The root louse named phylloxera invaded Hungary in 1875, and in twenty years it wreaked a dreadful havoc in wine regions with hard-bound soil-including Villány. More than half of the country's vines perished in the epidemic. Even in Villány, the less well-heeled growers could not afford to replant their vineyards due a shortage of funds, and it took two decades for the area under cultivation to grow back to the size it was in 1894. Zsigmond Teleki, the owner of a local estate, contributed such a great share to the daunting task of replanting that no summary of Villány's history could be complete without an account of his accomplishments.
One of the most reliable ways of combating the phylloxera turned out to consist in grafting scions onto resistant American rootstock, a method that came into the focus of experiments pursued throughout the country and elsewhere in Europe. The various stockyards-state-owned, corporate and private-and the work of breeding that went on in them were instrumental in driving back the pest and in rendering the new plantations fit to survive. In 1881, Zsigmond Teleki established his experimental stockyard in Villány for the purpose of breeding and propagating a rootstock with which the razed hillsides could be replanted. He envisioned a rootstock variety "that would thrive best in a great variety of soils; a vigorous, lime-tolerant, early variety that would lend itself ideally to the reconstruction of our vineyards on these desolate, calcareous hillsides that nevertheless yield the finest wine of all." Teleki's efforts, hindered as they were by hardship, lack of understanding from his contemporaries, and stubborn illness, eventually reaped success.
|Blooming almond trees in the former Teleki estate|
As one commentator put it, "The rootstocks bearing his name, the Berlandieri x Riparia Teleki, have filled a void and enabled the reconstruction of vineyards with lean, calcareous soil where the very best wines can be grown... They thrive better in the finest soils, and yield grafts with a more even scar tissue, and therefore of greater vigor, than the mostly French rootstock varieties we have seen so far."
Zsigmond (Taussig) Teleki was born in the southern Hungarian town of Pécs in 1854. Having finished elementary school, for a while he worked as an apprentice in his father's grocery store in Villány. At the age of fifteen, driven by a desire to continue his studies, he left the parental house for Budapest, where he financed his secondary education himself. After graduating, he first took up a job at a bank in Vienna, and later he was hired as an agent by a wine merchant based in Wurzburg, Germany.
Under this contract, Teleki traveled in Europe extensively, acquired invaluable hands-on experience with wine, and honed a perfect command of German, English, and French. In 1881, at the age of 27, he returned home, where he used his savings to establish the mentioned stockyard in Villány. The experiments that carried on for decades gradually depleted all of Teleki's resources, eventually forcing him to sell his properties in Pécs.
At this point he moved permanently to Villány, where he died at the young age of 56 in August 1910.
His sons inherited the 17-hcctare, now fully productive stockyard in Villány, an outstanding debt of 100,000 crowns, as well as their father's exceptional talent and power of will. Andor and Sándor felt honored to accept the paternal legacy, and in time developed Teleki's stockyard to the point where it became the largest stock cane and graft nursery operation in all of Central Europe. As part of their strategy of expanding their business step by step, in 1911 they opened an export office in Vienna, followed by the founding of six-hectare stockyards and experimental plantations in Sollenau and Kottingbrunn. Next they set up a plantation in Daruvár (today in Yugoslavia). By the time the company celebrated its 40th anniversary, it had established stockyards of the Teleki type in Algeria, Italy, and France.
Simultaneously with the expansion abroad, the owners managed to enhance their home base in Villány. They increased the size of their stockyard in the Téglavető vineyard, expanded the cane nursery located below the road to Harsány, and raised their stake in the
Csillagvölgy, another famous vineyard in Villány. In 1931, the Teleki brothers owned 57 hectares of vines, another 57 hectares of American rootstock, 17 hectares of graft nursery, and 143 hectares of other farmland that supported the central operation. A year before that, in 1930, they had relied on the mediation of an Italian-Hungarian bank to purchase the local assets of Schaumburg-Lippe, a sparkling wine house that had been previously bought by Littke, a competitor based in Pécs, for the simple purpose of shutting off production. Using the acquired buildings, the Telekis established an up-to-date facility for producing propagation material, complete with official premises, a wine cellar, and a modern bottling line.
In the 1930's, the enterprise called Teleki-szőlőtelepek ("Teleki Vineyards'') rose to international fame. The stockyards in Villány became the objects of avid study, not only by Hungarian professionals but also by experts from across the border.
The international conferences of viticulture (of 1929 in Barcelona, 1935 in Lausanne, etc.) finally brought posthumous recognition to the founder whose rootstock varieties played a crucial role in reconstructing Europe's vineyards, and had in fact begun to gain ground on the other continents as well.
Back in 1896, Zsigmond Teleki brought 10 kilograms of Berlandieri seeds from France. He went to work on the 40,000 seedlings he grew from these seeds, and after a process of selection that took three years he came up with 10 types he considered good enough to propagate. In 1900 he proceeded to plant the first mother stockyards using these seedlings. By 1906 the experiment turned out tremendously successful.
Teleki found that the best types were the number 5 and the number 8, and it was indeed these rootstocks, both crosses of Berlandieri with Riparia, that came to conquer the world.
The work of dissemination owed a great deal to Franz Kober, the superintendent of the research station in Oppenheim, to whom Zsigmond Teleki had sent a series of his stocks. The Teleki stock clone-selected by Kober became one of the best-known stocks in the world, under the name of Berlandieri x Riparia Teleki Kober 5 BB. In his study entitled Schlüssel zur Lösung der Rebenhybriden Frage ("The Key to Solving the Grape Hybrid Question''), Kober comments on this rootstock variety as follows: "In my opinion, Teleki's Berlandieri x Riparia is deserving of the greatest attention. Beyond its high lime- tolerance, I attribute special significance to its early lignification compared to French crosses of Berlandieri x Riparia... I achieved excellent results with Teleki's Berlandieri x Riparia where everything else failed...'' Indeed, the Teleki 8 B and 5 BB combined the excellent properties of the Berlandieri and Riparia varieties without the flaws of these parents. "They grow vigorously and ripen their canes early. When callused in hot-room conditions, they root easily and fuse perfectly with the fruiting scion. The grafts thrive in soils with a lime concentration of 40 to 45 percent or even higher, yield excellent fruit which they ripen before the other varieties examined, have a low need for fertilization, and arc remarkably drought-resistant.'' These properties were recognized widely in Europe, leading to the use of Teleki rootstocks for most of the new plantings in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Italy (in particular in South Tyrol). They were known in Russia, Romania, and Luxembourg. Starting in 1927, even the French increasingly turned to the 8 B and the 5 BB for planting their vineyards. Sándor Teleki followed in his father's footsteps as a breeder, and in 1917 produced the 5 C, a version of the 5 that ripened even earlier in the year. Zsigmond Teleki may have written an entire new chapter in the universal history of ampelology, but destiny dealt him a much shorter hand than he deserved. "Like so many other Hungarian discoveries and inventions," Andor Teleki wrote in 1927, "the Berlandieri and Riparia stocks, selected in Villány, were characteristically first embraced and turned to good account abroad. It was not until these canes created a great stir abroad and filled the pages of foreign journals of the profession that people started to pay attention to them in Hungary! I cannot pass in silence over the fact that our dear late father, who had begun to grow and select these hybrids from seeds in 1896, and produced reliable, ready-to-use propagation material by 1902, did not receive support of any kind from the men in charge of our wine industry at the time (that is 25 years ago). In fact, these same men followed his work with hostility, and almost managed to kill it by the conspiracy of silence..."
In 1930, on the twentieth anniversary of Zsigmond Teleki's death, his admirers unveiled his statute in front of the Teleki mansion in Csillagvölgy, "the vineyard where his endeavors began, the birthplace of so many ideas and discoveries of consequence for the reconstruction of vineyards throughout Europe." Although the company, founded by Teleki and brought up to European standards by his sons, was nationalized in 1945, the State Farm that succeeded was generous enough to make the gesture of furnishing a museum in the Telekis' cellar to illustrate the history of grape-growing and winemaking in Villány. Under the State Farm there was even a viticulture team named in honor of Teleki, but it has disbanded since then. It is to be hoped that this new era, coming into its own as we speak, will demonstrate a better appreciation of the achievement of Zsigmond Teleki and his sons, showing deeper respect for these pioneers through a deeper familiarity with what they accomplished by means of the hard work of a lifetime. As an auspicious sign that something like a reconsideration of the role they played is indeed under way can be glimpsed in the line of top wines under the Chateau Teleki label, released by Villányi Borászat, the company succeeding the State Farm that had swallowed the Teleki estate. Even more importantly perhaps, Zsigmond Teleki is still commemorated by millions of hectares of vines thriving across the world and, on a smaller scale, by his statute re-erected on October 7, 2000, to mark the promotion of Villány to town status.