Below you can read our unofficial translation of Gault Millau Hungary’s interview with Eva Cartwright, owner of Somlo Wine Shop.
The original Hungarian version, which was published on 6th February 2017 is available here.
Q: Which appellation, country or style do you think lost the most due to recent trends? Amongst the Hungarian appellations, I don’t see any of them losing out on anything.
A: In general, I find that there is growing interest in Hungarian Wines. On an international level, I think maybe the interest towards orange- and amphora wines is now somewhat waning.
Q: What do you think is going to be ‘the next best thing’?
A: In Hungary, any old, indigenous varietal and any “community” wine. Whether it is a few wine bars or a group of growers that stand behind these projects, they have a hugely positive appeal. These stories touch many Hungarians, even those who are not particularly interested in wine. Internationally: I see two buzzwords rising: undiscovered and unique. Odd varietals, wines of undiscovered places and countries – and any niche focus, like the one now on volcanic wines. Since its September 2016 launch, John Szabó MS’s book on volcanic wines is receiving steeply increasing publicity and praise. (since then won 2016 UK #DrinkBook award).
The volcanic theme has dragged up long debated and ever controversial topics, about which almost everyone has a strong opinion. There is, for example, a definite increase in publications and events focusing on the elusive concepts of minerality and terroir.
Rare varietals and diversity vs. unified styles; consistency and world varietals; small batch, high quality, value and singularity vs. reliability, financial stability and average consumer demand – these are all issues about which we could, time-to-time, find the odd individual publications, usually provocative or even airing some extreme views. Now, however, with such an in-depth and concise study in hand, thanks to John Szabo, all these issues are out in the open, and for a change: this time all at once.
I think there is also a shift in consumer behaviour and it is a significant one. There is a growing number of consumers who look beyond and above the “magical” £5.00 price tag and the usual mass-varietal wines. More and more people are looking at the wines in the £10.00-£20.00 category and purposefully search for new varietals. I think the current UK market is a good example. UK restaurants and other hospitality venues strive to stand out with a good niche and often find the pairing of new and yet undiscovered wines with unusual food combinations is a perfect means to achieve this. This could be a huge opportunity for Hungary, where the quality of wine production has been in alignment with the high-quality standards of these places already for quite some time.
Q: What do you find was the most annoying development in the past few years on the wine scene?
A: The ever-recurring incompetence and failure of our national wine marketing throughout the various administrations in the past two decades. The many strategies that were always built based on an opinion of a very small, very inward focused advisory group and lacked any professional, real-life market research.
Wine could be our country’s definitive product. We have no oil, iron, coal – but we do have world class terroir and winemaking talent in an outstanding number.
We have been pussy-footing around with our one precious global brand (Tokaj), we regularly pat each other on the shoulder, congratulating on yet another gold medal won by yet another sweet Tokaj dessert wine – only to hide yet another failure in all other fields.
Fantastic. We make the world’s best dessert wine. Full stop. Fact. Truth. But to sell Tokaj has never been rocket science – even communist comrades took good care of the brand’s continuity.
What is really sad is that despite all these efforts, Hungarian Wine is almost entirely unknown in the global market. Despite the billions spent by various governments on promoting this product, 90 percent of wine consumers have no idea that there is such thing as Hungarian Wine Industry.
As if the low yearly demand for sweet wines weren’t already an obstacle large enough, the way I see it, with this continuous and forced focus on Tokaj, we, ourselves are the ones preventing the success of all our other non-Tokaj and non-sweet wines because we are reinforcing the wrong stereotype with the wrong methods.
With this Tokaj focused approach and with all the money we spent, we successfully informed approximately 10 % of the wine consumers of the world, that we do, indeed make good wine – and sure, they do now know it is from Tokaj. 9 of 10 of these people will however only remember that it was a sweet one – so good Hungarian wine should be sweet.
When do we drink sweet wine? Once a year. At Christmas. OK, since I know all there is to know about Hungarian wine, see you at Christmas time, bye. Oversimplifying, yes. I do however have personal and very recent experiences, too.
A few months ago we were exhibiting on Taste of London, the largest gastronomy event in town. Let’s say during the 4 days a minimum of 4000 people visited our stand, a very wide variety of British people but all commonly declaring their interest in food and drinks by buying a ticket.
I estimate that there were about 150 of them, who recognised the name Tokaj on the two bottles of our dry Tokaj whites displayed – and about 148 instantly refused trying them as they did not like ‘sweet’ .
The other 3850 never ever heard of Hungarian wines but despite this were open and very interested in tasting, once tasted were genuinely surprised by the quality, then almost without fail asked for a glass or a bottle or even placed a mail order.
As an interesting piece of information, I also learned that most of those who knew about Hungarian Wines were the ones who had visited Hungary and had been to a Hungarian Wine Festival and/or wine bars and ruin pubs over there.
So, basically this tells me that whilst government funds are poured by the bucket into strategies and marketing projects based on the opinions of closed and subjective interest groups, the real national wine – marketing is most successfully executed by the private ventures who not necessarily follow the ‘professional’ approach but continually test and know their consumers and real-life target audience.
I think it is high time to consider that it is not necessarily the “Jedi-knights” of the wine scene who buy our wines but real-life, flesh and blood everyday people – or rather, they would buy it, would they have the chance to know about them. Professional foundations are important, sure, but can we perhaps leverage their influence a bit better? I find that there is a large amount of snobbism in the inner-Hungarian wine circles and sometimes we get blinded by the bright spotlights of various pro-awards and forget to whom we are trying to speak.
Do ‘average’ people all read Jancis Robinson – or should we perhaps also allocate funds to sponsor reviews of Hungarian wines in less wine-focused media publications?
Yes, it is very important that we get congratulated regularly by a sports expert, that we are very good at the backstroke, but this should not be the one and only sport that gets praise and funding from a national sports budget, especially when there are commercial interests to consider!
Q: What do you think of cork and the other alternative wine closure methods?
A: My experience shows that cork represents value, tradition and quality for the consumers and I doubt this will ever change, no matter how much scientifically proven data there is behind the alternatives and how easier it is for me to open screw cap bottles when working in my wine shop. We all know that there is a Volkswagen engine in the Skoda, but most of us, if we can afford to choose, will go for the Volkswagen itself.
Q: Do you have a secret favourite? (We are thinking of an appellation, varietal or style you are passionate about but others do not necessarily share your enthusiasm?)
A: I think that as a Somlo born owner of Somlo Wine Shop, it would be highly inadvisable for me to answer this question. I am, however, certainly very happy to see, that my enthusiasm for this appellation and its wines is indeed, increasingly shared by others).
Q: What changes do you see in the next few years, wine consuming habits?
A:Many people are a bit taken aback when I say this, but I truly believe that the Hungarian wine – culture is a dynamically developing one and is above the international average standard. So, for me the most important change is that we got so far and that we, I think, are on the right track. There is a bit of an overkill at the moment with the wine festivals, yes, but I think the market will handle this. What is important is that to spread the knowledge about quality wines and make people like them these events are key locations. A continually growing number of people are interested and happy to learn in more detail about wines, and their interest in wines automatically takes them ‘over’ to the field of fine dining.
25 years ago we all experienced ultimate state of bliss from a glass of barriqued Gere red from Villany and look at us now: we have more than ever places, wines, and intricate ways to access this.
Q: In strengthening which categories of your portfolio do you see a breakthrough opportunity, as a wine merchant in 2017?
A: Again, I can only give you an uber-subjective answer to this one. I have been working on a volcanic wine project for over a year now. As an experiment to test the UK market, we started this with 10 Hungarian growers, under the collective hashtag and name #govolcanic. The overall reception of our portfolio has extended all our expectations, now I am on this project full time, and it is turning into a serious business venture after the trial phase.
I passionately believe that Hungary’s unique geographical and historical features as well as its leading position as a volcanic wine region can be turned into a national brand. This could then carry the entire wine production of not only the country but the entire Carpathian – Basin. ( Translator’s note: probably more commonly identified as the Hungarian side of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, even if geographically not entirely correct)
The global media attention that John Szabo’s book is getting, especially with the focus he has given our country, provides an ideal timing factor as well. Should our national wine-strategists decide to go for a new breakthrough point in 2017, volcanic could just be it, for a category I think is fairly substantial in size and is called: Hungarian Wine.
Q: Which Hungarian wines would you give to your foreign wine lover friends (2 wines only )?
A: Somlói Apátsági Pince Juhfark and Ráspi Gneisz (or any other single vineyard Ráspi kékfrankos).