25 June 2024 / Borbála Kalmár / Photos: Nándor Lang Copy actual URL Facebook share Twitter share

Ten years, countless awards: Zelna Olaszrizling has become a benchmark

Lilla Lukács and Barna Barabás are celebrating: ten years ago, they fulfilled a daring dream and created their own winery from scratch. This was then joined by the Zelna Wine Bistro in 2019. The latter now has two Michelin recommendations outside the door, and the accolades received for their wines will soon need their own display case. At the time, they were told that what they had imagined was almost impossible to achieve.

Two years ago consumers were snapping up their wines faster than the press could publish the news when Zelna Winery’s Balaton Olaszrizling was awarded a platinum medal at what is probably the world’s most prestigious wine competition, the Decanter World Wine Awards. It was also obvious to Lilla Lukács and Barna Barabás from their very first tasting that they had the raw materials for a wine that could win awards, yet they deliberately kept it as a light wine. This marketing worked, as thanks to being great value for money, the award-winning wine ended up in many people’s shopping baskets and, it turns out, their cellars too, and satisfied customers have become happy, repeat consumers.



The fact that Decanter does not hand out such awards without good reason is demonstrated by the example of other Hungarian wineries, and Zelna has been just as successful. For example, at this year’s GROW du Monde, the Olaszrizling world championship, four of the six Zelna Olaszrizlings currently on the market won gold medals: their fresh, lighter style Balaton organic Olaszrizling and three single vineyard wines. How have they come this far in just ten years, and what is next? We talked to the founder-owner couple about this.


Do you remember the moment when you decided that your path would be wine?


Lilla Lukács: I don’t think there was one clear moment when everything was decided. Barni graduated from the University of Horticulture and Food Science, where he often heard his lecturers saying that if you haven’t been born into a winery, you don’t have much chance of setting one up on your own. For a long time, we didn’t even consider doing this, although we knew we didn’t want to stay in Budapest for long and would rather move to the countryside and farm. In the meantime, Barni would occasionally help out with the family’s home winemaking.

Barabás Barna: Lilla’s grandfather had a small vineyard in Arács planted back in the seventies, and every year we made wine together. It was a great family event, and it was at this time that Lilla’s grandfather finally suggested that if we were so interested in winemaking, it would be worth taking the obvious route.



Although it was said to be an impossible undertaking, it seems to an outside observer that you have achieved more in ten years than is humanly possible. How far was this a conscious construction?

B.B.: At the beginning, everything was very chaotic, and we were rather chasing our own tails – building, building up the estate, constructing the winery – and then three years ago, we had to replan a lot of things. Looking back, I can see there was actually a lot of real awareness behind it.

L.L.: We didn’t start out by thinking what would happen in ten years’ time, we just saw that we wanted to do this, and we believed that if we laid the stones well, we could make progress. Where it will end is a big question mark for us too – we still have a lot of ideas.



You have also become parents in the meantime: how consciously are you raising the next generation?

L.L.: It’s always a difficult question how to steer your children in such a way that they don’t feel forced to join the winery. We try to involve them only to the extent that they still enjoy it, and I think they like this world for the time being. My daughter, for example, loves the hustle and bustle around the wine weeks, so I’m confident we can show them a basis that will make them want to continue what we have started here.


Over these ten years, your name has clearly become associated with Olaszrizling. When you were laying the stones, how conscious were you that you wanted to work with this grape variety?

B.B.: As a sommelier in Budapest, I gained a very good overall picture of the country’s Olaszrizlings, maybe even tasting more than I do now, and I liked them. But when we moved to Balatonfüred, with few exceptions, there were not many outstanding Olaszrizlings in the area, so I was really thinking about Riesling. I also saw great potential in red wines, because few wineries were producing them at the time, even though we had the potential to do so. The latter idea has also been realised: today, almost half our vineyards are planted with black grapes. However, at our first harvest, I understood why winemakers love Olaszrizling, and from then on, I didn’t want to graft our old Olaszrizling vines over to Riesling. Step by step, we have developed an emphasis on varieties indigenous to the Carpathian Basin.



Four of your wines, including three single vineyard wines, won gold medals at GROW. Why did you start adding such wines to your portfolio?

B.B.: Since we started our estate mostly with abandoned plots, we didn’t know which vineyard would be capable of what. So, to get to know each vineyard better, we produced Olaszrizling selections. Since we didn’t yet have a market, we weren’t under any pressure to produce in volume, and it wasn’t a problem to work with a small number of bottles: it was more important to be able to offer a variety of wines to customers or wine merchants. This, in turn, made us realise how many different faces Olaszrizling can have, and in the following six years, we rather tried to refine the process, taking into account what best reflects the uniqueness of the terroir. Now we produce six types of Olaszrizling each year, which is what we are totally focussed on for white wine.



How do these vineyards differ?

B.B.: Most of our plots are located in the higher part of the area, with Berekszél the only one lower down, at the end of the town. The bedrock everywhere is limestone, but there are completely different types: ranging from yellowish Füred limestone to greyish, calcareous limestone. There is also sand, or red sand, in some places in the vineyard rows, which becomes very obvious after rain. Soil diversity and exposure are the main differences between our vineyards: the plots in Füred are much drier than those in Balatonszőlősi – the latter are generally much wetter, so acidity is also retained better there. And although all the Olaszrizling is harvested within one week, the differing weather conditions mean that the alcohol also differs in each, resulting in some wines being lighter and some more serious and elegant. Farkó-kő is always the most intense, Berekszél the most restrained and Sóskút or Nyerges a lighter, more elegant wine.



At wine tastings, what do you tell consumers to look out for, how do they taste these wines?

B.B.: These are not among our most popular wines. If you pour five Olaszrizling blind, chances are that the hegybor (village wine) or our lighter Olaszrizling will find the most favour, and only then the single vineyard wines. However, I often start the tasting with these, until we’ve overwhelmed our palates, so to speak, because these are very complex, very long wines. Given that they spend at least a year in bottle before they are released, it’s always worth paying attention to how you serve them. The wines should be decanted or even tasted again the next day, while avoiding chilling too much, as they are more interesting at the right temperature.


You said that you understood why winemakers love Olaszrizling at your first harvest. Can you share that with us too?

B.B.: It’s a variety that produces reliably each year and gives the wine region its identity. In the last ten years, we have reached the point where Olaszrizling has become the main topic of conversation in the Rizling Generation Association - how things turned out for everyone and why. Consumers can also experience the results of these discussions, as the quality of Olaszrizling has improved a lot over the past ten years. The grape variety itself is a reliable producer, disease resistant and well adapted to its environment, as shown by the fact that it is grown from Serbia to the Czech Republic. Olaszrizling is an easy-drinking wine, it doesn’t have a hollow mid-palate and is not astringent; you can never get enough of it. If you’re having a big party in the summer, there’s no question about what the perfect wine is: you’ll always want another glass of it. And in good vintages, it’s a great reflector of the soil characteristics and yields really excellent, mineral wines.

L.L.: Plus, it’s great for pairing with food – at the Zelna Wine Bistro we carry several Olaszrizling from other Rizling Generation members alongside our own wines.



What does an important award like the Decanter platinum medal or the four golds at this year’s GROW du Monde mean to you?

L.L.: When we got the Decanter award, it was a farcical situation, because within two weeks, the shelves were bare of the award-winning wine, and then nothing happened for quite a while. But it meant a lot of people knew who we were, and even today people come up to us and say that they have some stashed away at home. Moreover, since we have always made our wines in line with our own ideas, an award like this is an important confirmation that the path we have chosen is the right one and that we should continue along it.


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