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Basalt and ancient seabed

Somló is Hungary’s smallest appellation and once an underwater volcano. Now dormant, its slopes of ancient sea sediment, hardened lava, and basalt are home to some of Hungary’s steepest, most densely planted vineyards. Driving up to Somló from Lake Balaton, it’s like seeing an island rise up from the ocean’s horizon – nothing else around survived the retreating ocean. The oldest writings mentioning the wine of Somló date back to 1093 and viticulture all the way back to the Romans. Hungarian Kings bought vineyards here, Maria Theresa and Queen Victoria both praised the wines, and insurgent Hungarian troops fighting against the Hapsburgs would solute the vineyards as they marched past at the end of the 17th century. Perhaps most well known is that belief that drinking the wines of Somló before copulation would guarantee a boy. Today, “The Grand Old Man” of Somló is Fekete Béla. 32 years ago, while on a trip to buy grapes for his garage production, a farmer offered to sell his vineyards on the southern slopes. Fekete accepted and approaching 90 years old, still tends his 4 hectares of beloved Fehérvári-cru. Everything is done by hand, and much like the man, his wines are honest, engaging and highly expressive of the region. Focusing on Hárslevelű, Furmint, Olaszrizling, and Juhfark, Uncle Béla, and his wife, Aunt Bori decided that 2013 would be their final vintage.

Béla is engaged in a private dialog with his land that’s only possible after decades of working it. His vineyards are not as postcard perfect as his neighbors, nor are they planted to the newest clones. In the summer when others rush to drop fruit in pursuit of the expression and concentration that makes Béla’s wines so enigmatic, he simply smiles at his vines which instead hang heavy. Having listened to the old farmers and the council of others when we started, his vines have achieved balance. With 4 hectares dry farmed on the southern slopes, the basalt soil retains heat and a mixture of alluvial and loam soils give just enough nutrients. The vineyards have a secret garden appeal that’s far from a monoculture. Little to no synthetic treatments are used.

The wines of Somló tend to be high in alcohol, very acidic, and chock-full of smoky volcanic minerality. All wines are meant to be aged and can be fairly aggressive when young. Much like Tokaj, this is an all white appellation so winemaking is geared for structure and strength. After careful hand harvesting and sorting, spontaneous fermentation takes place in old 1200 liter Hungarian oak casks. Without bâtonnage and never completely sealed off from oxygen, all wines are aged for 2 years before bottling.

Juhfark (Sheep’s tail) is a distinctive white grape variety found almost exclusively in Somló. The clusters are long, tightly packed and curve a little at the end hence the sheep’s tail moniker. Naturally very high in acidity, it’s also fairly neutral on its own and instead absorbs and shows fidelity to the mineral spring water that flows from inside the extinct volcano. With only 4 hours of skin maceration, it’s then fermented in 1000L Hungarian Oak barrels followed by 10 months on the lees in the same vessels. It’s then moved to 500 and 1500 liter tanks for reductive aging for a minimum of two years before bottling. No racking and no stirring. According to Bay Area restaurateur Jeff Berlin, “it’s the ultimate yin and yang wine in that it is at once rich, opulent and elegant but has such prominent veins of volcanic ash and minerality running through it at the same time. Like a Caligulan feast in a glass.” For those seeking cool climate intensely volcanic whites, this is a benchmark.

-Danch & Granger Selections

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