08 September 2022 / Vera Szűcs-Balás
At the intersection of the Pesti Plain and the Gödöllő Hills lies the town of Monor and its Strázsa Hill, best known to experienced wine tourists for its cellar village, unique in Europe and with no fewer than 960 cellars. Some of these cellars are still used by family wineries to this day, and although most of them make wine for their own consumption only, a number have already opened up to wine tourism, meaning that they can be visited and are producing wine in sufficient quantity for commercial sale. One such winery is the Strázsahegyi Winehouse, and with their help we will offer you an insight into the wine culture of Monor.
We meet winemaker Tibor Hidegkuti in the morning at the gateway to the cellar village, Szent Orbán Square. He gets out of the car, introduces himself, and then begins presenting the winery through a selection of wines he brought. We start with a bottle of semi-sparkling rosé made from Kékfrankos grapes, also voted Wine of the Town of Monor, followed by a bottle of Rizlingszilváni (Müller-Thurgau) made from grapes grown in the Mátra Mountains, awarded a silver medal in a new wine competition. We move on to another semi-sparkling wine made of Irsai Olivér, and finally to the gem of the winery, a Karát made from grapes grown in Monorierdő. But we’ll come back to the wines later....
As Tibor explains, we are at the same altitude as the top of Gellért Hill, at around 200 metres above sea level, on the westernmost slopes of the Gödöllő Hills. This landscape is indeed a transition from the plains of the Kunság towards the hills and mounts of the Mátra Wine District, even though Strázsa Hill might arguably pass as a hill to the visitor. Nevertheless, the viewpoint at its top is a perfect place to start our wine tour.
“20-30 years ago, quality winemaking was not the first thing that came to mind when thinking of the Kunság Wine District. In the past 10-15 years, however, changes have taken place within the region, dedicated professionals have emerged and set up wineries with a solid technological background, which has resulted in Kunság being one of the best in the country in terms of reductive wines. You only have to look at a new wine or national wine competition and you will see that a high percentage of the first-place winners, the gold medal winners, come from Kunság. In the field of light, reductive, aromatic, quality wines the wine district is surely at the forefront”, Tibor says when starting to describe the region.
Originally a food engineer, today Tibor is responsible for the success of Strázsahegyi Winehouse as its winemaker, but this is not where his viticulture story began. He started out gaining experience at a small winery in the town of Dunakeszi, and then later at a larger estate in the Balatonfüred-Csopak Wine District, but the desire to one day have his own wine was already in his mind, even then: “On the one hand, one of the primary motivations was to make my own wine, but on the other hand, I also think that above a certain company size the beauty of this profession can fade. When the head of a multinational company tells you when a batch must be ready, when it must be commercially available, that’s huge pressure. The wine industry especially is an area where the wine, a living organism, is constantly developing, and it is up to us professionals to decide when to bring it to market.”
Few people can say that they managed to get into the wine world starting from scratch, with no family background or investor, but in Tibor’s case this is true. He came to Monorierdő after winning a Young Farmer tender and was given the opportunity to lease vineyard land, with the added bonus of being able to use the owner’s cellar technology. This is how the first Hidegkuti wines were born in 2017-18, back then with the H/T logo on the bottles. Then, together with two sociologists from Székesfehérvár, Tamás Domokos and Balázs Mahler – who are now in charge of administration, marketing, and sales – they founded the Strázsahegyi Winehouse.
“The great advantage of Monor is that it is not overhyped, and the fact that it has different characteristics from other wine-growing areas means that it never will be. Locals also try to organise events in a way that maximises the number of participants”, Tibor says, when we start talking about wine-related festivals. The ‘Wine Districts’ Weekend’ has been organised every year for more than a decade, with local cellar owners hosting winemakers from various Hungarian wine districts, and thus bringing life to the cellar village. The first festival of the year, ‘From Ice Flowers to Ice Wines’ (Jégvirágtól Borvirágig) attracts numerous wine lovers who wish to enjoy mulled wine in the snow-covered landscape. For those interested in wine-related events, mention must also be made of the so-called ‘FröccsSzombat’ (Spritzer Saturday) events, sometimes taking place in the form of picnic cinemas and at other times as street festivals, and also of the ‘Monori Pincezene Fesztivál’ (Monor Cellar Music Festival), which had its debut this year.
According to Tibor, there are many locals who work with the intention of creating value in the region, and their activity is often carried out through the Monor Wine Route Association. For example, to revitalise the cellar village, the "Buy your own wine cellar" initiative was launched, allowing locals to sell their disused and sometimes neglected cellars, although these can only be renovated by the new owner if they are restored to their original state, in line with local conservation and heritage. Private events also take place in the area thanks to venues in the cellar village that are suitable for weddings, or corporate and family events. These include Kult Pince and Százas Pince, which have been transformed from wineries into popular event locations that offer products from local wineries for the celebrations.
We stroll along until we arrive at the first half hectare of land that Tibor purchased, which of course he cultivates himself. In the small area, newly planted Kékfrankos vines are turning green, enjoying the deeper layers of clay and loess soil mixed with sand. The grapes are clearly thriving here, with almost 100% growing after plantation in the well-kept plot. Given that this is the first plantation of their own, for the moment all their wines are made from bought-in grapes, nearly 80% of which come from the vicinity, from Monor and Monorierdő. In terms of the product range, their wines include Rizlingszilváni (aka Müller-Thurgau), Irsai Olivér, Karat, Olaszrizling, Kékfrankos, Syrah, and Zenit, with a total of 5,000-6,000 bottles per year, so these are "micro lots among micro lots", as Tibor puts it.
Talking about the wines, the conversation quickly turns to the rare Hungarian variety called Karát:
"I didn't know what to expect when coming here, as, after the Balaton Wine Region, the Danube Wine Region has a completely different character; it had to be discovered and explored. I decided to go for broke when I made a wine from a variety that I knew nothing about. Even in viticultural literature I could only find descriptions about its cultivation from the 1980s, and the climate has changed a lot in 40 years. I am glad I was brave enough to make the first vintage wine in 2017, as in 2018, with a year of experience behind me, I managed to make a reductive Karát that won a gold medal at the Berliner Wein Trophy last year. Such a result encourages the winemaker to dare to use varieties that are less well-known and less recognised. If you have the right viticultural and technological background and good raw materials, you can create something beautiful."
Finally, when we ask Tibor which is his favourite variety, the answer is clear: "Each wine is made with the utmost dedication, as each is like our own child. Just like with my twins at home, I love them both equally. All our wines represent the same value, and we invest the same expertise and passion in each one."
Tips for planning your trip
If you're planning a trip to Monor, it's worth exploring the area by following the ‘Thousand Cellars Wine and Vineyard Trail’ (Ezer Pince Szőlészeti és Borászati Tanösvény) leading through the cellar village, and also arranging a visit to one of the wineries in advance. For a panoramic view from the aforementioned Strázsahegy lookout, it's well worth climbing those few steps, especially if you can cool off with a glass of wine or a fröccs afterwards. Gastronomy tip:For real gourmet experts, Monor has another surprise in store, only a five-minute drive from the cellar village, in the shape of the Fürge Páva (Nimble Peacock), which is one of the most unique café-confectioneries in Pest County that will certainly be a special experience with its charming, manicured garden, creative furnishings and, of course, its wonderful menu. The café is also soon to have a little brother named Lusta Páva (Lazy Peacock), right in the heart of the cellar village, where the horticulturalist owner of a cellar is transforming the space into a café.
The Monor Cellar Village website, with more information: https://monoripincefalu.eu/