István Bencze

Introverted Perfectionism above Holidaygoers’ Lake Balaton

Quick facts:

Location: Szent György-hegy, a popular hill above the north shore of Lake Balaton, Western Hungary

Owner & winemaker: István Bencze

Vineyard area: 18 ha (= 45 acres), estate-owned

Vineyard management: biodynamics (Demeter-certified)

Soil: volcanic basalt and tuff, parts of clay and limestone

Main varieties: Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chenin + indigenous grapes like Furmint, Harszlevelú or Keknyelú

Annual production (approx.): 30,000 – 50,000 bottles

Winemaking: fermentation in amphoras, combined with stainless steel, concrete, and wooden vats of various sizes. No fining or filtration; no sulfur added

Fun facts:

  • István is a former IT-entrepreneur who decided to return to his grandparents’ winemaking activity in 2011, originally just for fun and also for himself.
  • The estate has been organic from day one and converted to biodynamics in 2014.
  • Originally using filtration and sulfur, István decided to leave these methods completely in November 2017 after a visit to the Styrian natural legends Ewald Tscheppe and Roland Tauss.
  • Mentorship and support from Zsolt Sütö of Strekov 1075 provided additional help on this zero-zero path.
  • Besides his love for Chenin, István also cherishes the indigenous grapes, and tries to preserve them; he owns arguably the only plot of the almost forgotten Bakator variety in Hungary.

 

Jump to wines | Bencze Birtók Website

 

“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.

 

 Wines


Chenin Blanc — Back to the top

Age of Vines: planted in 2014, demeter certified biodynamically cultivated from the beginning

Yields: 1kg/vine

Soil: basalt, clay and sandstone

Vinification Method: Hand-harvested whole clusters are pressed to 330 liter terracotta amphoras and 300-400 liter used oak barrels. After resting in amphora and barrel for about 11 months, the wine is bottled without fining or filtration and zero sulfur is added.


Riesling — Back to the top

István on this wine: “In the ‘Riesling’ series in every vintage, we blend pure Riesling picked only in our special plot called ‘Templomdombi’. We harvest from our young
plantation and blend the vessels that we won’t use for our single-vineyard wines. The cuvée has to represent our terroir, our philosophy perfectly, while being easygoing at the same time.”

Age of Vines: planted in 2015

Yields: 1kg/vine

Soil: dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil

Vinification Method: Hand-picked grapes, pressed as whole clusters. Fermented in different types of amphoras and a 1500-L oval Slavonian oak barrel, then aged for 10 months on lees. Blended one month before bottling, then bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 below 10ppm).


Pinot Noir — Back to the top

István on this wine: “Our entry-level, fruity, easy-going Pinot Noir from the bottom part of the vineyard called Rókalyuki. The soil here is mainly clay, sand, and sandstone, with much less basalt than in the upper parts of the vineyard. Over hundreds of years, the basalt dust from erosion made its way to the bottom part of the plot, enriching it with some volcanic spicy touch.”

Age of Vines: Vines planted in 1999

Yields: 1.5 kg/vine

Soil: Basalt with some clay and limestone, also sandstone, and brown forest soil.

Vinification Method: the uncrushed grapes were destemmed into open fermenters, and after 3 days stomped with hands and feet. After 10 days of skin contact, the grapes were gently pressed and racked using gravity into 228 L French barrel (30%), stainless steel tanks and amphoras, and aged for 8 months. Bottled without fining, filtration, and no sulfur was added (total SO2 below 10ppm).

 


Pinot Noir Atlas — Back to the top

This wine represents a selection of the best base wines of pinot noir to make a high-end pinot noir cuvée.

Age of Vines: planted in 1999 

Yields: 1kg/vine

Soil: Basalt with some clay and limestone, also sandstone and brown forest soil.

Vinification Method: Grapes are hand-harvested and fermented as half whole cluster, half destemmed with 1/3 of the stems thrown in as a semi-carbonic combination, in open-topped fermenters. The grapes are foot tread and punched down by hand. The wine is bottled without fining or filtration and zero sulfur is added.


Blau — Back to the top

    Istvan Bencze BlauIstván on this wine: “Surprise wine from our Templomdombi vineyard. While planting our Furmint, we realized that we received some other types of rootstock by accident. This is why we have a few hundreds of Blauburger vines in our most prominent vineyard. We decided to keep them as an experiment and make vintages of them for several years.”

Variety: Blauburger (a cross of Blaufrankisch and Blauer Portugieser that is grown a little in Austria, Czech Republic, and Hungary)

Age of Vines: planted in 2015

Soil: dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil, and clay

Yield: 1 kg/vine

Winemaking: The uncrushed whole clusters spent four days in open tanks, then stomp them with hands and feet. After 12 days of fermentation, the grapes were pressed and the wine then aged for 6 months in stainless steel vats. Bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 below 10ppm).


Autochthon — Back to the top

Istvan Bencze AutochtonIstván 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, all of them from our precious ’Templomdombi’ plot.”

Varieties: Furmint (35%), Hárslevelű (49%) and Kéknyelű (16%)

Age of Vines: planted in 2015

Soil: dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil and clay

Yield: 1 kg/vine

Winemaking: The grapes were harvested at three various times at their optimum maturity. Half of the Hárslevelű
was destemmed into open fermenters and fermented with skins for 8 days, while the other half of the Hárslevelű along with Kéknyelű and the Furmint were pressed as whole bunches and fermented in different types of amphoras. Aged on fine lees for 9 months. It was blended in June and bottled in July without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 below 10ppm).


Furmint — Back to the top

Istvan Bencze FurmintIstván on this wine: “2019 marked our very first vintage of Furmint, from our special plot called ‘Templomdombi’. We planted 3 different clones that complement each other: the backbone of the vineyard is the T85 with high and fine acidity; we have a smaller amount of older Furmint that has small clusters, and there are some T92 clones in our plot, too.”

Varieties: Furmint

Age of Vines: planted in 2015

Soil: dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil, and clay

Yield: 1 kg/vine

Winemaking: The grapes were harvested at three various times at their optimum maturity and then carefully pressed as whole bunches, then fermented and aged in different amphoras for 9 months. The most “exciting” and powerful three of them were used for this varietal Furmint, while the remaining amphora went into the Autochthon cuvée. Bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 below 10ppm).


Kéknyelű — Back to the top

Istvan Bencze KeknelyuIstván on this wine: “‘Kéknyelű’ is a rare variety of white wine grape that is mainly found in the Badacsony wine region. It requires a lot of work in the vineyard, so the cultivation of this grape has largely been abandoned. It can have problems with pollination, is sensitive to drought, and is late-ripening, so it needs the most prominent area to grow. However, its exotic aroma and unique structure compensate the winemaker for all this hard work.”

Varieties: Kéknyelű

Age of Vines: planted between 2016-2018

Soil: Templomdombi vineyard – dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil, and clay

Yield: 1 kg/vine

Winemaking: the grapes were carefully hand-harvested and sorted, then pressed as whole cluster. Fermented and aged in 750-liter amphoras for 10 months on lees. Each harvest day leads to different characteristics of the particular grape juice; the most “exciting” and powerful three of the amphoras were used for this varietal Kéknyelű, while the remaining amphora went into the Autochthon cuvée. Bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 below 10ppm).


Virgo – Blanc de Pinot Noir — Back to the top

Istvan Bencze VirgoIstván on this wine: “We first made a Pinot Noir Blanc de Noirs in 2014, after an extremely rainy vintage. Although the resulting ’Virgo 2014’ was quite popular, we didn’t make any other vintages in the following years because of its style. However, after tasting a nice Coteaux Champenois, we decided to give the claret a try again. Compared to the 2014 vintage, we put emphasis on sharper, higher acidity with a more sophisticated use of barrels, and reinterpreted it as a natural wine.”

Variety: Pinot Noir

Age of the Vines: planted in 1999

Soil: Rókalyuki plot – clay, sand, sandstone with basalt

Yield: 1,5 kg/vine

Winemaking: the grapes were carefully pressed as whole clusters, then the juice was racked into 228 L French barrels.
After fermentation the barrels were refilled only to 95% full, leaving an empty space to allow the flor yeast to take form. Aged on the lees for 9 months with no batonnage, bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 10ppm).

 


Rózsakő — Back to the top

István on this wine: “Experimental wine from our young vineyard planted in 2014. ‘Rózsakő’ is a local hybrid of the indigenous grapes ‘Kéknyelű’ and ‘Budai zöld’, born in 1957 by the Research Institute for Viticulture and Enology in the nearby Badacsony, but it is still very rare today. Although the 2018 vintage was ‘tropical’, hot and wet, we could harvest amazing grapes.”

Grapes: 100% Rózsakő

Vineyard: “Másfél”, planted in 2014. Demeter certified, basalt, clay, sand and sandstone. Yield 1.2 kg/vine

Making of: The grapes were hand-harvested, 2/3 then gently pressed as whole bunches and the juice racked to two 500L oak barrels. The remaining 1/3 was fermented as whole bunches in an open fermenter under CO2 for 3 weeks, without maceration or punch-downs. After pressing, this part was racked to the barrels of the fermenting 2/3. One barrel was full (ouillé), while the other was untopped and aged under flor, 1 year on gros lees. Two months before bottling, the barrels were racked to a tank without. Bottled in November 2019 without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 8ppm).

Personality: Pure energy from the vineyard, István says. Ripe quinces and apples, an exotic touch, mellowed by toast and caramel notes, balanced by acidity and spicy volcanic/mineral note and a hint of smoke. A wine for wine lovers, changing with every sip.