Wines of Hungary through the eyes of the sommelier

Norbert Kovács, third-place winner at the 2018 Balkan Sommelier Challenge, has been working in the hospitality industry since he was 20 and since 2012, he has been actively involved in wines as well.

Currently, he works as a restaurant manager and sommelier in Zelweg, in the Austrian province of Styria.

Norbert Kovács

Are Hungarian wines appreciated abroad?

The greatest value of Hungarian wines lies in their uniqueness. Our strength lies not in the quantity we produce, but rather the quality of our wines, made possible by the long-standing traditions and rich culture of viticulture and winemaking in our country.

This is what makes us stand out in international comparison and, if we are able to find the right grape varieties and styles in each wine district, we have a good chance of becoming competitive in the international market.

Fortunately, there are more and more encouraging signs, largely due to the fact that rejuvenation is underway in all wine regions. With the appearance of the second and third generation of winemakers, fresh impetus has been brought to the winemaking scene.

In your opinion, what is the potential of Hungarian wines and what is their market position?

Internationally competitive wines are produced in more and more wine regions. In addition to dynamic development, Hungarian winemakers are beginning to recognise that there is great demand for our local, historical grape varieties.

The world is curious to taste our fresh and fruity wines, made from special grape varieties, and to learn about the stories behind them. This is a great advantage for Hungary as an emerging winemaking power that has been on the scene for a long time. Tokaj is a gateway to Hungarian wines all around the world, offering great opportunities for all other wine regions as well.

What about the future outlook?

The wine region and the style of the wine are essential factors. However, as is true for all other prestigious wine regions in the world, grape variety is behind it all.

We need to reach a point where our wines made from different grape varieties have all achieved well-defined style and character traits. I believe that terroir wines have a great future, and emphasis must be laid on refining their unique character.

In addition to offering a good price-value ratio, Hungarian wines should be suitable for being sold by the glass in foreign restaurants. This way, a much wider range of consumers may gain access to our wines.

Which grape varieties and wine regions would you say are the most promising?

Olaszrizling, Furmint and Hárslevelű are definitely some of the top candidates, but autochthonous grape varieties such as the Somló Juhfark or the Kéknyelű may also have great success among foreign wine lovers.

Its full aromas and pleasant acids give Olaszrizling a uniqueness that makes it stand out in the international comparison.

Furmint is easily cultivated in several different wine regions, showing a different face in every area. Due to its elegance and wide use, it may achieve great success in top gastronomy.

One of my personal favourites is the Hárslevelű. Its floral scent, that sometimes resembles honey, makes it easily accessible to a wide variety of wine consumers. Its fuller body, containing perhaps a few grams of residual sugar, makes it an ideal choice after spicy dishes.

In addition to Somló, Tokaj-Hegyalja, Badacsony and the Balaton Uplands (Balaton-felvidék), which all give excellent white wines, some of our wine districts are best known for their excellent red wines, such as Eger, Szekszárd, Sopron or Villány.

As for red grape varieties, I prefer Kékfrankos and Kadarka. The versatility, spiciness and fruitiness of the Kékfrankos make it perfectly suitable for everyday use, but it plays a role in top gastronomy as well.

The same goes for the Bikavér varieties of Szekszárd and Eger. I believe that Bikavér has undergone great development in both wine regions, and has become one of our staple brands. In itself or as a supplement to the Kékfrankos, Kadarka is another exciting variety that has been an essential part of Hungarian wine and food culture for many years.

Is there an international interest for wines made from less common grape varieties, such as those that are country-specific?

High-end restaurants are not driven by quantity considerations, and most sommeliers try to avoid mass-produced wines. Guests are looking for the new and the rare, and are always curious about the story and the people behind the wine. This is the perfect setting for presenting the wines of Hungary.

However, everyone needs to understand that producing good wines is just one half of it. We must introduce them to the world; to foreign sommeliers, who can convince their guests to try Hungarian wines. Without personal attachment, it’s much harder to argue for a wine or recommend it to the guests.

In any case, special Hungarian grape varieties provide a wide margin of manoeuvre not only for chefs, but for sommeliers as well. I work with Hungarian wines all the time, and I couldn’t miss noticing that they always come as a positive surprise to our guests.

December 2020

Feature sponsored by Agricultural Marketing Centre

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