23 February 2024 / Dániel Ercsey Copy actual URL Facebook share Twitter share

Three decades of friendship with Hungarian winemakers - interview with Caroline Gilby

British-born Dr Caroline Gilby graduated as a plant biologist, but left behind the microscope long ago to become one of the most sought-after experts in the wine world. Her many decades of work for Hungarian wine were recognised by the industry in 2018 with the Friend of the Winemakers Award.

When did you become MW and how has this affected your life?

I passed the MW exam in 1992, possibly one of the quickest ever as I only started working in wine in late 1988. It was extremely useful to give me credibility as a young woman in a very male-dominated brewery and pub business, where I was working as wine buyer. Later when I started spending more time writing about wine in Central and Eastern Europe, it also proved useful for similar reasons. I would say that being an MW helps to open doors as it shows you've achieved a certain standard of knowledge and tasting skill - but after that it's very much up to the individual to prove their value and competence.


You are representing Hungarian wines again at ProWein, what kind of masterclass are you holding?

I'm holding a masterclass about local varieties, including some of my favourite grapes. I love Hungary's lighter, acid-driven reds like Kadarka and Kekfrankos for bringing elegance, a refreshing backbone and food friendliness - that is they go with and enhance rather than dominating food.  I'm known already for speaking a lot about how Furmint is the next big thing in white grapes - incredible versatile and capable of amazing quality. I'll also feature Olaszrizling as a grape with an exciting future now people are paying proper attention to it as a grape for more than spritzers and the intriguing rare Kéknyelű.


What do you see as the breakout potential of Hungarian wines, what are our USPs?

A hard one to pin down - diversity is actually a really important feature of what Hungary has to offer from its 22 regions and such a range of good quality local grapes that can offer a point of difference in a world that is increasingly bored of yet another Chardonnay. And many Hungarian wines can find a great place in gastronomy as partners to fine dining, or simple suppers. So there's something to suit everyone.

How has the Hungarian wine industry changed in recent years, how are Hungarian wines better than 10 or 20 years ago?

It's changed so much over the last couple of decades - indeed undergone a complete wine revolution since I first visited in the very early 1990s when everything was still being produced via the old collectivised model. I think the recent change I welcome most is that winemakers are now increasingly moving beyond using more winemaking to add value, but understanding that balance, harmony and terroir expression should be the way forward.


What are your personal favourites (wine regions, varieties, wine styles)?

Furmint of course - whether sweet, sparkling or dry.  I also have a soft spot for a good dry Harslevelű - I love its fruity, floral, salty character.  Modern high quality Bikavér is another favourite - some of the top ones from Eger make regular appearances in my house – elegant yet complex at the same time. Kadarka (mostly Szekszárd but also other spots) is another grape that I think gets overlooked because of its pale colour - but it can offer such joy in a glass. 



If not wine, what do you like to do in your spare time, what are your hobbies?

I took up running many years ago to keep the generous hospitality of the wine business at bay, and still run around 50 to 60 km a week.  I always take my running shoes when I travel - nothing like a run round the vines to get a close-up feel for the terroir.  I also love horse riding and have a long standing passion for botany - so I like to explore the wild flowers wherever I am.


Where do you see the place of Hungarian wine in gastronomy?

With a lot of potential - I did a project in UK a few years back to show how well Hungarian wine could go with modern British food and that there was much more than drinking it with goulash.  I also recently supported events showing sweet Tokaji with savoury food - it can work surprisingly well.


How long have you been involved with Hungarian wine, what is your favourite story about Hungary?

It's more than 3 decades since my first trip to Hungary to buy wine (from Mátra and Balaton back then). So two stories - one a funny tale about going midnight swimming in Lake Balaton on one of those early trips after being dared by a winemaker friend (and perhaps too much pálinka) - there were big creatures in that lake! The other a more serious one - the first time I met István Szepsy in person and spent hours tasting with him in his cellar, including tasting the legendary Úrágya 2000 that really started the serious dry Furmint movement.


What is typical of British consumers today, what trends should domestic wineries take into account when targeting this market?

I think people worry about too much alcohol and don't want wines that are too heavy. The freshness of Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio continue to do well, as does Pinot Noir and lighter rosé wines. People also want authenticity and a connection to place - so there are many more indigenous grape varieties around that can really connect to origin (something Hungary can offer).


For visitors of ProWein Düsseldorf 2024
Join our masterclass led by Caroline Gilby Master of Wine:





In which markets can Hungarian wine be successful at all? Is there even such a category as Hungarian wine? I am thinking here of the fact that it is so diverse that it is difficult to define exactly what we mean by this.

I think because of the diversity it's hard to define a category for Hungarian wine.  And that means it probably has to be sold particularly in places where it can be communicated - independent shops, restaurants with sommeliers and so on. The UK is a tough wine market because there is so much competition here, but the fact that it has become the top market for bottled Hungarian wine exports shows it can be done. It has required many years of tastings, articles and events to keep telling people and showing them the wines though - and this has to continue.


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