05 March 2024 / Borbála Kalmár / Photos by Bulcsú Böröczky and Nándor Lang Copy actual URL Facebook share Twitter share

The Finnish Master of Wine who would buy a holiday home in Villány

Finnish Master of Wine Pasi Ketolainen fell in love with Hungarian wines over two decades ago, even though he had envisaged a career in beer. He can list our wine regions off the top of his head, knows the producers and is considering buying a holiday home here to be within arm’s reach of what he calls our world-class red wines. This March, the Finnish expert will once again give a masterclass on Hungarian wines at ProWein – we talked to him about it.

For many years now, two eminent British authorities and Masters of Wine, Elizabeth Gabay and Caroline Gilby, have often been mentioned in connection with Hungarian wines. As Caroline recently told Dániel Ercsey, their attachment to Hungary spans decades: they have followed in practice all the attempts of the post-regime-change generation to spread their wings. However, they are not alone in this, Pasi Ketolainen has also been following the development of Hungarian wines for a long time, a fact that has been increasingly in the spotlight since the Finnish expert became a Master of Wine in 2020. We also talked to him about this as well as the opportunities and specificities of the Scandinavian market.

 

How has your life changed since you became a Master of Wine?

 

To be honest, it hasn’t really. I passed the first half of the exam in 2008, so it was quite a long time before I became a Master of Wine, and by 2020, my role in the wine world was well established. But I’ve started to go to wine competitions to judge, and I also give masterclasses, such as at this year’s ProWein. And I also have a little hobby, which is my three children… (laughs) I don’t have much free time.

 

Can you remember when you first had a glass of Hungarian wine and how you liked it?

 

It must have been during my hospitality studies in 1996. It was a three puttonyos Aszú, from Grand Tokaj, I think. I remember it was sweet, and of course, like all Aszú, wonderful. At that time, I was more interested in beer, but one of my teachers was a wine enthusiast, and he eventually got me started on this path. I remember him entering me in a wine competition for Scandinavian students, and when I said I didn’t want to take part, citing my lack of knowledge, he said that if I didn’t participate, he wouldn’t let me sit the exam. And so it began. Then, in my final year of hospitality studies in 1998, we visited Eger and Tokaj, and it was this trip that finally sparked my interest in Hungarian wines.

 

If I remember correctly, the Hungarian public first had the chance to meet you in 2022 at the Villány Franc&Franc conference. Then last year, you gave a masterclass on Hungarian wines at ProWein, but from what you’ve just told us, your history with us goes back much further than that.

 

In the 2000s, I was studying in the Netherlands, where I made a few Hungarian friends who worked in gastronomy, and I visited them several times. In 2002, I attended a tasting organised by a wine merchant on the Buda hillside with more than 100 exhibitors – it was here I fell in love with Hungarian white wines, which were then totally unknown in Finland. I remember particularly liking the wines of Mihály Figula and the reds from the Gere Winery, and I also worked with the latter later.

 

What do you think are the strengths of Hungarian wines that can make us attractive internationally?

 

I have many answers to this question. Firstly, there is the centuries-old cultural heritage and knowledge. Then there’s the geography, centuries of ties with Austria means that Hungary belongs to both the west and the east. In the latter capacity, it was the sole exporter from the region during the Soviet era, and in recent years, demand for Eastern European wines has increased. Major markets such as Austria and Germany are very close. Importantly, the country is an attractive tourist destination, with good weather and a rich gastronomic culture. I think it’s amazing when a country has such a diversity of characteristics, whether it’s climatic or geological. It is great to see that many people are investing in winemaking. I’m thinking here, for example of Sauska or Vega Sicilia, and I understand that wine also counts as a prominent sector politically. In my opinion, Hungarian wine styles are in line with current world trends. Besides crisp whites with good acidity, there are many fruity reds, such as Kadarka, or even Kékfrankos. Another important message is that the country boasts many indigenous varieties.

 

 

Feedback from wine merchants suggests that besides autochthonous, organic is the most important buzzword in the international market today. What is your opinion on this?

 

This is definitely an advantage in consumers’ eyes. Yet, if I look at the average consumer, I have to say that if organic means more expensive on the shelf, the consumer will decide based on the price tag and go for the cheaper one. But sustainability is very important. Things such as the use of lightweight bottles or the introduction of alternative packaging are strong buzzwords on the Scandinavian market, especially for monopolies. Sustainability is not just an advantage in terms of competitiveness, it is a mandatory minimum. I know that organic winemaking is now a trend in Hungary, and many young producers with international experience have emerged in recent years who are paying attention to this – while even some of the big names are saying it’s just so-called greenwashing. I travel around the world a lot, so I’m aware that, regarding obtaining organic certification, a lot of people would rather go out and be hoeing in the vineyards, not filling in paperwork. But I also see that even if you are working organically, if you don’t have certification, it means nothing to the trade. And a bit of black humour to conclude: many people buy organic wine because they are always late picking up their children from kindergarten and want to ease their conscience. We are the generation that must care about sustainability.

 

You also import and sell wine. How do you convince your customers to choose Hungarian wine?

 

We have a monopoly system, so we don’t meet the customer, but we do work with restaurants. We have introduced a comprehensive multi-step communication programme with the Top 10 Hungarian wine producers from wine regions such as Tokaj, Eger, Szekszárd, Sopron and Villány. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond our control, we have had to suspend this for the moment, but I hope we will be able to continue again soon. What is important to mention in this context is that I remember when, during COVID, Caroline Gilby gave an online presentation on Hungarian wines to Masters of Wine. Compared to their knowledge of the German market, their knowledge of Hungarian wines is rather limited. It is important to have appropriate educational material and it is certainly helpful to participate in wine fairs such as ProWein.

 

You will give a presentation on Hungarian wines here again this year: what will the masterclass be about?

 

There will be two: one on the producers’ shift towards organic and the other on the country’s diversity – which I think is Hungary’s strongest message. The fact that you really can find all types of wine here. And although 45 minutes is only enough time to get through the first 2 pages of the 300, I hope I can awaken people’s interest. Who knows, if they are as enthusiastic as I was back in 2002, they might even come in person to the Hungarian Wine Summit in April.

 

How were the wines selected for the masterclass?

 

Although I’ve been to Hungary many times, I don’t think I could compile the wine flights objectively, so the Hungarian Wine Marketing Agency has done that. However, I’m happy to see that wineries of varying sizes, both modern and traditional, have made it onto the list.

 

As you tell us about your experiences, I have the impression that you know us better than many Hungarian wine consumers. Is there anywhere else on your bucket list you’d like to visit in Hungary? 

 

I think I’ve been to most wine regions, but it’s true that my tastes don’t necessarily reflect the public’s. At least, there are some wines – I’m thinking of Szekszárd wines, for example – that I think are impressive, but it’s hard to find friends to help me finish the bottle. If I can mention one name here, I’d say Péter Vida is doing a fantastic job. I think the wines from the Villány wine region are world class, maybe the external appearance could do with a bit of tweaking, but I’ve already thought about buying a holiday home there. It’s in a good location, full of good wines and good friends. I think I could easily spend more time there.

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