging.

Slightly grassy neon-green color.

Steely, green and somewhat vegetal – even musty – nose with somewhat funky aromas of beet, sheepish and slightly Chenin-esque notes of lanolin and wool socks, some unripe green apple and a vague hint of something waxy. Overall the nose doesn't feel that attractive.

The wine is surprisingly light-bodied, lively and vibrant on the palate, yet showing surprisingly much richness and concentration, contradicting the overall light feel of the wine. There are really bright and youthful, yet still quite neutral flavors of steely minerality, ripe green apples, some bitterness, a little bit of leesy yeast character and a hint of pithy grapefruit flesh with an overarching streak of woolly lanolin. Overall this kind of wine epitomizes the mineral neutrality of Somlói wines.

The finish is long, juicy and somewhat neutral with a woolly lanolin note and flavors of tangy green apples, steely minerality, wet stones, some smoke and a hint of bitterness.

Even though Royal Somló is a newcomer in the Somló wine scene, their wine is pretty much a typical example of Somlói Juhfark: the wine is steely, very mineral and somewhat very neutral while still being almost an antithesis to austere, with its obvious sense of concentration. What's noticeable, though, is that even after 5 years the wine seems very youthful with some noticeable sense of concentration.

86/100
Summary: Despite being a very classic, structured and mineral example of Somlói Juhfark, I was pretty put off by those rather sheepish aromas of lanolin and wool socks. In Chenin Blancs they can be quite attractive, but I've had some older Chablis wines with that same note and it can be quite off-putting is it too prominent. It really didn't make this wine unapproachable, but it certainly detracted from its enjoyability. This is a good wine, but definitely not in the top tier.

***

Spiegelberg Nagy-Somlói Juhfark 2012
  • Borpince István Spiegelberg
  • Country: Hungary
  • Region: Nagy-Somló
  • Grape(s): Juhfark (100%)
  • Price: 5900 HUF (19,15€) / 0,75
  • Tasted on: 16th of September, 2016
István Spiegelberg is as unique a producer as you can find in Somló. In his previous life this German-born Hungarian fellow was a DJ and a test driver for BWV. In 1993 his parents bought a farm in Somló for a summer cottage and Spiegelberg started making wine from the grapes grown on the property for a hobby. However, in 2007 Spiegelberg moved from Germany to this old farmhouse (with 2 hectares (5 acres) of vineyards but no electricity or running water) for good, just to make wine. He has studied under Béla Fekete, the Grand Old man of Somló, and makes his wines in somewhat similar ways: Spiegelberg's wines are made in a very non-interventionist fashion in Hungarian 500-liter oak barrels. The wines are fermented spontaneously with the aid of natural yeasts and aged for a long time in these oak barrels. The long aging period is pretty much a requirement, as Spiegelberg aims for a dry style, but as his cellars are cool and the natural yeasts can be finicky, the fermentation times can sometimes go well into spring, even take a whole year. During the aging Spiegelberg plays Gregorian chant music for the wine 24/7, as he believes this benefits the wine.

True to Spiegelberg's tyle, this wine is fermented with natural yeasts and aged for some 16 months in used 500-liter Hungarian oak barrels to the tunes of Gregorian chant music. 12,4% alcohol, 1,4 g/l of residual sugar and 5,1 g/l acidity. Only 1330 bottles produced.

Pale lemon yellow color.

Ripe, rich and perfumed nose with attractive, juicy aromatics of sweet florals, beeswax and some understated exotic fruit – yet the nose seems to suggest high acidity, cool climate and steeliness.

Ripe, rich and succulent in the mouth with flavors of lemon marmalade, steely minerality, some sweet exotic fruits, a little salinity, hints of honeydew melon and a touch of white peach. Quite full body with lots of intensity, moderate acidity and almost oily mouthfeel.

Quite long and lively finish with sweet flavors of ripe apple, some honey, hints of exotic spices and a touch of salinity.

A delightful, concentrated example of Juhfark from a warm vintage – and it shows. This wine is almost atypical in its abundance of ripe, sweet and yellow fruit in the stead of high acid and minerality. Yet these more austere characteristics show as well, giving the wine impressive structure and freshness. Still I can't help but thinking that this wine would be even more attractive with less ripeness and higher acidity.

92/100
Summary: Drinking wonderfully now, this wine will keep easily for some years – probably even for a decade. Worth its price at 19€, recommended.

***

Tornai Top Selection Grófi Juhfark 2013
  • Tornai Pincészet
  • Country: Hungary
  • Region: Nagy-Somló
  • Grape(s): Juhfark (100%)
  • Price: 4600 HUF (14,93€) / 0,75
  • Tasted on: 16th of September, 2016
At 50 hectares, Tornai is the biggest producer of Somlói wines. Founded in 1946, it is one of the very few private wineries to survive the communist rule. Often Tornai's wines are described as being very well-made and balanced, but perhaps a bit commercial and, thus, uninteresting if compared to the more traditionalist examples offered by the smaller producers. Tornai produces numerous varietal and blended wines at various tiers of quality; this Top Selection Grófi Juhfark is their flagship Juhfark wine produced only from their best Juhfark plot in minuscule quantities. The vintage of 2013 produced quite weighty and concentrated wines in Somló; this wine is rather powerful at 14,76% alcohol with 7,8 g/l of residual sugar and 7,6 g/l of acidity. The grapes were harvested as late as the end of October and the wine was aged for more than a year in 500-liter oak barrels. Bottled in early March 2015. Total production 3,650 bottles.

Medium-deep yellow color with faint green highlights.

The nose feels quite powerful, concentrated and complex with layered, kaleidoscopic aromas of star fruit, ripe peaches and apricots, stony minerality, some trebly vegetal overtones, a little bit of waxy character and creaminess from the barrel aging, light tropical fruit characteristics (that remind me of Austrian Zierfandler and Rotgipfler wines), a hint of nuttiness and a touch of sweet smoke. An impressive mélange of aromas.

The wine feels – as one would expect – rich, full-bodied and weighty with concentrated, almost chewy mouthfeel and intense flavors of stony minerality, star fruit, sour yellow plums, some nuttiness, a little bit of bright citrus fruits, a hint of dried pineapple and a touch of saline tang. Despite the oak aging, the wine really does not taste of oak; the barrel seems to have granted the wine lovely creamy and nutty undertones without becoming too overwhelming. True to the variety, the wine is remarkably high in acidity and, thus, very structured – despite coming across as noticeably ripe and weighty.

The finish is lively, long and rich with quite waxy character and complex flavors of stony minerality, dried apricots, some sweet smoke, a little bit of blood orange and a hint of nutty spice.

Although Tornai might get bad rap for making reductively made commercial and fruit-forward wines, this is anything but. The waxy, ever-so-slightly oxidative and impressively weighty flavors of the wine show perfectly how Juhfark can get very ripe yet still retain very impressive acid structure that shows no signs of faltering under such weight.

93/100
Summary: Although there are some delicate tertiary characteristics in the wine, the wine is still now, at 3 years of age, still a baby and obviously a long way away from its apogee. With its rich, weighty fruit, bright acidity and a balancing touch of residual sugar, it is easy to promise good aging potential for the wine. Expect this one change into something very Burgundian with a volcanic twist after 7-10 years of cellaring. Quite expensive for a Somló wine at 14,93€, but still a steal. Very highly recommended.

***

Fekete Somlói Juhfark 2009
  • Fekete Pince
  • Country: Hungary
  • Region: Nagy-Somló
  • Grape(s): Juhfark (100%)
  • Price: 6500 HUF (21,10€) / 0,75
  • Tasted on: 26th of August, 2016
Béla Fekete, born in 1926 and over 90 years old at the time of writing, is considered to be the godfather of Somló. He has been making wine since the late 1960's from purchased must and running his own winery since the early 70's, always with traditional methods. He has both increased his vineyard holdings (now at 3,5 hectares / 9 acres) and changed a bit his winemaking techniques with time – for example by introducing stainless steel tanks to the winery – but never at the expense of the classic style of his wines. The key characteristics of his wines are late harvest, natural fermentation and long aging regimes. Fekete made practically all the vineyard work by himself, only occasionally getting help from his son, until he retired in 2014 and sold his winery to three promising producers who have no intentions of changing the style mastered by Fekete.

The wine is made from specially selected grapes which are fermented spontaneously in old 1100-liter Hungarian oak casks with the help natural of natural yeasts. The wines are racked off their lees and left to age in these casks for 18 months, after which they are transferred to stainless steel tanks to avoid further oxidation and aged for a further 18 months. The wines are released to the market 3½ years after the vintage. 13,1% alcohol; 0,3 g/l of residual sugar; 5,7 g/l acidity; pH 3,22. Total production 4220 bottles.

Medium-deep golden yellow color.

Ripe, opulent and concentrated nose, although showing a light undertone of something green and grassy. Although the nose is more nuanced and subtle than intense and expressive, the overall feeling you get is very aromatic with really complex aromas of honeydew melon, ripe apple, some wizened yellow stone fruits, a little sappy greenness, a touch of dark cherry and a hint of mature oxidation giving the bouquet a slightly nutty edge..

The nose creates expectations of a big, full-bodied and heavy wine, but on the palate the wine is – as Juhfark so often is – ridiculously mineral and tightly-knit with piercing steely character, quite noticeable bitterness and bracing acidity. There are intense flavors of dried peach, iron, some stone dust, a little bit of aged waxy character and a hint of saline tang. The juicy flavors contrast the tightly-knit texture very nicely, although they get pretty much overwhelmed by the racy acidity and minerality.

The finish is really crisp, steely and sharp with pronounced, electric acidity and tangy flavors of stony, volcanic minerality, lemony citrus fruits, a little bit honeyed beeswax and hints of dried stone fruits.

A textbook example of a volcanic wine: the wine is a real acid powerhouse and almost quinine in its steely, mineral bitterness. However, very sharp and tightly-knit it may be, the wine still isn't austere and undrinkable. On the contrary, the ripeness and sense of concentration balance the structure very nicely – although the acid and minerality are still in the lead for now.

95/100
Summary: True to the Fekete style, this wine is still almost forbiddingly tightly wound and structure driven – even at almost 7 years of age – and will need years more to realize its full potential. This is something like drinking a 1er Cru Classé Bordeaux or a Champagne Prestige Cuvée right after it is released; it might be interesting, but you can get only a tiny glimpse of the potential the wine holds. If you really want to understand the Fekete wines fully, you need to start stocking them now and start drinking them not earlier than a decade into the future. These wines are spectacular, but definitely not for instant enjoyment.

***

Fekete Somlói Juhfark 2011
  • Fekete Pince
  • Country: Hungary
  • Region: Nagy-Somló
  • Grape(s): Juhfark (100%)
  • Price: 3500 HUF (13,36€) / 0,75
  • Tasted on: 16th of September, 2016
This wine is one of the last vintages ever made by Béla Fekete, the Grand Old Man of Somló. The wine is made from specially selected grapes which are fermented spontaneously in old 1100-liter Hungarian oak casks with the help natural of natural yeasts. The wines are racked off their lees and left to age in these casks for 18 months, after which they are transferred to stainless steel tanks to avoid further oxidation and aged for a further 18 months. The wines are released to the market 4 years after the vintage. 14,56% alcohol; 2,5 g/l of residual sugar; 5,7 g/l acidity; pH 3,55. Total production 3950 bottles.

Medium-deep yellow color with faint green highlights.

The nose is ridiculously complex with a stunning array of aromas, ranging from ripe and sweet notes of dried stone fruits, pineapple, banana and apricots to more complex aromas of smoky volcanic character, rhubarb jam and light hints of mushroomy earth.

Contrasting the sweet nose, the wine feels ridiculously tightly-knit, stern and mineral on the palate with bracing acidity and piercing steely minerality. Despite its harsh and almost austere texture, the wine still feels obviously very ripe with slightly oily mouthfeel and somewhat concentrated flavors of dried peach, green apples, subtle and complex spiciness, a little bit of salinity and a hint of candied lemon zest. The wine feels as tight as a piano wire.

Just like the midpalate, the finish is as steely, mineral and tightly-knit with austere texture and contrasting flavors of ripe yellow fruits, some beeswax, a little bit of ripe citrus fruits and a hint of saline tang.

You can often read how Fekete Juhfarks can be forbiddingly austere, rustic and almost aggressive when they are young, but you really have to taste one to believe. And they sure are. The wine is a stunning juxtaposition of acid-and-mineral-driven freshness and ridiculously complex, weighty ripeness. Even though it is quite hard to appreciate a wine this tightly wound, it doesn't take a genius to realize there is something otherworldly here.

95/100
Summary: This is a stunning wine by any standards, but it is and will be unapproachable for years. A wine like this needs years – perhaps even decades – to unwind, let the structure resolve and release the tertiary notes underneath. If opened now, the wine will need copious amounts of decanting to coax some fruit out. In a nutshell, this is one of the greatest Hungarian dry wines I've ever tasted, but will need extended cellaring to fully realize its potential. Ridiculous value at only 13,36€.

***

Kolonics Pinceszet Somlói Juhfark 2013
  • Kolonics Pinceszet
  • Country: Hungary
  • Region: Nagy-Somló
  • Grape(s): Juhfark (100%)
  • Price: 3200 HUF (10,35€) / 0,75
  • Tasted on: 22nd of March, 2017
I really had hard time looking for information on Kolonics, because the winery's home pages tell so very little. Basically all I could find out that this is a family winery, led by the 4th generation grower Károly Kolonics, they cultivate 3 hectares (7,5 acres) – of which 0,5 hectares (1,3 acres) is Juhfark – and they produce their wines in the traditional way: fermenting the wines with indigenous yeasts and aging them for prolonged periods of time (up to 3 years) in old oak and acacia barrels.

Apparently Kolonics makes several different bottlings of Juhfark – based on the information found on their website – but I really found no other way to distinguish these wines from each other, other than the faint, vertically repeating pictures left to the text in the bottle's label. I didn't find any information on how the wines differ from each other. This wine has 13% of alcohol and it was served blind to me.

Quite intense lime green color.

The nose is definitely characterful, yet also somewhat stuffy, with most curious aromas of steely minerality, lanolin, some wet wool socks, a little bit of wizened yellow fruits, a hint of spices and a touch of lager beer-like herbal character. First I think that this might be older Chenin Blanc or Chablis (the wool!), but then I remember that Royal Somló wine I had had a year earlier.

The wine feels medium-to-moderately full-bodied, powerful and remarkably concentrated with intense flavors of steely minerality, wool socks, wet stones, ripe apples, some dried peach and a hint of smoke. The wine is bone-dry and rather high in acidity. At this point I'm fairly sure this is Juhfark, because so very few Chenin and Chablis wines can reproduce such power and concentration – the odds are for Juhfark.

The finish is crisp, intense and very acid-driven with long flavors of stony minerality, some dried peach, a little bit of sandy soil and a hint of creaminess suggesting oak aging.

My first guess was correct: I said that this is pretty likely from Hungary, most likely from Somló and quite certainly a Juhfark, if my previous guesses were correct. The person who presented me this wine only said "correct", and seemingly unsurprised, revealed the bottle to be this Kolonics Juhfark. The other people, on the other hand, went completely wild on my deduction, because their guesses had been all the time completely wrong and, to add to their surprise, they had never heard of Somló, let alone of Juhfark.

88/100
Summary: All in all this wine is very similar to the Royal Somló J 2011 I mentioned earlier – only this time the woolly notes weren't as dominating and the wine came across more complex, balanced and interesting. Still I'd say that this wine was far behind those greatest Juhfarks I've had – although it might be just a matter of age. So many producers say Juhfark is not a wine meant to be enjoyed young, so maybe this was just too young and in dire need of cellaring? If I had a bottle of this, I'd play it sure and open it not earlier than after 5 more years of further aging.

Our tasting of Somlói wines; three Juhfarks to the fore.


If these wines didn't say it clearly enough, Juhfark has been a true revelation to me. I had been hearing a lot of positive things about this rare, magical variety for many years, but it wasn't until in 2016 when I finally got to taste one! Well, several.

However, as it is often said about Juhfark, it truly seems like a variety that really needs age. Based on the examples above, when young, the less impressive examples of Juhfark can be quite austere in their pronounced, stony minerality so that they offer very little enjoyment, whereas the better examples tend to be so freakishly tightly-knit and structured that they can be quite forbidding and aggressive. Although the styles can differ from wine to wine, all the wines seem to share some common traits: rather high acidity; very pronounced mineral character; and texture and structure that really screams for cellar aging!

After having tasted through these different wines I'm all the more convinced that I need to start sourcing some Juhfark bottles into my cellar and start aging them patiently. These wines finally showed me a world I had heard of before and now I need to go deeper and see what it really has to offer! Seeing how hard it is to find even young Juhfark wines, I really don't expect to come across an aged bottle – that's why I need to start taking some action if I ever want to taste an older Juhfark myself.

I strongly recommend you to follow my example.

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