by Elizabeth Gabay MW and Lilla O’Connor
Now that more and more Hungarian wines are available in importer’s books, we have been working with London’s top restaurants training sommeliers to learn more about Hungarian wine.
Last month, the Wines of Hungary team visited the Michelin starred restaurants Ellory in Hackney, and Le Gavroche in Mayfair as well as the dedicated wine-club 67 Pall Mall.
We wanted to investigate different London dining experiences. A stylish and elegant French restaurant in the heart of Mayfair, Le Gavroche was the first restaurant in the UK to be awarded three Michelin stars. A smart, classic decor with a cosy feel, where service is formal and structured, but also full of charm. Head Sommelier Remi Cousin and his team welcomed us. Remi joined the Le Gavroche team in 2016 from The Fat Duck at Bray where he had served the wines of St Andrea, one of Hungary’s leading lights.
Ellory is located in the fashionable London Borough of Hackney in Netil House, also home to 100 studio spaces for creatives, a rooftop bar and a market. The restaurant has a contemporary style characterised by neutral tones, polished concrete floors, simple sanded wood tables, soft globe lights, a small uncluttered bar and an open kitchen at the back. Owner, Ed Thaw and his team gave us some useful insights.
67 Pall Mall, with a large team of sommeliers under the leadership of Ronan Sayburn MS, focuses on education for both its staff and members. (Wines of Hungary will be hosting an Hungarian wine event there in March). Sommelier Klearhos Kanellakis answered our questions.
All restaurants have good Hungarian wines on the menu (mainly from Tokaj), and were eager to know more about what else this hidden wine world has to offer. Remi had recently been to Hungary, but most sommeliers in both teams had not visited Hungary as a wine destination, nor for holidays. We introduced them to a completely new wine destination and we learnt how important it is to connect to sommeliers and build these relationships.
Elizabeth Gabay MW was keen to find out some more and asked whether the renown of sweet Tokaj Aszu hides the potential of other Hungarian wines?
Remi from Le Gavroche didn’t think so. “Usually customers who know something about wine will know
there is more than Tokaj. However at Le Gavroche we serve a range of sweet wines from Royal Tokaj.” Remi had recently been to Hungary with Chris Donaldson MW of Royal Tokaj and loved the wines he tasted, especially the Szamorodni wines, in particular Samuel Tinon’s Szamarodni. Le Gavroche customers rely on the advice of the sommeliers, who do a great job of showing a beautiful diversity of wines. Klearhos felt that the sweet Tokaj wines were established as premium sweet wines, but they were also successful in launching the dry white wines from the region.
According to the team at Ellory, dry Furmint has been growing in reputation for a while now, thinking particularly of the wines from Mad. Ed Thaw has long been impressed by Kékfrankos from the likes of Peter Wetzer and Franz Weninger. “Certainly there needs to continue to be work done to talk about Hungary as a serious maker of dry wines, both white and red.” he adds.
But what about the red and white wines of Hungary? Remi liked the fresh wines of Villany and Szekszard, while Ed Thaw Ed says: ‘I’m still learning, but the diversity is impressive. The quality of winemaking is very good and I love wines made on volcanic soil. There is plenty of that in Hungary. I am also an ‘acid fiend’ and there is no problem with that either. Hungary can do elegance and it can also do power and everything in between. I’ve got an oxidised Furmint on the list at the minute which is excellent.’ Remi adds “Many will necessarily know that Blaufränkisch and Kékfrankos are the same or how Kékfrankos can be expressed in different ways. The soils are diverse so there is really a whole lot more that can be done.” Klearhos admitted his knowledge was mainly restricted to sweet Tokajs and knew little of other Hungarian wines.
All sommeliers had thought that Hungary had lost the image of bad quality wines that had once been produced during Communist times. ‘I don’t think that customers equate Hungarian wine to communism! People don’t know about it that much to be honest, which I think is a massive plus. It’s not like where a customer says they hate Chardonnay or Riesling because they had some crap at a house party in their teens! In my little bubble of East London, we are lucky to have a local audience that are up for something different. Being unknown is an advantage. We can tell the story with no baggage.’ – says Ed. Klearhos pointed out that the labels were sometimes a little old-fashioned which did not help in reflecting the growing energy of the country.
Elizabeth was keen to find out whether interest and knowledge are age related: ‘Do you think younger customers would be more likely to try Hungarian wine? Do older customers go for the classics?’
‘At the Ellory we’ve deliberately made our short (two page) list full of obscure grapes to encourage people to drink something different and to force them to have a conversation. – says Ed – ‘Our list is also all Old World. So no Kiwi Savvy B and only the odd safe haven like a Meursault from Jobard. I get so much more pleasure from surprising a customer with something delicious that they haven’t seen before and I think Hungarian wines are perfect for this – a blank slate!’
‘Are clients open to try new wines?’
In Mayfair, people either really know what they want to drink and how they want to drink their wine, or will be happy to rely on the Sommelier’s recommendations. Food and wine is carefully matched and provides further guidance for diners. The sommelier staff try to understand their guests to ensure they are served according to their taste, which also means that wines will be suggested ‘on demand’. However when there is an option to experiment, the sommeliers will take the opportunity to guide their guests, though mindful of pairing with food selections and diner’s expectations. ‘I enjoy surprising our guests with good value for money. Which means they enjoy something that they are happy to pay for. Hungarian wines are of good quality and fit this description. Sometimes it means upselling, but if it is the right wine for a little extra but provides a lot more enjoyment then Sommelier and consumer are both winning.’ – says Remi at Le Gavroche.
East London is a different scene and makes an interesting comparison: “We are lucky in East London. That is the type of audience we have and I’ve been selling wine to for years here now. People come in looking to try something new. We never get anyone asking why we don’t have any Bordeaux. We’ve also structured our list deliberately to champion the lesser known regions and grapes, not least because that is what we love to drink. The point with wine is that most people don’t really have a clue. It is so vast, so beyond the means of under-standing for most people that we’re all learners. That’s how I approach it and how I sell it. I’ll often ask people if they are up for trying something different and most of the time people are up for the ride.”
Klearhos noted that despite the high percentage of clientele who were knowledgeable about wine, many only knew of the sweet Tokaj wines, but only that the wine was sweet and there was still an enormous possibility for further education on the complexities of sweet wines as well as further education on other wine regions. Younger customers are far more adventurous, but due to the profile of club members most are keen to learn more.
“What can producers do to promote Hungarian wine?” asks Elizabeth.
“Keep making better wine at a fair price! As we proceed with Brexit it becomes more and more imperative to find great wines at a great price and I think Hungary is already in a great position to do that. The quality of dry Furmint makes it a great alternative for Loire Chenin Blanc, and Kékfrankos can be anything from a great alternative to Cabernet Franc to Gamay depending on how it is handled.” – adds the team from the Ellory.
The Le Gavroche team made an interesting point here about the importance for the sommeliers to understand the terroir. Out of seven sommeliers, only Remi had been to Hungary, and then only to Tokaj. Hungary has so much more to show and these young, knowledgeable and creative sommelier teams are eager to learn.
Klearhos agreed. ‘The best thing would be to invite some sommeliers to the main areas of Hungary, especially Tokaj.’ He also thought that encouraging sommeliers to learn more of the region could include a sommelier competition where the winner can get a trip to the wine regions. As well as masterclasses and training showing the different wines.
Finally, we were interested to know what of percentage of their wine lists were dedicated to different regions, including specialist regions such as Hungary.
Hackney’s Ellory has a two page wine list with 14 importers which changes regularly so things tend to ebb and flow. Sometimes it seems like there is a lot of Italian going on. Sometimes a lot of more specialist regions. There is no hard and fast rules and that is how they like it.