One of Central Europe's – and perhaps even Europe's – most stimulating annual wine shows, VinCE, was held for the seventh time in Budapest, Hungary, this past March, with tickets sold out and attendance at most of the master classes and presentations either completely or near-to full.
This might not sound so unusual, but VinCE is a little gem in the big wine pool, as its focus is on what is now becoming a region of growing international interest: Hungary and its Central European neighbours. In other words, the wines (Vin) of Central Europe (CE).
A new world of wine
The most notable local presence at this year's VinCE, which is put on by Hungary's VinCE Central European Wine Magazine, was the new generation of Hungarian winemakers and organisations, representing a new phase of winemaking since the first round of independent wineries were established here in the 1990s following the collapse of communism in 1989. While a number of wineries set up then became (and still are) highly successful in Hungary – for example, György Lőrincz (St. Andrea) in Eger and István Szepsy in Tokaj – their children are now rising star winemakers in their own right, as are several new upstart wineries as well.
“Many new-generation winemakers have taken the opportunity to go abroad and work and learn at other wineries,” says Robert Gilvesy, whose winery is located in the Badacsony region near Hungary's Lake Balaton. “Then they bring that knowledge back with them to Hungary. They still maintain respect for tradition, but they now have a world view as well, for new winemaking styles.”
Gilvesy was born and raised in Canada, but in 1992 he moved to Hungary, where his grandparents were born. After learning about winemaking, mainly in Austria, and then beginning to buy vineyards in 2007, he eventually set up his own winery in 2012 in the Szent György-hegy part of Badacsony, because of its ancient basalt-rich volcanic soils. “I fell in love with the volcanic terroir here,” he says. “It can give such balanced and fresh acidity and minerality to the wines.” This was evident at VinCE with his “Mogyorós” Sauvignon Blanc 2014, which exudes clarity, firm structure and harmonious, salty minerality – and certainly Gilvesy's prowess.
Just as passionate at VinCE, but from an even broader perspective, was the Hungarian Wine Institute, or Magyar Bor Intézet, which was founded in 2014 to introduce wines made from grape varieties indigenous to Hungary and the territories that had once belonged to it before the country was carved up at the end of World War I. Wines represented by the institute included, for example, a Furmint 2013 and a Kadarka 2014 from the Nagy-Sagmeister winery in what is now the Vojvodina region of Serbia, and a Riesling de Rhin 2014 from the Nachbil winery in the Satu Mare area of Transylvania, now Romania (which had been settled also by the German-speaking Swabians in 1730).
“We are focused on educating young people from 18 years old on up, so that they can understand what Hungarian wine and its history are about,” explains József Krizmanits, founder of the institute. “We do this by going to wine shows and universities and showing the varieties like Kadarka, Kéfrankos and Furmint from the Carpathian Basin – that historically were Hungarian but are now in Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia.”
VinCE proved useful also for wine associations, such as the Villány Borvidék (Villany wine region) and the Pannon Bormíves Céh (Pannon wine guild), because they allowed member wineries to exhibit their wines within the association umbrella and, therefore, lower each winery's presentation expenses. This is important in a country where the average gross monthly income is around €850.00 ($954.00). A single stand at VinCE can be rented for €600.00 for the three-day duration.
“The wineries cannot afford more than this price, so we kept it at this level,” says Ágnes Németh, the editor-in-chief of VinCE wine magazine and head VinCE wine show organiser. “But VinCE also provides an opportunity for small Hungarian wineries needing assistance. This year, we had a special area for 22 wineries to participate free of charge.”
Particularly interesting was a wine association that was not exhibiting its members' wines, but was visible because of the numerous visitor lapel buttons bearing its name: FurmintUSA. One of the most ambitious projects for Hungarian wines outside of the country, FurmintUSA specialises in promoting and selling throughout the United States a range of dry Furmint wines from – so far – nine wineries in Hungary's Tokaj region and one in the Csopak region.
“Consumers in the US are open to new flavours,” says László Bálint, the association's co-founder. “And we have good wines at a good price. We’ve just sent our first shipment of 12,000 bottles. With our network, the wines can be sold in all 50 states.”
Of course, VinCE, like most good wine shows, offered an array of classes conducted by several Masters of Wine and a slew of other wine specialists from around the globe. There were 39 tutored tastings and classes on wines from Champagne (Veuve Clicquot presented by oenologist Nicholas Blampied-Lane) to Cava (lead by Sarah Jane Evans MW) and from the Rhône (Anne McHale MW) to Ornellaia wines presented by winemaker Axel Heinz. Some of the more colourful tastings included a Digital Blind Wine Test conducted by a panel that included Caroline Gilby MW and Natasha Hughes MW; and a panel, headed by Elizabeth Gabay MW, that took attendants through wines from the countries in which Alexander the Great left his mark – Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, India, Armenia, Cypress, Greece and Macedonia.
While the majority of wineries exhibiting this year were Hungarian – 151 stands from the 182 total, which included also food and spirits – these along with the array of classes conducted by several Masters of Wine and a slew of other wine specialists from around the globe provided an ideal constellation: the locals gained exposure to the international wine scene, something that’s highly sought after by the Hungarians, who already have quite a fill of their own wines – drinking more than 75% to 80% of the roughly 2.6m hL produced in the country each year – while influential international wine specialists were able to taste many Hungarian and regional wines that so far haven't made their way abroad.