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Vol 2, No 22
5 June 2000
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Photo Credit: Emil-Nicolaie Perhinschi Hard Graft to
Make, Pleasure
to Intake

Alcohol and its
consumption in Hungary

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Gondolj arra egy pillanatra, mennyi verejtékes munka van egy pohárnyi magyar borban!
Take a minute to think about how much hard graft went into producing a single glass of Hungarian wine!
(The Wine Drinker's Ten Commandments: the Tenth Commandment).

From the air-conditioned compartment of the InterCity conveying me to the city of Szeged, I gazed at the sun-drenched expanses of the Great Plain, which stretched in an unspoiled panorama on both sides of the track. Occasionally we would pass through small villages, barriers lowered across the road with vans, cars and trucks queuing patiently until we passed by. Soon the white processing plant emblazoned with the Pick salami logo came into view, followed by the twin towers of the cathedral, twin bastions of physical and spiritual sustenance.

At first glance, Szeged might seem like a sleepy provincial backwater not ideally suited to investigating the role of alcohol in contemporary Hungarian life, but from 26 to 29 May it provided the backdrop for an important Wine Festival, which has become something of a tradition in recent years. There is far more to alcohol in Hungary after all than Zwack Unicum and Tokaji Aszú!

My first port of call was Széchenyi tér, the city's main square. Two rows of stalls nestled in the shade of the plane trees, lining the main promenade. Wine drinkers relaxed at tables, chatting to strains of popular music played live on stage. Exhibitors and producers had gathered from all over Hungary, and my task was to seek out Ms Szilvia Somodi, Deputy Manager of the family-run Somodi Vineyards, an excellent example of how the entrepreneurial spirit in Hungary has been revitalised since the changeover to a consumer society.
My host proved to be an intelligent, charming and articulate young lady.

CER: Ms Somodi, could you say a few words about Hungarian wine production in general and about the wines of the Great Plain (Alföld) in particular?

Somodi: At the present moment there are 22 wine-growing regions in Hungary, three of which are situated on the Great Plain. Between 30 and 40% of the country's total wine production comes from the Alföld, so production here is quite considerable. In spite of this, people do not know about Alföld wines, or, if they do actually know something about them, their associations are negative. Unfortunately, I can understand the reasons why the connotations are negative, but I believe that the antagonism between the wines of the Alföld and the mountainous districts is on the wane.

All of Hungary is particularly suited to viticulture, especially the production of white wine. This is not just true of Szeged, which is fondly nicknamed "Sunshine City" (a napfény városa), but also of Kecskemét downwards. This is due to the number of hours of sunshine and the temperature grapes require. In both respects, Hungary is optimal.

To focus on the Alföld for a moment: we have, for example, been trying for years now to prove that it is perfectly possible to produce quality wine. Slowly but surely the message is beginning to spread, there is greater awareness concerning our products and so our efforts have met with success. Of course, in order to produce quality wine good grape varieties are needed and a serious amount of expertise.

CER: Would you say that the situation is changing for Alföld wines, and how would you describe their typical characteristics?

Somodi: The changes taking place are slow and gradual. There are lots of exhibitors here, who are ready to enter into competition with other wines, no matter what other region they are grown in. I firmly believe that there is plenty of room for every different type of wine within our diet.

It is not always a good idea to drink a full-bodied red from the Villány region with a meal, for example. Such a heavy red is not suitable for accompanying a light meal. It is not the kind of bottle of wine that is conducive for sitting down for a chat. Alföld wines are in general light, although much depends on exactly where they were produced. I think there is a niche for them. They are particularly suitable for drinking with meals.

CER: Building up a wine-growing business obviously requires a hefty investment. Could you give us some insights into this and perhaps compare the current state of play with the days before the collapse of Communism?

Somodi: Before the collapse of Communism, it was virtually impossible to set up a privately owned business. Our business started from scratch in 1991, but we had built up over thirty years of specialist knowledge. Establishing the vineyard was a slow, capital-intensive process. Growing grapes is a costly and risky business because of the vicissitudes of the weather and because it takes a great deal of time for the wine to mature.

In Christmas of last year we sold the last bottle of wine harvested in 1994. Until such time as it is sold, we have no return on our investment. Wine needs special care and attention: without it an entire year's production can be ruined. There is a lot more work to wine production even than this: we have also had to do a lot of canvassing. We have to place a great deal more emphasis on the marketing aspect and this is difficult because of the huge expense involved.

This is why festivals such as the one being held here in Szeged are so important. They provide us with an opportunity to put in an appearance in public and to make our views heard. We like to do the rounds of as many places as possible and preach the message that Alföld wines are good and that there is a great deal of scope for development in terms of Hungarian oenoculture in general.

People still have a lot to learn and we try to give them a helping hand by attending such events. In this undertaking, we have received a lot of support from local firms, which buy up our wines as gifts for their partners, attempting to spread the word amongst those partners about our wines. The local media, the TV station and the newspaper, are happy to discuss wine-production and present it in a positive light.

CER: Why did Alföld wines suffer a bad reputation for so long?

Somodi: Firstly, I believe that the contrast between the mountainous regions and the plains was exaggerated. Obviously, wine produced on sandy soil, volcanic soil or mountainous soil will differ in quality. What we are dealing with is two different sets of products.

Unfortunately, in the last few years so-called "forged wine" [an inferior product from almost anything but grapes passed off as wine and sold locally] has had a negative impact on the reputation of winegrowers as a whole. I would not be quite so happy to talk about that particular aspect, since it is always better to try to focus on the positive side of things.

On this particular issue, the media - the national media to be more precise - latched on to one or two items of news and blew them up out of all proportion. It is true, however, that forgery of wine did go on and continues to go on, but it is not typical of the Alföld wine growing region alone and I would prefer to concentrate on it, going into the subject in some detail.

It is true that wine forgery has caused us a lot of serious problems because it pushes down the prices, ruins the public image of wine and makes it even harder for us to persuade people to drink wine, to take the plunge and give wine a try. It is a genuine problem, but we have to get over it and move on.

CER: That is precisely why I reckon such events are so important. Clearly, if someone buys wine on the sly from someone's garage they do not expect it to be of such high quality as well-presented wine, beautifully bottled and labelled like yours. The difference in presentation corresponds to a difference in quality.

Somodi: There are many aspects to this question. Bottled, quality wines are not affected by the problem [of wine forgery], because they are really produced from grapes. If they did not live up to a certain level of quality they would not stay on the market. The problem lies mainly with the non-bottled, cheaper wine sold by the measure from plastic containers. These types of wine can also be good, with a good body to them. It depends entirely on how honest their producers are.

I believe, however, that a gradual process of change will soon set in here as well. What we have to do is to hold out until an appropriate wine culture becomes established, in which there is greater awareness of the potential these wines have. It is absolutely certain that recognising forged wine is not as easy as it might seem. Good forgers are able to pull the wool over even the experts' eyes, for a while at least.

CER: As you know, Hungary is preparing for accession to the EU. Can you see any signs of change on the Hungarian market even during the preparatory stage? Do Hungarian winegrowers plan to apply for support from the agricultural funds?

Somodi: To tell you the truth, the entire wine-growing industry is slightly afraid of EU accession, since we are more than aware that there are wine surpluses and quotas within the EU, which means that it will not be possible to plant as many vine-stocks as we might like to think. We can still plant what we like until such a time as we join the EU, but the amount of land planted with vineyards is decreasing by itself anyway because of the difficult economic circumstances, which prevail. To be perfectly honest, the wine-growing industry does not feature currently amongst the more profitable branches of activity, although this is true of agriculture in general.

At the present juncture, Hungarian agriculture is in a fairly bad position and it is not a foregone conclusion that EU accession will change things for the positive. One of the reasons is that the ownership structure consists of a large number of tiny holdings - which also holds true of grape production, where there is a plethora of small grape-growing areas. They are difficult to manage properly and it is far from certain that dealing with such small areas is even worth the effort.

I do not believe, for example, that the EU will give support to Hungarian vine-stock planting precisely because of the surpluses mentioned earlier. Once the customs duties are reduced or abolished altogether, cheap, good quality Italian, French and Spanish wines will begin flooding into the market and I am not convinced that Hungarian consumers will not turn to them with a great deal of interest. All the more so because under Socialism we learned that whatever comes from the West is good and that home-grown products are not. It might very well be true that the same applies to wines, but that would mean a drastic cut in the consumption of domestic wines, particularly at the outset.

CER: From what I have heard, foreigners are beginning to "discover" Hungarian wines. The few Hungarian wines that have an international name are highly regarded, so surely something could be done to counteract any possible decline in consumption at home.

Somodi: I am sure that something could be done, since Hungarian wines really are starting to do well at more and more international wine competitions. When I say this, I am thinking primarily of the private cellars, which are really able to produce excellent quality wines.

This is not necessarily the same type of product as the familiar medium-quality wines grown on large-scale holdings in previous decades that are readily available abroad. In spite of this, export prices are increasing very slowly. The average price continues to be very low and there is very little by way of excellent-quality and expensive wine that we could manage to export by taking part in events similar to today's as exhibitors abroad.

There is considerable room for improvement here, but the lack of a national marketing programme bites hard. Such programmes have led to significant successes in the major wine-producing states. Let's take the example of Chilean wines. Their price has gone up considerably on the American market, because they have a proper national marketing programme. They have major newspapers dedicated to wine and advertising as well. In other words they are properly organised.

Here in Hungary, we have additional problems to contend with; in order to be able to export a wine certain quantities are required. Producing similar quantities of wine calls for organisation and the wine has to be put on sale in a uniform manner.

There is a debate amongst experts at present concerning the varieties that should be promoted, as to whether special Hungarian varieties should be concentrated on or whether we should stick to focusing on the major global varieties. There is a desperate need for a properly co-ordinated programme, which should mainly be aimed at bolstering the marketing side. I genuinely believe that we can best sell ourselves on the basis of excellent wines and that if we were to do so, we would see considerable improvements.

CER: Is there no such thing as a national umbrella organisation for representing producers' interests?

Somodi: This is also in the process of coming into being. We have bid farewell to the large co-operatives that operated for some 40 years or so and to the large-scale production plants with a lingering bad taste in our mouths, because that system did not really work very well. Although we are beginning to recognise each branch, there is still a need for organisation. We require some sort of co-ordination, whether it be structured according to wine-growing regions or the wider regions themselves.

It would also be a good idea for producers to organise even on a smaller scale. Winegrowers are caught up in trying to create the sort of conditions they can go about their work in. They will not necessarily have either the time, the money or the energy left over to worry about organising themselves in associations. I reckon that we will see a gradual development in this area too in the future.

CER: So there are no organisations operating at national level to represent producers...?

Somodi: There is, but its voice is very quiet, it is extremely difficult to hear what it has to say.

CER: Is that due to a lack of money?

Somodi: Not necessarily. There continues to be a great deal of reticence within the profession itself, there is a certain incredulity about the Alföld being on the national wine-producing map. It takes time to change that sort of attitude.

CER: I find the attitude very surprising!

Somodi: So do we, since, for example, I have never heard from a French producer that any single wine-growing region in France is deemed to be superior to any other. There is a wide range of different wine-growing regions with very different types of wine as the end product, but no one region ever talks about another as if it were inferior; all French wine-growing regions are major wine-growing regions. Everyone uniformly praises them, which is a very positive approach. It means that the guest has a very good impression about the country and its wines as a whole.

CER: If you will permit me, I would like to turn back the clock again to the dark days of Socialism. What was wine production like then?

Somodi: Like everything else, it was organised and run on the basis of state companies. My father worked at one such large company, where he was in charge of a cellar. Wine-growing there was of perfectly decent quality. Emphasis was placed neither on really excellent quality wines nor on the more sophisticated aspects of the profession but on large-scale production, on mass-produced wines as it were.

Mass-produced wines were not, however, synonymous with poor quality by any manner of means. They were simply nothing out of the ordinary. There was no problem in selling the wines because our Soviet big brothers [no Orwellianism intended!] bought them up, as did the surrounding Socialist countries.

Since the collapse of Communism, Hungarian wine production has ended up in a tricky position, for there are no guarantees that the West will purchase the more mediocre wines and we are stuck with them, as the Soviet market is none too keen on them either these days. In my opinion, this also serves as an explanation as to why the emphasis has shifted to small-scale production of truly excellent quality wines. Although there are fewer of them, they can be sold at higher prices.

CER: Would you say then that Hungarian wine production has entered into a new era of blossoming after the changeover to democracy?

Somodi: I would certainly say that there has been a blossoming in terms of quality, since a great deal of significant progress has been made. The equipment available has also undergone improvement: more Western technology is available and there is a new wine-producing philosophy, but, as I say, the sector has flourished most qualitatively. We hope it will stay that way as well, and that neither EU accession nor the not exactly rosy situation agriculture in general finds itself in at the moment will have a negative impact.

CER: I know that I have picked your brains already about Alföld specialities, but is there a typically Alföld wine culture or are there patterns of consumption typical of the region?

Somodi: No. There are no significant differences as far as consumption is concerned. These days, there are no major differences in grape varieties either, since we grow world varieties such as Chardonnay, Rhein Riesling, Cabernet, Frankish and Sauvignon on the Alföld too. The old Hungarian varieties included old Alföld varieties such as the Kövidinka and the Kadarka. There is very little left of these varieties.

At most certain nostalgia exists for them. It might very well be the case that these varieties will be replanted, that they put in more of an appearance again, but overall there are no huge differences either in variety or consumption here. There is, however, a slight variation in taste due to the differences in soil and climate, but even here the difference is not massive.

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CER: Do you have any advice on Hungarian wine to give to readers of CER living abroad?

Somodi: I would say that they should take the plunge and give Hungarian wines a go. I am convinced that everyone will find something to suit their own personal tastes, as we have so many varieties in Hungary. Everyone should taste Hungarian wines, visit us in Hungary. It would be particularly interesting for our friends from more Northern climes to pay us a visit because grapes cannot be cultivated there.

We have had the pleasure of welcoming guests from Finland and Sweden, and for them it was a fascinating experience to see first hand what a grapevine actually looks like, what can be made from its fruits. Wine tourism is a branch on the up, if I may put it like that. This is why it is definitely worthwhile coming to Hungary and looking around various places.

CER: Your point about wine tourism is an interesting one.
I believe it has great potential within the realm of rural development as a whole. Given that this is the case, is it possible to apply for financial support from central government to stimulate it further?

Somodi: It is possible to compete for aid, and plans of the type you mentioned are in the pipeline. I must say, however, that they are in their infancy; we really are at the initial stages of development here. Aid is not always earmarked for the areas where it is needed most. What we need is an enhanced dialogue between the profession and the Ministries. I believe, and we all hope, that both dialogue and support will become increasingly important.

CER: Perhaps you would permit me a further question [Please go ahead!] concerning the effects of the cyanide poisoning and the Yugoslav war on Szeged and indeed the region as a whole. Have you noticed adverse effects?

Somodi: The war really did have a very negative impact on Szeged. This is also true of the country as a whole. Groups of tourists cancelled their hotel reservations as far as field as Eger.

CER: Did they really?

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Somodi: Yes, and that in spite of the fact that no kind of incident occurred that would have necessitated such a step. The fact that we were in a war zone and that not a million miles away anything could happen had a negative effect. Quite apart from that, I believe that we have to talk about such matters. I was glad to see that the news channel CNN and the international press devoted a great deal of attention to the cyanide poisoning, because we need to have a proper debate. Neither of these was Hungary's fault.

CER: Though Hungary suffered because of them!

Somodi: Yes, it did and it continues to do so, but by drawing attention to them, we might be able to help avoid a repeat of what went on. The very fact that the world at large was informed about what went on might make it easier for us to get hold of financial aid, either from the EU or from other sources.

There is both a good and a bad side to the flurry of interest surrounding these problems, but we can look forward to considerable improvements in the future as a result. I am convinced that we will be able to coax back the tourists we lost, although this will doubtless cost more by way of hard graft and money. We hope, nevertheless, that we will begin to see the first signs of recovery.

CER: Thank you very much.

Editor's Note:
Owing to its length, this article has been divided into three sections. Click here to read the next section.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 5 June 2000

Photo Credit: Emil-Nicolaie Perhinschi

Author's Note:
The Somodi Vineyard wines may be bought at any branch of Tesco or Cora throughout Hungary, or at Magyar Borok Háza (the House of Hungarian Wines), Szentháromság Square, Budapest. The address of the Somodi Vineyards is H-6783 Ásotthalom, VI 916.

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