Natural Wine is Now Legal: Hungarian Wine Law Joins the Modern World

Last August, I wrote a story here that didn’t make me very happy, but needed to be written. A friend provided me the English translation of an article in the official journal of the body that oversees the Hungarian wine industry (essentially the Food Safety Board within the Ministry of Agriculture). In it, the man in charge of regulating all wine products railed against natural wines, orange wines, and pét-nat wines, essentially calling them abominations and deriding winemakers who were attempting to produce them. In the process, he even went so far as to say that Hungarian wine was better under Communism because it was more consistent.

Rejoice, natural wine lovers! You will soon be able to get pet-nat Harselevelu! Which, come to think of it, sounds pretty damn tasty.

It was not a good look for Hungary. While natural wine was busy taking the world by storm, Hungary, one of the most significant historical wine-producing countries in the world, was seemingly quite pleased that such wines were illegal to make and sell within its borders.

Almost exactly one year later, the Ministry of Agriculture quietly (if government regulation is ever possible to do truly quietly) released a significant revision to the existing wine law whose primary purpose seems to be the allowance of natural wine and related wine categories.

Rejoice, natural wine lovers. You will soon be able to get pét-nat Harselevelu! Which, come to think of it, sounds pretty damn tasty.

The trick of this new law seems to hinge upon the official governmental designation of what constitutes “wine.” Thanks to Google Translate, the particular line of regulation that defines wine production in Hungary reads as “the process beginning with the processing of grapes and ending with the operation prior to presentation, after which the analytical and organoleptic characteristics of the product no longer change;” [emphasis mine].

A big chunk of the new regulations that went into effect August 1st deal with a category of product the ministry announcements refer to as “murci” in Hungarian, which is probably best translated as “must” or perhaps most accurately as “not-yet-finished-fermenting wine.”

What the government seems to be saying with this new rule is simply that natural wines and pet-nat wines are not quite yet wine, by governmental definition, and therefore by virtue of that fact, do not need to conform to the sensory evaluation, lab analysis and other regulatory strictures that have heretofore governed wine (and by extension, ruled out natural wines as a commercial product).

If you think about it, this is sort of the ultimate bureaucratic judo move. It allows the government to suggest that there was nothing wrong with the existing wine regulations except for the fact that there was this category of products that aren’t wine that it had neglected to deal with. With the stroke of a pen, there are now a few regulations for those products, and you can easily imagine them saying to themselves, “Now hopefully all those wine people will stop yammering on about orange wine.”

The more cynical of my Hungarian friends suggest that the government’s use of the term “murci” also has something of a deliberate negative connotation, as culturally Hungarians might tell each other to stay away from “murci” for fear of the bad effects of an unfinished, and by implication poorly made product.

Possible official aspersions aside, there are a couple of other very interesting things buried in this new legislation. The most exciting may be the fact that the Hungarian government officially acknowledges and defines a new set of regulated and official wine terms, which include:

  • ORANGE WINE: defined as: “Wine made from white grapes with a sugar content of at least 204.5 g / l, fermented for at least 7 days, which may vary in color from deep yellow to amber. The words ‘wine obtained by fermentation of white grape skins’ must appear on the label.”
  • NATURAL WINE: (I’ll summarize…) defined essentially as being made from hand-picked, certified organic grapes processed in an organic-certified facility with the only possible additives being inert gas (to manage oxidation) and a maximum amount of 40mg/l of added sulfur dioxide.
  • PÉTNAT: defined as “A sparkling wine or semi-sparkling wine which meets the requirements of a natural wine in all respects and which completes its first alcoholic fermentation in a bottle, thus having a natural carbon dioxide content.”

It is not 100% clear to me (or to the Hungarian friends who alerted me to this change) whether all three of these newly defined categories would fall under the category of “murci,” which most easily applies to pét-nat wines. If not, then presumably the government will quickly be developing sensory and analytic standards for natural wines and orange wines.

Sharp observers will also note that essentially what the Hungarian government has done with the above is to mandate that any natural wines and pet-nat wines will have to be hand-picked, fermented with native yeasts, and be organically certified, a move that perhaps not coincidentally mirrors the recent French Vin Nature designation.

This certification requirement will doubtless cause some consternation amongst smaller producers in Hungary who, like their compatriots in many regions around the world, often choose to forgo the costs and administrative hurdles of organic certification.

A New Day for Hungarian Wine

These new regulations, which are provisionally in place as of August 1, and become fully in force in August 2022, represent a massive change in Hungarian wine law, and a victory for the small, independent winemakers who would like to join their global peers in the natural wine movement or capitalize on trends sweeping all other corners of the wine industry.

Interestingly, my friends in Hungary say that these regulations came as a complete surprise, with no one aware of any consultation or conversations between government officials and Hungarian winemakers or wine associations.

Nonetheless, with these regulations, Hungary has taken a great leap forward towards joining the global wine community and created real new opportunities for its wine sector.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what the passionate winemakers of Hungary do now. Orange Furmint anyone?!? The next big thing for sure. It’s gonna be awesome. You heard it here first.

Photo of sunrise over the Hungarian parliament building by Daniel Olah on Unsplash