“I like acidity-driven wines with a nice saltiness,” says István Bencze as we slowly walk through his charming vineyards with impressive Lake Balaton views. “I’m looking for good energy and only 11, 12% ABV, which naturally makes me harvest much sooner than my neighbors,” he explains why many of the rows around are already grape-less during our mid-September visit.
The early harvest date is not the only factor that sets this up-and-coming, introverted winemaker in his early thirties apart from the local scene. The other is the fact that since his 2017 visit to the Styrian natural legends Ewald Tscheppe and Roland Tauss, István has stopped using sulfur in the cellar, which is still quite unusual in Hungary. Not that his wines were ever conventional at any point: Bencze vineyards have been organic since the very beginning of his endeavor in 2011, and biodynamic since 2014 (now Demeter-certified). And his wines have always been made with very little intervention, save for filtration and sulfur addition at bottling. But that trip to Austria made this self-taught winemaker realize that he “didn’t want to use sulfites anymore, or make my wines less cloudy just for the sake of the conservative Hungarian market”.
Another encouragement on this path was István’s friendship with Slovak icon Zsolt Suto of Strekov 1075, who also called our attention to “Pišta” (a friendly diminutive of István) as a serious and promising young IT-engineer-turned-grower. He was right; István’s dedication became very apparent, very quickly during our visit. It was not only his respectful vineyard management following the Steiner principles, but also his relentless search for the best training and pruning methods (“we’re trying to keep the grapes close to the soil to get more microbiological activity”).
Grape-wise, István works with a couple of “international” grapes that are well adapted to the area, such as Riesling, Pinot Noir, and his favorite Chenin blanc, and also with indigenous Hungarian varieties with tongue-twisting names (Keknyelú, anyone?), some of which are almost on the verge of extinction. Yep, winemaking can also be a heritage-preservation activity – this comes to our minds as István and his wife Klaudia (soulmate, inspiration, communication help, and pep-generator) show us a tiny plot of Bakator that might well be the only one in Hungary and/or the whole world. The couple got married in a picturesque chapel sitting atop their Templomdombi vineyard, a fact that makes this prime multi-varietal plot – with its soil full of basalt stones and perfect altitude and sun exposure – even more special for István’s work.
All these efforts are aimed at one simple thing: letting the volcanic terroir of Szent György-hegy (St. George’s hill) that István has at hand speak as freely as possible. And quite a terroir it is: his cellar sits right on an extinct volcano on a famous lookout spot providing beautiful views of the neighboring landscape dominated by Lake Balaton. It’s the largest one in Central Europe, and moderates the climate around it in a way that’s very beneficial to viticulture, just like its nearby fellow Lake Neusiedl that Hungary shares with Austria. And just like there in Burgenland, Balaton is a super-popular vacation spot; no wonder the Benczes have turned a couple of old houses among their vines into picturesque rustic guesthouses. (Recommended: the view and good local breakfast are well worth it.)
In the cellar, István carefully explores the possibilities of different vessels, from his favorite terracotta to oak, concrete, or, to a lesser extent, stainless steel. But the hand is light (“I learned that the wine doesn’t get better by working it more, quite the opposite”), and is helped only by patience and… music! “I like to play my guitar to the wine here sometimes,” the tall redhead admits shyly, standing among the cute, eye-ball-shaped concrete spheres.
“We are still learning, I’m sometimes still not exactly sure what will happen if we do this or that,” asserts István. But the wines coming from his neat cellar betray this claim as being far too humble: Bencze Rieslings instantly seize you with iodine saltiness and almost Trossen-like energy; his Pinot Noir is exactly the fruity yet earthy yet buzzing-with-cool-spices incarnation of this noble grape that you want to drink all day, every day; the indigenous varieties strike you with mineral depths and flavors as unusual and compelling as their idiosyncratic names. Drinking them, we cannot but agree with Milan Nestarec, another young Central-European prodigy we’ve had the pleasure to work with, that István is “THE Eastern European revelation of the last couple of years, with an impressive path both behind and ahead of him.” Word.
István on this wine: “The name comes from Greek ‘autokhthon’ which means aboriginal or native. That is why we made this blend exclusively from native varieties of the Carpathian Basin, most of them from our precious ’Templomdombi’ plot.”
Varieties: Furmint, Hárslevelű, Kéknyelű, Rószakö
Vineyard: Furmint, Hárslevelű and Kéknyelű come from Templomdombi (planted 2015), Rózsakő from Másfél (planted 2014). Dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil and clay. All estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified)
Making of: hand harvest, each grape at optimum maturity. 95% of the grapes underwent gentle whole-cluster direct press in a pneumatic press, fermentation and ageing in stoneware vessels for 14 months. 5% whole-cluster fermentation with some juice with daily remontages, for 10 days. For Hárslevelű, 60% was aged in 1500L Slavonian oak and 8% in a small barrel, the rest in different types and sizes of stoneware vessels. The blend was bottled in August of the following year without filtration, fining or added sulfites.
Personality: citrus, pear, salt. Easy-drinking yet entertaining and complex white with distinct freshness.
-Jenny & Francois
Check out a great profile of István Bencze here, thanks to wineterroirs.