Earlier we have learnt how Sándor´s path had led from the Agricultural College of Gyöngyös to the Kendall Jackson Vineyard Estates in California, how he then came home looking for a job in vain. And so once again he returned to the US for another job in California, just after being offered an opportunity to work at his winery by the late famous Hungarian winemaker, Tibor Gál, and then how after 10 minutes of consideration his career continued at AIA Vecchia Bolgheri in Tuscany between 2001 and 2005.
He then recounted how the team calls him the Captain at the Kúria, talked about the professional challenges he was currently facing, the importance of terroir, and how his daughters can blend wine only based on its smell, but this does not necessarily mean someone in the family will follow in his footsteps as a winemaker.
Early bird or sleeping in?
Since I have children, I get up early.
In swimming: breaststroke or freestyle?
Is there anything which makes you lose your temper?
Well, it´s not easy, but if it happens there is a big problem.
Your favourite movie?
Pirates of the Caribbean, because my kids watch it all the time. I’ve seen all five parts at least fifteen times.
Are you a good dancer?
Is there any area around Etyek which you would recommend for hiking?
With my family we hike in Budaörs a lot, but I love the Vértes, I think it´s terrific!
Is there any food which you do not eat?
I am not really picky, but I do not like rice if it´s done a certain way.
Do you believe in pairing wine and food?
If the wine is good, I think the question almost doesn’t matter. For example in Tuscany the Italians drank red wine with everything, even though they ate a lot of fish. Pellegrini always brought his own wine with him. I can say it is an interesting game, which responds to the needs of today’s world, but I do not drink different wines with every course at home. Obviously this whole thing depends on the environment, the company and the location. We learnt about wine and food pairing from Gabriella Mészáros and Gábor Rohály, although we did the pairing with cheeses only. However we were encouraged to voice different opinions, you know the great thing is when everyone has their own interpretations. Unfortunately, people do not have sufficient confidence to say out loud what they prefer personally.
What trends can we observed on the wine market today, what do you think about them?
Nowadays everyone makes good wines, because the technology is a given. However consumers are still not aware of a lot of things, wine is surrounded by mystery, and they are even adding on to that. They are always looking for new things to try, but winemaking is about the complete opposite, about consistency. If we look at the great legendary producers, for example in France, the several hundred year old chateaux do not release new wines every year, they do the same thing year by year, and people are lining up for their wine, often signing up on reservation lists. For us, this is also a story related to estate ownership, it is probably not favourable for the vines, that recently we have not really had a 50-60 year period where a given vineyard was owned by the same person.
How interested are you in technical innovations, their rapid development? Is this something that can be perceived in the wine industry?
They surely have a tangible impact on our profession. Winemaking has evolved more over the past 10 to 15 years, than since the time that humankind has been making wine. Innovations are helpful, what has made it to us, winemakers, are not bad things. I can’t tell if mechanization will ever replace humans. It may, but then everything will be quite uniformized and a sad world awaits us. There are many new achievements, but I think winemaking is an area that cannot be 100% mechanized.
Do you have a role model, anyone you look up to?
I look up to a lot of people, they don’t need to be a great or famous person. I cannot call out only one. Tibor (Tibor Gál, ed.) was one of the greats, so is Mónika Debreczeni. The vines connect us. Pellegrini also started from scratch after the war, buying wines from peasants and then selling them.
Is there a question you would never reply to?
I was taught that if a question starts with „if”, there is no point in answering.
What do you like about your job?
The manual part, so I try to work as much as possible with the grapes and the wines, this is what recharges me. I am interested in winemaking itself, it is a complex thing, although some stages are repeated periodically, there is no such thing as two identical years in a row and yet we have to coax constant quality out of them. It all encourages me and so do my friends, who are in the same shoes and see the same problems from a different angle. We talk daily, brainstorm, and of course not just about professional issues, even though we finished college twenty years ago. That’s a big deal.
Do you have a favourite grape variety?
I usually reply to this with a question. If you have two children, which one do you love more? Each of them are different, you love one for one reason, the other for another reason, sometimes you’re angry, because the grapes rot, the other day you are happy, because there is nothing wrong with them. You have to love the grapes themselves, although there may be huge differences between varieties, harvesting Királyleányka and Pinot Noir is equally joyful. If you look at its value, you can clearly set up a ranking, but in my eyes, as a living thing and plant, both are worth the same.
When you joined Etyeki Kúria in 2009, the creation of a modern winery was already clearly in your mind. What important professional milestones have you reached?
First of all we rethought our portfolio and then introduced a new design. This was followed by years of joint brainstorming and workshop sessions involving the Bord Architectural Studio, as a result of which since 2013 we have been working in a 1100 m2 building with 350 000 liter capacity. Since 2009, we have increased our vineyard surface from 15 hectares to over 50. In addition to the Etyek wine region, we now also grow grapes in Balf, near the town of Sopron. In 2016, the Mérész Sándor Projekt was launched, the purpose of which is to try certain interesting grape varieties, to see how each works on its own, in a varietal wine, and we invite the wine-loving community to test the results.
We have been holding Pinot Noir vertical tastings for ten years now, and in 2018 the Pinot Noir Vintage Selection was released, the box set features six Pinot Noirs of five different vintages. Our other tradition is the ChardonNITE in June, where we celebrate Chardonnay with several invited wineries from both Hungary and abroad. We made the first step into the semi-sparkling wine market with our Pláne Frizzante White, and since then we have introduced the rosé version as well. Our first brandy has also been bottled. Then recently, in December of 2019 we released a novelty, our first sparkling wine, the Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc.
What are your further plans at Etyeki Kúria?
Last year, three new Mérész Sándor Projekt wines were released. The first one was an orange wine made of Pinot Gris, then the Wild Fermented Sauvignon Blanc, followed by a natural Királyleányka. The big challenge for this year will be the traditional method sparkling wine, which was bottled last year and we would like to age it in the cellar for at least 18 months.
We are currently going through a phase of organizational development, switching from a small size to a bigger one is full of new experiences. We hired a vineyard manager, to take over some of my tasks. It is no longer ideal for only one person to control the winemaking, the vineyard management, as well as the administration in two wine regions on 50 hectares.
We are also planning new plantings, this is also teamwork, no one can tell what will happen in 15 years from now, how the now perceivable climate change will affect the various plots. We are trying to prepare for this, now examining how the irrigation of the vineyards could be solved. We are focused on improving soil fertility and water use efficiency, with this aim we have been sowing a special seed mix between the rows for years now, but there is still a lot to learn in this area. In the long run, the goal would be to make the vines feel great. We want our vineyards to be in good condition, since the prerequisite of high quality wines are old vines. A good way of achieving this is for example paying attention to our grapevines from pruning to the end of the growing season.
There is a lot of talk nowadays about biodiversity and sustainable farming, which were less discussed in previous decades. This is the approach we are following in cultivating our vineyards. It may not be profitable in the short term, but we should only think in the long term with regard to vineyards and wines. Grapevines can live for even 100-150 years, old vineyards do not produce record quantities, but are of high quality. The goal is to keep improving the condition of our old plantations, and to plant the new ones with such a long term in mind. This whole process requires skilled people. That is the reason why we have taught our people to prune again, based on new principles, which must be considered as a long term investment. It is worth it, if we consider this process as a way of extending the life span of our vineyards. However these are not immediately measurable results, but you have to believe in them and then they will be achieved.
What long term plans do you have in your private life?
I’d like to think that I have a habit of planning, but plans are just meant to be changed. I rather have dreams, but they usually come true.
Sitting here is also a dream! They both laugh.
What do you plan after you retire?
I would like to hunt in the vineyards. I am not sure if in mine, because I would also like to rest. I do not want to grow old too fast, I will not be a classic pensioner, but I will come up with a plan by then. Recently we have purchased a house in Budakeszi, which turned out to have a very nice, large cellar made of old natural stone underneath it. The street can already be found on the first survey map from 1760, so I think our house was probably a Swabian press house, there will be plenty to do in it too, but I have at least forty years until retirement!
Written by Schneider Erika