Hungary – a New Old World or a New New World

Not many countries in the world come with a history of winemaking to match that of Hungary, yet Hungary remains such a well kept secret to many a wine drinker, even to this very day.

Back in the 18th century Hungary used to be the world’s third biggest wine producer with roughly 570,000 hectare under vine! Fast forward to today’s 65,000 hectares and think into that equation the rise in wine consumptions since those days. When you taste the beautiful Kardarkas available today, it is so saddening to find, that it only covers 273 ha today as opposed to 1/3 of the entire Hungarian plantings back in the day.

Today Hungary is still the number 8 producer in EU ahead of countries such as Austria and Greece, so Hungary remains a major producer, yet Hungarian wine is still a secret to far too many. Also compared to both Austria and Greece.

Part of the reason for that is the fierce Hungarian pride, said Caroline Gilby MW at a recent Institute of Masters of Wine webinar. Part of the outcome of that pride has been a lack of joint effort in terms of marketing in a similar way to what e.g. Chile, Australia, New Zealand and Austria have done.

Of course, Hungary also had to catch up with a 40 years deficit comparing to e.g. neighbouring Austria after the end of the Communist era, but anyone with just a vague knowledge of Hungarian wines will agree that talking about that ‘gap’ is hardly relevant by now! Izabella Zwack of Dobogó in Tokaj told about how forgotten Tokaj, the crown jewel of Hungarian wine production, was in the early 1990’s with ‘undrinkable dry wines and heavily oxidized sweet ones’ – almost impossible to imagine when you look at the beautiful wines, dry and sweet, coming out of Tokaj these days. Obviously, being added to the UNESCO World Heritage list back in 2002 ought to help attracting more tourists to Tokaj – especially given, how easily accessible it is from Budapest, be it by car or by train. And bringing tourists in means increasing the overall knowledge of the region and country.

The IMW webinar touched on what recently has been and what can be done to improve Hungary’s reputation as a wine producing country.

Tokaj saw early investments from e.g. Hugh Johnson, Vega Sicilia and AXA, which arguably put this beautiful region right back on the map. Producers such as Szepsy and Dobogó releasing the first high quality dry Furmints around 2000 put Tokaj in a more contemporary context in as much as sweet wines as a category has continued to struggle. ‘Furmint February’, successfully promoting Tokaj and its legendary Furmint grape in UK, is a very good example of a recent promotional push.

Also in Villány deep down south, very exciting things are happening.Villány as a region pretty soon got a very good reputation with winemakers being almost super stars. Well, noblesse oblige. Accordingly, Villány adopted the DHC (Districtus Hungaricus Controllatus) classification – in Villány it encompasses the entire region – with its stricter wine making rules in 2006 illustrating the region’s quality orientated focus.

Mónika Debreczni from Vylyan talked about a development from the tannic, overly extracted wines of Villány in the 1990’s to today and just how great an ambassador Cabernet Franc has become to Villány. The creation of ‘Villányi Franc’ as a super premium category speaks volumes. But it doesn’t stop there. ‘Franc & Franc’ conferences are organized – the first one in 2015 hosting Cabernet Franc producers along the river Loire. Even a Cabernet Franc competition is planned to take place in Villány.
A very recent initiative from Villány is the RedY project, which aims at attracting a younger audience by presenting them with a fruity, easy drinking style of wine.
All of this is possible only by producers joining forces and paying a certain amount of money per liter wine to these promotional initiatives. I really think, this should provoke food for thoughts for other regions.

Krisztina Csetvei from Csetvei Winery in the tiny Mór region points to wine tourism as a way to improve both the knowledge and reputation of Hungarian wines and considers herself lucky to be located between Budapest and Lake Balaton. And allow me to let you in on a secret: Mór is indeed worth a small detour! Ezerjó is a wonderful grape variety and so food friendly making it perfect for the hospitality sector. And now doubt, Italy being the favourite destination for Danish tourists plays a big role in the Danes’ love for Italian wine.
An issue, though, is that the vast majority of tourists visiting Hungary never make it outside of Budapest to explore all that the country has to offer.

If we turn our attention to Denmark and what IS actually done, the Hungarian Embassy and Wine&Spirit Store have organized a number of master classes with Mihály Konkoly DipWSET presenting Hungarian wines from various themes to Danish press, sommeliers, retailers etc.

Photo: Wine & Spirit Store

This is really a much needed push, as these ‘gate keepers’ are the real game changers. The wines have to be imported, reviewed, listed in restaurants, wine bars and specialist shops for the consumers to find them.

Earlier tastings had presented different regions, price winning wines etc., from predominantly Hungarian varieties, but the first tasting of 2021 illustrated what international wines are capable of delivering from Hungarian terroirs. From Pinot Noir and a stunning 2008 Attila Winery Syrah from Eger, packed with ripe and stewed fruit, sub bois, pepper, spices and liquorice (and only 12,5% abv.!), through Merlot and an intense, yet fresh and elegant Villányi Franc from Kiss Gábor to excellent wines from Szekszárd producer Vesztergombi, whose Cabernet Sauvignon both reminded me of a time long gone, but also showed how far Hungarian winemakers have come since 2000. Still very full bodied with ultra ripe fruit and at its young age somewhat dominated by the oak influence, yet very nicely balanced. Csaba’s ‘Csaba Cuvée’ was soft and elegant, could easily have originated from a cooler area, displaying strawberry, raspberry and plum, vanilla and savoury notes.

Having followed the Hungarian wine scene since the beginning of the millennium, I am absolutely certain that Hungary is ready for lift off. Ready for the world – and the world is ready for Hungary!

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