What is Somló and what happens there?
Somló is a historic white wine region in western Hungary located two hours from Budapest by car. Perched on a volcanic hill, Somló is best-known for its notoriously minerally wines. Despite flying under the radar of most wine drinkers today, there was a time in history when Somló was considered to be on par with Tokaj: Queen Victoria, members of the Habsburg family, and a long list of Hungarian artists were Somló enthusiasts. “They’re the noblest wines... manifesting the wisdom of the East and the culture of the West,” mused the writer Sándor Márai.
With its 520 hectares of planted vines, Somló is the smallest of Hungary’s 22 wine regions (Tokaj is ten, Burgundy is fifty times bigger). This tiny area is swarming with more than a thousand mom-and-pop wineries, each with plots of less than half a hectare — around one acre — on average. Juhfark, a native grape that survived the phylloxera epidemic, is planted almost exclusively in Somló.
What should I know about the history of Somló wines?
Winemaking in Somló, as in much of western Hungary, goes back to the Romans, likely even to the Celts. After conquering the land in the 9th century, Hungarian tribes continued to make wine; quality improved when French and Italian immigrants in the 13th century introduced more advanced winemaking techniques, such as weed management and barrel aging. Somló bordered the territories occupied by Ottoman Turkey in the 16-17th centuries, which meant that constant clashes disrupted, though didn’t halt winemaking (ironically, the Ottoman army was a buyer of Somló wines).
Somló's wines enjoyed a good reputation across Western Europe, and most exports went to Habsburg-controlled territories (and of course also to the nearby cities, such as Sárvár and Pápa). The local vintners association took care to maintain quality: documents from 1752 show severe punishment for winemakers who mislabeled or watered their wines. Tragically, as in the rest of Europe, the phylloxera aphid destroyed most of Somló’s vineyards starting in 1888. More resistant grapes were planted in the following period.
During the Communist era (1948-1989), the Hungarian state nationalized parts of Somló’s vineyards and the state-owned cooperatives churned out mediocre wines in mass quantities. Unfortunately, there was little quality control on parcels that remained in private hands, and amateurish winemaking techniques and random grape varieties became widespread, damaging Somló’s reputation for decades to come.
Led by a couple of passionate winemakers who emphasized quality at all cost — most notably Imre Györgykovács and Béla Fekete — Somló awoke from its decades-long slumber in the early aughts. Today, young winemakers are flocking to Somló, which is starting to re-establish itself as a top wine region in Hungary.
What else are Somló wines known for?
Somló wines have sprouted a number of legends over the centuries, most of them inspired by their intensely minerally and “masculine” features. According to a popular folk myth, if newlyweds drink it, they'll be graced with a son — hence Somló's reputation as the “wine of the wedding night.”
People also prized Somló’s wines for their supposed medicinal qualities. For example, the Cistercian Abbey of Zirc prescribed them as remedies for a range of ailments until an actual pharmacy opened in town in the 18th century.
What’s the soil of Somló like?
Surrounded by a flat terrain, the 432-meter-high Somló Hill was formed 4-5 million years ago as a result of a volcanic eruption. Somló’s vineyards are overlaid with basalt and volcanic ash called tuff, while the low-lying areas are mainly covered in loamy loess. Local winemakers believe that the volcanic elements lend the signature stony minerality to their wines.
Who owns the vineyards of Somló?
Throughout Somló's history, most vineyards belonged to feudal landlords — notably the Zichy, Esterházy, and Erdődy families — and to nearby Roman Catholic archdioceses. Interestingly, nuns, first Benedictine, later Premonstratensians, owned the treasured wines of south-facing Somlóvásárhely (documents show that sisters growing too fond of their fermented grape juice was a recurring problem). And there were also small growers, both local peasants and residents of close-by cities.
Today, the two biggest wineries in Somló are Kreinbacher and Tornai, each with about 70 hectares (175 acres) of vineyard. Apart from them, there are about thirty serious, full-time family wineries operating on small plots, as well as myriad hobby winemakers.
Why are there so many small winemakers in Somló?
It has to do with Hungary's idiosyncratic history of the recent past. As part of a sweeping land reform in 1945, hundreds of thousands of working class families obtained small vineyards across Hungary using the lands confiscated from the aristocracy and the church. This was also the case in Somló, where many miners from the nearby town of Ajka suddenly became recreational winemakers.
While the Communist state nationalized most of these vineyards by the 1960s, they spared areas higher up the hill that were not suitable for machine harvesting since tractors couldn’t access them (ironically, those sun-drenched plots were the most valuable). With Somló's steep hillsides, most of those vineyards remained in private hands and this fragmented ownership structure, with more than a thousand hobby winemakers, has remained to this day.
What do Somló wines taste like?
It’s impossible to generalize, but Somló's soil has a tendency to superimpose itself on the characteristics of the grape varity the wine was made from. Somló wines are usually associated with a hard, minerally, salty sensation on the palate and a high acidity. To round out these intense, austere features, many Somló winemakers keep a small amount of residual sugar in the wines and age them for a couple of years before release.
What kinds of grapes are Somló wines made from?
Somló is a white wine region. There were more than 35 native grapes — most notably sárfehér, budai zöld, and gohér — before the phylloxera epidemic destroyed the vineyards in the 1880s. The indigenous grapes were then replaced by what people thought were more resistant varieties, especially olaszrizling (welschriesling), which is different from the better-known riesling of the Rhine region. Today, most Somló wines are made from one of the following four white grapes: olaszrizling (25%), juhfark (17%), furmint (13%), and hárslevelű (6%), with juhfark’s share growing rapidly.
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Why is juhfark the flagship grape of Somló?
Juhfark is one of the few native Hungarian grapes that survived the phylloxera epidemic and today it’s found almost nowhere outside Somló. Juhfark’s name translates to “sheep’s tail” because that is what the grape's elongated clusters resemble. Since juhfark is prone to rotting, other grape varieties have eclipsed it over time, but winemakers have recently started planting it again. There’s a partly self-serving reason for the juhfark-renaissance: producers can charge a premium for this grape, which has come to symbolize the Somló wine region.
I thought furmint was a Tokaj grape — what is it doing in Somló?
True, furmint is mainly associated with the Tokaj wine region, but this native Hungarian grape has been widely planted throughout the country for centuries. Some local winemakers believe that furmint shows its best self in Somló, but it’s also true that Somló’s distinct character can overwrite the typical taste of furmint as the wine ages.
What are the best vineyards of Somló?
Historically, Somló Hill consisted of four wine regions (Vásárhely, Doba, Szőlős, Jenő), of which the midsection of the south-facing and warmest vineyards of Somlóvásárhely yielded the most prized wines. While this is still true today, a warming climate means that cooler plots toward the northern side are also becoming sought-after.
Are there orange and natural wines in Somló?
Yes, many wineries are experimenting with new-wave wines. For example, Stephan Spiegelberg has buried two giant Georgian-style qvevris in his wine cellar filled with skin-contact white grape juice to make orange wines. Abeles and Tomcsányi are also committed to making low-intervention wines.
What kind of foods go well with Somló wines?
Somló wines pair nicely with substantive dishes, which is why they’ve been traditionally a good match with hefty Hungarian fare. The wines sync up especially well with bright-tasting dishes such as stuffed cabbage and anything with sour cream, including chicken paprikash. Fish and Mangalitsa pork are also good options, and Somló veterans believe that goat cheese is the way to go with the local wines.
Is the Somló wine region worth visiting?
Somló offers a firsthand look at a historic but internationally undiscovered wine region. Here, you’ll have better access to winemakers than in highly-trafficked wine regions where things can become overly transactional. Apart from wines, there are fun things to do in and around Somló to keep you engaged for a weekend with a handful of snug accommodations to match. Also, Somló is naturally beautiful: it’s ringed by flat terrain, so there are sweeping views from almost anywhere on the hillside.
What’s the best way to get into and around Somló?
Somló is about a two-hour drive from Budapest. I highly recommend that you take a car to be able to explore the wine region in its fullest. In theory, you could take a train and roam around by foot on the southern side of the hill where most wineries are clustered, but you’d miss the nearby attractions away from the hill. Unfortunately, the closest taxi company is in Ajka, which is a 20-minute drive from Somló.
What are the top wineries in Somló?
There are a few dozen professional winemakers in Somló, but it’s impossible to rank them — they each have their own unique approach. Nonetheless, I’ve featured my favorites based on my visits and interviews with Hungarian sommeliers. Naturally, this is a subjective list reflecting my own preferences, but it includes a mixed group of Somló winemakers, both big and small, traditional and new-wave.