Henry’s Favorite Wine (These Days)
Sheep's Tail from God's Forgotten Hat
By Henry Beylin, Gjelina Group’s Wine + Beverage Director
The Somlo Hill in northwest Hungary is an extinct volcano that rises up dramatically out of the seemingly endless plains that surround it. Its basalt rich soil has much in common with Sicily's Mount Etna, though the latter is still a very active volcano. My attraction to Hungarian wine is deep and overarching. To this day it's a very localized, even personal affair. For a small country, it has 22 unique wine regions producing mostly small batch wines that try to speak to you specifically. Honest specificity can lead to universality and nowhere is that more apparent than the marriage of the Juhfark grape with the steep slopes of the Somlo Hill. Juhfark is native to this hill and is found almost nowhere else. Out of 100 or so hectares that exist, about 80 are on Somlo. The grape being naturally neutral is a great translator of terroir, in Somlo being salty minerality, high acidity and austere, age-worthy tension. With age (and fine winemaking) we see stony, smokey and Riesling-like petrol notes present themselves with a fine backbone and creamy texture.
A legend related to the fiery intensity of Juhfark is that it helps in conceiving a male child. It's called wedding night wine (sometimes on the actual label) as it is customarily consumed by newlyweds on their first night together. Statistics to its efficacy are sadly lacking, but the British Royal Family have historically been adherents, and who can argue with that.
Also of interest is when the communist government nationalized most vineyards onto state control, it spared the highest elevated points of Somlo as they are too difficult to work, proving once again the communist can never reach Switzerland as it’s a mostly mountainous country and the whole "give what you can, take what you need" would be a wholly losing strategy.
Fekete Bela is the elder statesman of Somlo. He was a one man operation in the vineyard and the cellar into his late eighties until he sold his holdings to a younger generation. He still acts as a consultant, not only in the technical sense, but also offers honest and engaging philosophical direction to his namesake winery and the whole region at large.
The best wines always come from some fortuitous union of grape, region, cultural history and fidelity of the producer to the aforementioned. If we are lucky, these wines aren't simply tasty but they leave questions unanswered, reminding us that we will never truly know them. That it's besides the point to even try. The Fekete Juhfark is such a wine. It not only displays the characteristics of the hill, smokey, salt-tinged minerality, fresh and ripe acidity, firmness of texture and opulence of character, it has a shadow side, both hero and antihero. Its hard-edged physicality and pointed nature hides a forthcoming and almost elegant interior. Flavors like honey, dried flowers and tropical fruit will reveal themselves. This wine when trusted reveals itself. Just don't judge it by its cover.
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