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Grand Vin de Barnag

Bence Szilágyi is the one-man band behind Grand Vin de Barnag, a small winery located in Barnag, a village next to Lake Balaton in Hungary. Here, he farms rented vineyards of Riesling, Furmint, Kékfrankos (the Hungarian name for Blaufränkisch), Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon organically himself, as well as buying organic grapes from a local farmer. 

Since his first vintage in 2017 — when he made just 400 bottles — he has grown bit by bit every year, now producing 12,000 bottles. No bank loans, no investors: just Bence and bucketloads of passion for farming and making delicious, low intervention wine.

Meet Bence

Bence’s father used to make a little bit of wine for fun from the family’s hobby vineyard. Eventually, this was the vineyard that would spark Bence’s fully-fledged career as a winemaker. Initially, however, that first vintage was just for fun; Bence didn’t yet have any grand plans. He remembers, 

“I didn’t always want to be a winemaker, but when I made that barrel of wine, I enjoyed it so much. I made it with friends, and still now I work a lot with friends who come for bottling or harvest — I have a really great bunch of people around me when I work. That first unofficial vintage was in 2017, and then 2018 became the first official vintage. From there, there was no way back! I started to rent vineyards and buy barrels, but I started very small as I wanted to avoid loans and investors. So, it’s been a very slow growing winery, but fun!” 

Before the birth of Grand Vin de Barnag, Bence studied wine at university in Budapest and in the Pfalz, Germany, after which he worked in wine bars in Budapest. He has many friends who also work in wine, and they would frequently get together to taste:

“When I first started to taste and drink wines, they were wines that were made in a very conventional way. Then, we went to Berlin, and at Jaja wine bar I first tried natural wine. It was like a wow effect – these wines were so different. I was very excited about them, so I travelled to wineries working in that way to taste more, and to exchange about them. I visited Franz Weninger a few times – he’s always very happy to share his thoughts on natural wines and farming. That was very inspiring.”

We speak about the community aspect of the organic wine world; how it’s wonderful to see like-minded producers form a strong community to share ideas and techniques. Bence nods, saying,

“I really love the vibe of natural wine. It’s much more easy going, more personal… it’s a more natural and simple way to approach wine in general. It was very interesting to see that you can also enjoy wines without using strange terms and talking a lot of bulls*&t; without a classical or formal environment. And when I tasted the wines, I also had the feeling that there was another dimension. You can put those wines on a wider scale somehow, they’re all so different from each other. There are so many differences between an orange wine from Slovenia and a naturally made Mosel from the Riesling, for example. All of a sudden, it was like everything I had tasted before was one wine. I don’t want to say I can’t drink a conventional wine, but sometimes I’d rather drink water!” 

The Vineyards 

From the very beginning, Bence had a desire to farm organically. He says,

“Farming organically is like a cultural basis. I think everyone should farm organically; there’s no point of using chemicals to kill other plants. The concepts of conventional farming are just so absurd that I don’t really understand why people would do them. I think it’s impossible to achieve a good fermentation in the cellar if you kill everything that exists in the vineyards. For me, there’s just no way around it.” 

Bence’s father had farmed their small hobby plot conventionally, although without heavy use of chemicals, so the transition to organic farming was not too difficult. Although Bence would like to buy more vineyards, he explains that this is almost impossible due to the price of land in the area: 

“It’s a very particular situation here at Lake Balaton… it’s like a real estate trap. Vineyards are so expensive. You can probably buy a vineyard for more money here than in Champagne! Many of the vineyards are considered to be real estate — a potential place for a house with a nice view. That’s one of the biggest problems; it makes it very hard to buy land. You can’t really make the money to pay those prices by farming grapes. Winemakers are also part of the problem, as they sell their vineyards for very high prices if they don’t want to work anymore. For someone like me, who wants to buy land to make wine from, it’s almost impossible. Hence, we rent vineyards with long-term contracts.” 

Some of the plots that Bence rents were already farmed organically, whereas others he converts. In total, he farms between 2.5 to 3 hectares across five different areas. In addition, every year he buys some grapes from a local farmer who also works organically. By working with him every year, he is also able to understand his fruit and the vineyards, and therefore knows how to best make the wine. 

“Some of the vineyards are pretty far from each other – often there’s 20km between two vineyards — but that also gives you a nice mixture of different terroirs. For instance, the proximity to the lake influences the climate a lot. Vineyards at lower elevation, which are closer to the lake, have a very different climate. For example, our Cabernet is planted on a very hot plot with lots of sun. It’s very dry and stays warm during the night, whereas some other vineyards which are higher on the hillsides have colder nights. It’s a different kind of growth; you can really feel the difference.”

Most of the vineyards are planted on limestone soils, but Bence has also recently found a vineyard planted on volcanic soil. 

“I haven’t really had much experience with volcanic soil before. Last year I did a co-fermentation of grapes from limestone and from volcanic, picked the same day. I’m very curious about how that will look!” 

In terms of farming methods, Bence takes organic farming and brings it to the next level. This isn’t just about ditching chemicals for organic alternatives, it’s also about having a more thoughtful mindset. He explains,

“We try to spray as little as possible (around four or five times) and try to limit the copper usage in particular. Within organics, of course, you have many ways of working. People can also spray 12 times. But for us, we take care of the vineyards by going in to remove leaves, or to select shoots, instead of spraying another time. That’s how we try to minimise it.” 

He also works according to no-till, choosing not to work the soil at all — not even under the vines. 

“In one vineyard we tried to use a cover crop, but the natural flora takes back more and more surface every year — we can see what kind of plants are growing more. We cut the grass if necessary, but we also try to limit that. With some of the vineyards, we have a feeling that we might need to move the soil under the vines, but for now we don’t do anything. For example, our Cabernet vineyard, which is the oldest and which has been farmed organically for 15 years now, we haven’t moved the soil for the past five years, and the growth is still really good and balanced. The only thing is that the yield is getting lower every year, so I think we might need some movement of the soil eventually. But for now, everything is covered by green. It’s a jungle!” 

By allowing the surrounding plants to also grow and thrive, Bence ensures that his vineyards are at peak biodiversity. Although more wineries in Hungary are converting to organics (Attila Homonna estimated that there are now 20-30 wineries working organically), to see vineyards where the soil is unploughed — and hence entirely covered — is still rare. Bence says,

“It's a question of aesthetics. I think our vineyards are really, really beautiful. The neighbours don’t like it, but that’s their problem!”

He also tries to do most work manually, only entering the vineyards with heavy machinery when absolutely necessary, i.e. to spray. He explains,

“In the larger plots we can’t really spray by hand as we don’t have the time. Especially in the summer when it’s really hot — above 30 during the day — you can only spray between 6-8am or in the evening. In the middle of the day it’s too hot — the sulphur badly burns the plants if you spray then.”

For now, he simply uses sulphur (and limited copper) for his treatments, but the notion of working with plant preparations is something that intrigues him. 

“I’m very interested in biodynamic farming, but I just don’t have the capacity right now to go deeper into it— I think it needs more focus than what I’m able to do at the moment.  I’m completely alone in this whole thing, and it’s just sometimes crazy to be salesman, the vineyard manager, the winemaker… everything — in one person!” 

It’s impossible to do everything at once — especially when you’re a one-person band — and Bence has already achieved so much in a short space of time. Plus, it’s something to look forward to; an endless journey of discovery and learning.

The Wines 

Although Bence had studied winemaking at university, he ended up taking a different direction to what he was taught when it came to his own wines. 

“I have a scientific background when it comes to wine, but I use very little of it. It’s a good basis to have, for sure, but all of the technical things we were taught at uni aren’t really something I’d say I need during my daily work. Very often, we do just the opposite of what we were taught!” 

We ask him what encouraged him to pursue a different path. He muses, 

“It's interesting… when I began, I already tried to make my wines in a different way to how we were taught to make wine. Already in the first vintage I did some skin contact for the whites, and a shorter maceration for the reds… so basically the opposite of what textbooks say you should do! It was out of curiosity — I was interested to see what those methods would bring.”

He adds,

“The wines that we were drinking at the time were already less heavy styles of red wine, and orange wine was a big thing, so I thought… I want to make wines that I like to drink, and I really like to drink those wines! That’s why I started to experiment a lot.”

He explains that the biggest change in the cellar has been his sulfite use. In his first vintage, he used around 70ppm, and then reduced the quantity over the years, step by step, as he began to feel more confident. In 2019, he had reduced the quantities to only 10 or 15ppm. He says, 

“I added such a small amount just to make sure nothing goes wrong, but then I realised it doesn’t make sense to add such a small amount, it would be better to just go completely without.”

By 2020, he had decided to stop using them altogether.

“I don’t have much experience with ageing my own wines without sulfites, as of course the first vintage without sulfites was 2020, but I see that the wines are still in really good shape, and they are just getting better and better. Sometimes I experience a bit of mousiness immediately after bottling, for a couple of weeks or so, but the wine always gets back to a beautiful shape, it just needs a bit more time. So, for now, I feel really positive.” 

He is working more and more with whole bunch fermentation, both for his red wines and for his white wines made with skin contact. He says,

“Whole bunch isn’t just whole bunch. You can add no juice, some juice, cover the bunches in juice, partially crush the bunches… that’s what I’ve mostly been into over these last couple of years. Kékfrankos is the only grape for which I think you need some ‘traditional’ skin contact — in order to get its full character — so that’s the only wine I destem the grapes for. All the rest are either direct-press or whole bunch, or a combination of both.”

He has noticed that his fermentations have been slowing down over the years, to the stage where he now still has some wines going through malolactic fermentation the summer after the grapes were harvested. This means he can’t yet bottle, and hence can’t yet start selling the wines from the recent vintage. He says, 

“It may be to do with farming… as we aren’t moving the soil, we might have less nitrogen in the juice. And when it comes to some of the techniques, for instance the carbonic maceration, this means we have a very different dynamic in the fermenting juice. When we press, the sugar inside the berries is released, and then when the two juices somehow ‘melt together’ it slows down the fermentation – it’s like sugar shock, in a good way. I think that may be why many of the wines are very slow. But I really like slow fermentations: when the wine has time to evolve. I’ve experienced the opposite, too — in very hot weather I’ve had some grapes picked in warmer temperatures, which then had very fast fermentations, and that’s just not as good, as you lose aroma and expression. So even if it makes it difficult for me to sell the wines, I still prefer to have these slower fermentations.”

Whether it’s due to the farming efforts, the attention to detail and forward-thinking nature of Bence, or the slow fermentations, The Grand Vin de Barnag wines are all about elegance, a lightness of touch, and endless energy. They are the sorts of wines that simply leap out of the glass; that captivate and refresh you simultaneously. All of Bence’s efforts result in wines that are themselves effortless — they transparently capture the essence of Lake Balaton in a bottle. 

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