Author: dr. Gabriella Mészáros, Dániel Ercsey Photo: Árpád Pintér
Viticulture here, like Transdanubia, dates back to Roman times. The best-known find is the remains of an altar found a villa in Nagyharsány, with an inscription stating that the owner of the house, Venatus, and his son had planted 400 arpensis (around 45 hectares) of vines. The founding charter of the Pécsvárad Abbey in 1065 commemorates Villány’s vineyard workers., although at that time, the Villány Hills were still known as Geréc. King Béla IV mentions the boundary of Harsány with its vines in the founding charter of the Castle of Szársomlyó in 1247. Villány was completely destroyed under Turkish rule; however, viticulture continued as the inhabitants of the nearby villages continued to cultivate some of Villány’s vineyards. The Turks settled a southern Slav people – the Rác - in the villages which had been destroyed.
Turkish tax registers show that wine production in the area declined during the Turkish occupation. When the Turks were expelled, the villages in the area were largely depopulated. They were then resettled in 1697 by southern Slavs immigrating from the Balkans, who brought Kadarka and the red wine culture with them. However, the Hungarians living under the protection of the Siklós Castle have preserved their white wine culture until this day. After the Turkish thraldom, Hungarian and Austrian lords acquired large estates in these areas, including Jenő Savoyai, whose heirs later managed flourishing viticulture on the Béllye estate. The other large estate was established within the seat of Bóly, with 24 villages belonging to it. It was the property of the Batthány family and, through marriage, the Duke of Montenuovo was also entitled to reap some of its rewards.
Besides the southern Slavs, German settlers also arrived in the area around 1740, which was a great boost to viticulture. They also brought black grapes, namely Oportó, now officially known as Portugieser. One characteristic feature in the development of viticulture is that, while in 1690, vines were cultivated on about one and a half cadastral hectares, by 1783, Villány already had 80 cadastral hectares of vines.
During the 19th century, the reputation of Villány’s wines grew and also became a significant export commodity. Villány’s first golden age was in the 1850s and 1860s as well as during the boom after phylloxera. The town and its surroundings have played a leading role both in terms of viticulture (transformation of varietal mix) and in the export throughout Europe of propagating material of noble varieties grafted onto rootstocks.
Phylloxera did not spare the vines of Villány either, although it did not disrupt development. The wine district was dominated by Kadarka and mainly Oportó until the second half of the 20th century. Since then, French varieties that yield higher quality wine have gained ground. Villány used to be part of the Villány-Pécs wine region. It has been granted independent wine district status since the late 1940s.
It is located in the south of Hungary, along its southern border, on the south-eastern slopes of the Mecsek Hills and the southern and eastern slopes of the Villány Hills.
It is divided into the Villány and Siklós subdistricts and comprises 16 towns and villages. It includes the 1st and 2nd class vineyards, as per the vineyard cadastre, of Bisse, Csarnóta, Diósviszló, Harkány, Hegyszentmárton, Kisharsány, Kistótfalu, Márfa, Nagyharsány, Nagytótfalu, Palkonya, Siklós, Túrony, Villány and Villánykövesd.
The total area suitable for viticulture in the wine district, as per the vineyard cadastre classification, is 4,522 hectares. Currently, there are 402 hectares of white varieties and 1,482 hectares of black varieties planted.
The Villány Hills consist of five huge plates thrust up on top of one another. Their core is mainly made up of carbonate rocks deposited in the seas of the Mesozoic, including compact, hard Middle Triassic dolomite and limestone. The Tenkes Hill in Siklós, which is somewhat separated from the main mass of the Hills, as well as the Csarnóta and Szava Hills also consist of thin and thick beds of Triassic limestone and dolomite. After a long interval, these were overlain by Younger, Middle and Upper Jurassic limestone, including the 150-million-year-old Szársomlyó Limestone, which created the hill of the same name. The sequence is closed by Nagyharsány Limestone, which is about 120 million years old. It only crops up in a few places and can be seen in Szársomlyó. There are no vines directly on the old limestone and dolomite. The vineyards are all located where there is also a few-metres-thick surface layer of loam, loam-loess or brown forest soil. In places where the loess topsoil thins out, the vine’s roots can penetrate deep into the calcium-rich subsoil mixed with carbonate rock debris. The thin loess soil cover directly above the limestone outcrops is mixed with dolomite and limestone debris. This yields wines with greater acidity, while pure loess soil produces softer wines. In addition to loess-loam soils, red clay can be found at the bottom of the slopes, while brown forest soil occurs on higher slopes, along with rarer rendzina soil.
It is characterised by sub-Mediterranean microclimate and is the earliest region in Hungary to warm up in the spring.
Olaszrizling, Chardonnay, Riesling (Rajnai Rizling), Hárslevelű, Müller-Thurgau (Rizlingszilváni in Hungarian) and Traminer are the most typical white varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon, Portugieser, Kékfrankos, Zweigelt, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and small quantities of Syrah are the main black grapes.
The proportion of white and red wine varieties are almost the same in the region; however, it differs between the subdistricts, with white varieties dominating in Siklós and black in Villány. However, most believe red wine to be king. The red wines of Villány were popularised by the softness of Portugieser, which produces pleasantly fruity, approachable, easy-drinking wines, that are generally drunk in the year following the harvest. There is also now another good everyday drinking wine, a Portugieser-based blend called RedY. It is a light, fresh, fruity wine that has not necessarily been oak-aged.
Wines from varieties that are generally harvested with much higher acidity and tannins, often from low-yielding vines, thus with greater concentration, need long ageing in oak. They often only start to show their true potential after two or three years. Wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon are generally aged for longer than average in barrique and repay the consumer’s patience. These are full-bodied wines, and good vintages can be enjoyed for up to 15 to 20 years.
The wine district’s flagship variety is Cabernet Franc. Besides Villány, monovarietal wines from the variety are generally only produced in its region of origin, the Loire Valley. It may only bear the trademark of Villányi Franc, the wine district’s flagship wine, after sensory evaluation by a panel of producers. The classic Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, as well as blends thereof, can yield high-quality, ageworthy wines. Many producers have also planted Syrah in recent years, which produce wines with the variety’s beautiful characteristic acidity, plenty of tannin and great fruit concentration.
White wines from Siklós are relatively low in acidity, but rich in alcohol and dry extract. They are not renowned for their freshness, rather than for their full-body and depth of flavour.