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150 Years of Hungarian History, Told Through Wine Labels

16 minutes read

One of the (many) reasons I love wine is that it inspires me to learn about so many different areas of life, especially history. Hungary had a turbulent 20th century—with two lost world wars, the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the Holocaust, a few quick left- and right-wing revolutions, and more than 40 years of a Communist dictatorship. It’s too long of a list to even fit into one sentence. How did all of this crazy turmoil affect the wine industry and the people in it? It’s fascinating to trace Hungary’s history by looking back at the wine labels.

Hungary’s latest golden days were at the turn of the previous century, from the 1870s until the break out of World War Two. Hungary was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and from the Great Compromise in 1867 Hungary experienced a big economic and social boom. As one of the capital cities of the Monarchy, during this time Budapest developed into the grand metropolis that we know today. At that time the Habsburg Empire covered a vast geographic area, which today is shared by about a dozen countries. Not everything was perfect. But it was a period of development, growth, and prosperity, for the most part, when ambitious entrepreneurs had the opportunity to build empires. This large common market—almost like a small Eastern European EU—also provided the opportunity for winemakers to grow and sell their wine to a large audience.

One example is winemaker Rezső Czobor in Érmellék (which is in today’s Transylvania, in Romania). I came across his flyer announcing the opening of his wine shop in Budapest in 1891. He already had outlets in Vienna, Magdeburg, Rotterdam, and Saint Petersburg—an amazing scale (even today) for a winemaker who was located in a pretty much unknown region in the depths of Transylvania. As much as my research (and the documents I found) indicate, Czobor was just one of the many winemakers who had channels set up all over the region, and beyond.

People from all backgrounds got into the wine business, and some built companies that lasted for generations. The Tokaj region, for example, was home to many wineries that were owned by Hungarian, Austrian, and German aristocrats. One of the biggest operations like this was run by the Waldbott family, who had their headquarters in Tolcsva (a village in the Tokaj region). Today parts of their cellars are used by Grand Tokaj, the state-owned winery. The Waldbott mansion is still standing (and it was recently renovated) on top of the Kincsem vineyard outside of the village. (By the way, the Kincsem vineyard was named after a Hungarian race horse who deserves her own story.)

Another great aristocratic family business was the Windisch-Graetz winery, located in Sárospatak (the northern part of the Tokaj region). Their headquarters were in the Rákóczi Fortress, which is still in great shape today and can be visited. The history of the fortress goes back to the 1500s, and for centuries it was owned by the Rákóczi family, who were Hungarian nobles going back to the 1300s. After they lost the War of Independence against the Habsburgs, the fortress was confiscated from them. In the late 1800s it was given to the Austrian Windisch-Graetz family for the services which they provided to the Habsburgs.

This is a small, Polish-language flyer advertising the Windisch-Graetz wines, and depicting the Sárospatak fortress on the Bodrog river. At the time Poland was a major market for Tokaj wines, and Hungarian wines in general.

Religious orders were also keen on making wine and spirits. The Piarists ran an award-winning winery in Northern Balaton’s Dörgicse region, where (like many) they also produced törköly pálinka, or marc brandy. It’s a divine drink that helps you reach the unity of body and soul … if taken the right way!

The 1800 and early 1900s also provided opportunities for Hungarian Jews to create great businesses. This was not only the case in winemaking, but in many other areas of the food industry. Brands like Herz Salami and Richter pharmaceuticals still exist to today. In Tokaj hundreds of Jewish winemakers established prestigious estates that lasted through generations.

One of the greatest Jewish businesses was owned by the Zimmermann family. There were several branches of the family involved in the making and selling of Tokaj wines, with one of them based in Abaújszántó and the other based in Mád.

A German language label for the 1870 Zimmermann 6 puttonyos Aszú, depicting the hills of Abaújszántó (including the Sátor hegy, Tent hill).

This period of prosperity, growth, and mostly harmonious coexistence between the nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ended with World War One. The generation that started the war had no idea what they got themselves into, and marched into a four-year massacre that resulted in a new world order by the time the war was over. The Monarchy was broken up. Hungary, and other Eastern European countries, dethroned Charles I of Austria (who died in 1922 on one of the Madeira islands, another one of my favorite wine regions). And nation states of Eastern Europe were created from the ashes of the Astro-Hungarian Monarchy. For Hungarians, this was a disastrous moment—which Hungarians are still mourning—because the borders suddenly changed, and two-thirds of Hungary was split up amongst its neighbors. Families were cut off from each other by new borders, businesses were cut off from their production facilities, and markets and wineries were cut off from their vineyards and cellars. One of the many wineries that suddenly found itself located in a new country was the Gottdiener family’s winery in Kassa, which is Kosice in today’s Slovakia.

A side effect of all of this chaos was the first “modern” style Communist dictatorship of Hungary. The Republic of Councils fortunately only lived from late March to August 1919. As communists usually do, they wanted to use private resources for government purposes. The letter that Henrik Schreiber, the owner of a vinegar factory in Budapest’s Újpest district, wrote to the local leaders gives us a good picture of the times.

“Dear Directors,
With respect, I’d like to report that our horses went to the countryside yesterday afternoon and will only return on Thursday, therefore they’re not able to participate in the draft today.”

In other words he’s saying: “Screw yourself, Directors, I’m not giving you my horses!”.

As we know, the interwar period in Europe saw the rise of nationalism, and Hungary was no exception. This was also reflected on the wine labels. Dr. Vitéz István Fákla from Tolcsva was given the “Vitéz” title after being accepted in the “Vitéz Order” or “Order of Valiance”. This was an official award given to Christian Hungarians for their military merits. The order was founded in 1920 by governor Horthy to honor those who supported the Hungarian efforts to regain the old territories as quickly as possible. Members of the order were allowed to use the title “Vitéz” in their name, and were also given a chunk of land for some reason.

Even though World War Two was approaching, wineries were still operating and producing great wines, including this kosher wine from the Blicki winery in the village of Abaújszántó, in the Tokaj region.  This bottle found me by accident at the Illés winery in Erdőbénye. I popped in to buy a few bottles of dry Furmint, but I ended up walking out with this treasure. It’s a 5 puttonyos Aszú from 1936, in a unique two-liter bottle, with the heschel (kosher stamp) of the orthodox rabbi of Miskolc. The wax seal, the ribbon with Hungary’s national colors, and the stamp of the rabbi are still intact today.

Companies like Törley (which today is still Hungary’s largest sparkling wine producer) were making wine and pezsgő (sparkling wine) all the way into World War Two, trying not to take notice of the craziness happening around them.

The combination of the the wars, the Holocaust, and the advent of the Communist dictatorship wiped out all family and privately owned businesses. Family and company names disappeared as Hungary became part of the Eastern Bloc. Starting soon after the end of World War Two, the Soviet troops and Hungarian officials established an authoritarian government and a single party Communist dictatorship. Under the first years of the regime, churches, civilians, politicians, intellectuals, and business owners were exposed to brutal harassment. Eventually all private property—including land, vineyards, cellars, and wine inventory—became property of the Communist state. Farmers had to give a large portion of their crops to the local cooperatives.

“Hand in your compulsory grape, must, and wine quote precisely!” – Communist state propaganda poster from the early 1950s.

The brutality they used was probably necessary in order to make people hand over all their property. This was led and taken to the extreme by Mátyás Rákosi, a totalitarian stalinist dictator and by the mid 1950s people were so hungry, and fed up with the system that on October 23, 1956 the revolution and war of freedom broke out against the Soviet occupation, and the Communist oppression in general. Hungary declared independence and ordered the occupying Soviet troops to leave the country immediately.

The fighting, which lasted for about three weeks, took place all over the country, with Budapest being the hardest hit. But this glorious revolution was doomed to failure, and only lasted until November 10. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly uncomfortable time for Moscow. They could no longer force the illusion that the countries of Eastern Europe were happy to be part of the Communist Bloc. It was an eye opener for some idealists living in Western democracies, who until this point believed that Communism was something great. Gabriel Garcia Márquez was one of them.

“When I entered the bars, the rattling turned into a dense buzz. Nobody wanted to talk. But when the people are quiet—out of fear or prejudice—you have to enter the washrooms to find out what they’re thinking,” he wrote in his journalistic essay, I Visited Hungary. “There I found out what I was looking for: in among the pornographic drawings, classics now by all urinals of the world, there was Kádár’s name, in an anonymous, but extraordinarily significant protest. Those notices represent a valid testimony on the Hungarian situation: ‘Kádár, murderer of the people,’ ‘Kádár, traitor,’ ‘Kádár, the Russians’ attack dog.’ “

After the Soviet troops broke down the Hungarian freedom fighters, they reestablished a new Communist government led by János Kádár. He understood that his predecessor, Mátyás Rákosi, had already done the dirty work, and that his role had to be different. After Kádár got vengeance for the revolution by executing hundreds of the freedom fighters, he established a lukewarm dictatorship with a welfare system, which was low level but somewhat consistent. This is what historians refer to as Gulyás Communism, pointing out that there was plenty of food—and cheap booze—that kept most Hungarians content for awhile.

In the wine world, family labels were replaced by the Communist coop labels. Families could only own a very small piece of land. All grapes had to be sold to the local cooperatives, which then turned everything into a homogenous plonk which was sold for cheaply to the locals, and also to the Soviet Union in return for tractors. Winemaking became a heavy industry, carried out by a few gigantic coops. One export company controlled all of the wines that left Hungary for 30 years: Monimpex LTD. This is the time when the Olaszrizling and Kékfrankos grape varieties replaced Furmint and Kadarka as the country’s most widely-planted ones.They have a higher yield, and are easier to grow, making them more suitable for the new model of the country’s wine industry.

This hypocritical system could not survive forever. It finally ate itself, resulting in the collapse of the Soviet Union—perhaps the largest economic collapse in history. It has been 30 years since then. Family names now proudly appear on labels again, and a focus on quality became the new norm. A great generation of winemakers made their mark, and iconic labels (and wines) like the “Kopár” were created. 

In Tokaj a bunch of foreign investors arrived in the late 1980s, and they built large wine estates from the ruins of the state coop. Oremus, Disznókő, Royal Tokaj, Hétszőlő, and a few other wineries were established at that time, and they have been creating amazing wines ever since. The first quality Aszús were made starting 1993, and a few years later winemakers started experimenting with dry Furmint. In Villány things developed in a different way. Instead of big investors, family-owned wineries took the lead. People like Attila Gere and József Bock created some amazing estates, and pioneered the establishment of wine tourism in Hungary. There are 22 wine regions now, and I could probably list 100 different examples from each one. 

The rusty state coop facilities are gone, and Monimpex Export LTD has been forgotten. The collapse of Communism created an opportunity for winemakers to make great wine again, to set up their facilities for wine tourism, and for entrepreneurs to build wine shops, restaurants, bars, and events around these delicious wines. Through Taste Hungary, we do our share by promoting and selling Hungarian wine and culinary tours, and by importing small batches from our favorite producers to the US. As importers, we are proud to have our mark on the back labels of some of these fine Hungarian wines! We have a lot of work to do, and hopefully a great future ahead of us.