Hungarian Wine Authorities Don’t Seem to Know Anything About Wine

The people in charge of Hungarian wine seem to believe that orange wine, pétillant naturel, natural wines, low-sulfur wines, and other experimental approaches to wine are abominations and mistakes.

According to an article recently published in the Winemaking Notebook, a free publication available to the winemaking community in Hungary, Kálmán Mészáros, the head of the Hungarian Alcoholic Beverages and Wineries Directorate (pictured above) believes that any winemaker with any professional pride would never make a white wine with extended skin contact.

“Before [the fall of Communism], vintners were actually fired if they failed to process the incoming grapes soon after arrival,” Mészáros was quoted as saying in this article.

The Hungarian Alcoholic Beverages and Wineries Directorate is part of the larger organization of the Hungarian National Food Chain Safety Office known by its local acronym: NEBIH.

The article in question serves largely to explain what NEBIH does with regards to testing and certifying Hungarian wines, how it is doing that during COVID, and to offer a lot of self-congratulations about how they’re helping Hungarian winemakers.

“We are also part of the wine industry, and we are organized around the success of winemakers,” says Mészáros, explaining that the quality of Hungarian wine improves each year thanks to his laboratory testing and quality controls.

Most wines pass our tests. The characteristic mistakes are mostly done by the ‘pioneers’. Orange wine is such a typical example, as well as sparkling wine made without disgorging. There was even someone who said that there was interest for wine with hydrogen-sulfate.

KÁlmÁn MÉszÁros, NEBIH Director

Of course, there are some places where quality is not improving according to Mészáros, which are mostly the smaller wineries who “sold wine at premium prices but the wines are not premium in quality.”

“Most wines pass our tests,” continued Mészáros. “The characteristic mistakes are mostly done by the ‘pioneers’. Orange wine is such a typical example as well as sparkling wine made without disgorging. There was even someone who said that there was interest for wine with hydrogen-sulfate.” [Editors Note: this translation has been double-checked for accuracy, and may be a mistake of the original Hungarian author who may have meant hydrogen sulfide?].

Orange wine is a problem, not only because it is “decaying” (to use Mészáros’ word) but also because the very term is misleading to consumers. “Many associate [orange wine] with citrus flavours because of the name, which they will definitely not find in them. Those not familiar with it will not know that the wine is made of grapes, they can think that it has something to do with oranges,” says the article.

If you’re not laughing (or crying) by now, wait until you hear the description of how wine was so great under communism because it was consistent for the consumer. And, oh, if we could only go back to those days….

“Prior to [the fall of Communism] our domestic market was dominated by typical wines,” suggests the article. “Then with the family wineries [who were finally allowed to operate when the wall came down] a certain ‘colourfulness’ appeared. However, it is typical that the consumer expects the same quality time and time again. According to [Mészáros], this could even be achieved with OEM wines that could be ‘constructed’ to achieve a certain flavour-type.”

Issues With Regional Certification Bodies

Most countries around the world (with the notable exception of the United States) define their appellations not only with geographical indications but also other regulations regarding the production of wines, which in many cases include stylistic definitions.

When a country decides to institute a formal set of geographical indications, or regulated delimitations that define specific wine growing areas, the regulations associated with this controlled appellation system are usually developed and overseen by a governmental body.

France, for instance, has the INAO, or the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité, which is responsible for overseeing France’s appellation d’orgine protégée system that covers not only wine but cheese, honey, meat, etc.

By and large, these organizations, and the smaller consortia that exist at the level of individual regions, have historically been a positive influence in the world of wine, thanks to their defense of and advocacy for regional winemaking traditions, and the regulations that prevent them from being victims of pure market opportunism. Brunello di Montalcino, for instance, decided to not allow any other grapes to join the traditional Sangiovese in its wines. Whereas the Rioja region decided in 2009 to allow other white grapes to be used to make Rioja Blanco because, among other things, there were judged to not be enough acres of the traditional Viura, Malvasia, and Garnacha Blanca varieties planted to allow the style to survive.

Most everywhere (again, apart from the United States) winemakers wishing to put a particular geographical indication, or appellation, on their label, must submit a sample of wine and paperwork to their regional certification body, who certify, or grant permission for that winemaker to label their wine appropriately.

One of the more controversial aspects of this process is known as the sensory panel, in which a wine is tasted by a panel of judges who can make two separate determinations: whether that wine is commercially sound (i.e. free of flaws) and whether the wine conforms to the typical “style” of a given region or class of wine from that region.

If the sensory panel doesn’t think the wine conforms to their idea of a good example of the form the winemaker is unable to label the wine with the appellation where it is made, often resulting in either not being able to sell the wine for as much money, or in some cases not being able to sell the wine at all.

A number of public fights with regional certification bodies have occurred over the years, as winemakers have fought to get their experiments, or merely their personal vision for what good wine, allowed to bear the name of their particular appellations. When winemakers disagree with the standards and judgment of their certifying organizations, they sometimes declassify their wines, choosing to label them with more generic appellations that have much broader rules about what is and what is not allowed. In 1996, Angelo Gaja famously declassified many of his wines, choosing to label them as Langhe Nebbiolo instead of the much more prestigious Barolo, because of his stated desire to include a small amount of Barbera in the Nebbiolo to improve the acid balance.

More recently a trend of declassification has swept the natural winemaking communities in several European countries in response to widespread rejection from sensory panels in their various regions. In the wide world of wine, the definition of what is “good wine,” remains subject to a lot of interpretation.

And the problem, of course, to come back to the sad state of affairs in Hungary, is that there’s a big difference between the way that wine looks to food safety professionals and the way that it looks to winemakers and their organizations.

A Tragic Situation for Hungary

Poor Kálmán Mészáros literally doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about. He’s busy prosecuting food safety issues with a 40-year-old playbook that says if something he tests falls outside of the parameters on his clipboard, it must not be wine. He’s clearly swept away by the romance of the wine world, and ignorantly believes himself to be a wine professional because he deals with wine, when in fact he doesn’t have the faintest idea. If he did, he wouldn’t make statements like “Winemaking is a practice older than ten thousand years where there are basic rules and cornerstones” while at the same time describing skin-macerated white wine (aka orange wine—literally one of the most ancient winemaking techniques still employed) as faulty or “decaying.”

Regional wine certification boards all around the world suffer from some degree of such ailments, as is common with any government bureaucratic institution. The people being asked to regulate the wine industry often remain quite out of touch with the constantly changing nature of the wine world, and far too often simply fall back on extremely conservative notions that may be time tested, while increasingly irrelevant.

My heart goes out to all my Hungarian winemaking friends. Orange wine, pét-nat, natural, and low-sulfur wine are all legitimate and exciting forms of wine. A country like Hungary, with some of the oldest traditions of legislated wine quality in the world and dozens of compelling local grape varieties shouldn’t be thwarting its winemaking community from tapping into global trends and exploring the possibilities of the raw materials they have been given.

Hungarian wine has had an uphill journey to return to quality since the end of the Cold War. The last thing it needs is small-minded bureaucrats trying to drag it back to that era.

Many thanks to Eva Cartwright for translation of the article from Hungarian to English.

*** UPDATE: August 20, 2021 ***

Quietly, at least as far as official government policy can ever be quiet, the Hungarian Agriculture Ministry has passed a new law allowing for the production and sale of various kinds of wines without requiring them to go through sensory evaluation panels. Effectively, say my friends in Hungary who have looked at the text of this regulation, this now permits natural wines and pet-nat wines to be legally produced and sold in Hungary for the first time as of August 1, 2021.

If the interpretations of this law are correct, then that is huge news, and I applaud the Hungarian authorities for taking this significant step towards the modernization of their wine regulations.