When it comes to really understanding and being able to explain the differences and nuances in an emerging country’s wine styles, then it helps if you happen to have been born and bred there. Which is why Zsofi Kiss is so enjoying being able to share her experience and love of Hungarian wines, the country where she grew up, to the adventurous and inquisitive customers at 67 Pall Mall. Here she looks back on her career to date and her first year at London’s most prestigious private club for wine.
Zsofi Kiss is proud of the Hungarian wines she is able to serve at 67 Pall Mall and the chance to show the best of what her country can produce.
Tell us about your background and how you got into wine?
Getting a degree at the Budapest Business School required an internship in the hospitality field. I was lucky enough to spend it in Colorado Springs, US working in a 5 Star 5 Diamond resort hotel, The Broadmoor. I ended up living there for about two years. That is where my journey of wine started.
Being exposed to international wines and grape varieties I had never seen before, or heard of, made me curious. Curiosity was one of the reasons I started to study about the world of wine. Then I felt so much passion for wine and its diversity that I just kept studying and decided that I wanted be a sommelier.
I enrolled the Court of Master Sommeliers and became a Certified Sommelier in November 2015. I am currently studying towards the Advanced examination. I will be starting the WSET Level 3 in June because I’d like to study about wine in a different perspective as well. I am very excited!
My first job as a sommelier was in early 2016, at the Michelin-starred Costes Restaurant in Budapest. The main focus were Hungarian wines, mostly smaller producers, showing the many faces of this country’s wines. I really loved being home and working with Hungarian wines but I was also missing to be exposed to the rest of the world’s products, so I moved to London. I started there at the Greenhouse (2 Michelin stars) with head sommelier Elvis Ziakos. There we worked with around 3.500 bins, mostly focusing on classic wine growing regions of the world with a large proportion of French wines.
I’m currently working at 67 Pall Mall as a Sommelier in a team of 17 sommeliers, led by head of wines, Ronan Sayburn MS, who is also the chief executive of the Court of Master Sommeliers Europe and head sommelier, Terry Kandylis.
67 Pall Mall is a private members club, focusing on wine. We list approximatively 4,000 references including 750 wines by the glass. I recently celebrated my first birthday there. It is definitely a heaven for anyone passionate about wine. From Switzerland to Uruguay to classics as Burgundy, California you find almost every style of wine from most of the countries where grapes grow including, of course, Hungary!
What is your experience and knowledge of Hungarian wines?
My experience is very different from now and what I experienced back home. In Hungary we drink local wines and only a small amount is from abroad. People coming as tourists are also looking for the local juice! While living in an international city like London where you can find every kind of wine from all over the world makes it different. Serving a dry wine from Hungary in any other country requires from consumers an open mind and a sense of discovery even though if the wine is of high quality
How do you think Hungarian wines are changing?
I can proudly say that I discover more and more amazing wineries not only from Tokaj, but from the other wine regions of Hungary. Quality is growing and people are hearing about them, getting to know them more. Even pronouncing our crazy difficult grape varieties are becoming effortless for our international guests.
What improvements would you still like to see?
We should always aim for better! The problem starts when we think we are perfect, our product is perfect, or our knowledge is enough. Education, open mindedness open heart, cooperation, working together, respect are always the most important things in our business. I’d love to see more Hungarian wines on the market so we can continue introducing them to our guests and show the diversity of the country’s wines. However, I would also like to see more consistency, so we can communicate the styles of each winemaker or grape for the consumer to know what to expect.
What style of Hungarian wine do you have at 67 Pall Mall?
We carry wines from Tokaj, Villány and Somló, but the main focus is on the sweet and dry styles of Tokaj. You find different wine styles: dry and sweet Szamorodni or the famous 6 Puttonyos Aszu, as well as the up-and-coming dry versions of Tokaj varieties.
You were the sommelier on duty on the Wines of Hungary Furmint February tasting. Tell us about your experience of the tasting?
I was honoured to be asked to help out on this event. I was proud to help my home country’s winemakers to communicate their wines to the public. Hearing the positive feedbacks and feeling the enthusiasm of all people invited to the tasting, including some very well-known wine personalities made me very happy. It was a great feeling to see the smiles on the winemakers faces, to have been able to make them welcome and to showcase their wines in perfect condition!
What is your opinion about the Furmint grape variety being the flagship white of Hungary?
As mentioned before, I find it important from a guest perspective to understand a style or grape variety of a region they might have never tasted wines from, so they know what to expect. Furmint is a very complex grape variety that has the ability to produce exceptional wines in both dry and sweet versions. Having a grape variety associated with a country can be a way of advertising its wines and getting more international light.
Depending on the winemakers’ style, the type of soil, exposure, altitude and climate, the result can vary vastly. This diversity is what the tasting confirmed, I love it!
What styles of Furmint work well in the UK?
As sommeliers it is part of our job to educate our guest’s palate by providing information about a wine, its style and grapes. When it comes to introducing a grape variety that they might not have heard of, education and tasting are very important. Frankly, almost everyone starts off with loving sweet wine and by tasting and experiencing other styles we gradually become more open to them. That is also the case with Furmint. I do believe it grows on you once you start tasting/drinking it.
What I experience in the UK is that mostly the sweet versions of Tokaj or the Egri Bikavér are associated with Hungarian wines and not a grape variety. But I have had requests for a dry Furmint before, and I have not even told them about my origin. It seems like the more they taste it or see it, the more popular it gets.
What other wines from Hungary would you like to see more of in the UK market?
I have a great passion for all regions of Hungary. Sopron (bordering Austria) is producing one of the best Kékfrankos wines that I have ever tried, wine regions around the Lake Balaton where I had a chance to taste amazing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Olaszrizling, are also fantastic.
Szekszárd in the south with its reds, Etyek and Mátra that are home for some of the best Pinot Noirs in the country. I could go on as there are many yet to be discovered.