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I could not resist the temptation of sampling the product about which I had heard so much. I plumped for two wines from the Somodi vineyards, a 1998 Ásotthalmi Chardonnay (which won the Silver Medal at the Festival) and a 1998 Rajnai Rizling (which took the Gold Medal).
I do not claim by any means to be an expert on white wine (my usual tipple being a Villányi Kékoportó or Kékfrankos, though it has to be said that, on a hot day, I am more than partial to a glass of Arany Ászok beer), but this wine was good enough to make me a convert!
The Chardonnay had a light, pleasant flavour, with a subtle bouquet of ripe apples. It slipped down very smoothly, and, though slightly tart, was by no means acidic. Its crisp flavour would indeed be ideally suited to clearing the palate between mouthfuls at a meal, and I would have no hesitations in recommending it as an accompaniment to fish dishes, especially during the summer. It made me daydream of excursions to the countryside and long hours of conversation in good company.
The Rizling, by contrast, was heftier, though not heavy. Szilvia described it as more masculine. As a Spätlese (késői szüret), it was slightly spicier with the drowsy quality of autumn. Its darker tones and more intense flavour conjured up associations of resting on the banks of the Tisza after a stroll, watching the world go by. The pleasant taste of the wine and the convivial atmosphere on the square stimulated our conversation further.
CER: Do you think that the rainfall will have an adverse effect on production this year?
Somodi: The rain and floods may very well have a negative effect on the harvest. Last year we had a good, long autumn with a lot of sunshine. Although we did not produce great quantities, the quality was even better than usual as a result.
We have not yet started to sell our 1999 wines, since we generally allow them to mature in barrels for a year before bottling takes place [On the seven hectare holding, two wine production methods are employed. Firstly, the more traditional method of ageing the wine in barrels as mentioned above, and then the more modern reductive method to achieve the lighter colour and fruitier aroma - CER]
CER: Do you have any plans to make use of new technology, such as creating a web site where orders can be placed?
Somodi: Yes. We recognise the potential of new technology.
CER: Pálinka (Hungarian fruit-based schnaps) is subject to state excise duty (jövedéki adó), but what about wine?
Somodi: Wine will also be classified as a product subject to state duties in the near future. All winegrowers welcome this from the point of view of clamping down on forged wine and creating a simpler and more transparent situation on the market.
Unfortunately, I do not think it likely that this piece of legislation in itself will be enough to solve the problem. It will place an increased administrative burden on us, penalising honest producers. Perhaps the term penalising is a bit excessive: the honest producer will be faced with yet another task to perform.
There are a lot of question marks on this subject. We do not yet know what the influence of this new law will be. We shall just have to wait and see. The law enters into force on 1 August 2000, and as of 1 January 2001, customs seals (zárjegyek) will have to be put on every bottle.
CER: There is a roaring trade in forged customs seals as well, though!
Somodi: Yes. As I say, the new law will entail major changes in the lives of winegrowers, and we do not know whether it will solve the underlying problems. Next year will be a watershed and we shall have to wait and see who copes and who goes bust.
CER: Is it possible to visit your vineyard
Somodi: Yes. We have "Open Cellar" days in summer, where we give lectures about wine, which include tasting sessions (the vineyard has facilities for receiving groups of up to 40 persons and a German and English language programme is available).
CER: Do you think that promoting wine has a positive spin-off apart from the obvious economic aspects?
Somodi: Yes, I do. In propagating a wine-drinking culture, we can encourage healthier consumption habits. You do not have to drink three bottles of wine to enjoy yourself - always supposing you could manage to down three bottles in the first place! - and you can drink wine with a meal in moderate quantities. I believe that the spread of wine culture will have a positive influence socially.
CER: Who are your main customers?
Somodi: First and foremost local restaurants and hotels but we also have links with large multinationals, such as Cora and Tesco, which means that our wines are sold nationally. They accepted our proposals on quality and price, which was very important. At the present juncture, the retail sector in Hungary is also undergoing a process of transformation.
As things stand at the moment, buying quality wine from one of these big firms has no negative associations. I know that in the West the gastronomical and the retail industry take a dim view of being able to purchase the same wines both from supermarket shelves and in restaurants by the bottle, but in Hungary, even the biggest producers have a presence on the market. I think it is important at this stage, where people are getting to know wines, for them to be freely available.
I quizzed a good friend of mine, Attila Fehér, about this. He confirmed that since the advent of Tesco and Cora on the Szeged scene, the range of wines available to the consumer had increased exponentially, and that this was very welcome. I also took the opportunity to check out the wine section in the local Tesco and it was indeed very respectable.
A section of the shelves were devoted to Somodi Vineyards but only two bottles were left, which testifies to their popularity and the value for money they represent. At HUF 550 for a bottle of the Chardonnay and HUF 650 for the Rizling (both less than USD 3), they do not break the bank.
Having taken my leave of Ms Somodi, I approached two smartly-dressed middle-aged women seated on one of the benches. Clearly in festive spirit, they were chatting over a glass of white.
CER: Good afternoon, ladies! Do you mind if I ask whether you are regular wine drinkers?
The Ladies: Drinking a glass or two of wine is part of a healthy lifestyle, particularly after lunch, if you have eaten a good roast. You shouldn't indulge in more, however.
It is healthy to drink a couple of glasses of the better quality wines and that is plenty.
CER: Do you think that the Wine Festival is a good idea?
The Ladies: You can get to know many different kinds of typical local wines without having to travel to Lake Balaton, for example, to taste a Balatoni Boglárka.
CER: May I ask what it is you are drinking now?
The Ladies: A Chardonnay.
CER: Is it local or did it come from somewhere else?
The Ladies: I don't think it came from somewhere else. We just noticed that it was muskotályos (muscatel) and we have a soft spot for muskotályos wines. Normally speaking, we are not huge wine drinkers, but since we were here anyway taking a stroll, we thought we would enjoy a small glass after lunch.
CER: Which do you think is better: a Hungarian or a foreign wine?
The Ladies: If you leave aside the non-grape based aromatised "wines" (pancserbor), then all Hungarian wines are delicious.
CER: What about foreign wines?
The Ladies: To tell you the honest truth, I have only tasted one kind of foreign wine, and it was Swiss. I was given some directly from the producer and it was excellent.
CER: If you were to go shopping and find a Hungarian wine and a foreign wine next to each other on the shelves, which would you buy?
The Ladies: Out of curiosity, we would try out the foreign wine.
CER: Do you ever buy home-made wine?
The Ladies: Very rarely, but we always check where it comes from. There are some good kinds of home-made wine, as long as you know they really are made of grapes.
CER: Where exactly do you come from?
The Ladies: From a village just outside Szeged.
CER: Do a lot of people there make their own wine?
The Ladies: I think that everyone, who have their own grapes, tries to make wine out of the leftovers, as it is not possible to use up all the grapes otherwise.
CER: Do you prefer to buy wine from neighbours or to go to the shops for it?
The Ladies: (giggling) Well, we are such massive consumers of wine, you know... We usually buy better quality wines from shops. We would rather pay the hundred forints extra and know that what we are getting lives up to certain standards.
CER: What about home-distilled pálinka? Is there a lot of that produced in the village? What is it made of?
The Ladies: It is made up of various fruits. We don't really live in a wine-growing region. Everyone, who grows fruit, makes pálinka out of it whenever the opportunity arises.
My final question was an allusion to the time-honoured Hungarian tradition of the bögrecsárda (literally translated as mug tavern), so called because the punters would imbibe the home-distilled pálinka from enamelled aluminium mugs. Ripe, bruised fruit that had fallen from the tree and was no longer fit for use in jam making or the like was fermented in barrels. Offering this home-made nectar to guests has always been a natural gesture of hospitality.
Next, in the interests of ensuring a proper balance of the sexes, I took a seat beside two men of approximately the same age as my two previous subjects, who appeared to be somewhat merry.
CER: Gentlemen, what is that you are drinking?
The Gentlemen: Semi-sweet Tokaji.
Mine's a Rizling.
CER: What is your opinion of the Wine Festival?
The Gentlemen: It has become an established tradition and belongs to Szeged. All the locals from the city love the Wine Festival. It brings very important business to all the producers who come here.
CER: When you drop in on the Festival, do you take the opportunity to try out new types of wine, or do you stick to your old favourites?
The Gentlemen: Well, I'd say that in the morning we prefer to start off with our old favourites - I shouldn't say in the morning, what I mean is ten o'clock - when we start off we drink our old favourites and then we give unfamiliar wines a go. According to our own tastes and preferences, of course.
CER: Are you from Szeged?
The Gentlemen: We're from the Alföld, we come from Szeged. We like the sandy, dry wines of the Alföld. We haven't been able to find too many Alföld wines here, such as Pusztamérges wines, but maybe that's because we haven't looked hard enough. There are more mountain-region and Transdanubian wines than Alföld wines. They bring in more money.
CER: Are there different patterns of consumption between town and city?
The Gentlemen: Absolutely. There are differences in products and in customs. We inhabitants of Szeged are the same as the inhabitants of other big cities in that we are beer drinkers in the main, but on occasions such as this...
Going to pubs is normal in towns, whereas dropping in on the neighbours is what you do in the villages. Of course, people go to pubs in the villages as well, but wine is grown in the villages. You might grow wine, your neighbour might grow it as well and then you will invite a friend to make it up to three. It is rare to do that in Szeged. The neighbours might very well have wine, but it is not typical to look in on them for a drink in the town.
CER: Which do you prefer: wine or pálinka?
The Gentlemen: We prefer wine, but if you have to have a drink...
If you were to give me the choice between a glass of wine and a measure of pálinka, I'd take the wine every time.
CER: Would you say that traditional pubs are still predominantly male territory? [The distinction here is between the real spit and sawdust dives, where the cigarette smoke is so thick you can cut it with a knife, and where a woman's presence would be frowned upon and the Western-style theme bars - one example of which in Szeged is the Bounty Bar, with a nautical/pirate theme and which offers hearty meals. Irish bars are extremely trendy in Budapest these days, and women are welcome there].
The Gentlemen: Yes. Women turn up to drag their husbands home: Come back, you old vagrant!
A lot of business deals are still clinched in pubs, even today, though this is mainly true of the villages.
Everyone meets in the pub, from the professor to the building site worker.
CER: Do you go to the pub mainly to talk or to relax?
The Gentlemen: To relax, but both talking and relaxing are typical of pub activity. We can only speak of ourselves, of course.
CER: Where do the women go if they want a drink?
The Gentlemen: To the presszó [espresso bar] .
No, they don't, they go to the patisserie. Or they drink at home. If they want to overindulge, they certainly stay at home.
CER: Have pubs changed a lot, in your opinion? I have noticed that more and more pubs have TVs where you can watch sporting events.
The Gentlemen: It varies a lot. In the old days there were no TVs at all, but it is becoming more and more common for there to be a TV in the pub. It's better to watch a football match if there are, say, six of you than to sit down and watch it at home.
I watched Kokó's [István Kovács, World Lightweight Boxing Champion] last bout in a pub. It was pure coincidence; I hadn't planned it that way at all.
The best place to watch a football match is the pub with company, the European Cup matches for instance...
I didn't get back home in time for Kokó...
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In theory, only the over-18s may be served alcohol in pubs, in practice, however, even youngsters in their early teens have already made an acquaintance with the delights of alcohol. Rules are flouted by publicans and alcohol is freely available from the local shops to customers of any age.
During military service, any conscript worth his salt (and I was no exception!) drowns his sorrows on a monotonously regular basis! In later life, whether you end up in a job, continue into higher education or end up unemployed, the going down the pub remains one of the most important ways of keeping in touch with your peers.
In virtually every student hall of residence, for example, you will find a club selling booze cheaply. Students let off steam with a quick draft or two (in the days of my misspent youth, it was fashionable to "slum it" with the workers as well). It is a Hungarian custom for the man to enter any pub, restaurant or establishment where alcohol is sold first, sparing any accompanying member of the weaker sex from the inconvenience of flying fists - or, more drastically, knives - should a brawl be in progress.
So what does a good, old-fashioned Hungarian pub look like from the inside? Usually, there are no seats, so customers prop up the bar or lean on the tall tables. Bouts of fisticuffs are not uncommon, which is why any furnishings have to be tough enough to withstand a lot of punishment.
Naturally not a great deal of attention is paid to the finer points of decor. Edification from aesthetic pleasure is not the primary purpose of entering such an establishment, after all... Nor is a great deal of attention paid to titillating the palate. Light, savoury snacks and nibbles (sadly, I have to admit that I am stumped as to how to render our wonderful expression for these comestibles, "borkorcsolya", literally "wine skates" with an equally witty term in English), such as peanuts or small sandwiches, all designed to provoke a thirst.
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Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 5 June 2000
Photo Credit: Emil-Nicolaie Perhinschi
The Somodi Vineyard wines may be bought at any branch of Tesco or Cora throughout Hungary, or at Magyar Borok Háza (the House of Hungarian Wines), Szentháromság Square, Budapest. The address of the Somodi Vineyards is H-6783 Ásotthalom, VI 916.