by Lilla O’Connor-Varga
Rocking on the way home to London after a very successful Hungarian tasting held to the Manchester Wine Society.
I am contemplating the re-birth of Hungarian wines in the UK. Trying to summarise this is so difficult, as after 3 years of doing the groundwork, we seem to finally have a breakthrough. Several breakthroughs, in fact! Wines of Hungary was formed in 2014 by me, Lilla O’Connor-Varga. Many of you who read this newsletter will know me personally, and hopefully tried all of our wines. For many others, we are already working together. I could never have imagined that over the past years I would have made so many good friends in the wine industry. I am not going to name people as I don’t want to miss anybody out. You are all incredibly important to me.
Sitting around the dinner table one evening, about 7 months after my second daughter was born, I realised that what I was really longing for was the spice of a good Hungarian wine; the taste of home. Hubby was dispatched to the local wine merchant with a mission. He searched high and low, but sadly he returned empty handed (well, without Hungarian wine. Hubby never returns from the wine shop empty handed!). Since my daughters were still small babies I wasn’t working. However, I didn’t want the life of a full time, stay at home mum. As much as I worship my girls, that is not me. I need a different mission. So I decided there and then, that I would have set up a business called Wines of Hungary, and that by the time my youngest would start to school, there will be ‘Wines Of Hungary’ lorries coming to the UK delivering beautiful Hungarian wines to these poor, deprived UK consumers, who hitherto had no idea about the quality they were missing. Apa (Dad in Hungarian) had a small vineyard. So did my uncle. Growing up, wine was everywhere. Having some vines was not unusual at all. Most people have vines or are related to someone who makes ‘Hazi Bor’, or house wine. Many people grow cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, and so on, which becomes ‘Hazi Palinka’, or Hungarian fruit brandy (some home made versions can rocket well above 80% ABV). Wine and spirits are still very much part of everybody’s life. Of course, much of what is made is of questionable quality. These are the wines and spirits of hobbyists based around Lake Balaton. They make wine and palinka for the fun of it. Still one would say, a respectable hobby too! And so as a child I grew into having two harvesta a year – drinking lots of must – learning seamlessly about vinification processes and the love of nurturing and picking grapes. Since Apa is no longer here, I somehow inherited his pride for our country, his passion for promoting Hungary, and from there, the story unfolds. Wine is an essential part of who we Hungarians are.
I remember vividly the first time I went to one of Oz Clarke’s wine shows. That was when Oz and I first met. I remember thinking ‘If I get the chance to go with him to Hungary I will know I’ve done a great job for Hungary, and I can stop’. Wines of Hungary fulfilled that ambition in June 2017, running Hungarian tour with Oz and many other fantastic wine experts from the UK. What we learned on that tour has made me – well, all of us – more excited than ever. After 5 days of incredible non-stop hard work, we showcased Hungarian wines for the whole team. Afterwards, we were so lucky to get this unplanned interview, where Oz perfectly captured the essence of those wines: https://youtu.be/DJb_q7Qgfdk
After building amazing relationships with the best growers in Hungary, and with their incredible support, I have been blessed to be able to represent their produce. My company started working with the biggest international experts of the region, Elizabeth Gabay MW and Caroline Gilby MW. They are not only amazing because of their passion and support but have a very hard job gasping the ins and outs of those tricky Hungarian indigenous grapes that no-one will ever pronounce. We can decode these and any cultural obstacles that might occur on the way.
To build the blueprint further, UK wine trade expert Peter McCombie MW has recently joined the panel to ensure sufficient time is allocated to the various projects running simultaniously.
We were fortunate to pick the most incredible growers to create a portfolio and put in some hard and persistent work building up the brands on the UK market, creating opportunities for these wineries, linking them with importers.
Today our focus remains on four major Hungarian wine regions, and one winemaker from Romania. We represent a group of established Hungarian growers. They have proven success in many European markets, particularly Belgium and Holland, and are quickly growing in China and the US. With ambitions to continue on their early promise in the UK, we demonstrate the acclaimed indigenous Hungarian varietals as well as some more recognisable styles.
To date, Wines of Hungary has helped Hungarian wineries to find homes with Boutinot, Alliance, Wanderslust Wines and the Wine Society is opening up some prestigious place for Hungarian wines in their Fine Wine Portfolio. Enquiries today are non stop and new deals are constantly facilitated.
Whilst we are sorry to see some of our growers going out from our portfolio, we remain support for them assisting the product life cycle on the market. Next year we are launching a new portfolio of wines to further surprise the wine lovers in the UK with. And perhaps not only Hungary.
Credits go to the following winemakers. Without the professionalism and support of GERE Attila, St Andrea, Nimrod Kovacs, Balla Geza, Barta, Csanyi, Heumann winery all this journey would have been impossible.
In the beginning, the main challenge was to introduce wines from Hungary, with a few indigenous grapes to tantalise curiosity. Furmint and Hárslevelü easily introduced because they are used in the well-known wines of Tokaj. Cserszegi Fűszeres because that was unpronounceable. Today, promoting Hungarian wines has become far more exciting, with a growing number of indigenous varieties and wines with increasingly distinct regional character.Elizabeth Gabay
Hungary has a long and noble tradition in wine, but most importantly today it offers genuinely exciting quality from its own local grapes like Furmint, Harslevelu, Kadarka and Kekfrankos as well as great examples of international varieties. A fantastic place to explore in today’s thirst for authenticity and for discovering something unique to add interest to anyone’s wine range.
Lilla has been relentless in her commitment to bringing Hungarian wines to a wider audience. I meet so many people who say they want to import wines from their home country, but most give up within a few months as the barriers to entry are so high. Not Lilla – her passion, diligence and professionalism has paid off and she has found good homes in the UK for many of the great producers in her portfolio.Caroline Gilby