When Hungary, on the first of January of 2004, joined the European Union, I was sure that now, with the suppression of customs frontiers, within some months the majestic Italian and Spanish wines will be available at us in a wide range. Not only because these full-bodied wines with an extremely sophisticated taste are among the best wines of the world. But also because they are among the least expensive ones as well. In the supermarkets of Barcelona or Florence you can buy already for a few euros so subtle wines that outrival a great number of Hungarian wines sold for fifteen-twenty euros. Not to mention the strong, rich, fruit-flavored vino sfuso infused for one or two euros into the large damigiane in the farms of Tuscany when we arrive there at the end of the year, after the vintage of grape and oil, to buy our supplies for all the year. To import so excellent wines for so low prices is a great business for any wholesaler, I thought. And I was looking forward to the arrival of the wines of Tuscany, Trentino, Navarra, Rioja, Catalonia, or the Ribera del Duero on the shelves of Hungarian supermarkets.
But they did not come.
There came, however, the category which a Mediterranean farmer would be ashamed to give away even for free. Mean wines from Puglia and Calabria, Andalucía and La Mancha, the cheapest imaginable quality on which the exporter can realize the greatest profit. Eight euros for a bottle of five litres, one point twenty for a pint. Because the wholesaler had got it for the tenth of it in their homeland. They filled up the shelves for a period, they were offered at various hot sales. And then they disappeared, as suddenly as they came. And I understand why. Whoever cared for the price only could also find cheaper ones, the plastic bottle category. And whoever cared for the taste could unambiguously feel how vile, sour, empty they were. They did a lot to ruin the reputation of Mediterranean wines in Hungary. Whenever I praise Italian or Spanish wine to my wine gourmand brothers and brothers-in-law, I see on their faces the lowest shelves of Auchan and Tesco appearing on the screen of their minds, and I feel that every word is in vain.
And I think that perhaps this was the purpose.
Hungary is the northernmost country where vine is grown. With much care, great investments and at a high cost even quite good wine is produced. But, obviously, there is far less sunshine as down there. Vine is the child of the Mediterranean, this can be clearly seen in the autumn on the vegetable markets where you can see side by side the big, sweet, desirable and inexpensive Italian import grape and the small, hard-skinned, somewhat harsh but expensive Hungarian one. Nevertheless, we have a nationwide structure for producing and selling wine which has firmly established itself since the beginning of the 90s, and what is more, it is inextricably intertwined with the political élite. Most Hungarian politicians have vineyards, winehouses or at least favorite and supported wine producers. Wine has become a question of prestige, just like the hegemony of Hungarian wine on Hungarian market (if we are not able to sell it abroad). Today in Hungary in the supermarkets, stores and special shops you can practically buy Hungarian wine only. If good Spanish wine could freely enter this market, it would break this hegemony in no minute with its excellent proportion of price and quality.
So let it not come.
When arriving at this point in the deduction, I decided to make a counter-proof. If it is really the intertwining of wine producers, wholesalers and politicians that prevents good and inexpensive Mediterranean wines from entering the Hungarian market, then in our northern neighborhood, where there is no significant wine production and respectively no political interest, they must be offered in a wide range.
And I entered the Billa of Banská Štiavnica.
It was a singular sight. At the end of 2004, hardly a year after the entrance to the European Union, in this little Slovakian town the great part of the wine shelves were filled with good quality Mediterranean wines: from Italy and Spain, but even from Croatia and Bulgaria. And all that for a much more buyer-friendly price than the Hungarian assortment of the same quality. Obviously there was a cheap low middle category as well, but even that was not the plonk which had been carefully used to make Hungarians customers loathe Southern wines.
Since then, whenever I go to the North, I always check the ever improving wine offer in the supermarkets. The last time in the Tesco of Brno, where eight large counters were full of the best assortment, from the reliable wines of the Mediterranean to the well known Southern African and Australian brands, and all that for a more than affordable price – just like in their respective homelands. It was enthralling. It demonstrated more tangibly than any political slogan the true meaning of freedom, open borders and Europe. Of course local Moravian wines also received, with full acknowledgment of their merits, three shelves in a counter, exactly as much as their deserved. Perhaps I have even seen a Hungarian bottle.
The above Bulgarian wine with the two Balkan bears was bought on my first exploration in Banská Štiavnica. We purchased ten different sorts for testing, known and unknown ones alike, from different countries and of different categories. Almost all of them stood the test, they were just what they had to be. This was the only extra bottle, one I have only bought for the label. I have not even expected much of it, and I have kept it reserved for an occasion when the wit makes pardonable the eventually low quality.
And the occasion has come. I have recently taken the two bears for the inaugural party of a newly purchased flat. And as I stopped in front of the row house built in the fifties in the style of the so-called “Stalin Baroque,” and I looked up on the facade in search of the house number, I immediately noticed that I brought them to the most appropriate place.
And to cap it all, the wine was good as well.