If you have an Hungarian wine or two on your list then chances are it comes from Tokaj. But whilst it is by far the country’s most iconic and important wine regions there is so much more to discover right across the country’s 22 wine regions with some 40 different indigenous varieties to get your head round first. Lilla O’Connor of Wines of Hungary explains what you might be missing.
First of all we turn to Elizabeth Gabay to give her personal assessment of how Hungarian wines have evolved.
What changes have been happening in Hungarian wine over the last five to 10 years?
Elizabeth Gabay: “Time and experience. This sounds crazy to those used to wine producing regions of Europe and even the New World, but quality winemaking in Hungary really only goes back 30 years. Vineyards have needed to be restructured; the terroir re-understood, new clones have to be developed and then decided where to plant them. It really is phenomenal how much has been achieved over the last 40 years.
‘The first generation of win makers were strong-minded characters who ploughed through the early chaos post communism. We are now seeing the second generation who have travelled and trained abroad, who are open to seeing developments elsewhere, and who no longer want to make block buster wines, but are looking to bring out the best in their own varieties.
“Working with Hungary now is really exciting. So new blood, a buzz and curiosity are developing a dynamic wine scene.”
What do you see as the most interesting wine styles and regions for UK buyers?
Lilla O’Connor from Wines of Hungary: Winemakers are going back to indigenous traditional roots, but bringing in the experience gained from international winemaking. The variety and number of indigenous grapes in Hungary means it has many unique wines to offer. The quality of which is now starting to be recognised around the world.
Different buyers are looking for different wines. The many indigenous Hungarian varietals are the most sought after. We have over 40 native white grapes and many red that are grown in the 22 different regions across Hungary each with their own soil types and microclimates.
After achieving fame in Tokaji Aszu, dry Furmint is finally increasing its reach across the globe. Juhfark is a unique white mainly produced around the Somlo region, as is Harslevelu.
Irsai Oliver is another white worthy of attention, especially as it is often produced in larger quantities. This varietal adapts well to most microclimates and soils making it relatively inexpensive to grow, and it is certainly delicious as a refreshing summer white.
Our Kekfrankos, mainly grown in Eger, Szekszard and Sopron is a lovely, spicy, full bodied red. The unique Kadarka, a delicate, marmalade colour, normally made in a low alcohol style is another good example of a light red, which is proving popular.
Which channels of the UK do you think Hungarian wines are suitable for and why?
We might have a lot of different styles of wine, but the overall yearly production is only similar to that of Bordeaux. Therefore, with limited availability, Wines of Hungary, along with our winemakers are looking for distribution mainly in the independent and on trade sectors, either via importers or going direct. We are delighted to have recently started working with Peter McCombie MW to promote the uptake and sales by on-trade of Hungarian wines. And have been fortunate enough to work with Caroline Gilby MW and Elizabeth Galbay in helping us with their experience and knowledge across Eastern Europe.
What are the best price points for Hungary?
We are cautiously optimistic about the UK market as we are working with the winemakers to export wines to cover all price points. Most wineries who qualify as ‘big’ in Hungary will still only produce grapes on about 40-70 ha or at most an output of 70-100,000 bottles per year. The focus is far more on quality and consistency in winemaking rather than quantity.
Around 80% of Hungarian wine is still sold in Hungary, so it makes it harder for us to competing for the lower price points. But our feedback from private and consumer tastings is that our wines are well priced for their value against what people would expect to pay from other countries.
What plans does Wines of Hungary have to promote the country’s wines in the UK?
Hungarian wines currently lack brand awareness in the UK and will benefit from this relaunch. But like anything else in wine it will require some time and patience. Therefore, our focus lies with tastings and education for both the on and off- trades.
We are, though, keen and happy to arrange study trips to Hungary for key opinion leaders and experts from the UK wine trade. Nothing is more effective than experiencing the terroir for yourself and see both the challenges and opportunities ahead for Hungarian wine. We are, for example, taking a prestigious team to tour Hungary’s key wine regions at the end of May, including Oz Clarke and Anthony Rose.
You are going to be at the London Wine Fair. What can we expect to see on your stand?
We can help you if you are looking for quality producers (larger or boutique) looking to increase or build their distribution in the UK. Some producers are currently listed in Michelin starred restaurants and top independent retailers in London, some of whom are seeking new import opportunities. We can offer free sales support and education service for your teams. You can also taste some of our unique indigenous varieties that really show off the personality of the country.
We will be showing a number of volcanic wines, Furmint, Tokaj and lots more. We will also be happy to have many winemakers many with us: Kovacs Nimrod, Vivien Ujvari (Barta), Erhard Heumann and Vica Necula (Balla Geza).
We also have a number of commercial, short snap tastings at our table for off-trade, on-trade and sommeliers. These sessions will be hosted by Caroline Gilby MW and Peter McCombie MW and John Szabo MS will be promoting his latest book, Volcanic Wines. You can find out more about when the daily tastings take place at LWF here. (Go to Estoterica 126-127)
If I am a UK buyer interested in Hungarian wines, what can you do to help me?
We currently work with many UK buyers, big and small and look to offer them the practical help and support they need. Our experience shows that Hungarian wines are relatively unfamiliar, and the language does not help! We can break down barriers, and provide samples as well as all of the technical and commercial information about the wines.
If you have any specific source requests, or wines at certain price points then we can look to help pull wines together to taste. We can also help with private or new label design, negotiate pricing, arranging sourcing trips or holding internal tastings. We then offer a full range of support services for winemakers and the various distribution channels. We can even offer bonded storage.
How do you see the UK market compared to other markets around the world?
The UK wine market is vibrant, ever changing, and competitively challenging environment. Somehow, the UK market seems to be where wine trends (and brands) are born, perhaps because it is a wine drinking nation and, secondly, it is only behind the US in terms of the value of its bottled wine imports. What is particularly exciting for Hungarian wines is that 15% of wine sold in the UK on-trade is over £20 with people looking for quality and difference, which is exactly where Hungary comes in.
Due to Brexit and changing consumer behaviour, UK wine sales might fall, but the focus on quality is increasing, which can only be good news for Hungarian wines.
Tell us a bit more about the producers you work with?
We work with Hungary’s most reliable wine brands, large and small. Some have won accolades such as ‘Winemaker of the Year’. Others supply Budapest’s most famous Michelin starred restaurants. We also include producers that our MW consultants have found. So some good examples would be:
Barta, from Tokaj supplies Budapest’s Michelin Starred restaurants. If you are an on-trade buyer or a supplier to the on-trade, this producer could be your starting point at Esoterica. Their Matra site, Nagygombos, also produces good quality rosés at €2.00, which are suitable for supermarkets and major groups. As well as specializing in dry furmint wines, they also make great value rosé and Harslevelu.
Discover something unique from the old part of former Hungary with Balla Geza. He is a Hungarian winemaker in Transylvania, Romania, with some vines growing on rocky terroir, producing a mineral ‘Stone Wine’ from Cabernet Franc and a Romanian indigenous grape, Feteasca Neagra. Balla also makes a lovely indigenous Kadarka, and Furmint, of course.
One of the most elevated vineyards in Hungary, St Andrea from Eger currently supplies Vagabond Wines and is looking for more UK distribution opportunities. The Hungarian Circle of Wine Writers has awarded the title ‘Most Successful Winery of 2016’ to St Andrea. They also hold the prestigious 2014 and 2015 Hungarian Winery of the Year awards.
Nimrod Kovacs from Eger is ideally suited to the independent and on-trade sectors. Stylishly labelled, Soul, Rhapsody and Blues are wines inspired by Nimrod’s love of jazz. These wines have a modern touch with a minerality gained from the local volcanic soils. Kekfrankos, Pinot, Syrah and Chardonnay are planted in homage to Nimrod’s affinity to Burgundy and N Rhône, whilst his indigenous varieties are a great introduction to traditional Hungarian wines.
Heumann from Villány are already successful with The Wine Society and have ambitions to grow in new sectors.Showing richness, fruit and complexity, they recently featured in The Drinks Business as one of the best terroir focused Villány wineries. The success of Cabernet Franc in Villány has led to the variety being branded Villányi Franc.
GERE from Villány was born from a small vineyard given as wedding gift in the 70’s to a thriving 70 hectare vineyard, and bow boasts one of Hungary’s best established wine brands. This legendary producer has created a successful and highly respected wine business, one that any UK importer would be proud to represent.
Csanyi from Villány is one of the largest wineries in Hungary and certainly the biggest winery in the Villány region with 350 hectares under vine. In 1854, the founder of Csanyi became the saviour of the European wine industry when he discovered how to graft vines onto American rootstock to produce phylloxera free vines.
- Wines of Hungary UK is based in London and if you have any further enquiries about its wineries, and what services it can provide for the UK market then contact Lilla O’Connor on firstname.lastname@example.org. The portfolio of wines it helps to promote have been carefully selected by two Masters of Wine with decades of experience working with Hungarian wine, Elizabeth Gabay MW and Caroline Gilby MW.