On the surface, you might not expect Hungary to have so many women winemakers. But, in the Tokaj region, there is a much higher percentage than in other parts of the country; not only winemakers but also women owners of wineries. World expert on Hungarian wine, Caroline Gilby MW, digs a little deeper into the subject, talks to some of the top winemakers to see if she can uncover the reasons why this region is so much further ahead.
“We love the details, taking care to develop wines in the styles you believe in and we can do that in Tokaj,” Erika Racz.
It’s still March, when women’s equality is front of mind. True equality in wine is still rare, but there are pockets such as Tokaj where women winemakers and winery owners play an increasingly prominent role.
It’s hard to get exact numbers but Hajni Pracser (Erzsebet winery) says “Tokaj has an unusually high concentration of female winemakers.” And this is in an often-macho culture – a couple of years ago I asked a male winemaker in Eger why, “It’s because women like sweet wine,” was his blunt answer which rather summed up what women are still facing.
Edit Kulcsár (Founder of Tokaj’s Women and Wine group, Demetervin) adds, “In the old days, viticulture and winemaking was heavy labour done by men. Even today it is impossible for a woman to do all the work by herself, and all of us have to fight the respect war every single day with the male workers.”
Pracser explains that both her parents graduated in vini/viticulture in 1974, “After graduation, both my parents came to work for Borkombinát in Tolcsva. My dad having a university degree and being a man, had a nice career at the Borkombinát. My mother, on the other hand, had a hard time and was not supported (to say the least) by her only male superiors.”
In spite of this background, many of Tokaj’s most exciting and dynamic small wineries today are owned by women or have women winemakers, though no one quite knows unequivocably why it’s possible in Tokaj compared to other parts of Hungary.
Judged for the job not the gender
Kata Zsirai (Zsirai Winery) points out that Tokaj was one of the first wine regions in Hungary where women started to work in the 1990s, producing high quality wines and earning professional recognition.
Sarolta Bárdos (owner Tokaj-Nobilis) confirms this, “In the 1990s several international investors arrived in Tokaj, and they seemed to be more open to young, educated female winemakers. One was Stephánie Berecz who arrived from Bordeaux to work at Disznókő and established trust in women winemakers with her high quality, elegant wines right from the beginning.”
Kata Zsirai adds that there had been a strong preconception in Hungary that only men can be winemakers, that it’s a masculine profession, “In the beginning, people were amazed when I told them that I was a winemaker.” She also explains that nowadays it’s common to find women in wine and she wants to be judged for the job she does, not for her gender.
Edit Kulcsár believes that the rebirth of Tokaj inspired talented women from other countries to come to the region.
One is Stephánie Berecz (now owner of Kikelet winery), who says she never found any specific problems as a woman, but rather sees the challenges of a region needing time to recover its former prestige. For her, white wines need precise work and don’t allow for mistakes, which often suits the female approach.
She adds that there are lots of possibilities in terms of vinification, “It’s truly a fantastic region for winemakers – good dry wines but also the magic of botrytis.”
Vivien Ujvári (winemaker, Barta) reckons that Tokaj is very active with research and is open to new products to show the depth of the region. “No tradition without innovation,” she says and adds that maybe that’s why the region is so open for women. In her own personal experiences in California, New Zealand and Australia, Ujvári always found women winemakers around so never thought being a woman in her profession was different or special.
Erika Racz of SanzonTokaj says, “It was a natural decision that if I started a winery, it would be in Tokaj, where I was born and where I have a connection in many ways.” Of the female touch, she says “We love the details, taking care to develop wines in the styles you believe in and we can do that in Tokaj.”