- Friday 8 January 2010
It’s two decades since Hungary’s wine industry was reborn after the fall of the Iron Curtain. During that time it has switched from a cheap bulk producer for thirsty Soviet markets to an industry led by innovative producers, the best of whom who can finally hold their heads up alongside peers at the top of their game worldwide.
In contrast to Hungary’s collective past, today’s industry is led by passionate individuals who have come into wine from many different directions and relish their freedom to improve. Outside Hungary’s borders, the country is largely known, even today, for its sweet Tokajis or its good-value Italian lookalike Pinot Grigios. But it’s been in red wine that the transformation has been most dramatic.
Red winemaking in Hungary has always been more challenging than white, but fierce Magyar pride, along with better viticulture, reduced yields and matching grape varieties to soils, allied to improved winemaking, has transformed reds from thin, green specimens often marked by heavy-handed winemaking to serious, weighty and complex wines.
This new approach has seen producers such as Austrian Franz Weninger, who owns the country’s first biodynamic vineyard, putting Sopron on the wine map. Eger, too, has seen a crop of focused, passionate people such as the late Tibor Gál, Imre Kalo, Gróf Buttler and St Andrea reviving the fortunes of Bikavér (Bull’s Blood). In the south, Szekszárd is gaining increasing recognition for reds grown on its iron-rich terra rossa soil, especially from
Takler, Heimann, Duszi and Sebestyén.
But it’s still Villány near the Croatian border that holds the red crown. The hills here protect Hungary’s warmest region from cold northerly winds. The best sites are south-facing and on stony, volcanic soils, ensuring good ripeness levels that are hard to achieve elsewhere.And just as interesting as their wines are the stories behind some of the region’s best producers. Here’s my top four…
Mónika Debreczeni is one of the few women in Hungary in charge of a major winery. ‘I took over in 2004 after the death of my husband. The children were 11 and 9 at the time. I shifted to automatic pilot mode – the possibility of not taking over did not come to mind at all.’
Debreczeni had studied economics but after meeting her husband, Pál, became involved with ‘planning the winery and vineyards at our dining room table’. Pál had bought land in 1989 at a time when everyone else was selling, and with his wife’s help planted the first vines in 1992. By 2004, when he died, the winery had 125 hectares.
‘The vineyard is like our third child; and you don’t abandon children just like that,’ Debreczeni says, adding that the tragedy has brought her and her children closer together; last summer her daughters worked at the winery.
Vylyan was named Winery of the Year in 2008 by both its peers in Hungary and by Danish magazine Vinbladet; it was also a Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Trophy winner in 2006 for its 2004 Pinot Noir. ‘I like wines with personality. Our task is to bring out gently what lies in the grapes,’ says Debreczeni.
Debreczeni remains frustrated at the lack of international recognition for Hungary: ‘My dream is that one day the names of Hungarian wines and regions will be pronounced with the same ease as names from France, Italy and Chile.’
Csaba Malatinszky is tall, serious and quietly spoken; a man who lives, breathes and dreams wine. His family had owned vineyards before World War II but, like so many, lost everything to the state. He started his career working in a restaurant in Budapest and became Hungary’s first qualified sommelier, then opened its first specialist wine shop in 1993.
‘I was working with things connected to wine but always from the outside looking in. One day I felt this was not enough and I realised I had to grow my own vines.’ Malatinszky’s eyes had been opened to French wine while working as a sommelier, so he headed for Bordeaux to study at Pichon-Baron, Cos d’Estournel and Lynch-Bages.
‘This gave me the final push and experience to take the next step, even without financial backing,’ he says. Attracted to Villány for its potential for reds, he bought his first vineyards in 1997. For many years he was seen as an upstart outsider by those born and bred here. ‘Now I feel part of the community,’ he says.
Malatinszky’s winemaking is notable for his fanatical attention to detail, even selecting his own yeast strains. He has recently bought new vineyards for his beloved Cabernet Franc and intends to build a small house among the vines. He believes ‘Villány is the only place in the world where Cabernet Franc is the top grape. It’s more noble here than Cabernet Sauvignon. My goal is to produce wine with complexity that expresses terroir.’
Attila Gere is larger than life, regarded by his peers as one of Hungary’s top winemakers. His great grandmother came from Villány, though the end of World War II saw people deported and 2010family vineyards destroyed by the state.Because of this, Gere became a forester – ‘it was my big dream’ – but ended up studying oenology for a year after he failed the entrance exam the first time.
He was a beer drinker until 1978, ‘but when I first tasted my father-in-law’s wine I realised the great potential for red wines in Villány’. Soon after, Gere and his wife started to grow their own grapes – ‘we were given a few rows of vines as a wedding present’ – but it wasn’t until 1991 that he left forestry to concentrate on wine full time. He believes his previous career helped him tackle the new bureaucracy; as a forester he gained managerial experience from working at the wine cooperative.
Gere’s best wines are not available in the UK, but are worth seeking out in Hungary. His 2000 Solus Merlot famously beat Pétrus in a blind tasting in Austria in 2004 and his Kopar Cuvée is an impressive Bordeaux blend. Best of all is the Cabernet Franc Selection under the Weninger & Gere label (a joint venture with Austrian Franz Weninger) which shows the potential for greatness in Cabernet Franc in Hungary.
József Bock cenjoys playing host and welcoming people to his family-run winery, hotel and restaurant: ‘My goal is to constantly raise the quality of my wines and improve my hospitality.’
His family had settled in Villány from Germany in the 18th century, but lost their land after the war; in 1956 people of German origin were evicted, but Bock’s hospitalised father, Antal, refused to leave. A few years later, he bought back a tiny plot of his family’s original vineyard on Jammertal Hill.
József (above) was born in 1948 and qualified as a mechanical engineer, though like everyone else in Villány finished the day working in the vineyards to earn a little extra. He was also an early entrepreneur, setting up a small business grafting rootstocks with two friends. Antal died in 1981 and József made him a promise to look after his vines. ‘It seemed only natural that I should build on what I’d learned in the vineyards from my father.’
Engineering remained his career until 1992 when he turned to wine full time.Today Bock has 60ha of vines, and continues to be a pioneer – he was the first to make a Bordeaux blend in the region and was recently among the first to grow Syrah, which suits Villány’s warm climate. ‘I’ve been captivated by Australian Shiraz and was curious to see how it would adapt to our climate and terroir.’ His warm personality is reflected in his wines, very concentrated with ripe fruit.