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Published:  23 July, 2008

Hungary may be famous for its Tokaji and Bull's Blood, but since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc the country has been struggling to secure a foothold for its table wines in major export markets. And, as Christian Davis reports, frustration is growing over the lack of a generic voice

The Hungarians have an expression: Srva vigad a magyar', which translates roughly to, crying when you are happy'. When you look at their wine industry and its past, it is certainly enough to make you want to weep. While many wine-producing countries are expanding, Hungary fell off the precipice when the Soviet Union collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, followed by the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Hungary exported approximately 2.5 million hectolitres (hl) to its Communist neighbours, but when the Iron Curtain fell it lost 90% of that market in one year and all of its state wineries went bankrupt. Enter Gyrgy Rask (George Rasko' to the British), who became Secretary of State for Agriculture between the turbulent years of 1990 and 1994, and the man responsible for privatising the Hungarian wine industry. You know you have made your mark in politics when people demonstrate against you and Rasko has made his mark. We have 40 years [the period of Communist rule] to make up,' he told Harpers. It is not like a war that lasts five years. People get impatient and ask: "Why can't we be like the other countries?" But,' he reiterates, we have four decades to make up.' Myliko International sources wine from four wineries in three Hungarian regions, primarily for its Chapel Hill brand. Its flying winemaker', Clive Hartnell, says: The biggest challenge is to reverse the falling sales volumes of Hungarian wines in the UK. The UK is a very image-conscious market and is currently under the "New World influence". Hungary is still classified as "Eastern Europe", which is seen as grey and dull. In reality,' says Hartnell, Hungary has now improved quality far more significantly and rapidly than the rest of this segment and should be re-evaluated. It is an "emerging country", producing good value-for-money wines, especially at sub-5. Hungary must redefine its niche and build from there.' David Gill MW agrees. The sales director of Bottle Green, which imports Hilltop Neszmly and - with own-label and the up-and-coming Riverview range - claims 65% of UK off-trade sales of Hungarian wine, says, Hungary has been lumped in with Eastern Europe. Also, the market has moved massively to red and Hungary is much better at inexpensive whites.' This is ironic, because Hungary is best known for a dessert wine and a tough, tannic red - Bull's Blood. Yet there is no generic voice to correct consumer perceptions. Respected wine author Alex Liddell spent six months in Hungary researching a book on the country's wines, and spoke to 300 producers. He says: I think Hungary has the potential to emerge as a world player, but in some ways it is its own worst enemy. New World countries have large budgets for promotions, which is important to focus public interest. Hungary has no budget at all. There was no trade tasting this year.' Liddell may be right. Another Hungarian expression - J bornak, nem kell cgr' - maintains that good wine doesn't need advertising or promoting. That's fine, if you're Lafite or Grange. Today, Gyrgy Rask is vice-president of the Democratic People's Party, which he describes as moderate conservative centrist, against extremes, but not for total liberalisation'. Rask is a special adviser to the Hungarian Government on agriculture and the new administration has tacitly agreed to set aside a budget to promote quality Hungarian wines from next year. The emphasis is on quality and Rask points to regions such as Eger in the northeast, near Tokaj; Villny in the south, and around Lake Balaton as areas producing quality wines, particularly reds. Nevertheless, he is concerned. The Soviets used to run the Hungarian wine industry - Tokaji wine made for the Russian market was fortified and was known as "Ruski benzine" - and I am disappointed with Germany,' he says, because they buy Hungarian wine mainly in bulk for blending and producing terrible Liebfraumilch. The UK market is the most important export market: it is at least quality sensitive. Sadly, the Hungarians are making a huge mistake by not being prepared to meet market standards. Quality is good, but self-confidence is missing.' This apparent lack of confidence is echoed in the latest World Atlas of Wine (Fifth Edition) by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW. It states: From the 1960s, Hungary began to lose confidence in her traditions, her wines became less special - made to a price rather than a standard. The 1970s and 1980s saw plantings of international grape varieties on a large scale - a trend accelerated in the 1990s as formerly state-held land was privatised and many foreign investors sought easily exportable bargains.' Johnson should know, as he is one of around 60 shareholders in the Royal Tokaji Company, along with well-known Danish-born winemaker Peter Vinding-Diers. To circumvent the Hungarian law that prevents foreigners owning land, the company's holdings are in the company lawyer's name. With the name of Tokaj, recently designated a World Heritage site, debased by the Russians, Vinding-Diers told Harpers that the Royal Tokaji Company is fighting like tigers to re-invent what used to be'. He eschews international grape varieties, saying that Hungarians should stick to their indigenous grapes. Describing himself as an enthusiast for getting something right', Johnson told Harpers that the Hungarians are trying to redefine themselves, but it is taking longer than perhaps they had hoped'.

Tackling the insular thinking Liddell identifies two fundamental problems restricting the Hungarian wine industry. Firstly, there is no large domestic wine-drinking market. Hungarians earn so little that they cannot afford anything other than cheap white wine. With little demand, there is no incentive to improve quality and there are insufficient returns to invest in the vineyards and better vinification. Secondly, with restrictions on land ownership, there is little foreign investment. This may change with Hungary's forthcoming entry into the European Union, but many are sceptical of its worth, predicting that Hungary will become a dumping ground for surplus wine from the likes of Spain, Italy and France. Liddell says: The producers are on a hiding to nothing. Also, most small producers do not know how to export.' Which comes back to the lack of any sort of generic body. Two respected Eger winemakers, Vilmos Thummerer and Bla Vincze, would like to export their wines - including Bull's Blood - but are pretty much resigned to servicing a difficult domestic market. Thummerer, a former Hungarian winemaker of the year, bemoans the fact that most Hungarians want cheap and mainly white wines'. Some 80% of his production is red and he exports a little of his fairly traditional wines to the UK. Thummerer conjures up another Hungarian proverb: Jgyk bort akinek pnze nincs s v lesz a vilgon minden kincs', which roughly translates to Drink wine, for he who has no money has everything in the world'. Thummerer's Bull's Blood is based on 50% Kkfrankos, while Vincze's is more full-bodied, with more fruit (25% each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Kkfrankos and Merlot). Vincze, who sells his wines mainly to restaurants and hotels in Budapest, feels that Kkfrankos has been dismissed as a secondary grape, good only for mass production, but he believes that the variety has secrets' and, with a little effort, could be more concentrated. Can Bull's Blood make a comeback? Can it lead the charge for Hungarian branded reds? The brand' crashed and burned back in the mid-1980s, but mention Hungarian wine to many - particularly older - people and they will reply, Bull's Blood'. If Blue Nun, Black Tower and Piat d'Or can do it, why not good old Bikavr? Alan Ponting, owner of Wines of Westhorpe, which looks after Chateau Vincent, Attila Gere, Budai, Vinarium and Huba Szeremley, among others, believes there is a blip on the radar screen for Bull's Blood. Interest in Bull's Blood appears to be ebbing up,' he says. More of the multiples are listing it. The trouble is, it is still seen as a commodity. Hungary is moving towards quality reds and it makes credible sparkling whites, made by the tank method, mthode classique or traditionnelle, depending on who they are aimed at. But the issue for Hungary revolves around two figures - 3.99 and 4.99,' says Ponting. Hungary needs to populate those price points with wine of above basic quality. People think of Hungary and think "cheap". It's a crying shame.' Libby Nutt, marketing manager at D&D wines, which imports probably the most widely distributed Bull's Blood, says: Bull's Blood is a brand that many consumers have heard of and recall. We are still selling it at a healthy rate, with most customers being 40-plus. When it goes on promotion, we sell double.' Gill says that Bottle Green saw the writing on the wall' and, with Eva Keresztury at Hilltop, launched the Riverview brand, aimed specifically at young, sassy women who are sophisticated, know what they want and are out for a good time. Most people talk about "targeting ABC1s, 25- to 35-year-olds". That's very dull and everyone is doing it,' says Gill. At Myliko, Hartnell also believes the 4-5 band is crucial and brands such as Myliko's Chapel Hill have, in fact, been successful in moving Hungarian wines away from the rock bottom 2.99-3.29, where nobody makes any money. He believes indigenous varieties have their place, but the volume end of the market will always be for the international rescue' varieties. In the absence of any generic voice, Myliko and Henkell & Shnlein Hungria have funded a programme run by Patrick and Neil Gooch of promotional agency RGS, consisting of a series of seminars for wine educators, in order to enhance their understanding of Hungary. Undoubtedly, Liddell's book will establish itself as the authority on Hungarian wine. He believes the Eger region, which is expanding quickly, has huge potential - for whites as well as reds. Villny, with the likes of Attila Gere, is already producing splendid wines' and has immense potential. But Liddell believes Szekszrd, just north of Villny, is one of several Cinderella regions' and has a long way to go'. Certainly, if the fluctuating quality of Chateau Teleki is anything to go by, consistency is an issue. Sopron [in the northwest, close to the Austrian border] is another Cinderella region and has a reputation for hard, angular, acidic wines,' Liddell adds. But since they have discovered malolactic fermentation they are doing well and I believe that is an area that will come to the fore.' He also believes that the volcanic soils in the area just north of Lake Balaton produce wines with striking mineral characters that represent some of Hungary's best whites. Tokaji aside, there is an enormous job to be done to arrest the decline in sales of Hungarian wines in the UK. However, Ponting dismisses Tokaji as old hat and misleading as to what Hungarian wines are about', while Hartnell says, however good it is, Tokaji sells relatively small volumes'. As well as crying while enjoying themselves' there is another apposite Hungarian saying: Borbon az igazsag, borbon a vigasz' - the truth is in the wine, so is the consolation. Bring on the loud-hailer.