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food / travel

A Female Winemaking Revolution Breathes New Life Into Hungary's Historic Vineyards

For centuries, the region of Tokaj in Hungary was known for its intensely sweet dessert wines. Now female winemakers are making waves in what was formerly a man’s world, producing more elegant wines that appeal to a European palate.

Image of a hand ​holding a bunch of grapes in a vineyard.

Someone holding a bunch of grapes in a vineyard.

Manfred Klimek

BODROGKERESZTUR — In centuries past, the story went that the best wines in the world were made in France, Germany and Hungary. Then, in the 20th century, two brutal world wars redrew the map of Europe. Of the three traditional winemaking nations, only one remained: France, now joined by Italy and Spain.

The world order of wine was shaken up, and so locals here in Tokaj, Hungary’s best-known winemaking region, had to find a new approach to make a place for itself on the international market. The region in the northeast of the country was traditionally famous for its intensely sweet, expensive dessert wines.

Winemaking in this rural area has long been a man’s world, but now female winemakers are starting to produce more elegant wines that appeal to the European palate, with a more precise, subtle and drinkable feel – a change that some western wine-making regions would do well to learn from.

Tokaj passion

One of the women behind the winemaking revolution in Tokaj is Judit Bodó. An agricultural scientist from eastern Slovakia with Hungarian citizenship, she originally wanted to breed cattle and dreamed of having her own farm, with cows contentedly chewing cud in rewilded meadows across the border in her home country.

But then she discovered winemaking, and it became her “main interest”, as she says, carefully avoiding the overused word “passion”. This “main interest” was focused on the Tokaj region and its local grape varieties Furmint and Hárslevelü (linden leaf). She wanted to know what these grape varieties could offer the world of wine if they were used to make dry wine.

Of course, Bodó can also make dessert wines. Everyone in Tokaj knows how to make dessert wines. But in Tokaj the best female winemakers are using Furmint and linden leaf grapes to make dry wines. Is that a new innovation for the region? “Yes, you could say that,” explains Bodó. “Without the dry wines, Tokaj would not really have a place on the international wine scene today.”

Image of a woman from the back walking in a vineyard, holding a box.

A woman walking between grapevines.

Árpád Czapp

Physical demands

Anyone who would like to know how to create an internationally renowned business with very little money would do well to learn from the Bodós. For the last three years, Judit and her husband Jozef have been making a living from their vineyards, Bott Pince, in the village of Bodrogkeresztúr. The main building used to be a cultural center, then they added a former ceramics factory: a large, unused swathe of land that they were able to acquire for a reasonable price.

Without much start-up capital to speak of, together they have built a stable business that grows most of its grapes in rented vineyards – a small estate with a big reputation. Has the winemaking industry in Tokaj become more female-dominated? “I could name you around 15 female winemakers from the region,” Judit Bodó replies. “That is a very high number for Hungary.” Not just for Hungary.

Winemaking was seen as a male job.

Just two generations ago, there were hardly any female vintners. The few women who were involved in winemaking mainly came from families that had no sons to take over the business. Winemaking was seen as a male job, because of the physical demands of the work, which took its toll on the body. Vintners were men who often couldn’t stand up straight at the age of 60 – if they even made it that far.

As winemaking became more lucrative, smaller businesses had enough money to delegate the hard physical work to employees. As a more analytical approach began to dominate viticulture, with a focus on location, microclimates, new technology in the wine cellars and sales techniques, female vintners started to find a place for themselves in their family businesses, or to start their own.

Generally speaking, this led to better, more pleasant wines being produced, as vintners started to realize that they were also making wine for women; in fact, mainly for women, who choose, purchase and drink their own wines.

Bringing winemaking into the modern era

Rita Takaro is not a winemaker, although she knows how to press grapes. She is one of the most important wine managers in the region. She isn’t originally from the area either, but moved there from Kunság, an agricultural region between the River Donau and the River Tisza to the south of Budapest.

Takaro is friendly and welcoming, and everything during our visit is perfectly organized. Locations, grape varieties, climate, history: it quickly becomes clear that Takaro knows a lot about Hungarian wine. For her family, winemaking was a side job.

After she finished university, in 2006 she became CEO of the winemakers’ association Tokaj Renaissance, a job that sent her round the English-, Spanish- and German-speaking world telling people about the new dry wines from Tokaj. “I was living out of a suitcase,” says Takaro. “And that was exactly what I wanted at the time.”

Young wine drinkers don’t know the classic Tokaji wine.

Takaro’s early experiences working for a state-owned winery, now a privately owned company trading under the name Royal Tokaji, showed her that a company run by the Hungarian government did not have the same commercial freedoms she now enjoys. Now she works for the international wine company LMM Projects, which has its headquarters in Frankfurt.

Takaro partnered with the Tokaj-based winery Mád for her current project Mád Moser, a deluxe line of very dry wines aimed at the international market, made from unique Furmint varieties. These couldn’t be more different from Judit Bodó’s wines – and yet they have met with similar success.

“Furmint used to be one of the main grape varieties that all wine enthusiasts knew about,” says Takaro. “But only as a sweet, fruity Tokaji wine.” But now it’s a different story. “Young wine drinkers don’t know the classic Tokaji wine any more, and that is an opportunity for people in the region.” She says this change was naturally related to the political changes thirty years ago, when many winemakers came to the painful realization that Tokaj could no longer rely on its history if it wanted to compete in a market economy.

Image of a wine glass filled with corks and a bottle of white wine.

A bottle of Tokaji wine from Hungary.

Wallpaper Flare

An international career

Winemaker Vivien Ujvári has a similar story about going out into the world and returning home to Hungary, although that’s where the similarities end. The 37-year-old winemaker is responsible not only for the wines of Barta Pince in Mád, but also for her family winery near Lake Balaton. Her family business has only 0.65 hectares, where they grow the Welschriesling and Pinot Blanc varieties. These few rows of vines can only produce enough grapes to make around 2,000 bottles of wine per year.

Ujvári’s Balaton wines are served in top Budapest restaurants Borkonyha Wine Kitchen and Textura, and she has a reputation in Hungarian wine circles as an exceptional, exclusive winemaker. It was this reputation, along with an international career that took her to California and New Zealand, that convinced the owners of the renowned Barta Pince winery to entrust their business to her. They have chosen well: Ujvári is not only friendly and engaging, but also incredibly well informed about the region, soils and climate.

She is bringing a feminine touch to the Barta wines, which is now a key part of the modern winemaking world. Elegant, complex and discreet… these new wines put the unsubtle offerings of yesteryear in the shade. Has there been a female revolution in Tokaj?

“What I can say is that female winemakers do not face as much skepticism here as they do elsewhere,” says Ujvári. “And that no barriers have been put in my way to stop me from doing what I think is right.”

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