Lithuanians hungry for Magyar wine

  • 2002-10-10
  • Matt Kovalick

Lithuania is a beer country. The hot and dry summer sent sales skyrocketing while breweries barely kept up with demand. But, what does one order at a swanky Vilnius restaurant or sip by romantic candlelight?

"Now, when a Lithuanian goes to a friend's house, he brings wine and not vodka like in the past," said Algirdas Pateckas, a food and wine writer. "Consumers travel abroad more and taste wines which they then look for at home."

But what bottle to buy? Rather than a French Bordeaux or Californian Chardonnay, why not try a Hungarian Badacsony or Royal Tokaj?

If the new Hungarian commercial office in Vilnius has its way, Lithuanians will soon be buying the latter and quickly rediscovering Hungary's wine heritage.

The office aims to overcome perceptions that Hungary produces second rate stuff — the type which has flooded the market in recent years. The trick is rebuilding a robust image for products that have been tarnished by a half-century of communism. And not only on the West European market, but closer to home in Eastern and Central Europe.

"In the wine business, the most interesting countries today are the traditional 'beer' markets because there is a growing interest, whereas the market is decaying in the traditional 'wine' countries," said Gabor Kardos, commercial director of the First Hungarian Wine Company.

His company's vineyards lie on slopes between Mount Badacsony and Lake Balaton and originated at least as early as the Roman Empire.

According to Kardos, the grapes benefit from the temperate climate and "three sunshines:" direct sun, sun reflected from the lake, and an "inner sunshine" from the volcanic soil which gives the wine its fiery character."

Pateckas, who also consults for restaurants recently traveled to Hungary to learn more about its wines and cuisine. He commented that the Badacsony's wine is "elegant, aristocratic, complex and a pleasure to feel on the palate," but admitted that it will take time and effort to educate Lithuanian consumers.

"Wine knowledge is limited, but Lithuanians want to learn more and drink better drinks. It takes a long time to change public opinion, with many articles, many shows, and lots of advertising."

According to beverage importer Filipopolis, three levels of First Hungarian's award-winning wines can be uncorked upon arrival in late October or November. But part of the challenge will be convincing consumers it is not a low-quality table wine and is worth the extra cost.

"It will not be inexpensive by Lithuanian standards," said Juozas Ivasauskas, First Hungarian's marketing director. "But if a wine is good, it will have a good future."

Though wine is among Hungary's chief exports, the Hungarian commercial office is keen to promote other products in the Baltics, said Agoston Sarlos, who has been the office's director since its opening in June.

"Food and wine are important and the most visible products, but we would like to promote more of our machinery, software and vehicle sectors," said Sarlos.

"For example, we have a lot to offer in terms of quality city and trolley buses. Also, the Hungarian rail industry that refurbishes train cars for Western European clients is virtually unknown in Lithuania."

In the early 1990's, Sarlos explained, "Hungary neglected the Baltic republics, therefore our image is old: Ikarus buses, paprika, and mid-quality wine. Now we've just launched our office and have to create the right image."

In 2001, Hungary's exports to Lithuania reached 61 million euros, while during the first six months of 2002 those exports amounted to over 26 million euros, most of this comprising food products, alcohol and tobacco products.

During the same six-month period, Lithuania exported to Hungary over 11 million euros-worth of vehicles, chemicals and fertilizer, almost equaling 2001's total of 14.5 million euros.

Hungary's exports to Latvia come to a little over half of those to Lithuania, totaling 35 million euros in 2001.

The commercial office's other efforts include conferences and small merchandise exhibitions featuring a range of Hungarian companies from industrial glass washers to saw-blade manufactures, which will take place on Oct. 15 in Vilnius and Oct. 16 in Riga.

Similar activities are also planned for the Lithuanian cities of Kaunas and Klaipeda.

One recent success has been that of a Hungarian company which just won a $600,000 tender to supply machinery for canning Lithuanian cucumbers.

But for those who remain pessimistic, Sarlos' response is: "We had 50 years of communism and it's hard to start anew. But, if people ask, 'Where are your wines?' We reply, 'Wait a minute.' Our wines have been around for centuries and will be around in the centuries ahead. We're not in a hurry."