Are you sure?

Learning the Chinese for wine

As long as there is no unique reason to drink Hungarian wine as opposed to any other, exports won’t grow much, but winemakers are experimenting by taking a stand in emerging markets.

Selling wine in Hungary is much like selling tea in Great Britain or flowers in the Netherlands. The selection is wide so sellers have to be really smart in order to win people’s attention. The only difference between wine and the other two products is that the latter also have a good reputation outside of their own countries’ borders. They are more than just products; they are distinguished brands that guarantee quality and something more. By sipping a cup of a fine English blend, one also feels part of a larger culture and tradition.

What feeling would a glass of Hungarian wine evoke in a drinker abroad? At present, nothing. Good as they are, they mean little to wine lovers, and most importantly, offer nothing to stand out in a world now flooded with very good wines.

Something extra

They certainly should. Families usually have a weekly wine budget. A Hungarian wine may look exotic enough to try once, but most of the time people won’t risk spending on unknown wines. So how can you get, say, a Frenchman or an American to reach for a Hungarian bottle on the wine shelf? Excellence in itself is not enough. You have to give a reason why someone should choose a bottle of Hungarian wine when there is so much choice, where the market is so saturated.

This is the path Izabella Zwack, owner of the Dobogó Winery in Tokaj follows. The cellar makes about 20,000 bottles per year, half of which go in exports to England, Italy, Poland, Holland, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong and the US. Zwack probably is a good storyteller. Having done several business deals in the US, she is now forging business ties with Brazil.

This is a face-to-face business: she either travels to fairs or visits restaurants to have her wines tasted and listed. Owners are grateful to meet and listen to winemakers talking about their wines. How else could they explain to their guests what is special about that particular bottle? You cannot separate the wine from the hands that made it, Zwack says. That is why she does not favor the practice of assessing a wine solely by its wine-tasting test sheet.

Expert dilution

Csaba Malatinszky, owner and wine-grower of the Malatinszky Kúria Villányi Borászat, is not a fan of wine competitions either. Partly because, as he says, they have lost their prestige due to the dilution of the wine-judging trade, and partly because he finds there is a better way to have wines accepted abroad.

“If an acclaimed wine writer puts your wine on the right shelf, trading partners from abroad will come to you,” Malatinszky said. Reviews by Tom Stevenson (one of the world’s most respected wine authors), along with titles like the best European wine in 2008 (Decanter) or selection into the Top 100 wineries, have done their job.

Exports of the sophisticated, terroir wines of 1,000 hectoliters account for 25-30% annually. Within five years, Malatinszky would like to increase this to 70%. The winery exports to Japan, England, the US and China, and plans to add Sweden soon. China is especially dynamic these days and it will be a major partner in the future, Malatinszky noted.

Oriental trade

Hungarian wine exports to China are growing fast indeed. According to the statistics from the foreign ministry, wine exports to China and Hong Kong exceed exports to some more established markets in Europe. In the past two years, the value of exports to mainland China has increased by 300%.

Interest in Hungarian wines was considerable at the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair this November, even exceeding the popularity of the Portuguese stand, according to winegrower János Konyári. The founder and head of the Konyári Winery has attended the event twice, most recently at the invitation of his Hong Kong trading partner whom he met at the 2009 fair. Beyond Hong Kong and China, Konyári Winery has partners in Thailand and Germany and is looking to start selling to Ukraine.

Both the number of participants and visitors at the fair has increased from two years ago. Admission is free, and anyone who passes the initial wine test can enter. Apparently, it is a great place to offset falling sales in Europe. Zwack, however, believes China is not necessarily ready for Hungarian wines. “When a country starts to drink foreign wines, they always begin with the big ones such as the Bordeaux. Only after that will they discover less-known regions,” she said. Since now a lot of primers are going to China, it may take time for the transition to be completed.

New marketing strategy

Until then, wineries could benefit from a national export/marketing strategy the lack of which has long been an issue. Unfortunately, not even the restructured parliament committee on wine seems to have arrived at solution for that. Zwack has a strategy. She would pick one variety – dry Furmint – and would market only that for two or three years. “Not because I come from Tokaj, but because Furmint is growing in popularity worldwide.” Furmint could become Hungary’s Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, she added.

Malatinszky would emphasize small estate sizes and hand-picked vintages. For Hungary, the way to outshine is in organic cultivation, he believes. (Malatinszky Kúria is one of the growing number of Hungarian estates that have gone entirely organic.) Either of the above methods would help with the goal of putting Hungarian wines on the global map.

“All this takes time,” Zwack warns. “We have to be patient.”