Can we talk about Hungarian wine, Austrian wine, French wine? If we can, is the specificity linked to nation states, or is it purely geographical? Surely, no one would deny that South Africa is not the same as Italy… My foremost aim here is to propose a series of arguments on the subject of wine that may be novel but hopefully merits assent. Furthermore, as a wine writer with a twenty-year-long personal odyssey behind me, I would like to use this column to resubmit for your consideration certain opinions that have provoked resentment in several circles in the past. I will, however, do my best to refrain from overstating my passionate belief that the top echelons of Hungarian wine are without peer in any international context. Instead, I am prepared to examine these very current issues in the light of a broad-based consensus.

Is there anything about Hungarian wine, then, that stands above dispute? Our recognized authorities of the trade made their positions known quite a while ago, at a time when it was easy to say good things about Hungarian wine without infringing on anybody’s business interests. Things have changed since then. Nowadays, the competition is so fierce that even foreign professional investors often find it difficult to carve out a market niche for their wines grown on Hungarian soil. In this climate, a wine writer may quickly elicit extreme reactions, to the extent that by giving top marks – not to specific wines, of course, but to Hungarian wine in general – he will risk being accused of censorship, tacit or blatant. But let us for a moment put aside these rather pragmatic thoughts, and return to the specifi c question posed in the introduction.

Can one talk about Austrian wine, French wine, German wine, Italian wine?

The nation states of the Old World do present themselves as the obvious base for such categorizations. But what about South Africa or California? In any event, what we refer to as Hungarian wine or the Hungarian wine style is clearly the style of the Carpathian Basin. All wines grown by our neighbours anywhere near the border bear the same imprint that marks our own. Conversely, wines from countries like Croatia, Slovenia or Slovakia tend to have many features that hark back to Hungarian wine.

If you can take my word for it, I will spare you a tedious professional explanation here. Suffice it to say that these regional similarities are not rooted in the likeness of terroir, i.e. a specific constellation of soil type, exposure and climate.

Let us consider South Africa, then. It is a country with large-scale wineries and huge production volumes. Is it possible to ascertain a suite of specifi c wine attributes that will readily characterize all wines grown in that vast area? Hardly. But let us also bear in mind that the identity of a wine group, at least in Europe, hinges on more than just certain leading fl avour and aroma components that the members have in common. The character of French or Hungarian wine is also steeped in the given culture of consumption. For instance, a good citoyen is able to order a decent vin de maison to go with his lunch at any restaurant across France. Are there more than three countries in Europe where he would be able to do this?

There are many interesting details here, but let us move on. We often hear claims – and not from the gastronomic illiterate, either – along these lines: “I am not big on German wine, it’s too acidic. I find Spanish wines too heavy, although the Chileans drink well…” And this is true by and large, of a good portion of the wines from these countries – particularly those that make it to Hungary, and are confined to a certain price level. It is just as disheartening to listen, say, to a Swiss gourmet make pronouncements about Hungarian wine. In the light of their general reception on the market, it is not much comfort if the said gentleman actually comes round to taste a handful of Hungarian wines in the home of a Hungarian vinophile blessed with patriotic sentiments, and his jaw drops. He will most likely spurt out the question, “How come these are not for sale in Switzerland?” I rarely attempt an honest answer.

The bottom line is that, while it is possible to talk about the wine of nation states, we should be wary of thinking in terms of sheer names of countries. A case in point – albeit one that has long lost its currency – is how we used to speak about “Yugoslavian wine”. I hasten to add, though, that we should be excused for having once lumped together wines that were often literally and mindlessly blended together to achieve the run-of-the-mill consistency preferred by the government-run wine trade.

If we mean to enter into meaningful dialogue about wine further down the road, we must master a few basic concepts and revise some of our experiences – or, rather, the conclusions we have drawn from those experiences. Moving beyond the confines of the simplistic dichotomy of “I like it/I don’t like it”, the fi rst thing we must realize is the role of neurobiology as the number one determining factor that influences our assessment of a wine. Every time we approach an object through the senses, there will be iron-fisted laws of nature at work that overrule any other force, be it emotional affinity with that object, visceral rejection, or some other pre-established form of preference or denial. These forces include the opinions of wine pundits, which permeate our informal conversations about wine – purposely or unwittingly, but always inescapably. (The first name that comes to mind is that of Béla Hamvas, the classic Hungarian essayist whom I happen to revere.) It is therefore undeniable that professional wine cognoscenti have the power to shape the taste of the public. Far be it from us to overuse this power to manipulate opinion, barring the occasional indulgence. Apart from mechanisms of neurophysiology, the material accessories and conditions of drinking or tasting also play a vital role in whether you will enjoy a wine or not. You would never imagine the extent to which the shape and size of a glass, the temperature of the wine, the type of food or other libations consumed before you take the first sip (what one might term the “olfactory context”) would be capable of influencing your impression of a wine, even inducing a sense of intense revulsion.

Let us not reproach wine critics for drawing a sharp line between educational tasting and drinking wine for the sheer pleasure of it. They cannot help it. For the rest of humanity, though, for whom tasting is not a matter of trade and livelihood, there really should be no conflict between moving the wine around in the mouth with pencil in hand and relishing a mouthful of wine to wash down a piece of bread spread with lard and sprinkled with slices of purple onion…

In this column, I plan to make use of my well-documented qualifi cations, certifi ed in authentic places in the historian’s sense of that term, to propose a few critical remarks concerning Hungarian practices of describing and assessing, indeed often judging, wines. Let us content ourselves here with the aim to enlighten about Hungarian wine today. Almost as significantly, we shall attempt to gain suffi cient knowledge to make a well-informed decision when it comes to choosing a bottle from the store shelf. If you have some background, you can rest assured that the wine you pick will represent good value for the money.
The ability to identify correctly the Hungarian wine out of two unknown samples is not unique to professional experts. Almost any discriminating connoisseur worth his salt can make such a distinction blind, without being expected to explain the reasons for his choice. I am confident that, before the year is out, many of you will have joined the ranks of those knowledgeable, civilian vinophiles.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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