Borders are just lines on maps. On the ground they are places of cross pollination: of goods, people and ideas; and they shift over time. Austria and Hungary share a border today. Between 1867 and 1918 they formed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cooperating on defence and foreign policy under a common monarch. With such close historical political ties, it’s not surprising to find crossover in other areas including wine.
The wine region where the two countries meet straddles the border. To the west is Burgenland in Austria, and to the east Sopron in Hungary. For many years this entire area was part of Hungary. A referendum in 1921 saw the region split, and Hungary became a satellite state of the Soviet Union from 1949. In 1989, when the border with Austria was opened up, it became possible to work with vineyards on both sides again.
It’s an exciting time in this part of the wine world. Both countries are beginning to understand their geology better, and make the most of their soils and climates, and this is leading to an incredibly diverse and interesting range of wines.
Neusiedl, Austria’s largest lake dominates the region, it crosses the border, with about a quarter sitting on the Hungarian side. It’s famously shallow - you can wade across it, because it rarely gets deeper than a metre. The lake gives its name to one of the subregions of Burgenland, Neuseidlersee, which historically specialised in sweet wines made from grapes affected by botrytis. The humid conditions around the lake are perfect for the development of this ‘noble rot’.
The rise of Blaufränkisch
What’s getting everyone’s attention at the moment, though, is Blaufränkisch. Two sub-regions of Burgenland in particular are worth watching: the hilly Leithaberg on the west side of the lake; and the southerly Eisenberg, with its iron-rich soils. Both of these regions, have a critical mass of producers who have moved away from the ‘international style’ Austrian reds of the past which masked their regional character with overripe grapes and heavy new oak, and are now making compelling Blaufränkisch with minerality and freshness. Blaufränkisch is also grown in Sopron, over the border in Hungary, where the grape is known as Kékfrankos.
There is a critical mass of producers who have moved away from the ‘international style’ Austrian reds and are making compelling Blaufränkisch with minerality and freshness
I remember my first visit to the region in 2004. After tasting sweet wines at Kracher, we went to Weninger, who are based in Horitschon. After a vineyard visit and a tasting in the winery with Franz Weninger senior, we hopped in a car and crossed the Hungarian border to Balf. Here they own 20 hectares across two vineyards - Spern Steiner and Frettner, in Sopron, which they have been managing since 1997.
Holass is a really interesting micro-negociant, and another producer crossing the Burgenland/Sopron divide. Ellie Bauwens and Imre Halász work exclusively with local grapes from historically important vineyards, generally with a focus on organic farming. This is a true gypsy vintner arrangement: they own no vineyards nor a winery. They make their wines in partner wineries - like Weninger where Holass make their Sopron Kékfrankos. While this doesn’t easily fit with the traditional winegrower model, where the same person that tends the vineyards makes the wine, this approach allows people with ideas and vision a chance to make wine, and benefits everyone if they are successful. It’s essentially collaborative in nature. Holass currently work with five different producers in Austria and Hungary. Explore their wines on The Sourcing Table.
Péter Wetzer organically farms Kékfrankos, Pinot Noir and Furmint. He was living and working in Vienna when he took an interest in his home wine region of Sopron, which was for a long time the capital of Burgenland. Some historical research showed that his family once owned vineyards, and so he went home, cleared out the old family cellar and started making wine. His beautifully packaged wines are made naturally and show real purity and precision. Wetzer also makes wine from the volcanic terroir of Somló and crosses the border to make a Blaufränkisch in Leithaberg.
In Austria, the Leithaberg is becoming a Blaufränkisch hotspot, and one of the top producers is Henrich. Gernot and Heike Heinrich work naturally to make compelling, balanced wines. This wasn’t always the case, when Gernot took over a successful business from his father the wines were made in a very traditional bigger ripe style. They converted their vineyards to biodynamics, because they feel it’s right for the planet, but also that they can producer better wine with a more precise expression of vineyard and soils. Then in 2014, when Gernot turned 50, they decided to change the style of the wines. This was a brave move, some of their customers didn’t like the new style. But the wines are now so much more interesting. Heinrich also have vineyards in the Neusiedlersee, and make a wide range of wines, with some pushing boundaries further than others. Learn more about Heinrich wines on The Sourcing Table.
Birgit Braunstein is another star of the Leithaberg. Her family have been growing wine grapes here, on the shores of Lake Neusiedl, for 400 years. As well as Blaufränkisch, she also makes Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc from her sites on the Leithaberg. She is committed to working biodynamically with low intervention winemaking, and her wines reflect this natural balance.
“As a winemaker, I see myself as a landscape conservationist. Aware that I have only borrowed the land from the next generation, I am committed to respecting the land entrusted to me”.
As Barack Obama once said: "We are defined not by our borders but by our bonds". The sharing of grapes and winemaking between Austria and Hungary is bringing winemakers together, and making for a deliciously diverse range of wines. It's a region well worth exploring.