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Vinarija Tonković, near Serbia’s border with Hungary, is dedicated to revitalising the indigenous Kadarka variety, and is already doing so with impressive results. Their commitment to freshness, purity and experimentation should ensure Kadarka’s undoubted potential doesn’t go unrealised.

By Ian Bancroft

Some ten million years ago, the most northernly part of what is now Serbia lay beneath the Pannonian Sea. Today it is the country’s frontier with Hungary, to whom these very lands once belonged. Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere spend endless days nearby awaiting opportunities to cross into the supposed promised land of the European Union. Long queues form during summer time as holidaymakers and diaspora make their way south.

A stone’s throw from the border is Vinarija Tonković, in the town of Bački Vinogradi, fifteen kilometres east of the historic town of Subotica (once called Maria-Theresiapolis after Maria Theresa of the House of Habsburg), is a relatively recent addition to the region’s once proud winemaking tradition, having been established as recently as 2006. It was founded with one main goal – to revitalise the Kadarka grape which was widely planted throughout the Panonian Plain, but which had become almost extinct locally.  

The remnants of that distant nautical epoch remain on the very surface. Each vine rests upon small, stodgy, sandy ridges, part of the Subotica-Horgoš Sands, into which the trellises are deeply dug. It is a barren, desolate landscape of seemingly eternal flatness. When I visit in late-February, there are neither remnants of autumn nor early signs of spring to add even a hint of colour. Despite two large lakes and numerous criss-crossing rivers, we are clearly landlocked. Without afforestation, viticulture in these parts would have been all but impossible due to the erosion of the sands by unimpeded gusts of wind.

A well-delineated but only partially trodden path leads the way to Vinarija Tonković’s earthenware bunker, resembling something from the second world war, in which its cellar is housed. Though camouflaged with patches of grass and other greenery, it is a futile gesture given the flatness of the surroundings, the vicinity of the highway, and the prying eyes of motorists. It is welcome shelter nonetheless from the inclement weather – winters here are cold, and frosts frequent.

It stands next to what is from the outside a non-descript yellow house that would go unnoticed by passersby. On entering, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a haven for hospitality. There is a vast log fired heater that would amply serve the refugees, and a large kitchen in which many a feast has been prepared. Through the window one can gaze at row after row of Kadarka, stretching until the horizon.

Though Kadarka is more renowned for its part in cuvees (it was typically part of the infamous Bull’s Blood of Eger from neighbouring Hungary), Vinarija Tonković focuses on producing pure expressions of this native variety.

It is a grape that is notoriously difficult to cultivate due to its thin skins (and associated risk of rot) and late ripening tendencies; though it benefits from the warm summers and plentiful underground reservoirs that mean the vineyards never have to be watered.

Fantazija (‘Fantasy’) and Rapsodija (‘Rhapsody’) are Vinarija Tonković’s two red wines; their names compositions by the Hungarian composer and pianist, Franz Liszt. Liszt not only had a strong affection for this part of the Pannonian Plain, but was a keen Kadarka drinker. Indeed, one of his drinking partners was Pope Pius IX. In homage, Tonković sends its wines to the Vatican on 25th May each year.

Maceration lasts for between seven and ten days, whilst malolactic fermentation is induced through the addition of bacteria, giving the wines their particular finesse. In the production of ‘Rhapsodija’, only about a third of the grape must is released in order to preserve as much colour and aroma as possible.

The sandy soils themselves are a key part of this specific terroir, giving the wines a fragrant, elegant expression, with finer tannins and lighter acidity. They soften a variety that can be overly tannic and tart in different terroir.  

Three hundred litre Hungarian oak casks – whose characteristics are akin to those of French oak from Nevers – are employed, though some with more flamed interiors than others. The slightly larger barrel size means less contact with oak. ‘Rapsodija’ benefits from a year or so in new oak, whilst ‘Fantazija’ enjoys a similar amount of time in two-to-three year old barrels. It is explained to me how, ‘the extraction function can practically last up to four years, so the new barrel is strategically filled and empty depending on the…style of the wine we want to produce’.

Rapsodija, of which only a few thousand bottles are produced each year, demonstrates great complexity and harmonious integration, with aromas of red cherry, dried red currant, and some spice. It is medium-bodied, with superb acidity and a long finish. Fantazija, meanwhile, is a softer wine, with expressive notes of sour cherry and rose. The wines are like brothers – distinct, with their own qualities, but clearly related.

This young vineyard continues to experiment with various manifestations of Kadarka. Oenologists from Rioja have helped them appreciate the variety’s subtleties and oenological nuances that can help harness its full potential. There is some minor blending with international varieties; with one unbottled experiment demonstrating a particularly firm, tannic backbone. 

‘We are constantly adapting to changing trends’, Mladen Ćirić tells me, ‘and we are seeking to produce a wine that is still lighter in body and alcohol’. It is telling how shifting Western European tastes have come to influence the winemaking tendencies of producers for whom exports remain a relatively minor part of their business, but Mladen is proud that Tonković’s wines are served at Cité du Vin in Bordeaux.

Other international rewards and recognition have followed. In March this year, Tonković’s Rhapsody 2015 was rated the best of 113 Kadarka’s at a competition – widely regarded as the ‘unofficial Kadarka World Championships’ – in the Hungarian town of Kiskőrös; a tremendous result given Hungary’s long and proud tradition of producing Kadarka. At the same competition, their new 2019 Rose and the 2015 Fantazija vintage both won gold medals.

The winemaking identity of this corner of Serbia remains as undernourished as its very landscape. There are several other local vineyards – some, like Oszkar Maurer, of already considerable renown – committed to native varieties. None, however, display the dedication and perseverance of Tonković to one specific grape; a grape firmly grounded in the traditions and history of the shifting sands of this terroir. Tonković’s commitment to freshness, purity and experimentation should ensure Kadarka’s undoubted potential doesn’t go unrealised. It is an example that will hopefully inspire other producers to follow suit.  

Ian Bancroft is a writer based in the Balkans.

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