Why Drink Hungary? How the winemakers see it…

An open discussion with Hungarian producers on defining their own style and where to next

by Elizabeth Gabay MW

In recent discussions with Hungarian winemakers and estate owners from three different regions: Eger, Villány and Tokaj about the wines of Hungary their regions, and marketing Hungarian wine. Around the table were Karoly Barta, owner and Vivien Újvári winemaker, of the Barta Winery in Tokaj; Andrea Gere of the Gere Winery, Erhard Heumann of Heumann Winery and Laszlo Romsics of Csanyi Winery from Villány and Nimrod Kovacs of the Nimrod Kovacs winery and Gyorgy Lorincz of St Andrea both from Eger.

Why Hungarian wine?From top left to bottom right: Nimrod Kovacs, Andrea Gere, Gyorgy Lorincz, Karoly Barta, Vivien Ujvari, Erhard Heumann, Laszlo Romsics

I asked what makes Hungarian wine unique. Nimrod Kovacs laughingly replied, ‘This is the $64K question!’ With so much variety, how can you specify what makes a country’s wine unique?’ For him the abundance of choice is what makes Hungarian wines so interesting. Andrea Gere pointed out that it is impossible to define one Hungarian wine style as there are twenty-two very different regions, each with their own character, while Laszlo Romsics described Hungarian wines as ‘colourful’ and varied. Vivien Újvári, as a winemaker, focused on the unique combination of the volcanic soils which give fuller-bodied wines, rich in mineral, a warm climate which benefits the indigenous white varieties with their late ripening, distinctive, aromatic fruit and floral scents. Erhard homed in on the potential of Hungary’s indigenous varieties and how different regions are establishing their regional styles.
Karoly Barta added that not only does Hungary have unique varieties, it also has a long history and culture of winemaking, and is proud of the work Barta Winery has done in reclaiming some of Tokaj’s historic vineyards such as the King’s Vineyard. Laszlo added ‘Hungarians are proud of their winemaking history. Every glass of wine has a story. Csanyi was founded by Zsigmond Teleki and the Teleki rootstocks are still used worldwide. Who knew that? He just simply saved the life of vine itself.’ Gyorgy Lorincz agrees on this essential combination of terroir, unique varieties, diverse regions and history, but feels more work and experience is needed to understand how to further express the uniqueness of Hungarian wine.

Focusing on promotion…

The next question naturally followed on as to what was the best way to promote these regional styles. Gyorgy felt that in recent years individual Hungarian wine regions have started some serious strategic planning and foundation works which already shows in current and future vintages to come. Nimrod is a strong believer in promoting his wines as being from the region of Eger and the sense of terroir. ‘It is the “terroir” which gives our wines their uniqueness.’ Nimrod, St Andrea and Grof Buttler wineries all have vineyards on the Nagy Eged Hill, a steep slope which produces low-yielding, intensely concentrated fruit and they have joined together to promote this premium Eger site. Their joint masterclasses have been particularly successful. Gyorgy is keen to not only focus on the terroir of the Eger region, but also the two wine blends which are traditional to the area: white Egri csillag and red Egri Bikavér. As the newly elected President of the Egri Wine Route Organisation, Gyuri is focusing on achieving closer links between the grape-growers as well as winemakers of the region. Karoly is co-chairman for the Mád Circle and part of the association to protect the Mád Protected Designation of Origin. Together they have worked towards defining the local wine style. In 2017 the Mád PDO was accepted. Vivien added that they also work towards preserving the local nature and terroir. Organic winemaking is very important. This is how we try and stay close to nature, let the ecosystem prevail. This for us is a quality step towards sustainable progress. She also added that they were active members of the Confrérie de Tokaj and Tokaj Renaissance, which both work towards promoting the region and wines.

How Villány sees it

Focusing on the Hungarian market is centred on wine tourism. Csanyi takes part in the most visited wine festivals in the main cities in Hungary and is one of the main sponsors of the local Devil Valley Festival where more than 60,000 visitors enjoy the concerts, arts and local wines. Nimrod notes that they are welcoming an increasing number of visitors, including journalist and bloggers.
Laszlo noted the importance of promoting the local region. Villány is ‘small, with only 2,500ha of vineyards, but we are committed to make high quality wines.’ Andrea added that her family winery has a long local history and was an important pioneer in making quality Villány wines, seeing themselves as regional ambassadors. Andrea described how they were also reaching out to a new and younger market with a ‘bistro wine’ and Laszlo added that some Villány producers were starting to work more intensively with the juicy and approachable Portugieser (Oportó).

Over the past three years, Villány producers have organised the ‘Franc & Franc’ conference, focusing on Cabernet Franc, branded as ‘Villányi Franc’, reflecting, as Erhard commented, the greater understanding of ‘which international grape varieties show outstanding results in which regions. I am very much convinced that Cabernet Franc plantings and quality will increase over the next few years.’ Andrea explained that the conference aims, not only put the wines of Villány in context with international Cabernet Franc, but also to show Villányi Franc wines to the outside world. However, Erhard noted that the 2017 conference concentrated on the Hungarian market. ‘I hope that from 2018 on the focus will be put on foreign markets/competitors again.

International markets…

Establishing a quality reputation on the international market is important to most winemakers. Erhard feels that ‘Villány’s USP in the local market is as the ‘best Hungarian red wine region’ and outstanding Cabernet Franc,’ although he fears their reputation is not enough to attract foreign markets, so is keen to encourage ‘comparable tastings with top international Cabernet Franc wines to help put Villányi Franc on the international wine map. Our USP needs much more discussion and brainwork. The marketing concept needs to be defined. And we must not forget we need sufficient funds to finance all of this.’ Andrea agrees. ‘Currently, the main market for Villány Wines is the Hungarian market’ but acknowledges that the export market is increasingly important,’ pointing out that Government support is essential.’ We need ‘a good, efficient and coherent national wine marketing strategy’ stated Andrea. Laszlo agreed. ‘Hungary should focus on promoting Hungary as a country, including our wines. We have to ‘sell’ our beautiful country and wines and not wait for them to be sold.’

Serious Potential

‘Hungarian wines have a serious future’ claimed Gyuri. ‘Currently, only part of the country’s potential is being fulfilled.’ Erhard agreed, noting that the ‘potential of indigenous varieties are not yet fully understood or fathomed, but the wines derived from these grapes are getting better and better.’ ‘Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch), is an outstanding indigenous Hungarian red grape variety’ he added ‘with good examples in Szekszárd, Sopron, Eger and some in Villány but not yet challenging Austrian Blaufränkisch.’ Laszlo added that the traditional over-extraction and over-oaking are a thing of the past, with winemakers increasingly looking to emphasise the characters of varieties and terroir. Karoly and Vivien both feel that ‘the future for Hungarian wines lies with small quantity, high quality, unique wines which reflect the varied terroir and varieties. We are capable of creating obvious long-term values on the world markets in the high-quality wine category.’

Growing quality, unique varieties, regional terroirs and a desire to compete with the best wines from elsewhere are evidently hallmarks of the current Hungarian wine scene.