11 May 2022 / Sue Tolson
The first French wine producer settled in Tokaj in 1241, but Tokaj has also attracted several French winemakers more recently, including Samuel Tinon, a fifth-generation member of a Bordeaux winemaking family. Their family estate in Sainte Croix du Mont, now run by his sister Virginie, mainly produces botrytised sweet wines, most likely explaining better than anything how Samuel ended up in Tokaj. He first arrived in 1991 on a mission to Royal Tokaj in Mád, then these missions grew longer, until finally, in 2000, he and journalist wife Mathilde created their Hungarian family estate in Olaszliszka. He was immediately adopted by the local winemakers, and this has not changed, so he feels totally at home here, leading a privileged life and able to give their three boys a first-class education - they all speak three to four languages! They are French boys from Olaszliszka, which says a lot about how the family feels about their adopted home. Samuel says he started speaking Hungarian at some point but is still learning after 32 years. He feels proud to be building Tokaj worldwide every day and is one of the key proponents of an increasingly rare Tokaj speciality, dry Szamorodni – a dry botrytised wine produced under flor! After travelling the globe as a flying winemaker, Samuel is now happy to have somewhere with his slippers waiting for him every evening, and he hopes this feeling will continue for a long time.
Down in Villány, Swiss-German couple Evelyne and Erhard Heumann run the Heumann Winery in Siklós. This came about because Evelyne’s father came to Hungary hoping to source some parts for his fireplace business in Switzerland. Although this didn’t work out, he ended up buying a piece of land in Siklós with some vines and spending several weeks a year here, attempting to make wine - with varying degrees of success, says Erhard. They also fell in love with the region when visiting and in 1996 started to make some wines from Portugieser, as they had the chance to lease a 40-year-old Portugieser vineyard. Naturally, everyone just smiled at these crazy foreigners trying to make wine, but various winemakers helped them out via the phone and in person at harvest and gradually they began to make great wines. They then built a winery from scratch – actually in the industrial park, and slowly bought vineyards as they got the right permits. They now have around 15 hectares and making award-winning wines from Cabernet Franc and Kékfrankos but also from Riesling and Gewürtztraminer. They divide their time between Switzerland and Siklós, but love living here among the vines, walking their dog, enjoying life and meeting friends.
Ralf Waßmann studied viticulture and beverage technologies in Giesenheim in the Rheingau and dreamt of owning his own winery; however, as he didn’t come from a winemaking family, it seemed like an impossible dream. However, one of his colleagues bought a small vineyard, and Ralf and Susann Hanuauer helped him cultivate these four rows of vines together, so Susann, a lawyer, also started to learn how to make wine. Neither of them had found their dream job, so they started to dream of starting something of their own. Susann read that the best Portugieser in the world was grown in Villány – this piqued their interest and they decided to visit. They discovered that the winegrowers in Villány have German roots – the so-called Danube Swabians – so they felt right at home. The local winegrowers encouraged them to start their winegrowing business here, and within three days, they had bought an old Swabian farmer’s house and wine cellar and were ready to start their own organic winery here, the first in Villány. They love Villány as the climate makes it easy for them to work organically. Moreover, there is a growing community of natural winemakers in Hungary who support and learn from each other.
Finnish businessman Riejo Itkonen first came to Hungary in 1997 to establish an electronics factory in Pécs, during which time he discovered Villány wines and met his wife Judit. They lived and worked in the USA and Switzerland until Riejo retired in 2011, when they decided they wanted to do something together, and that was to make wine. They love Bordeaux wines and knew that Villány was favourable for Bordeaux varieties, so came to their apartment in Pécs and within two weeks had bought two vineyards, one in Tenkes and another in the Kopár vineyard in Villány. They started to make wine in 2012, converting to organics in 2016. The local winemakers helped them a lot too, otherwise, Riejo said, they would never have been able to produce the premium wines that they now do. Although they probably initially wondered who that Finnish guy trying to make wines was, Riejo feels that they have now earned their respect, thanks to the quality of the wines they produce. Although they can’t imagine moving away from Hungary now, they do miss the nature, air and water of Finland, the happiest country in the world!
The ancestors of the Austrian Pfneiszl family made wine in Sopron, and Katrin and Birgit’s father dreamt of doing so again, as he knew about the Sopron Wine District's great terroir, seeing as “re-establishing” their family heritage when he founded the business in 1993. They took over the reins in 2006 and now feel totally at home here. Their kids go to kindergarten and school here and most of their friends live here. Katrin even went to school here, so speaks perfect Hungarian. Sopron is a very liveable city, and they love working here, the terroir of their vineyards, Lake Fertő, the soil and their temperate climate – the perfect place to cultivate Kékfrankos and other reds as well as fresh whites and rosés. As their parents, Burgenland winemakers, founded the winery, Katrin and Birgit took over an established business; however, they were really young when they did so and so many people were sceptical about how they would manage. Yet those who believed in them and saw they were getting their hands dirty and driving the tractor and so on are now their business partners or regular customers who often come and taste at the winery.
Bureaucracy was one of the most challenging things for most of them – millions of stamps, papers permits and hand-written logbooks for the wine cellar, to name just a few. Moreover, the Hungarian language also posed a challenge, although at least one person in each case has managed to learn the language well. Evelyne took lessons and speaks excellent Hungarian, while both Susann and Ralf have learnt Hungarian, from the day they arrived – they think it’s a beautiful language and know they don’t speak it perfectly but love the way the Hungarians praise their Hungarian.
However, they all managed to overcome these challenges, feel right at home in Hungary and are making top-class wines, adding international colour to the country’s already vibrant winemaking palette.