21 May 2023 / Márton Kaposi
Zoltán Heimann welcomed the team of winesofhungary.hu on a sunny spring morning at Heimann Family Winery. From the town, a road, mostly lined with loess walls, leads up to the press house, the heart of the estate. Arriving at the site, we were greeted by a view that so many people come to the elevated vineyard for, beside of course the family's great wines.
In the bright sunshine, looking out over the steep, jagged, valley-dotted landscape, one is immediately reminded of the many challenges producers face in this easily warming, often drought-stricken wine district. No wonder, that our interviewee, returning from one of the vineyards, soon started with the topic of climate change.
Márton Kaposi: The last time winesofhungary.hu readers had a more detailed look at the Heimann Family Winery was in a harvest report in November 2021. What did the 2022 vintage bring for you?
Zoltán Heimann: The current era presents us with new challenges in every respect. The other day, my son Zoli mentioned that we no longer have cold seasons like in the '80s, temperatures that were considered to be a heatwave are now the norm. The main problem last year was drought and lack of rainfall. Above 34-35 degrees Celsius, the pores in the leaves of the Kadarka are closed, as the plant defends itself by trying to minimise its metabolism - it is in a kind of 'summer sleep'. As a result of these factors and the current conversion to organic farming, the yields are lower, but we still see '22 as a good year.
How are you trying to adapt to the current extreme environmental changes?
Depending on the area, the solution varies - different vegetation cover is used in different vineyards. This needs to be resown every few years, as cultivation will keep the monocots while the dicots die out. Each time we replant, we adjust our seed mix according to what each area requires.
How are vines involved in these "protection" processes?
One of our new experiments is to start leaf removal around the fruit cluster after the grapes have flowered. The aim is to encourage grape berries to grow thicker skins even in less sunny periods - making the bunches more resistant to temperature extremes. In our Kadarka clone selection, we also favour varieties with smaller berries and looser bunches. This kind of protection and adaptation is a never-ending task.
How much does climate change affect the grape variety?
It is a fortunate coincidence that the two varieties we have been growing in Hungary for a long time, Kadarka and Kékfrankos, seem to be responding well to extreme environmental changes. They both have their own sensitivities, but they do not accumulate too much sugar and the alcohols do not get too high. Unlike Merlot, for example, they tolerate prolonged lack of water better.
Although climate change is a global problem, it affects every area differently. What Zoltán Heimann explains is true not only for the family estate. Extreme environmental changes do not have the same impact everywhere, so the response cannot be the same in all areas. In the 21st century, both consumer demand and producer response have focused on solutions that produce consumer goods with less environmental impact and using methods that are closer to nature. A good example of this is the Slow Living Hungary movement, of which Heimann Family Winery is a member and which is proudly promoted on its website. Although the organic trend has not just started in the world, in many places in the wine sector it is still seen as an experiment rather than a way forward.
Is the organic approach a response to a market need or the result of an internal drive?
I still remember the socialist era, when what we didn't need was poured out onto the borders of the plot. Now we have to deal with all the rubbish and damage we have left in the area. When you have children and grandchildren, you have to face up to what you leave behind. I'm not just talking about wine, but our whole environment.
A large part of the world is apparently not yet ready to accept organic thinking. Everyone in Szekszárd says it might work elsewhere, but it certainly doesn't work here. Many people say that organic producers spray at night when nobody sees them and just say they have organic wine. Farmers are cautious, they don't take risks if not necessary, they wait to see what other people do. If we succeed in going organic, then maybe a pattern will start to emerge here.
Obtaining organic certification is a long process, the details of which cover both the methods and tools used in viticulture and winemaking. The transition started for Heimann Family Winery in January 2022, and by the autumn of 2023, all of their Kadarka and Kékfrankos wines will be certified organic.
Did the fear of climate change that characterises the young generation appear in your life?
This is not climate anxiety, but rather a kind of ambition, a sensibility that comes with age, a responsibility that comes with our civil well-being. We want to preserve the values of our cultural landscape. My wife's organic garden, for example, and her environmental awareness and Zoli's ideas are in line with this.
Is the wine district united in the fight against climate change?
At the time when I was the president of the Szekszárd Wine District, President János Áder - with whom I was a fellow soldier, and therefore have a more personal relationship - visited Villány for an event on climate change, to which the Szekszárd winemakers were invited. He asked us what we perceived from the warming. There I said, as was the case at the time, that we were not yet sure whether it was really warming in the literal sense of the word, but that the hectic weather that usually signals dramatic changes was already happening in our area.
Some of the producers here then said that they don't experience anything like that. This is a haughty peasant attitude, saying that we will solve our problem and not talk about the mistakes.
Climate change denial is not an isolated phenomenon, there are many examples of it in the world.
Indeed. There are a few wine districts in this area where people have declared more than once in recent years that such and such vintage was the "vintage of the century". Such a statement in 2006, for example, had a slightly dissonant ring to it. I understand this kind of attitude to be good for marketing, but it limits the development of our long-term vision.
For several years, Zoltán Heimann was in the 50 top list of Winemaker of the Winemakers, until he won the award on 21 April 2023, based on the votes of the best producers. The significance of the award is that it is not awarded by a jury, but by the winemakers themselves, thus authentically representing the opinion of the wine community.
You have been shortlisted in the Winemaker of the Winemakers Top 50 several times. Was the award a surprise?
For me it was really a surprise. I was preparing myself for the day of the ceremony by saying that it was not going to happen, I was not going to be elected. I've been disappointed in the past, this time I was more cautious.
What does the Winemaker of the Winemaker award mean to you? On your own website you mention that the award is a statement from the wine community recognizing your values and approach. Can your operating model become a benchmark or is this just a gesture of recognition?
I appreciate the recognition, but I don't want to put more behind the award than what it really means. This reflects the subjective opinion of the voting winemakers. There is no definition of what the Winemaker of the Winemakers award means, there is no list, no criteria to be met. There is neither a committee nor a jury in the traditional sense, so the award can remain credible. How much the winemakers who voted for me were influenced in their decision by sympathy, recognition, or even the structure, size and operation of our family winery, cannot be measured with exactitude.
Being from Szekszárd is an essential part of your self-definition. What does it mean to be a Szekszárd winemaker in the world today?
My answer is twofold. Our ancestors came here, settled here and started working here. The land obliges. It anchors you. It's not like many other processes where I can produce the same product in Budapest one day and New York the next. I once asked the late Dr. Lajos Diófási, head of the PTE Research Institute of Viticulture and Enology, how Szekszárd wine differs from other Hungarian wines. He told me that "Szekszárd wine brings out the melody first". This sentence sums up what Szekszárd means. The wine here is gentle, it has a light elegance, it is cheerful, and it creates a sense of community. Many young people refer to it as a wine for dating. One of our professional guests from Austria wrote that he thinks you'll never find such a nice Kékfrankos in Burgenland. This charm in the wine is hard to achieve. The question now is whether we will succeed in emphasising the strengths of our wine district, whether we will be able to build on this amiability.
Is this the strength of the wine district?
I think that there is no reason to be ashamed that this is what our wine district has to offer. It's not just about making wines that make everyone jump to attention. Wine should also be able to be part of a pleasant conversation under a walnut tree, a glass with a pretty lady on the banks of the Danube, a party with friends or a Christmas dinner table.
At one point during our visit, Zoltán Heimann quoted Huba Szeremley, who passed away at the age of 81, who, when asked how to create a small fortune from a winery, said: "You have to start with a big fortune." No question, winemaking is an expensive business. How to do it in a commercially sustainable way from generation to generation without negating quality and respect for tradition brings us to the subject of generational change.
At the same time as the political and economic regime change took place in Hungary, the wine sector shifted from mass production back to quality work and smaller estate sizes. The formerly gigantic vineyards serving the countries of the Comecon (the Soviet-led economic alliance) became fragmented and privately owned. In the early 1990s, a significant number of wine producers, now prominent professionals, began to work. Their vineyards now face a major challenge: generational change. Ágnes Heimann and Zoltán Heimann are also on this path, as in recent years they have gradually been entrusting more and more responsibility and tasks to their son, Zoltán Heimann Jr, who has become the managing director of the family business.
Photo: Heimann Family Winery
The way in which an internationally successful producer such as Heimann Family Winery succeeds in this great task is important not only for them, but also for the entire domestic sector. Their success can set another good example and show the way forward for other wineries in the question of continuity.
What is the biggest challenge in your daily work?
In our case, the biggest challenge at the moment is generational change. My son Zoli was provided all assets - he has to learn to live with these, to set up priorities and carry out his tasks in order of importance. It's a multifaceted challenge, even just in the case of the product. We are constantly building the Kadarka and Kékfrankos product line that he envisions, which is undergoing an organic transition, and on the other hand we are continuing to develop the product line that my wife and I have built together. Although the current organic line is Zoli's, Ágnes and I have not used fertiliser for the last 15 years and we use hoes and ploughs instead of herbicides.
At this point, the conversation was joined by Zoltán Heimann Jr. As their heir who has travelled to Italy, France, Germany, Australia and many other parts of the world on his journey of learning and development, he brings new ideas and a great deal of impetus to the daily life of the estate.
How necessary is it to separate family and business?
Zoltán Heimann Jr: It is essential, as protecting our privacy matters, but it would be unrealistic to separate them completely. Just as the roles within our company are not entirely separated, it happens that we talk about something to do with wine at a Sunday lunch.
How natural is the generational change in your lives?
Zoltán Heimann Jr: It comes with a lot of challenges, a lot of arm-wrestling. When I started working for the company, my parents were the bosses - my mother was the person who managed the day-to-day processes. Compared to that, learning the role of a boss - for example, when new employees come in - is a slow process. I returned home from my studies in 2015 and this transition has been going on ever since.
How do you envision the future of the Heimann Family Winery?
Zoltán Heimann Sr: When Zoli came home, I had two requests. One was to make the best Kadarka in the world. The other was to put the Heimann name on the upper shelves of the European wine world within 10 years. I wouldn't change that in any meaningful way. I am not the only one who made these up. It's in Zoli.
Zoltán Heimann Jr: The two goals are difficult to reconcile. One is about the joy of creation. The privilege of working in our own company is a huge asset. We are constantly building our shared vision, part of which is to successfully conceptualise Kadarka and Kékfrankos. That's something you can work with. Basically, what I see is that there is not a targeted demand for Hungarian wines among foreign consumers at the moment and I would like to change that. So that once someone has tasted a Heimann Kadarka, they will consciously look for our name on the shelves. This will be a long-term story.
At this point, the reader, like ourselves on the site, might well feel the need to take a closer look at where the Heimann family is active in their everyday lives. Fortunately, Zoltán Heimann Sr was open not only to a conversation with a great view from the terrace, but also to a tour of the winery. Thus, we got a taste and proof of what was said above, as the surroundings of the winery and the press house accurately reflected the conscientious, thoughtful and planned work that the family puts into their operation.
We first met Barna Jenei, a winemaker from Pannonhalma who has been working on the estate for four months. The head of the family described Jenei as someone extremely orderly who sets the bar high with his work ethic and focus. From the physical work with the grapes to the winemaking process, the young winemaker is involved in every stage of the wine life cycle. "When he's not making wine, he's always cleaning and tidying up" - says Zoltán Heimann.
Our spontaneous tour led us to the equipment used to store, ferment and age the wines. Here, too, we were struck by the orderliness and complex, conscious planning that characterises the Heimann Family Winery. Nowhere was there a speck of mud, a patch of dirt, a piece of equipment left behind. The careful work that underpins the winery's life is palpably tidy.
It was an interesting observation to make, because sometimes the biggest difference is made by things that seem small. The general attitude in the life of the family estate is illustrated by the fact that what is all the same to others is not to the Heimanns. This is well reflected in the unified look of the huge concrete baths. Small things that are all part of a big whole.
Another curiosity to see was how the concrete vats, each with a capacity of 6,500 litres, were placed in their final location in the press house. They arrived from Italy in five trucks. One by one, they were lifted over the building by a 50-tonne lifting capacity crane and then delivered to the concrete structures by a 12-tonne lifting machine. The devices were gradually raised every five centimetres as they had to be set on higher legs to facilitate the extraction of the grape marc.
The next stop of the site visit was the warehouse where the bottles are stored. Approximately 25% of the 180,000 bottles of wine produced each year are destined for export markets. Surprisingly, in addition to exports mainly to Western Europe and overseas, as well as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, Russian orders have been maintained during the Russian-Ukrainian war. As the current sanctions against Russia do not cover the supply of wine, their trade flows to the Federation continued during the military conflict.
Locking the door of the storage room behind us, we began our tour of the more than 100-metre-long basement system built into the loess. Next to Jenei, who was working in the wine cellar, we were immediately struck by a real curiosity. The Heimann family’s amphorae. The amphora itself, which is a revival of an ancient wine producing method, is a curiosity in the domestic production, but it is the exterior of the clay containers that draws the attention. They are painted. Quite spectacularly so.
The amphorae are decorated with works by painters such as the recent Munkácsy Prize winner drMáriás and this year's Kossuth Prize winner Imre Bukta. The art-loving Zoltán Heimann invited his artist friends to his home four years ago and, as he says, "this was the result of a weekend of fun." The walls of the Birtokbisztró (Estate Bistro) are regularly decorated by a selection of contemporary Hungarian paintings from the Völgyi-Skonda Art Collection. Currently you can see paintings by Prof. Dr. Claus Hipp, the father of the HIPP baby food brand.
Although he and his wife do not want to be retirees in the classic sense of the word, he feels it is important to devote more time to cycling, art as well as enjoying wine and gastronomy.
After a great conversation and a tour of the winery, we said goodbye to our hosts. During our visit to Heimann Family Winery, although we did not find a framed recipe about how to be a successful winery on the wall, we can be sure that the wine of Szekszárd is in very good hands at the Heimann's. We congratulate Zoltán and Ágnes Heimann on their efforts over the past 30 years and wish Zoltán Heimann Jr much success in the future!