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Ágnes Németh: Wine Journalist, Judge, and Hungarian Wine Missionary

17 minutes read

Agnés Németh is self-described “missionary” of Hungarian wine. She is a wine journalist, who is a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hungarianwines.eu, which serves to promote and showcase the world of Hungarian wine. Hungarianwines.eu has been organizing a successful online wine writing competition for three years, and this year it launched a competition for Hungarian winery websites called Interwine. Previously Agnés served as editor-in-chief at Decanter and VinCE magazines, and she travels regularly to participate on the jury of wine competitions such as Concours Mondial, VinItaly, and Silk Route Competition. She is now based in Catalunya, Spain.

Taste Hungary sommelier (and contributor to this blog), Sebastian Giraldo, recently had a discussion with Agnés during which they discussed many aspects of Hungarian wine—from how tastes have changed since the 2000s and life as a traveling wine judge, to Hungarian wine trends and wine journalism.

Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity

How did you get started working with Decanter Magazine, and in the business of wine journalism?

I was hired at Decanter in July 2004, and the first issue came out that September. The Hungarian edition was the first-ever licensing of Decanter. There was already an Asian edition, but that was run by the British editorial team. The owners of the publishing company I worked for wanted to license a wine magazine. Decanter was the most reputable and trustworthy, so they decided to license it. For the editor-in-chief role, they were seeking a person who was new in the wine world.

Did you have any previous wine experience?

I loved drinking wine, and maybe I paid a little bit more attention to the labels than the average person. But that was all.

What do you remember about the top wines of that time (2004)?

There were much less wineries, and much bigger names! There were all of these famous wineries—like Gere, Thummerer, and big names which are also still big names. There were also some post-Communist companies—meaning big wineries which were privatized, and started to work in different formats. So there were these really big companies, and the other family wineries, who could get back their land (from the Communist regime), and basically were the pioneers of that wine revolution: the new age of Hungarian wines.

I think the biggest difference now, is that there are many more wineries—smaller ones, and ones with new styles.

What do you think about what Hungarians were drinking in 2004 vs. what they are drinking these days?

Barrique wines were the favorites among the wine-lovers who were a little bit more educated. The average person at that moment was not drinking too much wine. People were just learning about wines. Now it is common to find a glass of rosé in people’s hands, at wine bars or festivals, which was not common back then. But in 2004 people were starting to discover these important wine regions, and getting to know the pioneers of Hungarian wine life. At the beginning we drank much more heavily-oaked wine, which is not bad. It was because these winemakers went to France and learned how to age wine, so they used a lot of new oak. It became a special word on the label: Barrique. People were willing to pay more if they saw it on the label.

Now people want fresher, crispier, easier to drink wines ...

Exactly.

When Decanter magazine closed, you and the team transitioned to a new venture: Vince magazine. I know you are no longer with the magazine, but can you tell us about the Vince teszt, or the blind tasting panel, which is an important feature of the magazine?

It came from Decanter magazine. Because we licensed the magazine, we also licensed the tasting method. So the tasting coordinator of the English magazine came over, and we tried to do exactly as they did. It is really independent. So, I strongly recommend that everyone trusts these tasting panels—the VinCE teszt and Decanter tastings—because they are always blind tastings, and are always quite a good group of people who know a lot about that topic. So it’s objective and independent.

As a well-known wine expert, you are invited to many international wine competitions. Tell us how a wine competition looks from the inside. How many wines do you taste? Who are the fellow judges? Is it as extraordinary as it sounds?

Everyone is envious, especially my family. When there is no Covid, I usually travel once a month somewhere. For example, I was invited to China three times last year, and I went to other countries. But it’s not only fun. Of course, it’s hard work because you have to concentrate. And I can never take anyone with me. During the competitions, you spend 20 hours a day with other people. The tastings are usually in the mornings—usually 40 or 50 wines for three days. And in the afternoon, we have extra programs. These are all ways to get to know the host country and their wine regions. The last one I went to was Concours Mondial in September in the Czech Republic, so we got to visit the Moravia wine region in the afternoons.

Do you find any particular wine competition to be super-exciting, for you as a wine judge? Are there particular competitions that we, as consumers, should keep an eye on?

Well, in terms of exciting competitions, there was one, a long time ago, in Temesvar, Romania. The results were just the opposite of what they should have been. So, the better score a wine got, the worse it was. It was about 15 years ago, and in those times, especially in Eastern European countries, it was a kind of practice to buy medals. So, the bronze-medal wines were good. But that was a long time ago.

Later, I went to Vinul Romania, which was a Romanian competition organized by a magazine (which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist anymore). I liked it a lot because they bought all of the wines. They did not just want to rely on producers sending them, because they might not send the exact wine. Of course, this costs a lot of money, because they invited judges, they paid for travel, and everything.

There are many other interesting competitions! For example, Concours Mondial just opened a huge wine bar in Mexico City, where all of the gold medal wines of the Concours are available to taste and buy. I think that is something extra, because nowadays it is not enough to offer those award stickers. A wine competition should offer something extra because there are too many, and they compete for the attention of the winemakers. Of course, Mexico City is far from here. It’s not something attractive for a Hungarian winemaker, but maybe it is attractive for others.

There are a lot of good ideas with wine competitions, like Glass of Bubbly, which is an English sparkling wine competition. They have created categories geared to the consumers and the situation. So, it’s more like: ‘if you go on a date, what sort of sparkling wine would you drink?’ And the sparkling wines are tasted according to the categories. So I think that’s also something extra.

Of course, there are the big ones like Decanter and IWC (International Wine Challenge). These are the most respected ones, especially looking at the number of Hungarian winemakers who enter. Most entries go to Decanter World Wine Awards. This year there were 125 Hungarian medals, which is a big number.

You've clearly tasted wines from all over the world, and you know the international wine scene. How do you see Hungarian wine from an international perspective? Do you find it unique? Do you think that Hungary has a place in the market?

Of course! That’s my job, my mission, and my heart. But indeed, these wine competitions are also about networking. So, I usually stay until late, discussing everything with fellow wine writers and other people, because this is the most important part of every event … these last hours. 

Based on many conversations and interviews that we’ve made for Hungarianwines.eu, we always realize that Hungarian wines are interesting. We have many fantastic grape varieties. Tokaj has an important name. But still we need much more education and marketing. 

For example, Juhfark. It is a wonderful and unique grape variety. But how can you explain to someone unfamiliar how to taste it? You cannot compare it to anything. It’s just not enough, and I can see many examples in the wine world. For example, in places like Georgia and Greece. We have many similarities with these countries regarding reputation, the number of wineries, and more. But they are a little bit better at marketing. 

So, we have to realize that it’s not enough to go, for example, to ProWein China once every three years. If you want to do something you have to be in that country. For example, the winner of last year’s competition was from India, and I asked her many questions about Hungarian wines and the potential of selling them in India. She said that we are just not visible there. If we want to achieve something, we have to do something like the Italians in that market: they have a big house, with producers on every level, and offices.

We do have potential, of course, because we are exciting. And it’s also good that we have a small amount of wines that are suitable for a special niche market. So, we have the market. We just have to teach … and that takes a lot of time and energy.

So, we have the wines, and we have the potential, But we don't have the marketing figured out yet, right?

At the moment what is happening is that we have some national marketing, and we have many missionaries—like myself, and Zsuzsa Toronyi in London, and others. So many people do their job seriously, but that’s not enough, of course, because there should be more money put into it. I think I can see some positive signs. So it’s changing, but we should definitely do more.

At Taste Hungary, we work very hard to spread the word about Hungarian wine … and we are in for the challenge … we love it!

Congratulations for the Drinks Business award!

You have been basically everywhere within Hungary, and in Europe’s most famous and iconic wine regions. What are some of your most incredible wine experiences?

Well, it is so difficult! I like being around water, so those visits are always memorable. For example, there was one incredible trip to Luxembourg. It is not known as a wine country, but there are incredible wines: Rhine Rieslings, and traditional-method sparkling wines. It’s across from Germany, on the other side of the Mosel River, which is an incredible color green. 

Another top moment was when I won the Millesima wine writing award, and my prize was a special, luxury, exclusive trip to Bordeaux. We visited top wineries, and had a meal with the owner of Chateaux Margaux. It was an amazing lunch, with the eight winners, and about eight people from the winery (including the owner, her son, and her daughter). We were treated like kings and queens. It was amazing. 

Any special wine moment in Hungary that you remember?

That’s really hard. I can’t pick one. But I’d say it is spending time at our little holiday house next to Lake Balaton. It’s an old house with a small vineyard on Szent György hill, a volcanic hill. Being there in the vineyards—near these volcanic rocks, and the lake—is always the best moment. I got to spend quarantine there. (Unfortunately, we tried to make wine there, but it was a disaster. So I leave that to the professionals!)

Do you think there's a hidden jewel within the Hungarian wine scene—something that is not very popular right now, but has great wine potential?

Good question. I’m glad to see red wines with much more elegance. As I mentioned, this barrique-time seems to be over, and now wines are much more elegant. Kékfrankos absolutely fits with this. Austria’s Blaufrankisch is much more famous internationally. If you think of wine lovers in the United States, most of them have heard about Blaufränkisch. But they haven’t heard yet about Kékfrankos, which is the same!

And, of course we have a lot of Furmint. Furmint is great, and Hárslevelű too. Regarding dry Tokaj, there’s a debate over whether to market the wine based on its varietals or based on the dry style. I wouldn’t want to make a statement on that, but definitely those wines are fantastic. 

It is also important to think about what we have a lot of, which is the aromatic grape varieties—like Irsai Oliver, Cserszegi Fűszeres, and Traminer—which, in good hands, can be really elegant. And I don’t only mean for mass production, and not only as a fresh wine or as a spritzer (fröccs). They can be much more. If you think of the Italian Pinot Grigio, which became a number one in the United Kingdom—and everyone wants Pinot Grigio—something like that could happen to a Hungarian aromatic wine. I can imagine that, because we have a substantial amount, and more and more producers do it well. So we shouldn’t look down on these varieties. Of course, educated wine lovers think that these aromatic wines are not for them, but for younger beginners. But I think they could be in a good place, if they are done well.

You now live in the beautiful and charming capital of Cava—Sant Sadurni de Anoia, Spain—so you know your sparkling wine! How do you see Hungarian sparkling wine? Should producers focus on it? Do you find any grape variety or wine region working particularly well for that style?

Yes, definitely! I’m so happy that Hungarian wineries are making more sparkling wine. (There needed to be some regulation changes because there were some legal obstacles to producing sparkling wines.) There used to be a problem with overpriced sparkling wines, especially in Tokaj. I remember that a lot of Tokaj wineries started producing it, but the price of their sparkling wine was equal to a Champagne. When a wine is 10,000 HUF (which is about 30 Euros), then people think, ‘okay, this is a Hungarian sparkling wine, and for that price I can buy Champagne.’ I understand that it costs a lot to produce those wines, especially if you have to transfer the wine to another winery, you have to pay for the winery to make the sparkling wine, and there is expensive equipment involved. But the price can be a problem. 

However, now I can see many good sparkling wines at medium prices (about 3,000 to 5,000 HUF), and it’s good to see that local grape varieties are also used, for example Frittmann Winery’s Ezerjo (which is available at Taste Hungary). Ezerjo has a lot of acidity, so why not? I like that sparkling wine. So, I think it’s just great that we have local ones. Kéknyelű is an exciting grape variety. Why not try it as a sparkling wine? Maybe it’s not something that the winemakers can sell abroad, but I think it’s important if someone comes to their place and wants to taste. They will be happy to have a sparkling wine in the range. It’s also good for events and dinners. 

Let's talk about your main project, Hungarianwines.eu, where you are the founder and editor-in-chief. Tell us more about why you started it and your mission!

The idea was sparked five or six years ago at ProWein in Düsseldorf. I was working with the organizers of the Hungarian stands and the Hungarian master classes, and we were giving out books by the Ministry of Agriculture on Hungarian excellencies. Elizabeth Gabby MW (Master of Wine) received a book and she said: “it’s great! It’s an English, fantastic! But I won’t put it in my small suitcase. Is it available online?” And it was not available …

There was no official website about Hungarian wine— with wine descriptions, grape varieties, and so on—which was a shame. We saw that among the neighboring countries, there was Wines of Austria, Wines of Slovakia, Wines of Slovenia, web sites for all of the countries around us (except for Wines of Ukraine). Okay, so there was one country behind us! It was a shame. So, we started. We made a big plan and asked all the different agencies: the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Foreign trade, National Tourism Agency, and the Wine Marketing Board. We did not get any support, so we approached the winemakers and explained the situation: there’s no official website, so what if for the price of a couple of coffees, we will do it for you. So, some of the wineries pay us a little subscription fee. For this, we list them on the website and at least once a month we publish a piece of news about each of the partner wineries. 

In addition, we do a lot of correspondence and event planning. So, we are kind of missionaries. Just today I received four emails. An American luxury travel magazine was asking for some photos about Villány. A British man wanted to import sweet red wine (why not, he has a special clientele!). Decanter magazine needed some information. And a wine competition sent me the results. We are always on the top of the list in Google, and we reply to every one of the many emails we get (and we forward them to the producers). For example, this gentleman who wants sweet red wines will be directed to those producers who have them. 

On Hungarianwines.eu you have a Web Wine Writing Competition. This year was the third edition. Tell us more about it! (By the way, I participated in the last two editions, and I won in this year’s Tokaj category, and last year I won the special award.)

You shouldn’t be so humble. It is fantastic that you are one of the winners! 

The idea came from the French competition which I mentioned, Millesima. This is a French online shop selling fine wines, really top-top chateau wines. When I won this competition, I thought that this is a fantastic idea. I talked to them about modeling (kind of) this competition. But ours also has some differences. While theirs is open to articles written on any subject, our articles must be on the topic of Hungarian wine, or something related to Hungary. The idea was to help bring attention to Hungarian wine producers, and it works! I’m really happy because there’s growth. In the first year there were 40-something entries, last year there were 52, and this year there were 61 articles. And this is amazing! I’ve just learned that Jancis Robinson’s wine writing competition had 72 articles. So, Jancis Robinson (Master of Wine) has 72 and we have 61. That makes me happy! 

We also have a fantastic jury every year, and the contest attracts some attention to Hungary from the judges. This year we had Felicity Carter (editor-in-chief of the most important German online wine publication), Tamlyn Currin (who writes for Jancis Robinson), and Richard (from the-buyer.net). So these people are also looking at Hungary for a short time.

What advice would you give to wine writers who want to improve their craft?

Wine writers are also journalists, and journalists always have to look behind things. It’s not enough to get the information from a press release. We always have to ask the questions and bring some piece of information which the others don’t have. It’s important to ask questions, to investigate. 

Another thing is that we mustn’t copy, and that happens a lot. Even in my competition there were some examples. Even among the English entries, it happened that people used information and it was not credited or mentioned that it was from someone else. Of course, you can quote. But if you use a piece of an important sentence, then credit should be given. 

It is also important that you identify the reader and target them. So, if you’re writing for wine lovers, then it should be more interesting, full of stories, and colorful—otherwise they will be bored. If it’s for winemakers, it can be more technical, but then it should be useful for them and include a lot of relevant information. 

That's great advice. Finally, we’d love if you could check the wine selections in our online shops— Tastehungary.eu and Tastehungary.us—and pick one or two wines that you would recommend to someone who wants to taste something great from Hungary! We are very curious about your picks!

In fact I found too many! It is so hard to pick one or two because there are a lot of good wines. First, I would pick Egri Csillag. I think this white blend is a fantastic idea, and I love that the producers in Eger created something new. Creating this wine showed that Hungarian winemakers are able to unite, as Hungarians are generally known as a quarrelsome nation, always disagreeing with each other. They already had the red blend, Bikaver (Bull’s blood), which is known all over the world. They created this really nice white blend to complement it. It is easy to drink, but it can also be a little more complex. I think it can be a competition for a good Chenin Blanc, or for any good French wines (obviously not from Burgundy, but for many others). Toth Ferenc, for example, makes this Superior, which is a blend of four grape varieties: Olaszrizling, Rhine Riesling, Hárslevelű, and Királyleányka. Part of the wine is aged in barrels, but the other part is made in a reductive way, so it’s not too oaky, but it’s really nice. 

Buy Now (EU)

In your US selection, there are a lot of small producers, which I think is great. There are a lot of gems to discover. I see you have two wines from Böjt, including an Egri Csillag! At one time my husband and I ran a café in Hungary. It was a short venture in our life, but we loved it. We had a few wines on the wine list—some Spanish wines and some Hungarian wines, including a Böjt. It was one of the most popular wines because it had a good price and it was easy drinking, silky, fruity but still complex enough. It was amazing, and I’m glad to see it here!

I also think it’s important to show that we have good examples of international grape varieties, and not just these unpronounceable tongue twister local grapes.

Buy Now (US)

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