Sopron Is the Hungarian City Straddling Vines and Vision

Wooden barrels holding Furmint from Weingut Steigler

“I’m not 100% part of the Austrian wine world, nor am I 100% part of the Hungarian wine world,” says grower Franz Weninger on cross-border winemaking in the Burgenland and Sopron. Here, where Austria meets Hungary, the 1,630-hectare, subalpine region is effectively a peninsula protruding into Austria on the southwestern shore of Lake Neusiedl. “I lived in Hungary and now I live in Austria but make wine in Hungary, too. So, I’ve always seen things from a different side, which is both a problem and a gift,” says Weninger. 

A few words on the common history of Burgenland and Sopron might help explain Weninger’s comments. Previously Hungarian, Burgenland only became part of Austria after divisions following WWI. Sopron, formerly Burgenland’s capital, elected to remain in Hungary in a 1921 referendum, earning itself the name “The Loyal City.” This dislocated Sopron and Balf from nearby Rust and the Leitha Hills and most of the winegrowing region around Lake Neusiedl, aka Lake Fertő in Hungary.

While many prestigious vineyards and vintners still have names offering testimony to Sopron’s Germanic heritage, today the Iron Curtain is long gone and Schengen has effectively removed the border between Austria and Hungary. Esterházy castles dot the landscape of both regions. Lake Neusiedl and its surrounding vineyards are a cross-border UNESCO heritage site. Hungarians commute to Austria for better-paid work, Austrians come to Hungary for cheaper dental care, and tourism is thriving on both sides of the border. Language flows as easily—and copiously—as wine in the multilingual melting pot that is modern Sopron. 

Hungarian vineyards from weninger winery
photo credit: Steve Haider

Political strife in the 20th century decimated the wine region. The effects were worse than those of phylloxera, which nearly wiped out Sopron’s then predominantly white varieties. Yet this northwestern corner of Hungary had for centuries been a viticultural hotbed, including producing prized botrytised wines made from Furmint. The earlier confluence of Austria and Hungary under the Habsburg Monarchy had previously been advantageous to both. It is now being rediscovered by cross-border winemakers like Weninger, raising standards and reviving winemaking traditions on both sides of the frontier.

Being Blaufränkisch in Sopron

“Burgenland was German-speaking Western Hungary, but never Austria,” says Weninger. “So when it was cut off from the rest of Hungary and its capital, it had to rediscover itself and look west. Blaufränkisch was not found anywhere else in Austria. It’s Kékfrankos, which is Hungarian.”

Eisenberg Hill straddles the border — Eisenberg on the Austrian side, Vashegy on the Hungarian. Both are planted with Blaufränkisch (a.k.a. Kékfrankos), although Blaufränkisch has seen more initial success than its Hungarian cousin, despite boasting only 2,580 ha to Hungary’s 7,150 ha. Sopron is only just starting to find its footing again. There have been some cross-border projects with grapes from Sopron vinified in the Burgenland, notably the Nador project of Hungarian-Austrian cousins Imre and Rainer Garger. However, these seem to have fizzled out. 

Having a Go with Grüner Veltliner

Tamás Varga, estate manager at Steigler Winery in Sopron, feels Hungary could learn a lot from Austria’s ability to recover and rebrand itself, especially following the wine scandal. After making wine at Juris and Nittnaus in Gols as well as Domäne Wachau, Varga returned home inspired to put Sopron back on the global wine map and close the gap between it and better-known Burgenland producers. He is now making waves with his unapologetic focus on quality, organic winegrowing, and a limited selection of varieties. Although Steigler offers some 14 wines, as is traditional in the region to facilitate cellar-door sales, he has concluded that most people lose interest after the first seven or eight. 

Varga admires the Austrians’ respect for Blaufränkisch and Grüner Veltliner. Nittnaus, for example, made six to seven vineyard and barrel selections of Blaufränkisch. Varga is following suit, with one significant change. He has chosen Grüner Veltliner. This year, he produced seven Zöldveltelini, (a.k.a. Grüner Veltliner) variants, including a classic version in stainless steel, a barrel ferment, a pét-nat, a traditional method sparkling, and a late harvest wine. He has also been instrumental in reintroducing the once-ubiquitous Furmint to Sopron. He would like to focus on these two whites as well as Kékfrankos. He believes Sopron’s identity lies in finding the varieties which, like these, best express the potential of its terroir.

Falling in Love with Furmint

Several Austrian-born winemakers, including Franz Weninger and sisters Birgit and Katrin Pfneiszl, are also playing a key role in Sopron’s renaissance. 

In 2000, Weninger, aged 19, ended up with 30 hectares of vines in Hungary overlooking Lake Fertő. His father, already involved in a joint project with Attila Gere in Villány, had been approached to purchase a vineyard in Sopron. Initially skeptical as it was so close to their Burgenland winery, they decided to go and look anyway. 

As they arrived at Lake Fertő, the fog lifted to reveal the surrounding vineyards. The winemakers were immediately entranced by this hushed hinterland between Balf and Fertőrákos. There was nothing but reeds, nature, and water as far as the eye could see. Weninger’s course in Hungary was set. His father gave him complete freedom—with one caveat: he had to sell the wine. He has, taking home numerous awards and accolades over the years. 

Naturally, Weninger has had much to learn about working in a different country—often the hard way. He struggled with Hungarian bureaucracy and communication styles, causing him to lose out on an EU subsidy he badly needed. Ambitious expansions at the winery left him in a vulnerable position for a few years. He had also been among the first to introduce organics and biodynamics in Hungary and admits he might have traveled too far down the natural route in reaction to what he saw as industrial Hungarian winemaking at that time. He has pulled back from that extreme and, although still working organically and biodynamically, is making delicious, elegant terroir-driven wines once again.

Hungarian winemaker Weninger stands in his organic vineyard
Winemaker Franz Weninger. Photo credit Nicole Heiling

Weninger is now also running the family estate in Horitschon, 15 km from the Sopron winery in Balf, and commuting back and forth each day. He recalls that, despite the many accolades, he struggled to sell his wine in Hungary due to the poor reputation of Sopron wine under the communist regime. In fact, he was one of the few Sopron winemakers to show his wines in Budapest, as most winemakers simply sold their wines in Sopron. 

In the early 2000s, he turned to export markets to try to sell his wine—anywhere outside Austria and Hungary, where the wines’ poor reputation endured. Although limited interest in these unfamiliar Hungarian wines initially led to lower prices and soft sales, this has now changed. From about 2010, with the growing interest in natural wines and indigenous varieties from less familiar regions, his wines found their way onto the lists of top international restaurants. His Hungarian wines today are just as successful and command similarly high prices to his Austrian ones. Around 80% are exported.

Although Weninger focuses on Kékfrankos, with numerous single-vineyard selections, he thinks Sopron’s future also lies in its past: white wines. He has planted Furmint on the gneiss and mica schist soils of his east-facing Steiner vineyard, for which it had historically been famous. Furmint, he says, is becoming increasingly popular in Austria as well, with many young producers planting it in Burgenland. If the Hungarians don’t watch out, Weninger jokes, people will think that Furmint is Austrian. 

Although Weninger focuses on Kékfrankos, with numerous single-vineyard selections, he thinks Sopron’s future also lies in its past: white wines.

The same is true for the workshorse Welschriesling, seen by many in both countries as a wine only fit for spritzer. With fruit from low-yielding vines planted in 2008 and malolactic fermentation in barrel, Weninger has succeeded in making a full-bodied, shockingly serious wine. He realizes, however, that a more common style and quality must be worked out to improve Welschriesling’s image, as nobody really knows what to expect from the variety and preconceptions linger. He also has some Pinot Blanc that he acquired accidentally when ordering Pinot Noir, simply being sent “Pinot,” he says. Spontaneously fermented in oak and aged for 11 months on fine lees, it’s also exciting people about Austrian Weißburgunder. It seems Weninger has the power to get people excited about wines that people often consider lackluster.

The Plight of the Ponzichter

Settlers from Lower Austria arrived in the 13th century to what is today known as Sopron, eventually resulting in a sizable German-speaking population, known as Ponzichters (from Bohnenzüchter) because they grew beans between the vines. Although Weninger’s family hadn’t made wine in Sopron previously, his German-speaking paternal grandmother was born in Hungary, hence he says he can consider himself a Ponzichter, a Burgenland Hungarian, with a calling in both countries.

The family of Birgit and Katrin Pfneiszl, the Austrian siblings who are also challenging preconceptions in Sopron, have cultivated vines and made wine in Sopron for generations. But when Sopron was returned to Hungary, their great-grandfather decided to stay in Austria and make wine there. Grandson Franz Pfneisl adored his grandfather and dreamed of returning to make wine in Sopron one day. 

Two sister winemakers stand in Sopron wine cellar holding rocks
Birgit and Katrin Pfneiszl

He succeeded in buying a 13-ha vineyard there in 1993, which daughter Birgit took over in 2006 on her return from winemaking internships in New Zealand, Chile, Italy, and Australia. She was later joined by her younger sister Katrin. Appreciating Sopron’s unique terroir, with Lake Fertő tempering the region’s cool climate and the mix of limestone, clay, loess, mica schist, and gneiss soils, and, like Weninger, enjoying the chance to build something for themselves, they decided not to continue the family winery in the Burgenland, now run by their uncle. They left home, but now better understand home—the Burgenland, with Sopron as part of that.

Living today in Sopron, their response to whether they would consider returning to Austria was, “Why ever would we?!” Although locals were skeptical initially, says Birgit, it was because they were young and female, not because they were Austrian. Those who believed in them, saw them behind the wheel of the tractor and getting their hands dirty, are now their business partners or regular visitors to the winery. 

Like Weninger, they too experienced Hungarians’ reluctance to take Soproni Kékfrankos seriously. However, they persevered with Kékfrankos in the vineyard and at tastings. Several of their Kékfrankos pay tribute to Sopron’s past. “Mesés Vidék” (Fairytale Country) recalls their great-grandfather’s dream, realized by their father, while “Újra Együtt” (Together Again) refers to the Habsburg monarchy countries that are reunited in the wines. 

The sisters see Sopron’s future in Kékfrankos, making vibrant wines that express the diversity of the variety—light and juicy or more complex and tannic, aged in Hungarian oak. However, they are not afraid to experiment. Their main white variety is Zefír, a modern aromatic Hungarian crossing, while they also make a skin-contact wine from Weißer Heunisch, one of Kékfrankos’s parents, called “Hidden Treasure.” Incidentally, this has nothing to do with Roland Velich’s “Hidden Treasures” series of wines from the Pannonian region. Birgit also pays tribute to her international travels with “Távoli Világ” (Faraway World), an unusual blend consisting of Shiraz, Carmenere, Malbec, Zinfandel, and Sangiovese. 

The Future of Sopron

According to Varga, Weninger, and the Pfneiszls, Sopron’s past must surely influence its future. With international reports highlighting decreasing wine consumption as well as people drinking less but better, it is clear the wine region’s future lies with higher quality wines, focusing on traditional varieties that showcase terroir, in order to recreate a quality image for this historic, yet still under-the-radar wine region. All agree on Kékfrankos, with an eye to regaining Sopron’s reputation as capital of Kékfrankos. Weninger and Varga would like to see a renaissance of Furmint, while Varga is pushing Zöldveltelini

While the past saw everyone doing their own thing, with little cooperation, Varga dreams of a different way. His goal is to create a core of winemakers working together to promote Sopron, similar to Burgenland’s Pannobile. This “Kékfrankos Circle” would have shared goals of quality and perhaps organic production. Weninger and the Pneiszls also recognize this collaboration and hope that group action would potentially ensure Sopron’s vinous future. Whatever path they choose, Sopron’s distinctive wine heritage is too rich to be lost.

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