Lost in Vinification

Drinks

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Helped by generous state and European Union funding, Hungary’s wine sector and associated tourism is booming. In particular, the story of how Villány winemakers have developed their region into a center of viniculture excellence and visitor hotspot is unparalleled. But amidst the success, some basics are being forgotten.

Sometime in 1994, the winemakers and grape growers of Villány and Siklós got together. Times were hard; Hungary was still very much struggling with the transition from communism. In these villages, far to the south of Budapest and within walking distance of Croatia, people felt they had, as we say in the vernacular, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Confident that they could achieve more together than alone, they established their own wine route association – a first in Hungary – dedicated to promoting their wineries and the then nascent tourism sector.

As even the casual visitor to the area could not fail to notice, 25 years on, the progress is spectacular, especially in Villány.

Outside the village, large, modern wineries are surrounded by manicured vineyards, while along the main street, panziós and traditional cellars sit cheek-by-jowl, bustling with tourists on a summer evening.

The effects are everywhere, and as in more developed parts of Hungary, rural Villány reports a shortage of capable workers.

Spurred on by success, the wine route association, combining with local authorities, has worked hard to provide a variety of events, tastings and festivals to maintain visitor interest throughout the year.

Crucially, the association has also fostered innovation in wine marketing by developing the concept of “community brands”.

Now winemakers are an individualistic bunch, immensely proud of each vintage and variety, which they market individually and typically sell in bottles adorned with uniquely designed labels. This is all well and chest-thumpingly good, but it costs money.

Compromise

Why not, some thoughtful vintners reasoned, make a compromise: we each make our own wine, from a specific grape, accredit it through peer tasting, and then market it as a common project?

The pioneering venture was branded as Villány Franc, premium quality wines made from the Cabernet Franc grape within a set of agreed tasting parameters, all carrying a common designer label on the front of the bottle, with another from the winemaker on the back.

The result? Easier identification for punters, who know (within reason) what they are buying regardless of the vintner, who in turn maintain his or her own wine’s unique characteristics while incurring lower marketing costs.

As a follow up, a group of ten Villány winemakers have launched REDy, a Portuguiser-based cuvée appealing to the younger end of the market as a light, drink-any-time, party red.

So – providing labor can be found – is life in this sliver of southern Hungary all set for unabated success? Probably, but perhaps complacency is also setting in.

Researching this story, your correspondent sent out enquiries for accommodation and interviews. Of 11 such emails, a mere three elicited timely responses. Two bounced (address unknown) and five remain unanswered at the time of writing.

For a community built on wine and now reliant on tourism (and publicity), this is not a good indicator.

Barring catastrophe, the wine will surely flow and merriment continue in Villány. But it will need sobriety and renewed attention to basics (i.e. responding to an email enquiry) to ensure everyone makes the party.

The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at robin.marshall@bbj.hu

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