“I don’t know how deep it goes or how big it is.”
Last year László Szilágyi had brought in an excavator in order to remove a big rock he’d encountered while preparing a part of his Szil-völgy site for a reconstruction. Just getting it up there on the hillside was a project on its own but not knowing how to get rid of the huge rock were just one of his problems. Or how big it was. Replanting a vineyard, or as in László’s case also awakening a part of it from tread, is something we, the end consumers, don’t put too much thought in to. Focus is more on the end product without sending too a many thoughts to the real work behind a quality wine. What are the risks, both financially and plant wise?
A year later I’m revisiting the vineyard. Lászlo has in the meantime managed to buy an additional part of the site. The rock is thankfully gone and the replanting has been finalized just a few days earlier. Now the acute need of water is the main worry and if it won’t start raining soon, László needs to bring quite a lot of it. His concern is understandable. He knows how much extra work the irrigation means and it’s also an extra expense. The newly planted vines are at their most vulnerable state right now.
László Szilágyi runs Gizella Pince, one of Tokaj’s boutique sized wineries with a very high ambition. The outcome of his efforts so far looks more than promising. Still learning but who isn’t in this life long project called wine? Szil-völgy is Gizella Pince’s premium site and main investment but most of all; when tasting the wines it’s obvious that László has found his way how to interpret the single vineyard and express its sense of place. And just as Stéphanie Berecz at Kikelet Pince he has shown the huge potential of Hárslevelű from loess based soil.
It’s easy to think unrooting the old vines, ploughing and putting in new vines is it. Replanting a vineyard is so much more; from choosing the vines way ahead, the amount to plant and even having guards protecting them at night. Without going in to extreme detail, just scratching the surface, here’s a compilation on the main concerns and thoughts when constructing a vineyard. Meet László Szilágyi!
“To become a better vintner I first have to become a better vine grower.”
What are the main concerns when planting a new vineyard?
First of all you must have confidence in the future. Our ambition is to grow especially with highly classified vineyards and the Szil-völgy is our first plantation. A new vineyard makes me think in terms of decades. We can look back how people did it in the 1960’s, the 1970’s or the 1980’s and just try to find out what could work for the future. It’s like a sci-fi movie. The place we chose to focus on is called Szil-völgy; a vineyard which has written documentation all the way back to the 17th century. So there were no question the location is a top notch one; the soil, the altitude and position is more than promising. We put together 3 hectares here that currently includes 5 000 old vines and possibilities of planting 8 000 more.
Before talking about clonal selection and the planting itself; what other parts do you need to have in mind when calculating costs for the replanting?
The financial part is very complicated. We needed to do quite a lot of extra job preparing the site. Huge dacite tuffs were in our way. It took us weeks to move them with a JCB machine. Some were simply too big and had to be crushed with a different excavator. Additionally, on the terraces we had to make some reconstructions with the walls which were built using the original tuffs of the vineyard. The extra expenses also include costs for two people guarding the site at night time the first six weeks, against theft of the vines. So it’s been a complex job that has to be executed with both faith and passion.
Where do you buy the vines?
We have been working with a local, small company with a good reputation and specialized in producing vines. In this case references is very important, talking with other producers.
How long ahead do you have to order them?
Usually advance payment is asked for around grafting and the rest you pay just before you get the vines.
And your choice of clone?
Since I have never done this before I didn’t want to take any risks with special selections. I think I need more time to understand. Not just the viticulture side but all about making wine through a lot of vintages. So I chose standard clones available from the company. All of them are originally coming from the Tarcal series. There was a time when the Viticulture Research Institute of Tarcal worked a lot on these crossings.
What do you have to do, to prepare the vineyard before planting?
It depends on the area. In our case it has been pretty difficult, since we are reconstructing an old traditional vineyard. Some parts of the field was covered by trees and bushes, some with old vines which were not used for many years. It took me two years to clean the parcel and move the rocks out of the ground. We had to prepare it with machines in order to work and for installing the elements of the cordon training system.
How do you do when you plant the new site? A machine doing the hole?
The planting was done with machine and of course human resources. We used two hydro-drills served by 9 people. The standard is 2500 vines per day.
Do you inject the soil with a nutritious shot?
Actually we ran out of time last autumn so we did not. But we have been lucky with the weather conditions. Lots of rain helped so much.
Do you need to water instantly after the planting?
Yes. To add water with the hydro-drill is a key factor. In average we used 2 liters per vine. The action of planting plays a significant role. The vines must be well soaked in order to survive.
Density of the vineyard? Why for example 8 000 vines per hectare and not 7 000?
We chose 2,0 meter X 0,8 meter spacing which equals 6 250 vines per hectare for the locations that can be cultivated with machines. The terraces on the top we had to plant 1 X 1 with the traditional bush training system that need 100% human work.
How many will survive?
People say if you succeed with 95 percent then it is a good job. Currently for us it looks like 97-98 percent will make it. It is a lucky combination of weather, type of soil, and human acts.
When do you have to decide on training system of the vines?
Previous year the vines lived in school. 2013 is their second year. The next year we start to work up the training system. We expect the first harvest in 2015.
When can you expect costs are on a break even – that is, when have the grapes “paid back” the investment?
This is very complicated. On one hand there is the land you can buy as a natural person according to the law. On the other you have to add expenses for many years starting from preparation to the yearly cultivations as a limited company. We use EU funds for plantations which can reach about 12 000 euros per hectare. I think we need at least eight years, but it depends on the quality of vintages. If we do it consistently this project gives us not just a chance to live from but also we can create a beautiful land with very high potential values. I believe that comparing to the prices of top wines the investment is still reasonable. There are excellent winemakers and good companies working on reviving Tokaj. We just have to keep on working and daring to pay high stakes. Tokaj will be there this is something I am completely sure about!
Paperwork and running a vineyard isn’t something the end consumers think a lot about. Is it time consuming?
Right after university – before I was going in to viticulture – I worked for the Paying Agency that is responsible for handling agricultural EU funds. It was at the time when Hungary joined the union. We were managing the Agency to complete new EU schemes that had been made available for the farmers in Hungary. Consequently ,I am familiar with the procedures. In the case of vineyard funds we can use the system quite easy – you just have to find a rhythm. For example; you have to start a year before you act. You need the permission for plantation in order to apply for funds. You get paid after you finished the project. It is controlled physically on site. You have to keep on running your project for 5 years but that is quite evident in this industry.
More about the producer, click here for a presentation.
The website of Gizella Pince.
The newly constructed part of Szil-völgy is planted with Furmint, Hárslevelű and Sárgamuskotály.
PS. The rain came, two days after our visit.