Magnus Merlot, 2011, Villa Tolnay, red wine from Hungary
One of the most beautiful areas in Hungary is located between Tapolca and the north-western shore of Lake Balaton: hills, soft valleys often with cottonwoods, beautiful views – a place of relaxation and peace.
The countryside is a mixture of Mediterranean views and volcanic landscape. Lovely: wine almost everywhere, mainly still owned and cultivated by private families – not as winemakers but private gardeners. Between these farmers, horse ranches, small villages, ruins of castles and, in the distance, the light of Balaton – a silver and quiet lake that gives distinction to the Balaton region – famous for tourism, spas and as well as for wine.
Allotment holders are gardeners and amateur farmers. In some of these gardens are small huts, in others very comfortable living or weekend houses. Wine, but also fruit trees, tomatoes, herbs and greens, vegetables. Worked by hand.
Among all these lovely gardens and farms at the base of Csobánc hill, very close to the village of Gyulakeszi, there is the winery Villa Tolnay.
There is a very visionary story behind this place. I visited this estate for first time exactly ten years ago together with my friend Ference Port, who has one of the most beautiful holiday houses a bit higher up than the winery. He introduced me to a Swiss dropout, or as others would say, a self-made entrepreneur. Actually, as far as I know, he made some money in IT. However, he was brave enough and did something I could understand at that time right away: he bought this estate because of the beauty and spirit of the area and became a winemaker. Fifteen, even ten years ago, wine-making in Hungary underwent a big change. Old-fashioned, still somehow affected by the spirit of 40 years of Hungarian socialism – so, boring wineries plus private wine-making (which didn’t make the wines any better) were dominating the production of Hungarian wine. Villa Tolnay, but also St. Andrea, Heimann and some others were the motors of the new wine-making in Hungary. They improved the quality, simply because they took care: individual, sometimes excellent wine. Wines, which have their own (but also a strongly Hungarian) character. Villa Tolnay belongs to those trendsetters. Considering that Phillipp Oser is Swiss, I assume the process of transformation was also a brutal experience – taking into account the mentality of Hungarians, particularly in this area.
Today Villa Tolnay belongs to the best wineries in Hungary. Maybe less established than some others; for example, you cannot find this wine in many restaurants in Budapest – and strange enough.
The climate is very friendly, warm summers but really cold winters including snow. The soil is mostly volcanic. Lake Balaton itself is the reason for some specific micro-climatic conditions; they are another reason for the special character of these wines. Villa Tolnay produces different white and red ones.
Today I’m writing about the 2011 Merlot. Somehow it has become popular among professional wine dealers, sommeliers and wine lovers to grumble about Merlot. I don’t understand this, to be honest. Is it boring because it is such a common and widespread type of grape? To summarize, I think the quality of the Merlot depends very much on the vineyard and of course the region. Although there are some very special sorts of wine in Hungary, for instance Kardaka or Kékfrankos, Villa Tolnay works with rather classic and global sorts such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Maybe this is not terribly experimental.
Nevertheless, if you were to drink the 2011 Merlot blindfolded, I would hazard to say that even professionals might not recognize it immediately as a Merlot. It is not a Billy Wagner wine! For him, this wine would be probably a little bit too strong and too powerful. From the first moment, you taste the full aroma of this wine, zesty, a little bit spicy even. Dry, but with a nice elegance – some bramble flavors. Although the word is confusing perhaps, the wine has something nutty also. I can imagine that conservative red-wine drinkers would really enjoy this wine. For some more discerning gourmets this wine is perhaps indeed not fine enough. I like it. It is a wine for men.
The region has changed a lot since I was there for the first time. Many people have discovered its beauty. What were once garden huts are now comfortable weekend houses. Because it is not too far away from some of the centers of Balaton’s main touristic places, tourists come through these villages and look around. Little shops for local goods and wines have opened. People from there are able to run these businesses and live off their revenues. Those who settled themselves here maybe fifteen or ten years ago – instead of looking for work in Gyor or Budapest. The friend I mentioned Ference Port sells his grapes to Villa Tolnay, too. Swiss entrepreneurs don’t seem necessary anymore… Due only to entrepreneurial courage and persistence, this area is now so nicely developed. Moreover, Hungary would miss out on the good wines of Villa Tolnay if they had closed their borders in 2004. Immigration is not bad.
Phillipp Oser actually never moved completely to Gyulakeszi. He seems to be a busy person who is still mainly based in Switzerland. I read he once even owned a Michelin starred restaurant in Oberwil (a suburb of Basel) named Viva. For some reason, it does not exist anymore under this name. Now there is the Restaurant Schlüssel, a one Michelin star restaurant. There are always these unexpected relations.
Please see the website of Villa Tolnay here: http://www.villatolnay.hu/