26 December 2023 / Edit Szabó / Translated by Sue Tolson DipWSET
This is the third time you have been nominated for the Wine Producer of the Year award, and this year you won it. At the awards ceremony, you said that your first journey would take you to your father. Did that bring you joy?
Oh yes! My father was very touched when I brought him the news. Then I sat down with my parents – thankfully both in good health – and talked about how we’d reached this point. Because it’s not just down to me, I owe them a lot too.
Tell us a bit about how it began!
As a child, I saw two things in my father: a love of animals and a love of the land. He kept rabbits, and I also loved working with those ten little animals. After a while, I took over their entire care from him. I spent a lot of time next to the hutches, and even taught one of my mother chinchillas to jump from the ground into her hutch, 80 cm off the ground. When my class teacher came to visit the family, I showed him the attraction, and he could hardly believe his eyes. My father saw how much I loved looking after the rabbits, so he suggested I study animal husbandry.
All members of the Günzer family work in the winery. Tamás's wife Mariann is responsible for catering, their daughter Gina for marketing and their son Roland for the wines.
Did you have other ideas?
I was also very fond of woodwork, so I thought I could be a carpenter, but in the end, I graduated from the vocational school in Szentlőrinc as a veterinary technician. I was ready to work alongside a veterinarian, and since I didn’t get into college right away, I did that for a year on the same state farm I returned to as branch manager after graduation.
Did you like that job?
I didn’t mind the work, but I didn’t like getting up early, and I didn’t like being everyone’s dogsbody. I even made a bet that I would be the boss there. I was taking private lessons twice a week and really preparing for the entrance exam. In the end, I was admitted to the Faculty of Animal Sciences of the Keszthely University of Agricultural Sciences in Kaposvár the following year with such a high score that I could easily have got into Veterinary Sciences too. I graduated as a general livestock plant manager, specialising in cattle, and it happened just as I had planned: as a recent graduate, I became a branch manager at my former workplace.
So far, the story fits together perfectly. How did you rise to fame not as a livestock farmer but as a winemaker?
Like everyone in Villány, our family had vines and wine. My brother and I also quickly picked things up, we did the hoeing, harvesting, racking and punching down. Even as a child, I experienced that wine can be a bitter drink. Around our way, when putting up the maypole, it was very fashionable for everyone to go from cellar to cellar. We did this too. I managed to get so drunk that my mother made me take a cold shower until I sobered up.
I’m surprised you didn’t lose your appetite for it all …
Not so much, I used to enjoy my father’s Portugieser when I was in secondary school, but always neat, never with cola. And in Kaposvár, I became the provisions supplier for the college club. There was a disco twice a week, and I used to take all my father’s wine there in canisters, so I got my college friends hooked on wine instead of beer. My parents gave me my first 0.3 hectares of vines shortly after I left school, but they cultivated it until I graduated. Then my father stood in front of me and said, “from now on, the work is yours and so is the glory.” I took the task seriously and started to cultivate vines and made wines in the cellar in Palkonya I had inherited from my grandfather, where there wasn’t even any electricity. My grandfather had done his work by candlelight. When I took over the cellar, the first thing I did was put in electricity.
How did you know that you were on the right track and the wine you were making was any good?
I didn’t know, I just felt it. I learnt how to prune from textbooks and only showed it to my dad to see if it was okay when I had done the whole area. Even when I was young, I was very meticulous, washing each barrel three times and always making sure that each one was fully topped up. I entered my first vintage of Portugieser, 1991, in the Villány wine competition to see how I was doing. I immediately got a gold medal. That certificate is still on the wall of our old cellar, I’m so proud of it. I bought another vineyard with the proceeds of the wine and slowly the estate began to grow.
When did you make your choice and bid farewell to livestock farming?
By 2002, we had 4.5 hectares, and the vines were providing more and more work. I was still going to the cattle shed, but I was now employing two people on the estate to keep everything running smoothly. Then, without my knowledge, a wine merchant entered my 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon barrique wine in the Pannon Bormustra competition, and the wine not only won a gold medal, but was also the category winner. It was a life-changing moment. I quit my day job, and vines and wine have been my life since then.
Today you have 80 hectares of land under cultivation and a modern winery in Villány with a capacity of one million litres. Are you using it to the full?
Not yet, but who knows what the future will bring! In 2023, we will have processed about 9.2 quintals of grapes and will have 6,000 hectolitres of wine. I think that’s already enough, although I said the same thing when we had 10 hectares.
Everyone is talking about the decline in wine consumptions, yet you are growing. That’s brave of you.
We managed to increase our sales even during the pandemic. Fortunately, there is demand for our wines and our sales increase a little each year. We make reliable wines, wines that people like, and we are constantly paying attention to consumer needs. Although Villány is not really about light white wines, our Mont Blanc Cuvée, a blend of Muscat, Olaszrizling and Chardonnay, is very popular with consumers, and our rosé is also in high demand.
Do you still make the wines?
I have a hand in all of them, but I have an excellent head winemaker, my son. When he finished his schooling, our previous head winemaker had just left us because he was needed on his own estate, and Roland told us he wanted to work in the family business. I said fine, let him be the head winemaker. He was thrown in at the deep end, but he turned out to be a good swimmer. He had a lot of energy and he really wanted to do well. He did a great job and we’ve been working together ever since. I tend to do the things in the vineyard, while he focuses on winemaking. The blends are made in my head, but we always discuss everything, we do a lot of tasting together and have a very good rapport.
What kind of wine do you like to drink?
It may come as a surprise, but I’m a white wine drinker. The Mont Blanc Cuvée is my favourite, and there’s not a day that I don’t have a glass or two of it. In terms of red wines, I like Pinot Noir the best. Of course, in Villány it’s obligatory, so I also love the big reds from Villány, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, but when I travel the world and when I’m somewhere I can do so, I only drink Pinot Noir.
If not in Villány, where would you like to make wine?
No question about that, I’d work in New Zealand and make Sauvignon Blanc. A good Sauvignon Blanc always excites me.
What advice do you have for young winemakers just starting out?
I think a winemaker is skilful if they can adapt to consumer expectations and follow fashions. My advice is to listen to the world you live in and be flexible. Tradition is very important, and we cannot break away from our roots: if you make wine in Villány, you have to make full-bodied, big wines, because they represent serious quality and, in the best case, they bring prizes that can help a winemaker make a name for themselves. But it’s just as important that our winery also makes wines that consumers like, because you can sell larger quantities of those, so the two sides of the scales are always in balance.
The grandchild and the proud grandparents.