The road from Tokaj to Eger, Hungary, tells something of the country’s story. An early spring afternoon shows lush, gently undulating farmland stretching to either side of the two-lane blacktop, which unrolls in front of me with stoic determination. It is going somewhere, at least in contrast with the countryside, which seems just as intensely to be nowhere specifically. Indeed, for many miles, this slice of green fields dotted with trees and tractors could well be anywhere in the world, at least until the hulking, nearly-empty industrial cities rise from the horizon and place a definitive pin on the map, well behind the old Iron Curtain.
Hungary has had many histories, and it is now writing one anew, as the country firmly emerges into the sunlight, leaving the shadows of the Cold War behind. The twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall have allowed the return of opportunity, dignity, and the focused dedication required to recapture some of the cultural knowledge that the yoke of Communism pushed deep underground.
Hungarian wine, in particular, has been a study in more patience than usual, as a generation of winemakers reclaims a tradition that their fathers never had the chance to pass on to them.
When the Wall came down, a young Imre Kaló was tramping around in the woods somewhere, eyes on the sky. Trained as forester, and employed by the state, Kaló saw the writing on the wall even as the wall crumbled, brick by brick. Two years earlier he had nearly cut off three of the fingers of his right hand, which, thanks to several surgeries, remain usable but oddly clenched. He was newly a father and acutely conscious of the needs of his growing family.
“My life was split into two. I asked myself what I was going to do to support them,” he told me through a translator, “and I had no answers. But I had a lot of time alone in the woods, so I asked God. And God told me two things. The first was ‘all you need is love.’ The second was, ‘wine is love.’ I realized I had been born in a special place, a place where cherries and wine grapes grow, and so then I knew what to do.”
The road from Tokaj to Eger curves gently to the left of the sign proclaiming that the picturesque little village of ochre and tan nestled into the hills is called Szomolya. Entering the village, and then making a sharp left brings me, after a few twists and turns up a hill, to the front of an unprepossessing yellow house, with a high, gray fence whose gaps expose a front yard strewn with equally unremarkable detritus of life — a stack of boards, a bicycle or two, a soccer ball, and a clothesline.
Parking around back brings me face to face with a clapboard shack backed up against the hill of tufa, the gaps between its boards revealing little more than the inky depth of shadow. Returning down the street we pass a compact, muscular man in work clothes with a satchel slung across his back. My Hungarian companion greets him with a word and smile as we pass, and I am reminded of what I have been told in preparation for my visit with Imre Kaló.
Kaló speaks no English, and does not often receive visitors from abroad. He uses no calendar or datebook, and never writes down appointments or phone numbers, preferring to keep them all in his head (apparently he rarely misses appointments). He does not export his wine outside of Hungary, and indeed, hardly sells it. He has no license to distribute his wines or sell them outside of his cellar. While he does, indeed, sell his wines, he does so only at his whim, and only to people he likes, all for the same price, no matter what the wine or the vintage. He is just as likely to shoot or gather his own food as he is to buy it at a store or trade someone some bottles of wine for it. By all accounts he is a phenomenal cook.
I mulled these facts over in my head, as we pushed through his front gate and, after our knock went unanswered, stepped into what you might describe as the foyer of his 400-year-old house. Glancing to my left I saw a small mud and laundry room in which was draped the hide of a large wild boar, recently skinned. To my right was a room filled mostly by a well-worn, roughly-hewn wooden table, behind which hung an ancient looking, ten foot by twelve foot map of Hungary’s wine regions circa 1850. But in front of me, in place of what would have been the front hall of any normal house, there was a stairway descending to an arched opening encased in stone, its cap inscribed with the words “welcome to my home.” As my guide translated the words describing this most unusual of entryways, I was reminded of his final words of preparation for this visit.
When I worked with my guide, Richard, to arrange my visits to winemakers in Hungary, I described the kind of winemakers I was most interested in, namely those that march to the beat of their own drum, often eschewing accepted wisdom and convention when it comes to winemaking. “Ah,” said my guide in our earliest discussions, “you want to visit the crazy club.” I heartily affirmed this was so.
Moments earlier, as we pulled into the gravel driveway behind Kaló’s house, my guide turned to me with a smile and said, “Remember you wanted to meet the crazy club? Well, Imre is the founding member.”
Staring down at the entrance to the wine cellar (built in 2010, after Kaló decided he wanted a closer connection to his cellar than having to walk out to the wooden shack out back), we started as the front door clanked, and we were greeted from behind by a bear of a man. Kaló is a barrel-chested, thick-veined, energetic presence of a human being, with a mop of silvery salt-and-pepper hair and a prominent brow that hosts a couple of the more impressively thick eyebrows I’ve seen in a while. His eyes, clear and wide, betray a childlike spark of energy that equally animates his mouth as he speaks and which endeared him to me immediately.
After a few pleasantries, including a close up view of both the gorgeous old wine map and the boar skin that his son had shot the previous week, Kaló grabbed a box of wine glasses and a wine thief, and led us down the stairs for one of the most memorable cellar visits I have ever experienced, in one of the more remarkable cellars I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
For the last 18 years, Kaló has employed a master stone carver (the dusty man we passed on the street, it turns out) to carve his cellar, 60 feet underground, out of the porous grey tufa rock that underlies much of Eger’s hills. But when I say carve, I don’t mean excavate. The walls bear reliefs of saints, eagles, and other creatures. Words curve around the edges of doorways, and rough niches empty of figures indicate there remains much work to do. The room at the bottom of the stairs is the first and last to betray any pretense of show, featuring alcoves of dusty wine bottles, a statue of Saint Vincent rimmed with pine boughs, and a few decorative candle holders. If this was the last of the rooms in the cellar that seemed geared for visitors, it was also the last that showed any signs of tidying up.
The rest of the cellar was a mold-encrusted warren of barrels, tanks, bottles, crates, boards, and even broken glasses. That’s not to say that there was no order to the place. Quite to the contrary, the stacks of bottles alone hinted at a meticulous hand behind their placement. But the black, green and gray growth everywhere, combined with the clearly ancient barrels (some even leaking), primitive equipment, and pretty much every available nook and cranny occupied by something-or-other would have had most modern winemakers shuddering in horror.
From the first dusty tank valve, Kaló drew a glass full of orange colored liquid, clear and crystal-bright, and poured some into my glass. As I inhaled and then tasted a bit of his 2010 Grüner Veltliner that was macerated on the skins for 70 days I felt a bit like Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole. Over the next few hours I would see and hear little that made sense according to traditional logic, while at the same time experiencing some of the most wondrous wines I’ve tasted in a long while.
2010 Imre Kaló Grüner Veltliner, Eger
Light orange in color, this wine smells of wet leaves and spices. In the mouth flavors of wet stones, orange peel and chamomile have a gorgeous texture and stunning acidity. A light waxy character lingers with the flavors in a long finish. Macerated for 70 days on the skins. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Imre Kaló Grüner Veltliner, Eger
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of melon, star-fruit and a hint of cucumber. In the mouth flavors of green apple, wet stone, and white flowers burst and crackle with lovely acidity, while a silky texture caresses the tongue. Nice finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2007 Imre Kaló Grüner Veltliner, Eger
Pale orange in color, this wine has a waxy smell to it, with aromas of mixed herbs and, strangely, berries. In the mouth it is exquisitely silky in texture, with flavors of wet leaves, forest berries, orange peel, and pineapple. Underneath this somewhat odd concoction of flavors is a bedrock of wet, stony minerality that is quite compelling. This particular wine didn’t finish fermenting for three years. Score: around 9.
2006 Imre Kaló Grüner Veltliner, Eger
Light orange colored in the glass, this wine has a mind-blowing aroma of paraffin, lemon, and the piney resinous quality you sometimes smell from some white Burgundies. In the mouth the wine has an explosive exotic citrus and lemon flavor profile with incredible acidity. The overall impression the wine gives is of a humming crystalline bell that has just been struck in the sunlight. A wonderful saline note emerges towards the finish, along with the slight grip of tannins. A truly remarkable wine, which took just over 5 years to finish fermenting. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
Kaló’s winemaking basically breaks every possible rule you can think of in the modern textbook. He either de-stems by hand or doesn’t de-stem at all. He ferments with whole clusters or berries and doesn’t use a press, using only the free run juice that drains off of his fermentation tanks or barrels. He never innoculates his fermentations nor does he do anything to speed them along, as a result some of them literally take more than five years to complete. Many wines he macerates (leaving the skins and stems in contact with the juice) for months at a time, and while this is trendy for white wines, yielding wines of orange color, it is considered near suicidal for red wine making.
Once wines have finished macerating, he pours the wines off the skins into tanks or barrels and then never touches most of them again, letting them rest on their gross lees (the bits of skin, yeast sediment, etc.) for sometimes up to a decade before bottling. Only a few wines ever get racked off their lees.
Most white wines are aged in tanks, and most red wines are aged in old oak barrels (Kaló will never get rid of a barrel), usually for between three and seven years before bottling. During that time, just as during the early stages of winemaking, Kaló uses little to no sulfur, and perhaps even more maddeningly, does not top-up his barrels, exposing his wines to far more oxygen than most people would think healthy.
Describe this kind of winemaking to most modern winemakers, and they’d be able to tell you exactly what Kaló’s wines should taste like: vinegar, sherry, madeira, and acidophilus yogurt, not to mention laden with stiff tannins and volatile acidity.
2007 Imre Kaló Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, Eger
Medium orange in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves, apple juice, burnt orange peel, and raspberries. In the mouth flavors of raspberry, wet dirt, and white flowers take on a faint sweetness, with a lovely texture that lingers through a moderate finish. Tasted blind, it wouldn’t be entirely clear whether this was a red or a white wine. Made from about four hours of skin contact, this wine’s fermentation lasted a little more than 5 years. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2002 Imre Kaló Chardonnay, Eger
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells heavenly: white flowers, honey, and hints of wax and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has an incredibly silky texture, and a faint sweetness to it, with tropical fruit flavors blended nicely with a quartz-like minerality. Astonishingly, this wine has been in a single tank on its gross lees (thick sediment left over after the removal of all the big stuff — stems and skins — that is usually removed through a process called racking) since it was first made. Fermentation took years. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2007 Imre Kaló White Blend, Eger
Light amber gold in the glass — quite dark for a white — this wine smells of caramel, wet leaves, and sweet cream. In the mouth the wine has a mind-bendingly gorgeous texture with flavors of sweet cream, white flowers, forest floor, and a distinct berry note that is quite remarkable. Great acidity and wonderful length. A blend of 50% Grüner Veltliner, 35% Leanyka (an uncommon white Hungarian grape variety), and 15% Chardonnay. Score: around 9.5.
2007 Imre Kaló Leanyka, Eger
Light orange-gold in the glass, this wine smells of marmalade, cantaloupe melon, and crushed herbs. In the mouth the herbal quality persists, with flavors of cantaloupe, and a tiny hint of sweetness. Waxy notes emerge on the finish. Fantastic acidity and perfect balance, this is a wine that produces a struggle between the desire to roll around on your tongue forever and the desire to swallow as much as possible as quickly as possible. Delicious, unique, and compelling. Leanyka is also known as Feteasca Alba in neighboring Romania. Score: around 9.5.
2011 Imre Kaló Cabernet Franc, Eger
Perfect ruby in color with just the faintest hint of purple at the edges, this wine smells of wet leaves and huckleberries. In the mouth the wine gives the impression of what swallowing rubies might taste like in some whacked out dream state in which rubies actually had a taste. Crystalline flavors of cherry, huckleberry, wet stones and forest floor all mix together in perfect balance. Extraordinary acidity and clarity, and perhaps most remarkable, practically no trace of tannins, which is extraordinary on its own, but becomes nearly unbelievable when you learn that the wine was macerated on its skins for an incredible 110 days. Quite simply one of the most remarkable wines I’ve had in my mouth in some time. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
Kaló farms about 32 acres with the help of his wife and two children, all within about 2 kilometers of his front door. No one knows exactly how many, but he produces approximately 27 different different wines from more than a dozen different grape varieties. In total he produces about 2200 cases of wine each year.
“My family has been growing grapes only for about two generations,” he told me, describing a near-universal family vineyard operation in Hungary, where most family farms included a small vineyard that was used to produce wine primarily for family consumption. “My grandfather made wine, and then my father continued to make wine under communism, though only very little,” he said, referring to the fact that under communist rule, each family was allowed to work no more than 1 acre of vineyard land.
“So I learned the basics at my grandfather’s and father’s knee, and the rest came naturally to me. I also read some books, and talked with other winemakers. I’m still learning all the time,” said Kaló. “It took me fourteen years to get good. The 2000 vintage was the first wine I was satisfied with, and 2002 was the first one I thought was fantastic.”
As Kaló speaks, he will occasionally stop and glance skyward, moving his mouth slowly in a silent conversation, presumably with God, before resuming his earthly discussions.
At some point, I learned that Kaló’s 23-year-old daughter Julia is going to school for enology, and I asked him what he thought of what she was learning. “First, she has to learn what not to do,” he said with a grin.
Kaló farms with excruciating austerity, with between 2000 and 3000 vines per acre, all head-trained bush vines, some twenty or thirty-years-old, that sprawl like coral on the hillsides around Szomolya. Kaló allows each to bear only 1 kilogram of fruit per shoot.
“When I started farming, I knew I had only one mission, to produce only the best possible grapes I could,” he said. Given his less than commercially viable wine production, this fruit is one source of steady income for him and his family. That is, when he’s not giving it away to fellow winemakers for free, which he apparently does with regularity, claiming to sell only about 20% of each vintage.
In the vineyard Kaló uses copper sulfate only when he faces the most extreme pressure of rot and mildew, and other than that, farms what would ostensibly be described as organically. He has never used fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide.
2011 Imre Kaló Shiraz, Eger
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells distinctly like blue cheese. In the mouth flavors of cherry take on a decidedly Roquefort character that is not very appealing, as light tannins grip the edge of the mouth. Kaló swears that in about 2 years, this wine will have the qualities of his Cabernet Franc. But for now, it ain’t so exciting. Score: between 7 and 7.5.
2008 Imre Kaló Pinot Noir, Eger
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeous mixed flowers, huckleberries and cherries. In the mouth the wine has a remarkably crystalline aspect to it, with flavors of cherry, mulberry, and huckleberry ringing clear as a bell across the palate. Perfectly balanced, with gorgeous acidity and faint tannins, the wine has a faint earthy note underneath everything. Stunning. Kaló plans to keep this wine in the barrel for 2 more years before bottling. Score: around 9.5.
2006 Imre Kaló Pinot Noir, Eger
Perfect ruby in color, this wine’s aromas nearly make me weep. I don’t think I have ever smelled a wine that so perfectly captures the scent of forest berries. It’s as if my eyes were closed and someone has crushed a handful of raspberries, strawberries, huckleberries, and redcurrants right underneath my nose. In the mouth the wine’s silky texture delivers flavors of strawberry, raspberry, and forest floor that are perfectly poised and balanced against gorgeous acidity. A faint, light sweetness suffuses the wine, but that sweetness moves to a slightly briny saltiness in the minutes-long finish. Incredibly faint tannins whisper at the edges of the mouth through that finish. While this is not the most complex or the single best Pinot Noir I have ever had, it is certainly one of the most remarkable. It fermented on the skins for 100 days. Kaló plans to leave it in the barrel for a couple more years before bottling. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2009 Imre Kaló Merlot, Eger
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherries and mulberries. In the mouth, furry tannins wrap around a core of remarkable flavors that are a mix between violets, plummy cherry and mulberry fruit, and exotic spices. Perfectly balanced, with excellent acidity, the wine has a remarkable character, and its finish tastes of strange, exotic forest berries. Utterly delicious. Score: around 9.5.
2011 Imre Kaló Cabernet Sauvignon, Eger
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of redcurrants, resin, and verjus. In the mouth the wine tastes of a dry dusty road, but then bright tart flavors of redcurrant and raspberry emerge. It is not until the finish that any classically Cabernet characteristics emerge, with notes of cherry lingering for a long time. Fantastic acidity. Served blind, this wine would be nearly impossible to peg as Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s damn tasty nonetheless. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
After tasting his Pinot Noir I told Kaló that his wines don’t make sense according to what I know of winemaking, and that most winemakers would probably think he was crazy.
“I’m definitely the most crazy guy. I quickly accepted the fact that I was going to look like a fool in other’s eyes by making wine the way I thought it should be made” he replied.
“Do you consider yourself to be an artist?” I asked.
“I am only a human. A son of God. Humans have been put here on earth to help grapes become wine. Here in Hungary we knew this for a long time. If you check the old maps and the papers of the researchers you will see that we knew this even before the French.
The most painful fact for us is that all this knowledge was destroyed, and all our tradition is gone.
You need self power, and energy to recover from this damage and get our traditions back. I represent the genes that Hungarians have for making natural wines with a sense of place. This is our old destiny as a people.
It is important to do things that make us live. This is the rhythm of nature. What you see here is the work of twenty-four years.”
2008 Imre Kaló Red Blend, Eger
Palest garnet in the glass, this wine smells of apple cider. In the mouth flavors of wet leaves red apple peel and tree bark have a distinct sweetness to them. Leathery tannins wrap around the silky core of fruit and herbal/earthy notes. Macerated for 150 days in an open vat before being moved into a barrel. A blend of 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon that had been affected by Botrytis. Harvested in mid-november. Kaló says this wine needs 7-8 years to come around, and is currently ‘in transition.’ Score: around 8.5.
2009 Imre Kaló Kekfrankos, Eger
Brilliant medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of violets, cherry, and cedar. In the mouth the wine has a great clarity, with exquisite flavors of cherry, cedar and violets along with a creamy kirsch note that is quite compelling. Leathery tannins wrap around a core of fruit that is lively with remarkable acidity, and the wine is distinctly, but only lightly sweet. Why? Because it is still fermenting to dryness. Likely to be even more remarkable when it is dry. Kekfrancos is the Hungarian name for Blaufrankisch. Score: around 9.5.
2007 Imre Kaló “Sule Furlem” Red Blend, Eger
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of red apple skin and cherry, with a hint of café au lait. In the mouth the wine offers a wonderfully caramel and coffee tinged core of cherry fruit with notes of raspberry and leather. Muscular tannins wrap around the edges of the mouth, and fantastic acidity brings the fruit to light with a faint sweetness. A blend of 30% Turan (a native Hungarian red grape variety, also known as Agria), 30% Pinot Noir, 30% Shiraz and 10% Cabernet Franc, the wine’s name, Sule Furlem, means “my home” in Hungarian, and it has never been touched by sulfur of any kind. Quite surprisingly, the wine is 16% alcohol but you would never guess from tasting it. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Imre Kaló Red Aszu, Eger
Pale brick/orange in color, this wine smells of apple cider, orange peel, chocolate and caramel. In the mouth the wine offers flavors of caramel, red apple skin, orange peel and exotic tropical fruits amidst a lovely silky texture and a moderate level of sweetness. Excellent acidity and a long finish leave the mouth wondering what hit it, as this wine is quite unlike anything I’ve ever had before. No relation to port, or a late harvest red wine, yet this is distinctly a red dessert wine. It turns out that it is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Shiraz made using the Aszu method, where late harvest berries are fermented, and then heavily botrytized berries are added for a second fermentation. Quite distinctive. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Imre Kaló Turan Eszencia, Eger
Inky, opaque purple in the glass this wine smells of grapey cassis, black cherries, and violets. In the mouth deep and rich grapey flavors of black cherry and rose petals have a slightly resinous quality, and powdery tannins. Less acidity than I would like, given the wine is moderately to very sweet. This wine is made from the Hungarian Turan grape, and using the Eszencia method, which like the TBA in Austria, involves a berry-by-berry selection of completely botrytized fruit. Score: around 9.
It is at that point that Kaló related to me the story of how God spoke to him, and told him that wine is love. He went on, “God is graceful to let people in this world love and be loved. That is the only true path. Everyone has the possibility to be loved, and every human has the responsibility to love. And of course, we can drink wine. If you drink wine, you never think of hatred and destruction.
When you make wine, you cannot make wine for money. You can only make wine for your heart. It is the blood of Christ. It is more than money. Wine is part of culture, money is nothing. The sun will not rise if you pay more.”
Kaló pointed to the words carved above my head: “God, Home, Family,” he said. “That is what we need. And wine” he added with a smile, “wine and bread.”
And just like that, our time was up. We emerged into the sunlight, and said our goodbyes, and began the long drive back to Budapest. My flight to the U.S. would leave in less than eight hours.
As the green countryside slipped by in the fading light of the day, I felt like a bell that had been rung for a long time, still silently vibrating in resonance. I wished desperately for several more hours to spend with Kaló, for tasting, of course, but to talk more and better understand just how it is possible for his wines to be so good. I’d be lying, too, if I didn’t admit that I wanted to just hang out with this fascinating guy a bit longer and savor some more of his personality.
As we were parting, I told him as much, and apologized for being stupid enough to make the evening commitment that was requiring us to return at an early hour. Kaló smiled and said, “But we will see each other again. Wind blows trash together, but wine blows people together.” Then he winked, bumped my shoulder, and said with a grin “write that one down. Imre Kaló came up with that.”