What happens when you leave behind city life and a career in advertising and DJing, to instead direct all of that creative energy into farming and winemaking? If you taste a bottle of Attila Homonna’s captivating Tokaj wines, you’ll find out.
His project and his wines represent a larger rebirth of Hungarian wine; having only emerged from decades of communist rule in 1989, independent winemaking — and indeed independent thinking and creativity — is now thriving, and the global wine community is thrilled to reap the fruits of this new emerging community’s efforts, with Attila leading the way.
Attila remembers travelling through the Hungarian countryside with his grandpa as a kid, but he explains,
“Back then, Hungary was still a closed communist country. The wine was undrinkable — Hungary lost its wine culture during communism. But after that, everything changed… people travelled a lot, and life became very interesting. We began tasting French wines, and learnt a lot by doing so.”
Despite not being the son of winegrowers or winemakers, his grandfather had been born in Tokaj (moving away in 1926), so the family had their roots there.
“Tokaj, to me, was always a place of good memories. One day, I went there and drove through a village, having a look at the region, and I just fell in love with a small vineyard and a house. I bought them and began making wine with half a hectare and two barrels.”
In fact, it wasn’t just any house — he used to visit Erdőbénye as a little boy with his mother, and she loved that specific house. Over the years, it had become derelict. He made an offer on it and bought it the following day. Serendipity, or fate?
Attila was in his mid 20s, and for the first couple of years he lived in the city during the week, continuing his advertising career, coming out to the countryside on the weekends to work in his little vineyard. Eventually, however, it was the call of the vines and his village life that became louder than his desire to stay in the city:
“When I started, I had parallel lives — the city during the week, and weekends in the countryside. One day, I called my colleagues and said I wasn’t coming back — my life changed. I’ve always loved music, playing instruments, and I’ve also always loved travelling and food. Letting go of city life — moving from the advertising business with all the parties and the concerts — that was the biggest change and challenge. But I had decided that I wanted to be a winemaker, and that was going to be my focus.”
Two decades later, and Attila is settled contentedly; the city and desk routine is now a distant memory, and he wouldn’t change it for the world:
“I am very happy with my life. I love moving. When I’m driving alone on the highway to a vineyard, or when I’m working amongst the vines, well… I just love to do that. I love working in the cellar, I love the harvest, I love my partners… being able to visit restaurants all around the world. I have a home studio and still play music, and I spend a lot of time with my kids. They also love being in the countryside.”
It was a sliding doors scenario; one massive leap for one guy, and an inspiration to nature and wine lovers worldwide.
Attila’s vineyards, in the middle of the Tokaj region, have now grown from the original half-hectare, to amount to 4.5 hectares. He explains that the vineyards he took over were old, hence lower yielding, and on slopes, thus difficult to mechanise. Therefore, at the time they weren’t considered of value to many other growers, who were focused on quantity over quality. He explains,
“Historically, most of the fruit grown on the flat plains was used for bulk wines and cultivated by the communist regime. The steeper slopes were harder for the communists to work — they weren’t interested in ripping out these plots to replant them. So, in a way, this benefited many of the older vineyards in Tokaj, as they were left untouched.”
This means that Attila is sitting on little national treasures; these elderly vineyards are planted to old massal selections (i.e. not clones, but rather home to very diverse plant material) of the indigenous Furmint and Hárslevelű white varieties. These complex old vines produce incredibly striking wines that can be made in the traditional sweet styles, but also as dry wines. It’s the latter which Homonna has become particularly known for, and which have helped to further provoke a rebirth of these styles in the country.
The vineyards are situated in the Határi, Csáky and Rány plots, which are considered some of the best sites in the villages of Erdőbénye and Olasziszka. He tells us that the Határi vineyard always has a certain energy. The Rány vineyard, meanwhile, can be difficult to work as it is extremely hot in the summertime, but despite this it always has the highest acidity of all his wines. It’s also historically an important site; a friend of his is a history professor, who told him it was the second vineyard in Europe documented.
For now, he blends his Hárslevelű with his Furmint, explaining that it brings a lovely balance, giving the wine a floral element. One day, however, he dreams of making a varietal example of Hárslevelű, and thinks that the next step for Tokaj as a region is to delve further into the old, original vineyards of this variety.
Very quickly in his farming journey, Attila decided to work organically — he only sprayed with chemicals for one year before he changed his mind. He explains,
“I was the first generation to make wine — my dad was an engineer, so when it came to farming I had a clean slate. There was a very kind elderly gentleman who had a vineyard next door, and he told me what to spray. So, I did what he did, but I quickly realised that there were a lot of chemicals. I felt really bad working against nature, and I didn’t know what was in those chemical boxes. I began reading about organic farming and visited vineyards throughout Europe. I realised there was a different way. After choosing the organic path, my fermentations were also much healthier, and the taste and smell of the wine changed. I became certain that’s what I wanted to do, and I was one of the first in Tokaj to work organically. Now, there’s 20 or 30 of us.”
In addition, he has become the consultant winemaker for vineyards in Balaton, where he has managed to fulfil his dream of making red wines from Blaufränkisch (known in Hungary as Kékfrankos). He jokes that he was always envious of his colleagues across the border in Austria, in the Burgenland — where Blaufränkisch is King — so when the opportunity arose, he jumped at the chance. Through taking on this partnership, he has also enabled and helped other growers convert to organic viticulture, further encouraging the low intervention scene in the country. He has also recently purchased and planted his own Balaton Blaufränkisch vineyard of just 0.5 hectares, which will soon be old enough for him to begin making wine from it.
It has been a long road — almost two decades — to reach this point. He says:
“In Hungary, we have a joke that says, if you want your winery to make you a millionaire, first you have to be a billionaire.”
We laugh; his career is stable now, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. He tells us about an incident that took place ten years ago:
“My daughter was born in 2010, so I decided to plant half a hectare for her; a quarter-hectare of Furmint, and a quarter-hectare of Hárslevelű. I spent ten days sleeping in the vineyard to protect them. Eventually, I had to go to work in Balaton, and after two days I came back and realised somebody had stolen the baby vines from the field! So, I replanted, and spent three months there every night. While my wife was sleeping in the village with a small baby, I was sleeping in the vineyards to protect them. That’s what life is like here… sometimes vandals burn around the vineyards, too. It’s life in Eastern Europe… that’s all I can really say!”
It’s accounts like these that put the life of a farmer-winemaker in perspective; Attila could have continued his city life, which would undeniably have been easier, but he felt that his future was amongst the vines. Thanks to his persistence and despite the hurdles, he is paving the way for the future of planet-friendly Hungarian viticulture.
Attila laughs when he says,
“Making your first wine is the easiest, and it’s always good. But when it comes to the second and third… well, the problems come. At first, you use your intuition, but when you start to really think… that’s when the problems come! When you realise you don’t have enough knowledge, you keep rethinking what to do.”
It’s not the first time we’ve heard this train of thought — with self-doubt comes mistakes, and we’d argue that this applies to everything in life; winemaker or no winemaker. When it comes to Attila’s wines, however, arguably a large portion of the self-doubt wasn’t due to his wines not being good, but rather due to a less open-minded and somewhat stagnant market. Back in the early 2000s, Hungarian wine was still generally made according to a sort of recipe. He explains,
“Back then, the quality of dry wines wasn’t so good. They were high alcohol, with lots of wood, oxidation, with botrytized fruit… in the 1990s, sweet wines were selling well, but by the time the 2000s came round there were less sales. People were saying sugar was unhealthy, and at the same time if people did want sugar, chocolate and Coca Cola was widely available. Back in the old days, you could only really get sugar via honey or sweet wines, or chocolate if you had a lot of money!”
His very first wines were sweet; following tradition they were made in the traditional Hungarian Szamorodni style (meaning they contain grapes affected by botrytis — a type of ‘good’ mould which creates lovely rye bread flavours, and which is behind many of the fine sweet wines of the world, such as the Sauternes wines of Bordeaux also). But soon after, his focus turned to re-imagining dry styles. Inspired by his travels, he wanted to create quality-focused wines that mirrored the wines he himself liked to drink. That meant the pursuit of freshness and drinkability. He also spoke with chefs, and wanted to make wines with higher acidity, which would pair better with a variety of dishes.
So, he began picking earlier to harness acidity. For winemaking, he began using older barrels to not impart oaky flavours, fermented the wines naturally, and began using lower sulfite additions. These days, he explains that he works with very low sulfites (with totals sitting below 20ppm), but that it’s unlikely he’ll ever work entirely without them, as Furmint is a naturally oxidative variety, and can be tricky to work with due to fluctuating pH levels.
“I changed everything — the style of the wines was completely different with the 2004 vintage. My distributor said that they had to stop working with me, as they couldn’t sell wine that had lower alcohol and high acid. Plus, you couldn’t taste the oak, which they said wasn’t fashionable. Back then, it was trendy to make big wines with barrique notes.”
Despite struggling to find a home for his wines during those first years, Atilla persisted, encouraged by his own feelings about the wines. By the time 2007 arrived, his efforts were rewarded when people began to appreciate these wines, and curiosity developed.
“People began to say, oh… it’s not bad this way, after all…”
He credits French travelling winemaker, Nicolas Godebski, for not only mentoring him, but also for giving him courage to follow his own gut feeling. He says fondly,
“I met Nicolas in 2000. I went to the south of France to work with him, and we travelled all over the world together… working for knowledge and for food, and for a space to sleep behind wineries,” he laughs. “I guess I was more of a hitchhiking winemaker than a flying winemaker!”
“Everybody needs a good mentor to make a start on their path. Then, it becomes an individual job to make your own style. If you just copy your mentor’s style then it’s not as interesting, as its not yours. At the moment, I have three young people from the university coming to spend time with me — travelling with me and harvesting with me.”
It is a passing of the baton of sorts; looking to pass on the courage he had been given by his own mentor to other young budding winemakers:
“What I learnt from my mentor isn’t just knowledge of winemaking… sulfites and pressing, etc. What was more important was being confident, knowing how to build up my own style and how to talk about wine, and how to think about wine. At the end of the day you can do everything — you can change the weather if you want!” he laughs, “You just have to think straight — that’s what I learnt from him. He never told me to add more sulfites or to do longer periods of macerations, he just said, it’s up to you. You have to sell your wines and stand behind your wines at a wine fair.”
We ask him what he hopes to achieve in his wines. He thinks for a minute, before saying,
“I want people to feel happy when they taste my wines, and I want them to express a clean, straight line in a sense — like driving on a highway. It’s all about focus — keep focused on what you’re doing, and make sure you’re very clean — I always say it’s like working in a hospital! Once you’ve done those jobs, well then you can take pictures and do other things. Focus and action is the most important thing.”
It’s such a simple parting statement, but it can be applied to all realms of life: stay true to yourself, keep focused, and you’ll be proud of what you achieve. The Hungarian wine scene is lucky to have Attila to drive qualitative, artisanal wine, and the international wine scene is fortunate to be able to experience terroir-driven, organically farmed Hungarian wine through his vision. Cheers, (or in Hungarian — Egészségedre!) to you, Attila.