Introverted Perfectionism above Holidaygoers’ Lake Balaton
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
- 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.
- Chenin Blanc
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Noir Atlas
- Aries I & II
- Pétillant Rosé
- Pétillant Blanc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
Chenin Blanc — Back to the top
Age of Vines: planted in 2014, Demeter certified and biodynamically cultivated from the beginning
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: “A blend of Rieslings picked only in our special plot called ‘Templomdombi’, using grapes from our young plantation and the vessels that weren’t used for the Aries wine. The cuvée has to represent our terroir, our philosophy perfectly, while being easygoing at the same time.”
Vineyard: Templomdombi. Dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil and clay. Planted in 2015. Estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified). Yield 1kg per vine
Making of: hand harvest, gentle whole-cluster direct press in a pneumatic press, fermentation and aging in stoneware vessels for 14 months. Bottled at the end of October, without filtration, fining or added sulfites.
Personality: lovely take on this noble grape, with typical varietal notes and a dash of volcanic tang. Vivid, with beautiful acidity and freshness.
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.”
Vineyard: Rókalyuki. Clay, sand, sandstone with some eroded basalt lying on limestone-chalk subsoil. Planted in 1999. Estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified).
Making of: hand harvest. The destemmed berries fermented in 1000L open tanks, with remontages and a gentle pigeage twice a day. Fermentation on the skin for 10 days. Aging in Burgundy-size small barrels (49% 5th-load, 32% 1st-load), 12% stoneware vessels, 7% stainless steel until next June. Bottled without fining or filtration, zero sulfur added.
Personality: easy-drinking yet still sophisticated Pinot Noir – a lovely lighter-style red for any moment.
Pinot Noir Atlas — Back to the top
This wine represents a selection of grapes grown on the higher part of the vineyard where the soil is rockier and well-drained, to make a high-end Pinot Noir cuvée.
Grapes: Pinot Noir
Vineyard: Rókalyuki. Clay, sand, sandstone with some basalt lying on limestone-chalk subsoil. Planted in 1999. Estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified)
Making of: hand harvest. 60% whole-bunch fermentation in open vessels for 10 days, then taken to the press by baskets, racked by gravity to used 2500L Austrian wooden cask, where it was aged for 1 year on the lees. The wine is bottled without fining or filtration and zero sulfur is added.
Personality: charming, layered and concentrated take on Pinot Noir with its typical elegant perfume and pronounced tannins, made for aging.
Blau. — Back to the top
István 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 hundred 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, the Czech Republic, and Hungary)
Vineyard: Templomdombi. Dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil and clay. Planted in 2015. Estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified). Yield 1kg per vine
Making of: hand harvest. The grapes were destemmed for 2/3 into an open 1000L fermenter, with the 1/3 added as whole clusters in the middle. After 3 days of undisturbed natural fermentation, Istvan started with gentle punch-downs by hand. After 8 days of skin contact, the grapes were gently pressed and racked by gravity into a stainless steel tank, where it laid until the following spring. Bottled without filtration, fining or added sulfites.
Personality: light, juicy red with a nice tang, ready to be served chilled.
Autochthon — Back to the top
István 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, most of them from our precious ’Templomdombi’ plot.”
Varieties: Furmint, Hárslevelű, Kéknyelű, Rószakö
Vineyard: Furmint, Hárslevelű and Kéknyelű come from Templomdombi (planted 2015), Rózsakő from Másfél (planted 2014). Dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil and clay. All estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified)
Making of: hand harvest, each grape at optimum maturity. 95% of the grapes underwent gentle whole-cluster direct press in a pneumatic press, fermentation and ageing in stoneware vessels for 14 months. 5% whole-cluster fermentation with some juice with daily remontages, for 10 days. For Hárslevelű, 60% was aged in 1500L Slavonian oak and 8% in a small barrel, the rest in different types and sizes of stoneware vessels. The blend was bottled in August of the following year without filtration, fining or added sulfites.
Personality: citrus, pear, salt. Easy-drinking yet entertaining and complex white with distinct freshness.
Furmint — Back to the top
István 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.”
Vineyard: Templomdombi. Dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil, and clay. Planted in 2015, estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified). 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 13 months. The most “exciting” and powerful of them were used for this varietal Furmint (the remaining ones are used for the Autochthon cuvée). Bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 below 10ppm). Aged one year in bottle before the release.
Personality: generous, vibrant and mineral.
Kéknyelű — Back to the top
István on this wine: “‘Kéknyelű’ is a rare variety of white wine grape that is mainly found here, 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.”
Vineyard: Templomdombi – dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil, and clay. Planted between 2016-2018, estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified). Yield: 1 kg/vine
Winemaking: the grapes were carefully hand-harvested and sorted, then direct pressed as whole clusters in a pneumatic
press for 4 hours. Fermented and aged in clay for 10 months on lees. The most “exciting” and powerful of the vessels were used for this varietal Kéknyelű, while the remaining went into the Autochthon cuvée. Bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 below 10ppm).
Personality: exotic flavors mingled with mouthwatering salinity.
Virgo – Blanc de Pinot Noir — Back to the top
István 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 clairet 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
Vineyard: lower part of the Rókalyuki site. The soil there is mainly clay, sand and sandstone, with much less basalt than in the upper parts of the vineyard. Planted in 1999, estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified)
Winemaking: hand harvest. 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 develop. Aged on the lees for 9 months with no batonnage, bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 10ppm).
Personality: elegant, velvety and deep.
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.
Hárslevelű — Back to the top
Vineyard: Templomdombi. dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil and clay, planted in 2015. Estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified)
Making of: hand harvest. Whole-cluster direct press (80%) in a pneumatic press and whole-cluster fermentation (20%) for 10 days. These two parts were separately fermented and blended together the next May. Fermentation and aging in Slavonian oak cask (20%), clay (60%) and used small barrel (20%). The most exciting of the vessels were used for this varietal wine (the rest goes into the Autochthon cuvée). Bottled without fining, filtration, and without added sulfur (total SO2 below 10ppm).
Personality: laser-sharp acidity surrounded by lush fruit notes
Aries I & II — Back to the top
István on these wines: “Aries are Riesling from the estate’s oldest plantation, the Tempolomdombi vineyard, which was planted in 1976. In the 2018 vintage, 2 amphoras of Aries were produced, and they have such different personalities that they were bottled separately, as indicated by the serial number on the label.”
Vineyard: Templomdombi – dense basalt with some tuff, sandstone, brown forest soil, and clay. Planted in 1976, estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified)
Making of: Hand-harvested. After gentle whole-cluster pressing, it is placed directly into 750L amphorae for 18 months of aging using gravity. It was bottled unfiltered, unclarified and without the addition of sulfur.
Personality: super elegant, ethereal yet focused, with lingering acidity
Pétillant Rosé — Back to the top
István on this wine: “A sparkling rosé cuvée made of red and white grapes, with many different harvest dates and fermentation technics (direct press juice / whole bunch, stainless steel and amphora) combined together. It’s the second vintage, as the “prototype” was made in tiny quantity in 2020.”
Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Blauburger, Zervin and Chenin Blanc
Vineyards: Cabernet Sauvignon (planted 1999) of Rókalukidűlő, Zervin (rootstock planted in 1999, regrafted in 2013), Blauburger (2015) of Templomdombi-dűlő, Chenin Blanc (2014) of Másfél. Clay, sand, sandstone with basalt. All estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified)
Making of: the grapes were hand-harvested on different dates and spontaneously fermented in different vessels (stainless steel, amphora). Blended and bottled while still fermenting, with 16 grams of residual sugar, disgorged early the year after. Unfiltered, unclarified no sulfur added.
Personality: “The aim of this cuvée is to recall the feeling of drinking half-ready, still fermenting red wine during the end of the harvest season that is turbid, swirling, foaming, sparkling, juicy, energetic, easy-going. Like being swallowed by the ocean.” Recommended service: 16-18 degrees Celsius, stir up the sedimented lees a little before opening, according to your taste.
Pétillant Blanc — Back to the top
Grapes: Chenin Blanc, Pinot blanc, Pinot Noir
Vineyards: Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc of Rókaluki-dűlő (planted 1999),
Chenin Blanc of Másfél (planted 2014). Clay, sand, sandstone with basalt. All estate-owned and biodynamically farmed by István himself (Demeter-certified)
Making of: Blended and bottled while still fermenting, with 18 grams of residual sugar, disgorged in the early spring of the following year. Unfiltered, unclarified no sulfur added.
Personality: Citruses, spring flowers on the nose, refreshing acidity and a bit of grapefruit rind grip on the palate. Very elegant, juicy and easy-drinking sparkler.
Cabernet Sauvignon — Back to the top
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon
Vineyard: Clay, sand, sandstone with basalt. Planted in 1999, biodynamically farmed by István himself since spring 2013.
Making of: The bunches were hand-harvested and completely destemmed but not crushed and then spontaneously fermented in a 1000L open fermenter for 10 days, semi-carbonic style. After pressing it was aged in stainless steel for about a year. Racked and bottled without fining, filtration or any added sulfites.
Personality: “A simple, easy-going wine recalling memories of our first vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon,” István says.