Hungarian Wine: Hope, Dreams, Heritage and Progress

As I began writing this, I was halfway across the North Atlantic on my way home from a trip to Hungary. The quiet, darkened lower deck of an Airbus A380 and a cup of coffee provided me the perfect opportunity to reflect on what I took away from my latest visit to the land of Furmint (where I’ve spent a week battling Apple’s maddening tendency to autocorrect Furmint to Ferment).

I last visited Hungary in 2012 when provided with the fantastically educational opportunity to serve as a judge for what was then the most prominent national wine competition, the Pannonhalma Wine Challenge. I accepted the invitation to be a judge (something I rarely do — judging is brutally thankless work) for the chance to quickly and deeply familiarize myself with the wines of a country that had, until that point, really only been represented in my tasting history as a couple of nice bottles of Tokaj Azsu dessert wine and a rare dry Furmint from the same region.

My initial visit (largely summarized here in my scores from the wines tasted at the Challenge) demonstrated a lot of potential but also a very mixed bag of quality.

This most recent trip was the direct result of the good discoveries made during that initial experience, in particular the wonders of a grape named Juhfark, which I almost always want to write with a trailing exclamation point, so bright and vibrant is it in the mouth.

So a couple of weeks ago I spent about 5 days in what was until recently Hungary’s smallest wine region, Somló, which is where Juhfark calls home. Following that delightful experience, which you will hear much more about in the coming weeks, I spent a solid two and a half days in Tokaj, catching up on how things are Fermenting – er, Furminting — in the country’s most well-known region.

Add to that a day of wandering around Budapest, and I’ve got a few impressions (with extremely dubious authority) to share on what’s changed in the 4 years since I was last there. Take these with the appropriately sized grain of salt required to temper one man’s week of observations and conversations.


On my first visit, Budapest immediately presented as a gorgeous city, with the grandeur and old-world charm that has so attracted Americans to cities such as Prague for years. But as beautiful as the Danube and the architecture might have been, the streets of Budapest seemed much less vibrant and enticing as some of those other eastern European capitals.


Not so this past month. I was thrilled to find a much more energetic vibe in the city, from sidewalk traffic, to demand for tables in the city’s top wine bars. On my last trip, around the same time of year, I could have walked into any number of the top restaurants or wine bars and gotten a table in a half-empty establishment. This time I literally needed to call in a favor to get into one of the city’s five Michelin-starred restaurants, and spent two hours watching an incredibly cosmopolitan crowd deeply engaged in conversations with each other, and with the polyglot, highly-attentive staff. My meal at Borkonyha was fabulous, and I had as good a wine experience at the hands of the sommeliers there as I have had in any restaurant in the US.


The menu at Borkonyha, as well as in other restaurants and shops I visited during that trip reflected both what seemed to me an increased sophistication in cooking, but also the growing emphasis on local products that has been such a fantastic trend in fine dining around the world.

How appropriate then, to also see a proliferation of farmers’ markets in Budapest, including one occupying yet another piece of evidence for the city’s dynamic present: the ruin pub.


The ruin pub is precisely what it sounds like — a bar set up in the most dubious of buildings, usually an abandoned one brought back from the brink of (or despite a final) condemnation by government safety inspectors. They are apparently quite the ‘thing,’ and have populated the 7th and 8th districts of the city like hot restaurants in the Meatpacking District of New York over the last 10 years.


What an eclectic setting, then for a Sunday farmers market, packed to the gills with locals (and a few amazed tourists like me) and fantastic produce, including two honey purveyors, each of which sporting something like forty different varietal honeys that could easily have led to insulin shock without a little tasting self control on my part.


In short, Budapest was already pretty cool, but now it rocks, at least in my opinion. Get your food-wine-travel-loving rear-end there while you can still get reasonably priced hotel rooms.

And make sure to reserve a few days for a trip to one of the country’s many wine regions.


Like other old world countries that have only since the Nineties rebooted their fine wine producing traditions (think Turkey, Greece, etc.), on my last visit Hungary seemed besotted with the trappings of the glamorous international wine scene. Which is to say: new oak, high alcohol, and to a lesser extent, international grape varieties. Wine quality varied between pretty vile stuff and damn fine wine, and everything in between. That variability still exists (heck, it exists everywhere in the wine world to some extent), but the overall level of quality seems to have risen. One of the most easily recognizable representatives of this trend must be the state of dry Tokaji Furmint.


While it has yet to be actually legislated as such, Furmint has been openly described by government representatives as the national grape. The post-Cold-War rebirth of the Hungarian wine industry as a whole, and the Tokaj region specifically, has been the result of success with making dry table wines from the grape long responsible for the region’s unique sweet wines.

Production of Tokaji Aszu and the area’s other Noble-Rot-based sweet wines sadly continues to decline, but more and more producers are making what were once rare versions of dry Furmint.


On my previous visit, there seemed to be a lot more variability in these wines than I experienced last week. I found fewer blocky, angular wines that seemed to attack rather than please the palate, and more round, pleasant, and very drinkable renditions of the form. My discussions with winemakers being far from comprehensive on the subject, I can say that the improving quality of these wines likely results from one or more of: picking a little later, malolactic fermentation, leaving a little more residual sugar in the finished wine, and/or managing tannins and other compounds through farming or fermentation techniques.

In particular (and very unscientifically) I think I found more wines with increased residual sugar (between 3 and 6 grams per liter) that I really enjoyed.

As the country’s most prestigious wine region, Tokaj, or perhaps more accurately its proponents (see struggles below), are working hard to increase the sales, visibility, and value of its wines.


Now in its fourth year, The Tokaji Wine Auction took place on the weekend of April 23rd. This event, which has steadily increased its size and take every year, was imagined by vintner Samuel Tinon and a group calling themselves the Confrérie de Tokajas a way of increasing the visibility of the region’s wines as well as beginning to establish the idea of just how premium the region’s wines can be. Like many such auctions around the world, including the Hospice de Beaune on which it is modeled, the auction sells off unique or special wines in large lots (barrel, half barrel, or new for this year, tranches of bottles) to raise money for the region’s promotion, and for charity (though, admittedly, charitable donations are a future hope at this point for a region that still needs as much promotional help as it can get.

“I think this is one of the most important events in Tokaj, and from an international perspective, the most important,” says Rita Takaro, a marketing consultant that was hired this year to help put on the event. “This is still at the beginning. We are going step by step.”

Despite the prestige of the wines on offer, from some of the region’s top producers, not all of the 27 lots found buyers at this year’s auction, and a few were sold for their opening prices.


“We are still not visible on the market,” explains Takaro. “Tokaj has a brand image with professionals but not with consumers.”

But some are trying to change that, such as a unique venture called Furmint USA, that is part promotional marketing arm, and part importer (Full disclosure: this organization underwrote the Tokaj portion of my press trip).

An outgrowth of the sister-cityhood of Tokaj and Sonoma, this organization is run by two wine-loving business professionals (who, as of yet, are still hanging onto their day jobs). FurmintUSA conducts tastings, social media campaigns, and content marketing of dry Furmint from a group of Tokaj producers in conjunction with wine blogging ambassador Joe Roberts. The effort is still in early days, but if successful (meaning that it manages to effectively sell the wines of its member producers) it may be first step to turning dry Furmint into Hungary’s equivalent of Austria’s Grüner Veltliner or New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc.

That’s the sort of breakout recognition of Furmint everyone is shooting for. And it’s what the grape deserves.

So how are the wines of Tokaj these days? In a word, excellent.

At the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, Tokaj, like the rest of Hungary’s wine regions was suffering from a combination of neglect and abuse. Those vineyards still in production had been used to produce massive quantities of wine to slake the thirst of the Soviet Union and were under the purview of the massive state-run wine factory.


The investment immediately following the fall of the Wall was primarily from foreign investors, meaning that for the next 15 years or so there were only a few commercial producers in the region and few of them locally spawned efforts.

When I visited in 2012, a few smaller producers had begun to pop up here and there, but a lot has changed in the last few years. Where there were perhaps a dozen or so smaller independents in 2012, there are now perhaps 40 small labels that are commercially releasing wine.


Perhaps not surprisingly, these producers, as well as some of the larger ones, continue to raise the bar for quality in the region, focusing on, among other things, more sustainable farming. In particular, I saw less obvious use of herbicides than on my previous trip, and spoke with many producers who talked about their efforts to eliminate Roundup in favor of tilling and mowing.


Most encouragingly, many producers are beginning to emphasize single vineyards in their production. This may not sound like a big deal, but to Tokaj it is doubly significant. The use of single vineyard names on the labels of Tokaj not only represents the usual dedication to expressing a particular plot’s distinctive personality, it represents a reclaiming of the region’s incredible heritage.

For those who might not know, Tokaj is one of the oldest known appellations in the world (records date back at least to 1641). Moreover, Tokaj’s appellation system included many single vineyard crus that are still in production today. The specificity and detail of many 16th to 18th Century maps of the region speak of a time when the region paid much more attention to such things. That Tokaj may be paying more attention to such things is a welcome sign indeed.


It may be tiny, but Somló seems poised to make an impression on the wine world in the way that Santorini, Etna, or Corsica have recently become darlings of the wine cognoscenti. Many barriers still lie in the way of this ascendancy, not the least of which is the scarcity of the wines in the US market (though Hungarian specialist Blue Danube has recently picked up a couple more producers). But mark my words, like these other volcanic terroirs that have captured the imagination and palates of sommeliers everywhere, Somló is going to be a contender. I personally am going to be doing my part to make that happen, as I fell deeply in love with the region and its wines on this trip. You can expect to see more from me on that in due time.


Despite much progress, all my conversations with winemakers and champions of the Hungarian wine industry left me with the same feeling of frustration that clearly plagues everyone I spoke with.

The vestigal effects of the Cold War continue to reverberate through the country, namely in the form of a government that seems more focused on pouring money into the state-run wine operations than supporting the broader industry. In particular, tens of millions of US dollars have been spent on increasing the quality of wine produced by the state’s own winery in Tokaj, but very little money (or thought) seems to have been spent on marketing Tokaj wines as a whole.

Every new administration in the government seems to, at some point, take an interest in promoting Hungarian wine, but the money never seems to get to the Wines of Hungary organization, or once there it never seems to get spent on anything effective.


Regional wine marketing organizations (whose charter and focus would be the promotion and marketing of their particular region as a whole) simply don’t seem to exist, in the case of Tokaj, or in the case of other regions, are far from inclusive, not very effective, and rife with politics. (Though it should be noted that the wine growers association of Somló managed to rally together enough to help pay for my plane ticket, which was no small feat for a tiny little region).

Very good (yet still frustrating) reasons exist for this state of affairs, but it still boggles the mind that, for instance, as one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious wine regions, Tokaj doesn’t have a regional marketing body that is the equivalent of the Napa Valley Vintners association or the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne.


One of the key factors in play in Hungary simply comes down to money. Tokaji wines simply don’t sell enough, or for high enough prices, for the producers to have enough money to pay dues to an organization that could help promote their wares. Of course, in other European countries, the government kicks in a lot of money to such organizations, but Hungary seems maddeningly unwilling to do so, preferring instead to build new wineries for its state-run operations, and pay London-based PR firms to do studies proving what everyone already knows, namely that the Tokaj brand has low recognition around the world.

Listening to the travails of vintners who so clearly hunger for (and deserve) the kind of representation that might expose more consumers to the country’s unique wines frankly made me angry. Promoting the country’s fine wines around the world could have a dramatic economic impact in both the short and long term for the country as a whole, both in terms of raising exports, but also in the form of tourism dollars.

So much quality already exists, and so much more potential lies in wait, it’s just a damn shame that the country can’t get its sh*t together to better promote its wines.

So I guess I’ll be doing my part. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for reviews from my visit. And in the meantime, drink some Furmint or Juhfark!