Pretentious Farming (a.k.a winemaking) in Hungary

For this edition of Wine Chats let’s have a big round of applause for a rather pretentious farmer, Kevin Sallee. A biologist and all-round nature lover, Saint Kevin (read on, you’ll work it out) makes beautiful wines in Hungary, and he’s here to tell us all about himself, his wine, and his gorgeous vineyards…

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Kevin enjoying a glass of homebrew in his vineyard.

Wine Culturist: What would be your desert island wine? 

Kevin: Right out of the gate, with the first question, and I cannot answer it.

The reason I cannot answer is because I see wine as a continuum, rather than as a discrete item to pick and choose. To me, wine is all about the diversity.

Not only are there hundreds of varieties, but each year is a vintage, and each site in each year where any variety is grown creates a unique wine. So the combination of these factors quickly becomes an astronomical number of wines. I can not limit myself to just one, and risk missing out on something else more wonderful than my selection, simply because I was not aware of it at the time of my choice.

While being stranded on a deserted island certainly has it romantic elements to get away from it all, loosing the option to discover a new and unique wine, may make the event intolerable.

Wine Culturist: Who/what inspires you?

Kevin: Spring inspires me. Each year, seeing new buds appear, no matter if they are on a cherry tree or a vine, they are symbolic of new and wonderful possibilities for the coming year.

And of course, the life of St. Coemgen, what we know of it from some history, folklore and legend, also inspires me.

Wine Culturist: I’m a big fan of your blog (https://stcoemgen.com/), but for a while I’ve been curious about that name! Who was St Coemgen and what’s the story there?

St. Coemgen was the first abbot of Glendalough, in Ireland, in the 6th Century. The name Coemgen is commonly Anglicized to Kevin. He lived as a hermit for many years, close to nature, and many of the stories and miracles attributed to him involve animals; the most famous being the story when he had his hand outstretched in prayer, a blackbird built a nest in his palm, and he let it remain there undisturbed until all the eggs had hatched and the young birds had left.

I am a biologist by profession, and also have a deep love for nature and animals as did St. Coemgen. And I was of course given the Anglicized name, Kevin, by my parents. Which are just some of the reasons I returned the favor and named the blog after the good Saint. And while the blog deals a great deal about my wine making, one may now also understand why it also has a touch here and there about the local nature and wildlife I encounter here.

Wine Culturist: Tell me about a day in your life. (And when you have the first glass of the day!)

Kevin: One may, in some ways, consider vineyards as just pretentious farms. But they are still farms, and like any farm daily life is of course seasonal. A winter day when snow is falling is quite different from a spring day when the vineyards need attention.

But a typical farming day would include making my morning coffee, and stepping out the door to meander through the vineyard just a few meters from our house to plan the daily needs. Grape vines and weeds can grow quickly, so rows may need to be tilled, aisles mowed. Or vines may need to be trimmed, or wayward canes may need thinning or binding. In other words, I let the vineyard tell me what I should do. The only exception is I maintain a regular spray schedule against fungus especially in the spring. So when spray day is approaching I will make sure that the vineyard is ready for the spraying so cane thinning and binding if not already done then takes work precedence pre-spray.

Other than vineyard work, I tend to our gardens, Iris beds (we also grow over 300 types of Irises), or deal with one of my other business interests.

In short, I am never bored.

When do I have my first glass of the day? Well, whenever I want of course. But in moderation. And never before I plan to operate any tools or machinery that day. And especially not before driving; in fact Hungary has a zero percent blood alcohol law for anyone driving a motor vehicle. So don’t drink and drive is not just good advice in Hungary, it is the law.

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Some of Kevin’s younger vines. Just wait til they grow up!


Wine Culturist: What drew you to winemaking?

Kevin: I have always enjoyed growing things. And I enjoy wine.

Half a lifetime ago I lived for several years near the main California wine regions and started to spend quite a bit of my time there. I became impressed by the more innovative wine makers in places like Sonoma and Mendocino counties over their more commercial and well known neighbor to the south. And I started to think it would be rather fun to have some vineyards and to make wine.

And so when the opportunity came to have a vineyard and to make wine, I took it.

Wine Culturist: And why Hungary?

Kevin: My wife is Hungarian. And she owned a small vineyard in Hungary before we met. Over the years, we have simply expanded.

Wine Culturist: I know Hungary has a wide variety of fascinating grape varieties. What are the Hungarian wines you think the world should know about?

Kevin: I have a book that details over 100 grape varieties grown in Hungary, so there is a tremendous diversity here.

For the non-native Hungarian wines I believe that Hungarian Cabernet Franc, as a red wine example, and Pinot Gris, as a white wine example, I think are under appreciated internationally. They can both create stellar wines in Hungary.

Hungarian varieties that either originated in Hungary, or are believed to have originated here, I would say ancient varieties such as Kéknyelű are pretty much globally unknown and thus under appreciated even though the wines from such grapes are quite unique and worthy of more appreciation. The lack of international fame is in part due to fewer hectares being planted in such grape varieties, and in the case of Kéknyelű, it is only grown in in Hungary in my wine region. So making enough wine from such varieties for export can be difficult.

Wine Culturist: I’m woefully ignorant about Hungarian cuisine and wine culture (except for that golden nectar, Tokaji!). What would be a typical local wine and food pairing?

Kevin: I am admittedly probably the worst person to ask this because I am a vegetarian and, almost all traditional Hungarians menus include meat.

Other than that, in general, I consider the best pairing with any glass of wine being a good time with good friends in good conversation.

Wine Culturist: And what about the wines you make – how did you decide which grape varieties to focus on?

Kevin: This is the most important question one can ask about wines, and one that is really at the fundamental root of wine making. So this is going to be a long answer.

The best grape varieties to grow in any region are of course dictated by the region, and by all those interactions between the vines and the surrounding characteristics of that place in which they are planted. Of course, this is simply stated in French as terroir which just simply means “land”, but in actuality includes far more subtitles and details. Yet, terroir is a word which I actually hesitate to mention by name because it has become so in vogue and so over used for marketing it may have almost lost its real holistic meaning for the average wine consumer. Which is why I really classify myself using the more holistic French term vigneron, rather than saying I am either a wine grower (viticulturist) or wine maker. This is to emphasize what I consider is the important aspect of knowing and directly working on the land in order be a good wine maker, and to make a real quality wine.

That being said, I live in a predominately white wine region, and where mostly only certain white wine, and a few cold tolerant red varieties, reach their optimal potential. Thus there is, understandably, an official list of varieties to plant here. The rules are not as strict as in, say, France, but the sanctioned list is a suggestion of best varieties to select, and so of course that limited my options. While one could grow Cabernet Sauvignon here, those grapes will simply not create a very good Cabernet Savignon.

Aside from that, in one way or another, of the varieties I do grow I like to think we picked each other. The story behind that is as follows:

The vineyard my wife and I first purchased together was an eclectic mixture of eight different varieties. This was a “hill wine” vineyard, where the previous owners just grew what grew, planted what they could get, and mixed it all into the vat come picking time. And then had a good drink the rest of the year.

However, having that first plot with so many varieties did me a favor as it exposed me to what varieties tolerated not just the macro and mesoclimate here well, but which also tolerated my essentially organic field methods. That is, I wanted to grow vines for which I enjoyed the wine they made, but it made no sense to grow even my favorite wine if it would not thrive here and under my farming methods.

In the end, the winners were Italian Riesling, Pinot Gris (known in Hungary as Szürkebarát), and Tramini (more commonly known by its German name: Gewürztraminer).

Italian Riesling is mostly just a work horse grape variety in that it grows very well here and it gives high yields, but is only a decent table wine. Which is why Italian Riesling is only a tiny fraction of the grapes I grow and why most of my new plantings have been instead of Pinot Gris and Tramini. Pinot Gris in particular made sense, since this variety has a history of being grown in this wine region of Hungary for over 600 years.

But I also wanted to grow some red wine and at least one real Hungarian wine variety. For those I selected Pinot Noir and Kéknyelű. Both varieties are on the approved list for this region. The Kéknyelű variety, in particular, is interesting for a number of reasons. It is not only very ancient but it is almost exclusively grown only in this region of Hungary. And it is a very interesting in another way, because it is one of the few wine grapes that has a sex life: that is, it is not self pollinating and must be grown with another grape variety to act as the pollen donor. This makes it a very low producer, but the wines it produces are also quite unique.

I also selected these five varieties for logistical reasons. Because each variety ripens at different times this simplifies the management and logistics of picking and processing grapes by spreading out the picking season over a longer time period. Rather than trying to pick and process tonnes of the same grape variety, spread out over 4 different spatially distinct vineyards, all in a day or two, the picking season is easily handled and done over a period of weeks.

I also planted 100 vines of Hungarian Turán (known elsewhere as Agria), simply for fun to see what it would be like to produce a real teinturier grape of wine making quality.

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One of the gorgeous wines Kevin produces.


Wine Culturist: What has been the most surprising moment of your winemaking journey in Hungary?

Kevin: That many of the ideas I learned about cultivating and farming grape vines in the USA did not necessarily work well here in Hungary.

Take as one example: vine spacing. Vine spacing is a classic American/European debate. Americans advocate for more distance between vines in rows with wide isles between rows. Europeans often space vines and rows much closer.

Vine spacing in the first vineyard I started to work with 15 years ago had vines spaced at 0.7 meters. As a trial I removed every other vine. Then I observed over the years the remaining vines showed tendencies for too much vegetative growth. So five years ago I replanted vines and brought the vineyard back to its original spacing and the vines are indeed now easier to manage. The short spacing is ideal for the local conditions to provide better competition between vines and reduce green work in the canopy, and is thus a more in balance planting design for the local conditions. Which is why I have come to the conclusion the American/European debate is not  really a debate at all, but just each describing their local conditions and and erroneously thinking they apply everywhere. Again, diversity and being aware of local conditions is the most important consideration in wine making.

After additional experiments to find an ideal spacing, I now plant no more than 1 meter between vines in rows, with average row spacing of 1.5 meters or less.

Wine Culturist: What are your plans and dreams for the future?

Kevin: While planting and growing a perennial plant such as wine, which takes 5 to 7 years to bear commercial levels of fruit, one must, in a coarse way, think and plan long term. And I of course have a long term business plan. But in the details, I often do not think or plan more than 3 days into the future. It is an unpredictable world. And one must stay agile.

Wine Culturist: And finally, anything else you’d like to add before we wrap?

I will wrap up by stealing a slogan idea from the almond growers of California marketing campaign: Have a glass of wine tonight with dinner. That is all we ask.

 

Well, I couldn’t really put it better myself. But then I always have wine with dinner. And sometimes with lunch. And obviously with brunch… 

Have you tried any great Hungarian wines? Let us know in the comments below!

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Great interview! I was recently in Tokaj in Hungary and fell in love.
    The sweet wines are delicious but I’ve been enjoying the full range of whites and reds. Nice job!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m so glad you loved the wines!

      Liked by 1 person

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