05 November 2023 / Borbála Kalmár (Photos: Bulcsú Böröczky)
What does this first prize mean to you?I have always been a competitive person, but this was my first major sommelier competition. Basically, I could sum it up as very good feedback that I’m on the right track. Of course, the feeling of glory itself is also glory, but it will go down in history that I won the 26th Hungarian Sommelier Championship.
You say that it’s the first. Will there be more?
There’s another national sommelier competition in November, which I can’t do this year because my schedule is very busy, but I’d definitely like to do it next year because the winner of that will go on to the international competition, and I’d like to see what that’s like as well.
How did you become a sommelier?
Although I live in Budapest, I grew up in Szeged. I went to a vocational catering school, where I studied to become a chef, which is how I got an Erasmus scholarship to France. I spent four weeks in Nantes, where the world opened up towards gastronomy. At the end of the programme, the foreign partner school offered me the chance to continue my studies there. So, I moved there for two years, completed the cookery course and started working in a so-called bistronomy (a combination of classic bistro cuisine and fine dining elements – editor). There were about 20,000 bottles of wine in the restaurant, with three sommeliers, the owner being a well-known wine expert from the Loire Valley. So, of course, there were many tastings. Moreover, quality wine drinking is part of everyday life there, so when it came to furthering my education, I was also interested in the sommelier route. It was also a dual training: I worked in fine dining restaurants while I was studying. I went to Bordeaux, Paris and Lisbon – it was a very active year. And in 2018, I finally became a sommelier.
What has happened in the last 5 years?
Here in Hungary, I have worked as a chef at Tiszavirág in Szeged, and then during COVID, I had a webshop selling artisanal products. I also organised tastings and gave gastronomic presentations in Csongrád county. Then, when Babel was looking for people for its re-opening, I talked with Hubert (Hubert Hlatky-Schlichter, owner of the Michelin-starred Babel Budapest – editor), and I was on the team when it opened in February 2022. Since then, in practice, I’ve been continuously in this profession, and I’m constantly improving – that’s why I thought I’d enter this competition: let’s see what I can get out of it.
What exactly are your duties at Babel?
As Head Sommelier, all drinks on the menu are my responsibility: from water to coffee to wines to spirits, they’re all included. In addition to enhancing the dining experience in the evenings, I try to offer wine pairings for the food, and because we have a fixed wine and food pairing, I even offer a non-alcoholic juice pairing! The selection, purchase, storage and pricing of these are all my responsibility. And I also put together the wine list for another member of the group, Kiosk.
Speaking of Babel, we have to talk about Péter Blazsovszky, your sommelier colleague: he is known for only pairing white wines with food. Do you have a similar hobbyhorse?
I worked with Blazsó for almost a year – he was in a different position at the time – and apart from being a very good friend, we have a similar professional vision. I’m not saying that white wine is the only option, but it is very important to balance the wine with the food, and here the acidity and residual sugar are much more important than the tannin.
Does the chef ever create a dish for a wine?
In most cases, the way it works is that there is a dish, I find a wine for it, and then we finely tune it. If there is a wine that I definitely want to put on the menu, because I’m getting it from a small producer, it’s a limited edition, something really extra special, and there’s a dish that’s about 80% right for it, then I get a lot of help from the kitchen team. If I say I need a little more acidity, or let’s say a little more smokiness, the guys work with me on that, and we can bring the two together. But what my personal hobbyhorse is – and what I’m being teased about here – is finding a place for dry Szamorodni in gastronomy. There are classics, of course, aged mangalica ham and guinea fowl consommé work very well, but I would really like to go beyond that. So, I try dry Szamorodni with everything – my favourite is the Majoros Estate 2017 – because I’m interested in seeing how it works with, say, dill, toasted almonds or whatever the chef is using at the time. Kornél (Kornél Kaszás, executive chef at Babel – editor) has already promised me that he’ll make a dish especially for Szamorodni.
How do you train yourself, and in this context: how do you find new wines for the wine list?
As well as being my job, it’s also my hobby. I love going out to see producers, and I’m not just talking about wine here. My circle of friends is the same: we meet, and they often bring me wine they like too. We’ll taste it, and if I say it’s fantastic too, I’ll talk to the producer and see if we can get it imported, and if we can, then in practice it will also end up in Babel. It’s a really good way, and I also like to go to tastings. Luckily, Budapest is quite centralised in terms of wine, with tastings, wine bars, portfolio presentations – the biggest events are always here. I have managed to build up a circle of friends here too, and if there are interesting tastings, I’m happy to go to them myself or send a colleague. We write tasting notes on all the wines, and even if we don’t list them at Babel, we save them and can go back to them when a new dish comes along.
You mentioned that you travel to wine regions. What was the last thing about which you thought, “Wow, this is something really special!”?
I love going to Tokaj, and I’m always surprised that such good wines can be made even in difficult vintages. For example, Barta Winery’s KVG is always very good; we have six vintages of it at the restaurant – I was just tasting the 2022. But I also love Aszú – not just as a sweet wine, but also as a wine – and the 2017 6-puttonyos Dobogó Aszú is a wine I could drink every day. I actually do, by the way, I have a small glass before going to bed.
You’ve talked about it in part, but other than that, what else do you have as a goal for the near future?
What’s really significant for the time being is linked to Babel: it’s no secret that we want to excel, not only in Hungary, but also in the Central and Eastern European region – we’re putting a lot of effort into trying to become a two Michelin star. I think prizes are important, so I would like to be a twice or even perpetual Hungarian champion sommelier. I would like to go to international competitions and represent Hungary at the world championships. I’d also like to educate myself professionally, work my way up the WSET levels (internationally accredited multi-level wines and spirits training – editor) and start the Court of Master Sommeliers (the highest ranked international sommelier academy – editor). I have a long way to go, and I definitely want to progress.