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Hands-on German Investors Help Pioneer Hungarian Organic Wine

Horst Hummel with some of his Portuguiser grapes.

Audi, Mercedes, Siemens, Bosch – all are famous names synonymous with big-money, German industrial investment in Hungary. But far from the high-tech production lines, in small vineyards tucked away in the countryside, a few entrepreneurial Teutonic wine-makers are creating their own contribution to local economies while pioneering innovation in viti- and viniculture.

Take away wine, and Villány doesn’t exist: the main street of this little, south-Hungarian town has traditional cellars hugging its flanks, while dotted in and around its outskirts massive, imposing, clearly expensive (and invariably EU-funded) facilities ensure even the clinically non-observant understand all life here is focused on the grape and its alcoholic derivatives.

Batthyány utca 4, however, does not look like a winery: rather a rambling old house in need of renovation. Bar the house number, it lacks signage, but since its gates are open, your correspondent enters, tentatively - mainly in expectation of meeting a fearsome, unchained canine sentinel or two.

There is a glimpse of a round, cheery face in the corner to the left: “Come in,” says Horst Hummel, extending a friendly hand: dogs are noticeable for their absence.

Hummel is part Berlin-based lawyer, part Villány-based grape grower and vintner, who first came to these hills overlooking the Croatian border in the fall of 1997.

World-class Terroir

“I ended up here visiting Bock, Gere, Szende, Tiffán, Jekyll, all the famous winemakers, tasting wine and speaking to these guys. I was really impressed. OK, not every wine, but I saw this was a world-class terroir: this was really serious,” he tells the Budapest Business Journal in his half-renovated kitchen.

Six months later, he returned, and with the help of locals, bought seven hectares of vineyards, a small winery and the house of a former mayor: “Nobody had lived here for 15 years. It had a roof, but…. it was a ruin,” he recalls.

It seemed a solid start for his new grape-growing-cum-winemaking career – except Hummel, then 37, had spent his life thus far fighting for patent rights in court. He had read about wine, and tasted many, but had no practical experience “on the job”.

Inspired by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and advocate of “natural” food and agriculture, Hummel was determined to run his new venture on organic principles. This included, for example, absolutely no use of herbicides or artificial fertilizers, at that time novel concepts in Hungary, where the wine sector was in the first years of recovering from four decades of communism.

It was a step-by-step learning process. “Almost from the beginning I did spontaneous fermentation, I didn’t use yeasts. Later I tried, because people came to me and said you have to use yeasts.”

Unsure, Hummel consulted his by-now friend, local winemaker Gábor Szende.

“Gábor said he did it spontaneously, and his wines are great. So I thought, why should I buy yeast then?”

Incremental Progress

Such incremental progress on the natural path was boosted greatly around 2006-2007 as knowledge and equipment became more readily available from Western Europe, where organic wines were becoming increasingly popular. Hummel has worked his vineyards to strict organic standards since 2008, gaining certification one year later.

Meanwhile, Hummel – who at the beginning lacked the knowledge and skills to sell in Hungary – had been building a loyal customer base in Germany, including some high-quality Berlin restaurants where the sommeliers appreciate his wares.

Today, his 7.5 hectares produce between 30,000 – 40,000 bottles annually, of which 85% goes to Germany, from where roughly 20% is then re-exported to destinations including the United Kingdom, USA, France and New Zealand.

He is particularly proud that regional and indigenous varieties, such as Kékfrankos, Portuguiser and Hárslevelű are selling well Western Europe, and has high hopes that a recent first order for Taiwan will result in another growing market.

His investment so far? The winemaker is stumped. A quick calculation in his head, and he reckons “something between EUR 0.5-1 million”. Along with two full-time employees, seasonal work lifts his job-creation efforts to “perhaps five or six” when averaged over the year. Tiny, certainly, compared to Germany’s bigger investors, but a definite help in any small, rural community.

Hummel spends perhaps 20% of his time in Berlin on legal work, the remainder on his love – wine.

“I like being a lawyer, but you are always following up the interest of your client. In wine, you do the opposite. I produce something that I think is good,” he says. “I follow my own interests, and this is the connection to what I like. This is the big difference.”

Bio-dynamic Pays Dividends

On the slopes of the Villány hills, Ralf Wassmann points to his vines on our right: standing in the midst of a sea of tangled, flowering flora, the scene contrasts sharply with the manicured rows to the left, where the underlying grass is mown tight to the soil.

“It’s true our vineyards are not like a golf course,” says the German, originally from Göttingen, Lower Saxony, “They called this ugly, and they called us lazy when we first arrived.”

“They”, in this instance, were some local winemakers, shocked at the incomers’ seeming indolence and disrespect for local tradition. “They” also fully expected the Wassmann grape harvest to fail, starved of water and nutrients by the myriad of thirsty, competing roots. These Germans would have to learn an economic viticulture lesson the hard way.

That was almost 20 years ago, but the harvests did not fail. On the contrary, Wassmann harvests have been remarkably healthy – so much so that locals have sat up and begun asking for advice. “The surrounding plants help keep the water and [maintain] the soil in good condition,” says Susann Hanauer, Wassman’s wife.

The Wassmans (pictured) have gone one “green” stage further than compatriot Horst Hummel, working to strict bio-dynamic principles in their vineyards and winery. “People ask us: ‘Why did you start organic?’ We can’t answer this; my parents weren’t organic freaks,” says Hanauer. “We were born like this.”