- 6 Feb 2020 11:30 AM
What do you aim for when making your wines?
At the end of the day, whoever makes the wine should like it. There is a significant consumer element to it, meaning what the consumer prefers. Having said that, we are very keen on being measured on a professional basis also. So, for example, residual sugar content is not something you will find in our wines to a large extent, maybe a little bit here or there. We are sort of testing how residual sugar content goes against consumer preferences.
Very interesting, if you go to Asia, at the very pure of the driest wines, they do not appreciate any sugar content. If you look at like Europe, especially Hungary, sugar content is an important factor. What people say is that if you like wines with residual sugar, it basically shows that you do not understand wines. It does not really matter if people understand wines or not; what really matters is that they have to like what they drink. I think you have to take that into account.
Having said that I think we are very keen on producing wines on the highest professional basis, meeting any sort of experts' standards. At the same time, it is a consumer brand, so you need to meet consumer expectations as well. Longevity is there because the Furmint is a very characterful, strong grape variety. The very first wine we have right now is 2016, which sold out, so no longer available on the market. But I still have a few bottles, and every time I open a bottle, I feel like I am drinking better wine than the previous bottle, so I do not know how long it goes.
Obviously, the sweet wine goes on almost forever, it goes for decades, but with the dries, I think we will learn. These might be the wines getting to their best after five years, certainly not in the first few years, but they are already enjoyable in the first few years. We try to bring in balanced wines in terms of tannin, acidity, and all those sorts of things. At the end of the day, we try to figure out what the consumers want. Then the question is how to meet those needs in the highest quality.
By the way, we are not making wines to win awards, I think it is nice when an award comes along, but that is not our goal at all.
How does Furmint stand these days in relation to more established white grapes, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, for example?
I think there is a long way to go, I think it is becoming an established grape variety in Hungary, but it is almost unknown to the outside world.
The world does not understand Furmint. Obviously, the grape varieties you listed are well known to the rest of the world, so we have to promote it a lot. So we are working on it. When Tokaj is mentioned people kind of know something about it, 'oh, yes, Tokaj, sweet wines', or something similar, but when it comes to Furmint it is complete darkness. That is a job we have to do, not only to sell our wines but to educate the market about the region as well.
How do you suggest the marketing of Tokaji could be improved, in particular the Mád Basin?
I think there are different layers of interest. I mean there is a layer of Hungarian wine. Although it is difficult to define because you can not compare Tokaj to Szekszárd or Eger, very different quality statements, very different set of circumstances. At the end of the day, you can make wines wherever. It does not mean anything really, but the quality is going to be very different. I think Tokaj is a region that stands for something, and it is World Heritage, has a lot of history behind it so I think you can make a quality statement out of it.
Then you can create your own village related wine standards, like Mád, since Mád looks like and feels like a wine village which stands out for its conditions, circumstances and the capabilities of really producing outstanding wines. At the same time, I think there is also an interest to make sure that the whole Tokaj wine concept is also arising. Then obviously within Mád, there is also the brand versus other brands.
So I think there are three layers we would be focused on: Tokaj, Mád and Juliet Victor.
There is an organisation called the Mádi Kör (Circle of Mád). It is more of an organisation discussing wine standards, they are approaching the winemaking more from a production point of view, and it is something that will evolve over time. I think there is a long way to go. One of the roles I can see myself to be playing in the region is to try to get that degree of integration developed in the region, to make sure we get united because at the end of the day this is everyone's interest. If you fight around the whole alone, you will never win it, but if you fight united, you have a better chance of winning and to get success out of it.
Tokaj is a very unique terroir, is there anything else it can produce?
I think there are a few things, kind of consumer trends, that we need to think about. One is that sparkling wines, etc. are a huge developing trend. Look at the youngsters - many women - in the summertime, when people love sparkling wine, like Prosecco, or something very quality drink. It has been very popular. It could be an area to develop in Tokaj, possibly. The other area I think would be going towards spirits. Could be going to pálinka. In essence, we are not far away from that, but these are questions to be answered, I mean, in my mind it is also important that we stay focused on the core business and where we can make a difference, to deliver outstanding quality. At the same time, all these global trends and consumer preferences may represent an opportunity in the future.
Is there a future for Hungarian sparkling wine from Tokaj?
Possibly, but again, I think the focus is also very important. In my mind, we need to promote Furmint then we need to promote the Furmint dry white wine. Then we have to make sure we stand out with our sweet wines in the world. In that regard, other plans like sparkling wine are somewhere there thoroughly. So we need to deliver at the core.
So if we just use WizzAir as an example, today we have 45% of our revenues earned on other revenue streams than the ticket. When we started, 100% of our revenues were ticket related, so we sort of introduced other services that thrive. So once you build a franchise, you can start further franchising that platform. And I think that will come, but we need to deliver at the core.
Do you take note of other winemakers, and if so which way do you think people like Istvan Szepsy are going?
Szepsy is very good in terms of redefining the standards of Tokaj wines. He needs to be given credit for his pioneering effort. I think his shortcoming is the lack of his ability to sell. And that is what I started with. It is not enough to produce great wines, you also have to sell your wines.
I think everyone in the region lacks the capacity of selling great wines. That is why you see a lot of wineries struggle. They are starting with great wines, but sooner or later, because of cash flow issues, inability to sell or to market the wines properly, etc., they dilute into producing good wines. So it is easier to produce the kind of medium quality wine, sell it to the wholesaler, and the wholesaler will take care of distribution, and that is that. And you see this in many cases.
Many come along saying I am going to make the best wine, and they end up with making something pretty average, if that at all, that's why they sell it through the mass market. I think this is a challenge for everyone. On the winemaking side, Szepsy really set up good standards, so we admire him and actually in a way we are following his footsteps.
Do opportunities to buy a winery in Tokaj still exist?
As a matter of fact, we did not buy a winery. We / I bought wines, and I established a new winery. I inquired an old building in the centre, refurbished, renovated it, extended it and created the winery. So actually in the very first year, it was like a garage winery. We were using auto garages for storing the wines, etc., so it was fairly primitive, and we ended up with a very good wine in 2016. We applied for proper technology, etc. but the philosophy what we have is that the quality of the wine is determined by the quality of the grape that you harvest.
We are very selective on the terroirs, the volume of grapes we produce, the number of brunches we harvest, so actually in average a Mád winemaker produces 6000 bottles of wine per hectare, we produce 2500 bottles per hectare.
If you reduce the production rate, it brings out the mineral content and the character of the wines, so maybe that is why we stand out. We think it is not the winery; it is the grapes, the terroirs and the way we process the whole thing.
What are your thoughts about the future for Furmint internationally?
I think Furmint is as good as Chardonnay or Riesling or Sauvignon Blank. The only difference is that the before mentioned ones are well known in the world, and Furmint is not. If you put the Furmint in the context of Mád for example in terms of mineral content, because of the rocks and everything you can get fantastic wines out of it, as good as anything else you can have in the world.
I do not think this is a matter of growing the wines. It is a matter of branding the grape, creating awareness. I think, as mentioned before, we have to unite - and of course, you need to promote your own brand. I think the country, Hungary, should do more in this regard to put the country and the country's marketing and awareness capacity behind this whole region.
With regard to global warming and how it affects the grape, we have been doing two things. One is that we created a terroir portfolio that has the certain parts of the terroir, South facing, West facing, and East facing to make sure that especially when it comes to harvesting, you have a prolonged process, so you do not have to rush with it.
The second thing which is more about processing is that we started using the leaves of the grapes a little bit. The leaves used to be cut off, but now we are leaving it as a shade for the grapes to make sure they do not burn because of the extensive sun. And as a result, you can maintain the acidity, you can maintain the coolness of the grapes, and they remain intact in terms of quality. It is quite a fascinating idea because it's very natural; you naturally protect the grapes, and it actually makes a difference. In a way, I do not think we have been affected by global warming in that regard. We just have to adapt the processes accordingly.
In your sweet winemaking process, does your winery use any special techniques to ensure maximum botrytisation?
Botrytisation is a general process, and you cannot really affect it. It depends on the temperature, on humidity, on rain, on sunshine, etc., so it is a fairly complicated process. So it means we have to rely on nature. We adapt, we make changes in the process, but we do not manipulate. When it comes to aszú, we have a total of 35 hectares of grapes out there, and we cover quite a wide range of first-class terroirs, and as a result, you end up with some kind of outcome.
You might be affected in one place, but you are not going to be affected in another place, so when it comes to botrytis, you are very specific to the very area you are at. So one area might be hugely affected, while others, maybe just one km away are not affected at all. The way to mitigate this issue is a kind of portfolio - you have a variety of terroirs, and you try to mitigate the risk on that basis.
Are you planning to increase production at your winery in Mád? Can you imagine any new wine-related initiatives, say in other parts of Hungary?
We are only going to increase production by extending the land. We are not trying to produce more from the same land, because I think the moment you start producing more you are down with the quality. We put out a quality statement, and we are not prepared to compromise on that, so basically, we know that the max we can get is 3000 bottles per hectare. And that is the maximum with this quality wine. If you further increase that, the quality deteriorates. For us, the only way to do more is by extending the territories.
Our philosophy is that we do not buy grapes. We only produce grapes by ourselves, so this way we are in full control of the wines. So we are not buying a single bunch because that way simply we can not control the qualities. We are buying more lands by the way, on a gradual basis, but we do not take measures on the expense of the quality either processing third party's grapes or diluting the production of each.
As far as I am concerned I think I am going to stick to Tokaj since it gives a unique combination of heritage, very favourable circumstances and the authenticity of a grape variety that you can all combine and create something world-class. I mean I am obviously not doing this for money, I am doing this because I am trying to give something back to Hungary. I am trying to bring Hungary to standards which it deserves when it comes to winemaking. I think the only way - in my mind - to achieve this is with Tokaj and not other regions.
Wizzair provides a kind of commodity. You try to bring a commodity product and service to the market, and you need to execute with excellence to be able to deliver that. What you are targeting basically is every single living body on earth - why not to fly? The royal family, prime ministers fly Wizz, so no matter which end of the spectrum you are this is for you to use. I think winemaking is slightly different, it is a different segment, but within that segment, we try to be as economically conscious as possible.
We do not want to produce bad wines just to make wine accessible to the world. So we kind of go back to the earlier statement that life is too short for drinking bad wines. We are committed to producing outstanding ones, and this is a different category. I think everybody should be drinking excellent wines.
How much time do you get to spend in your vineyards?
I think probably less than you would think. There is a professional crew to take care of the business there, and they know their stuff. I am very proud of our ability to produce outstanding wines with no compromise to the standards, but at the end of the day I am not the one producing the wines, so I have professionals to do that.
Yes, I go there time to time, I have an apartment there, and I love spending time with the people, I love drinking our wine, but I do not do that that often. My role here is to make sure I endorse what they do, I support them, and I am laying out strategies which are from a business perspective and for standards when it comes to the quality of the wine, and this is what I am doing.
Where can expats buy your wines?
The best ways to buy our wines I would say is either to come to our place in Mád which I would highly recommend because I think that creates more of a personal touch not only with the wine but our philosophy of handling wines and the people behind it. Or it can be bought online at julietvictor.hu and we deliver it.
Interview text proofread by Szilvia Molnár, a professional freelance writer, travel expert, mom of two, and admitted coffee addict. Though not necessarily in that order. Connect with her on LinkedIn or read about her latest travel experiences on the Exploration Lounge website.