#harvest19: Planning for the future with ‘happy grapes’

Biologist-turned-vintner Csaba Koch has developed a new sustainable method of managing his vineyard – and it saves him €700 per hectare a year in labour costs…


Csaba Koch points out some of the new varieties in his experimental vine garden

#harvest19: Planning for the future with ‘happy grapes’
  • Chris Boiling
  • 2019-10-22
With a new winery in the final stages of construction, a new wine shop and café ready to open and an experimental vine garden containing 33 new resistant varieties, Csaba Koch is planning for the future.
The 50-year-old biologist-turned-vintner has also developed a new method of managing his vineyard. It’s based on the Sylvoz vine training system (with shoots growing downward from a 1.4m-high cane) – but pruned back to three shoots per cane, which are then allowed to grow freely.
Csaba has been experimenting with this system on alternate rows of Chardonnay vines for four years. He’s now fully convinced of its merits and plans to roll out the system – which he calls ‘Happy Grapes’ – to the rest of his estate in Hungary’s Hajós–Baja region.
“The key is that we do not restrict the grapegrowing. We create big but airy leafage, which significantly triggers the photosynthesising capability of the vine-plant, and (boosts) the quality of the grape and wine,” he explains.
Apart from a light trim in July, to prevent the rows growing into each other, the vines are left alone until harvest time. He believes the free-growing plants “create the most appropriate and most effective leafage” for optimal photosynthesis and “the result is high quality and low cost, since we spare a lot of handwork power”.
He reckons this system saves him €700 per hectare on annual labour costs.

Koch Csaba resize
Other benefits, according to Csaba, include:
  • Slightly higher sugar levels in the grapes;
  • Slightly higher yields with no negative impact on quality;
  • Grapes shaded from direct sunlight;
  • Moisture retained in the shaded ground under the vines during the hot summer.
He says the system has no disadvantages, as far as he has observed. “The plant is clever enough – we shouldn’t tell it how to grow,” he explains. But the key benefit, he stresses, is “the vine-plant is happy, since it can utilise the most possible amount of sunlight”.
Csaba, the 10th generation of his family to make wine in the region since German émigré József Koch arrived in Hajós in 1746, shows me around the 20ha of vineyards surrounding the Koch Winery. The varieties here include Kadarka, Pinot Noir, Kékfrankos, Chardonnay, Ottonel Muskotály, Riesling, and Cserszegi Fűszeres. The rows of ‘happy grapes’ look wild and unkempt. Csaba, who studied biology before switching to oenology, says it’s not as wild as it looks. He points out the grapes are visible and the shoots are growing downwards – meaning the canopy is airy and the wind can blow through it. Regarding the high number of leaves on the small number of shoots, he says many winemakers underestimate the role of leaves.

Koch Happy grapes resize
These vines are growing on the fertile soil between the Danube and Tisza rivers in southeast Hungary and Csaba admits his system may be better suited to areas with poorer soil. Hajós–Baja is a region where farmers grow wheat and corn, and most grapegrowers take advantage of the plain’s rich black soil to churn out machine-harvested bulk wines.
Csaba does machine-harvest some varieties – especially the 50ha of Cserszegi Fűszeres aimed at Hungary’s on-trade – but he is increasingly striving for higher quality wines.
Part of his vineyards are farmed organically and he hopes to expand this method throughout his 150ha empire once his new ‘organic winery’ is up and running. It was due for completion when I visited, but things were running behind schedule. In the organic vineyards, the grapes include the resistant varieties created in neighbouring Serbia – Bácska (similar to Müller-Thurgau) and Pannonia (Riesling-ish). Csaba aims to make his first commercial wines from these varieties this vintage.

Koch new cafe
Koch winery and cafe
In front of the family’s new wine shop and café, there is an experimental vine garden with resistant wine and table grapes such as Jázmin, Palatina, Ljana, and Poloske among the 33 genotypes. Some varieties are so new they don’t yet have names. These include 54/2 and 29/3. Most are 97% vitis vinifera.
Csaba is collaborating with the University of Pécs’ Vine and Wine Institute to find high-yielding varieties that can be cultivated without chemicals and are resistant to downy and powdery mildew and grey rot.
The vines in the experimental vine garden aren’t treated at all. When I looked at them prior to harvest, there were no signs of powdery or downy mildew, but some leaves exhibited signs of a new disease in this area, black rot (below).

Koch Black rot resize
The experimental grapes are micro-vinified with controlled fermentation.
Csaba, who also owns the Vin Art Winery in the highly regarded red-wine region of Villány, produces more than 800,000 bottles a year and 43 labels! These go from sound entry-level supermarket wines to premium category wines, including a Bordeaux blend (Csanád Cuvée), a Riesling ice wine, a traditional-method blanc de blanc and, my favourite, a late harvest Chardonnay that fermented dry by accident. Csaba feels his standard Chardonnay would benefit from barrel ageing but the economics don’t stack up. He sells 50,000 bottles of it and believes barrel ageing will increase the price and, consequently, decrease demand.
He’s a shrewd businessman as well as a talented winemaker, but his passion is grapes. The father of four, whose daughter Palma is training to make wine alongside him, says: “I view the wine from the grape, I feel the taste of my wines from the pulp of the grape, and its ripeness from the seed: I love picking, sampling and chewing the berry.”
I leave them making wine outside, under the stars. “This is the world’s cheapest winery,” he quips.

Koch winery at night

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