Aszú is classical music, szamorodni is American blues

We’ve been working together with István Balassa – grape grower, winemaker, guitarist, photographer, Renaissance man – for 11 years. We might presume that we already know a thing or two about him as we’ve talked to him so much. True, but never in his cellar. He doesn’t even have a cellar, although he once let us into his winery but asked us not to take photos or look around. Because it’s small, because it’s his grandparent’s house, and because it’s not important – only what is born there is important. But he lets anyone into his office. Blackbirds, rain, guests, all comers. Even us.  

Making wine is like playing the guitar

If I wasn’t a winemaker, I’d be a guitarist. In 1992, at the Queen tribute concert, a guy came out on stage with big hair and a big hat – it was Slash and he strummed the G/D chords on the Jimmy Page-style 12-string guitar. I sat there with my mouth wide open and I realised that I wanted to play that, too. While in music you express your creativity in a moment, you do the same thing in wine, only with a longer timescale. I’m experimenting with styles – a floral, crispy Furmint is pop music, a fattier but substantial szamorodni is hard American blues. And aszú is classical music – incredibly intelligent and layered. 

 

  

Making wine is like playing the guitar

If I wasn’t a winemaker, I’d be a guitarist. In 1992, at the Queen tribute concert, a guy came out on stage with big hair and a big hat – it was Slash and he strummed the G/D chords on the Jimmy Page-style 12-string guitar. I sat there with my mouth wide open and I realised that I wanted to play that, too. While in music you express your creativity in a moment, you do the same thing in wine, only with a longer timescale. I’m experimenting with styles – a floral, crispy Furmint is pop music, a fattier but substantial szamorodni is hard American blues. And aszú is classical music – incredibly intelligent and layered. 

 

 

How I became a winemaker. Well, that’s a good question…

I lived the usual and slightly boring, carefree life of a local youth in Tokaj. Every noon, freshly-fried schnitzel waited for me, and also, possibly most importantly, the ethical norms of the 1930s. I got a really serious package to take with me, filled with lots of wisdom, which I’m really grateful for. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, they also gave me a love of grapes. It took a lot of coincidences and lots of beer, so that today we’re sitting here on the top of Szent Tamás Hill and talking about wine.    

 

I like to dig out deeper value in wines as well

It started with the dry one: after the vineyards and soils, I became interested in the vineyard plots, in the parcels. That’s how the three Furmints of the Betsek trilogy were born from 2013. In the same year, it also struck me with szamorodni that what works with dry wine, must also work with sweet. I only had to wait for the right vintage. 2013 was perfect for making both dry and sweet wine. The vintages that followed favoured the dry wines, and 2014 wasn’t good for anything. I didn’t even make wine that year. The 2017 vintage followed, which was perfect for making dry wine and in the case of sweet wine, it was phenomenal. I can see a lot of similarities with the 2003 sweet wines, which is not a bad sign…

 

 

I could see it from the smirks…

… that some people thought I was a fool when they first heard that I’d made seven different single-vineyard szamorodnis from 2017. The range starts with the Bomboly and the Nyulászó this spring, the Kakas and the Mézes-Mály will follow them in the autumn, then eventually the Betsek trilogy will be reborn in the shape of szamorodni. Ageing is a very important aspect. At the beginning, everything is fresh, fruity and vibrant. Then time adds whatever it can, and it’s ageing that makes the picture complete. 

 

Making good szamorodni is an expensive hobby

The bunches are selected by Erzsike, Katika, Bandi and Gyuri, with about 15-20 cases of the botrytised part coming in a day. It’s a slow job that requires great experience. Following destemming and crushing, the wines ferment in barrels, where they also age. Every vineyard needs different time. As far as I can see, with the seven single-vineyard szamorodnis, I have managed to make such a winemaking experiment that nobody else has tried, but its seems a very exciting one.