24 April 2024 / Ádám Geri Copy actual URL Facebook share Twitter share

John Szabo, ambassador of Hungarian wines claims the Summit is a critical start

John Szabo is one of the ambassadors of the Hungarian Wine Summit, which is taking place from April 21 to April 25 in Hungary. Prior to the event, he shared his opinions about Hungary’s strengths and the challenges it faces in achieving international success.

John Szabo, ambassador of Hungarian wines, claims the Summit is a critical start

John Szabo is one of the ambassadors of the Hungarian Wine Summit, which is taking place from April 21 to April 25 in Hungary. Prior to the event, he shared his opinions about Hungary’s strengths and the challenges it faces in achieving international success.

Tell me about your roots: which of your ancestors (parents, grandparents) left Hungary for Canada?

My father was born in Budapest and left in 1956 to come to Canada, along with about 37,500 other Hungarians. I have been traveling back and visiting relatives since the late 1970s, and I’ve been to Hungary countless times. I still have relatives in Tata.

Coming from Canada, why did you start working with wines?

I initially worked in restaurants, mainly in fine dining kitchens, before transitioning to the front of the house. Therefore, I was always surrounded by fine wine and wine service, along with the dining experience. Due to growing interest and curiosity, I started studying wine more formally. This journey began with an in-depth French wine program in Paris while I was working in a restaurant there, culminating in a WSET Diploma and then the Master Sommelier accreditation. I was drawn to wine as it touches on various areas of study such as history, culture, language, and science—subjects I love to learn about. Additionally, I love to travel, so it was a natural fit for me.

 

You have been involved with Hungarian wines for more than 20 years now. What has been the biggest change in Hungarian wines during that time?

My first serious wine trip to Hungary was in 2000 when I visited Tokaj to see a winemaking friend. It happened to be a magical year for botrytis. I’ll never forget my first taste of raw Eszencia - unbelievable stuff. What I’ve noticed most in the last nearly quarter of a century is the growing critical mass of quality producers. Back in 2000, there were only a handful of what I’d call ‘export-ready’ wineries, now there are dozens. I’ve also seen a significant shift towards focusing on local varieties and unique styles, as we’ve seen in many other parts of the world, which I believe is a very smart long-term move. Viticulture and winemaking have improved by leaps and bounds, and significant investments have enhanced winery infrastructures and technology. However, despite all the improvements, Hungary still remains one of the last great, traditional, but little-known wine-producing countries in Europe.

Do you see the key to success still lying in local varieties, given the recent focus on sparkling wines and natural wines?

Hungary produces some excellent traditional method sparkling wines, both from international varieties and local ones. Furmint, for example, is well-suited to this style. However, not every region is well-suited to sparkling wines. I understand why a producer would want to add sparkling wines to their portfolio to diversify, but only the top examples will make any impact internationally; the rest will be of local interest only, as it’s a very crowded field. Regarding natural wines, I think the term is already obsolete, in addition to being unclear and misleading. I prefer to speak about great wines and good wines.

 

In 2016, you published your book entitled "Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit, and Power." You mentioned at that time that volcanic wines could also be a unique selling point for Hungary. Are volcanic wines still as high and exciting for the world as they were eight years ago?

Yes, perhaps even more so as I continue to discover new volcanic regions, producers, and varieties. It’s an endlessly fascinating world, and the interest from the trade and consumers seems unabated. I’m launching the world’s first volcanic wine awards in collaboration with the US-based Wine & Spirits Magazine this June at the 4th annual Volcanic Wines International conference that I co-founded. I can’t wait to taste the submissions, as I know I’ll find some new gems, hopefully some from Hungary.

So, in your opinion, the keystones for Hungary are local varieties, diversity, and volcanic wines.

I’d maintain the current strategy but increase the frequency and depth. Success in the wine business is a question of exposure and education, both of which have been lacking in markets around the world. There’s no magic formula. It takes time and investment, but eventually, it pays off.

You are an ambassador for the Hungarian Wine Summit. Why do you think it is an important event for us? What can it bring to Hungary?

The Summit is a critical start to raising awareness in the international trade community about the quality and depth of Hungarian wines. As mentioned earlier, the country remains relatively unknown but has so much to offer. Additionally, the Summit includes study tours, which offer a unique opportunity for participants to explore Hungarian wine regions firsthand. It needs to be part of an ongoing strategy to promote and educate – a recipe adopted by all successful wine regions worldwide. There is so much excellent wine produced around the world that if you don’t promote regularly, you’ll be quickly forgotten. I can count the number of Hungarian wine masterclasses that have been done in Canada over the last 20 years on one hand (and I was involved in most of them). Other successful regions come to market several times per year, and producers regularly visit as well. We’ve seen very few Hungarian winemakers on the road in Canada.

 

In 2003, you joined a winery in Eger as a co-owner. Why exactly Eger, and how is the project going?

I chose Eger because it has the cooler climate I was looking for, a great history and tradition of winemaking, and a main variety – Kékfrankos – that I absolutely love and that does extremely well there. Plus, Eger is a beautiful town and a great place to visit. Ironically, our best wine always came from the limestone soils of the Nagy-Eged hillside vineyard, rather than the volcanic tuffs of the rest of the appellation! From 2003 up until the pandemic, I also had a small vineyard project in Eger with my partner János Stumpf, which we called the J&J Eger Wine Co. I would come at least a couple of times a year to harvest and assemble cuvées. We bottled Kékfrankos exclusively. My partner’s son Péter has now taken over and is making terrific wines under the Stumpf Pincészet label.

 

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