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I have read somewhere that 20 years ago it was (or ought to have been) Huba Szeremley who could have shaken up Badacsony. Ask anyone today who is competent about the region and you will invariably hear: the Szeremley estate today is a forlorn flock, a stranded sailboat. Whether this is true, I couldn’t tell you. However I am willing to say this much: it’s an estate where the past seems brighter than the present. And it’s much easier to believe that the future of Badacsony lies with Ambrus Bakó. Even if he hasn’t got a single stock of his own.

My original intent was to meet Ambrus Bakó but as an added bonus I received an invitation from Villa Sandahl as well – two wineries connected by having the same winemaker. All I knew beforehand was that Bakó does not employ cultivated yeasts while Villa Sandahl does, and this is a difference I tend to attach great significance to (to many this is just a superstitious belief, like my adoration for cement tanks, but somehow it always seems to work). The wines were presented at Villa Sandahl on a scorching hot day in July. The building – a peculiar amalgam of grey basalt rocks and dark wood – is adjacent to Laposa winery (winner of several architecture awards). Ambrus Bakó is a towering figure looking somewhat like Alyosha (or Ivan?) Karamazov, Christer Sandahl is a lanky Swedish engineer and his lanky brother, „Barefoot” Thord is a Jeremy Irons lookalike and the proud owner of an prize-winning Bedlington Terrier (more about that later).

Ambrus Bakó
We began the tasting with the wines of Ambrus Bakó. Until then I knew only one of his wines. And even though I have examined that one from every possible angle, it was still a sign of an uncritical belief in my own intuition to think of him already as a winemaking genius. I had every reason to brace myself for a loss of face.

Bakó is a unique character - for the present purposes let it suffice to say that he is brimming with energy, expertise and confidence so much so that in his company you feel like sitting next to a volcano. One of the recurring motives of his presentation was that for him 2010 was a better vintage than 2011 – something I took with a pinch of salt. The rational explanation is the vineyards he works with are all steep with excellent drainage so the heat wave and drought in 2011 caused more stress to the vines than the heavy rains and lack of sunshine in 2010. The 2011 Bakó wines will hit the shelves around September-October, and I have promised myself to re-examine them then. So the following is just a brief outline of his philosophy and a few scattered notes on the tasted wines. [The photo is from the homepage of Bortársaság (Wine Society).]

Bakó doesn’t own any vineyards and as the reputation and value of his wines grows he is forced to pay more and more for the grapes he buys from his group of well tested growers (up to four times the average). The most important sites are the highest lying vineyards of Badacsony – east of Szegedy Róza Ház – and they are mostly planted with olaszrizling (it is worth to search for Szegedy Róza Ház on Google Maps, you can clearly see the terraces lying to the right of the parking lot and running up to the borders of the forest). Bakó owns an arsenal of carboys surpassing maybe even that of József Szentesi but he also uses wooden barrels (old ones). He works with natural (spontaneous) yeast and the low temperature fermentation (11-12 °C) may drag on for several months. The wines are characterised by an exceptional purity of aromas and flavours and give the impression of utmost transparency: it’s easy to believe that what you get is what the grapes had. As a matter of principle I don't score wines at cellars but I assume that the scores would be rather high. In a few months time I intend to return to the 2011 wines at home under our walnut tree and dedicate some quality time to their assessment. 

Olaszrizling 2011
The grapes come from several vineyards, and the final blend also contains some Kéknyelű. All the vines are over 20 years old. The nose is floral, mineral with hints of lemon balm. Medium body, rich palate, mid-length finish with the tiniest oak influence. Attractive.

Olaszrizling „Teraszok” 2011
Single vineyard. Just 400 bottles made. Closed on the nose and also discreet on the palate. Completely dry, with a silky texture, a lean, serious wine. Noble.

A Bakról 2011
55% olaszrizling and 45% chardonnay. A unique combination: recently planted but goblet trained. This is not from Badacsony but from Kékkút. Very captivating, dynamic and relatively full wine.

Olaszrizling „A Rózától” 2011
Pure olaszrizling from the highest zone of Badacsony (the name refers to the close vicinity of Szegedy Róza Ház). Very promising. At the moment rather closed but the balance is perceptibly impeccable. The over 5 grams residual sugar is kept in check by some tannin and malic acid.

Kéknyelű 2011
Flattering, sweetish, juicy wine with some plasticine-like minerality. I know next to nothing about this varietal, so I had difficulties evaluating it.

Olaszrizling 2006
Of historical value. Originates from Szent György-hegy, and is one of the first Bakó wines. Mature, clean and fresh, but doesn't have the richness and precision of the more recent Bakó wines.

Olaszrizling „A Rózától” 2010
This is a single barrel selection of the olaszrizling that is available at Bortársaság – the one which made such an impact on me (see
). By now I am more confident in my judgement than I was in early spring – and after all this is the prime of the crop – so I’ll say that this might be the best olaszrizling I have ever tasted. Stunning richness of aromas, vibrant acidity, it exhibits the typical characters of the variety in a botrytis-free purity. It was an honour to taste it.

Villa Sandahl
On paper this looks like a rather weird setup: a technically minded, pragmatic, PowerPoint-loving Swede draws up a no-nonsense five-year business plan and then hires a mad scientist microbiologist to implement it – one who is always on fire and has a predilection for breaking winemaking taboos. Christer Sandahl an ex-quality control manager working for Sony Ericsson and a seasoned wine collector finds a worthy challenge to fill out his days of retirement at Lake Balaton: to make world class wines from a world class variety grown in a terroir potentially world class. In the first couple of years despite the undisputed quality of the vineyards the project fails to take wing. Then the owners pull a masterstroke by recruiting Ambrus Bakó and the very first vintage (2010) with the new winemaker at the helm brings a shower of awards
webnewsletters/newsletter10english.htm: gold and silver medals at Decanter World Wine Awards and two golds at Riesling du Monde. I have the distinct impression that in Hungary the significance of old vines is not fully recognized – thank God at Villa Sandahl the stocks are relatively old: at the core of the estate, in the Zsuzsanna-vineyard [now called the Genesis vineyard] the vines are 30 years old and the Sandahls rent large parcels of Szeremley’s legendary Riesling plantations which are 30-40 year old.

I don’t know, just guess, that we don’t appreciate enough the old vine plants, here Villa Sandahl works with old plants, the basic vineyard (Genesis) is 30 years old, and many other parts of the legendary Szeremley vineyard is belong to Sandahl as a hired area.

The presentation of the Villa Sandahl wines started with a descent to PowerPoint Hell. You can see and read most of it by clicking on this link
brochure/introductionnewhd-7.pdf/introductionnewhd-7.pdf. Had we had a chance to sip the wines while listening to the presentation, we’d definitely focus harder and feel less apprehensive on seeing the logos of IKEA or Google pop up or hearing that there are six categories of wine consumers and Villa Sandahl aims to lure one of the target groups with some residual sugar. I didn’t have a clue as to what kind of wine this algorithm might spit out. In hindsight I am forced to admit that the strategy must be perfect.

Let me list some of the contributing factors that I could understand and accept.

„Badacsony offers world class terroir.”
I have heard this statement with various locations in the equation so many times that I tend to get over it with a shrug of shoulder. After tasting the wines „world class” no longer seems ludicrously immodest and as far as I am concerned „one of the best in Hungary” would definitely be justified.

„The late ripening Riesling with its bright acidity and reliably excellent quality is an ideal match for the hot and dry microclimate of these Badacsony vineyards.”
The wines clearly demonstrate the thesis.

„All vines are at least 30 years old.”
I know next to nothing about viticulture but over the years I have tasted so many great wines where the winemaker referred to the age of the vines as a crucial factor in attaining high quality that I have no reason to doubt its validity. The wines of Villa Sandahl only served to strengthen my conviction.

„No barrels just stainless steel tanks are used.”
Thank God. I am not a fan of dogmatic thinking but having learnt that small barrels are ruled out in Wachau and the majority of German Rieslings is made without any time in wood and these are still some of the greatest whites in the world I am even less forgiving about the heavy-handed use of oak in some of the most expensive Hungarian whites.

„The wines ferment at low temperatures (10-14 °C) and fermentation takes months.”
I was beginning to believe that wines made with cultivated yeasts are naturally inferior. I was wrong. Could it be that low temperature and prolonged fermentation are more important? However it needs to be pointed out that this is not your everyday cultivated yeast – it comes from Alsace and was painstakingly selected by Villa Sandahl’s Alsatian consultant, Fabien Stern.

We tasted 5 wines at the cellar and they seemed so outrageously good that a few days later I realized that I had to buy at least a bottle each of the cheaper ones so that I could check under controlled circumstances whether my original enthusiasm was justified. Problem is they are rather expensive by Hungarian standards (ca. 20 Euros). But who said scientific endeavours come cheap?

There are two quality levels and this was previously made clear by calling them Silver Line and Gold Line. Since 2010 the names changed so the distinction is only shown by the difference in price. The cheaper is called Recept in 2010 and Cappuccino Oil in 2011, the more expensive is called Stamp in 2010 and Magic Rain in 2011. Same grapes, same technology but the more expensive ones come from the top juice fraction at pressing. The cheaper ones come with a bit more residual sugar, and they are fruitier, more accessible, more attractive and rounder, while the top range wines are tighter, drier, more restrained and more aristocratic. The wines from 2010 reminded me of Alsace and Mosel, the 2011 vintage is more Wachau in its style.

Villa Sandahl Recept 2010 Riesling
This was one of the wines I could retaste at home. It’s head and shoulders above any other Hungarian Riesling I have tasted. Purity, definition, elegance, class, refined acidity, typical Riesling flavours, persistence and springlike freshness. On the nose it’s floral with hints of petrol and pronounced fruitiness (mainly pear, apricot and peach), on the palate the balance recalls German Rieslings with ripe fruit at the core, a silky touch and lively acidity. The long fruity finish is framed with some hazelnut bitterness. 8 points.

Villa Sandahl The Stamp 2010 Riesling
A tighter, leaner version of Recept. Extremely pure, unmistakable Riesling character with vibrancy and pronounced minerality. It is less fruity than Recept. Despite the 5 gram residual sugar it feels bone dry. With time it is supposed to overtake Recept – I’d love to be there when it happens.

Villa Sandahl Cappuccino Oil 2011 Riesling
2010 in Hungary is generally considered to be a washout and 2011 a good perhaps even great vintage. However at Villa Sandahl thanks to the special microclimate and drainage of their vineyards the dry and hot weather of 2011 posed more problems than the rains of 2010. Based on the wines the difference is not in quality but in character. Compared to Recept this is weightier, fruitier and even more appealing. Should you ever consider splashing out 20 Euros to acquaint yourself with Villa Sandahl’s wines then this is where to start. Almost water like transparency with shades of white and silver. Pears, clay and chamomile on the nose but most of all it’s just drop dead gorgeous – you can’t get enough of it. Sip it and the magic continues. It’s full, rounded and refreshing. Amazing purity, juiciness with pears and peach. Beguilingly complex acidity. You can hardly notice the 7.5 g residual sugar; the overall impression is that of refreshment and exhilaration. On par with Wachau Smaragds - 8 points.

Villa Sandahl Magic Rain 2011 Riesling
Arguably the best Sandahl wine. A few days after our visit to Badacsony I had the opportunity to retaste it in a restaurant in Budapest with some of my Gault & Millau colleagues and we were all lost for words. Tasting this wine makes you feel that all the pieces have fallen into place.

Villa Sandahl „Give me five” Olaszrizling 2011
This is Villa Sandahl’s first olaszrizling and the label shows Thord Sandahl’s beloved Bedlington terrier. This was the last wine of the tasting and honestly I was too tired by then to focus properly. All I can say is that it is another great effort by Villa Sandahl but because of the higher alcohol (14,5%) and more subdued acidity the overall impression is plumper and less vibrant than with the Rieslings. I hope to get a chance to retaste it soon.

To my mind these are the wines that Badacsony might have dreamed of. And me too. I thought I might never see the day when Hungary produces whites matching the excellence of Wachau.

According to the politically correct commonplace bottom-up development in a democratic way is what is sustainable and worthy of our support however in the lack of such development I am happy to embrace top-down development. Supposing that the proliferation of ambitious small and medium sized wineries in and around Badacsony has reached critical density – Válibor, Káli Kövek, Skrabski, Pálffi Gyula, Béla és Bandi etc. -, the work of Ambrus Bakó and Villa Sandahl might as well act as the lightning strike that galvanizes to life the primordial soup.

[I was applying the finishing touches to my article when I noticed the shocking news on 0.6 ha some vandal(s) have cut the new sprouts of 1500 vines aged 30 years in a vineyard rented by Villa Sandahl. So much for preserving our national heritage. At this moment I’m not proud to be a Hungarian.]

Villa Sandahl Kft.
Római út 203/1
8261 Badacsony

Sandahl International AB
Box 2045
331 02 Värnamo