MTM: Robert Smyth

Robert is a British journalist, editor and wine writer who has been based in Budapest, Hungary, for many years. As well as being a specialist writer on the wines of Hungary and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, he is head of the journalism department of McDaniel College in Budapest.

One of Robert’s early projects in the world of wine was to edit fellow CWW member David Copp’s book, Hungary: Its Fine Wines and Winemakers, published in 2006. In 2015 his own book, Hungarian Wine, A Tasting Trip to the New Old World was published by Blue Guides and was winner of an OIV Award in 2016.

Robert juggles his college teaching commitments with wine judging, wine translations from Hungarian to English and presenting wine tastings. He also contributes regular wine columns to The Budapest Business Journal, Wine Connoisseur and, as well as writing for various wine guides and books. All of this involves regular travel to wine regions within Hungary and further afield.

Was wine on the table when you were growing up in England? When did you start to develop a real love of wine?

Wine was on the table every Sunday, as I recall, but it was nothing fancy. When I think back, I can picture bottles of Blue Nun, Black Tower, cartons of Stowells for the holidays, and some decent French reds. As Sunday lunch came hot on the heels of Saturday night, I didn’t exactly lap it up anyway. My father made some homebrew beer and ‘wine’ from whatever he could get his hands on. I dabbled with those homebrew kits from Boots to which you simply add sugar and yeast, and leave it in the demijohn and Bob’s your Uncle. One rosé I made tasted of strawberry juice but importantly had alcohol in it, and it wowed fellow students of a German night-school class I was attending, at the end of term party. However, I’m sure we had pretty unsophisticated palates back then and I’m sure I’d find it repulsive now. I started to enjoy the taste of red wine on a school trip to Paris while in sixth form but I was more of a beer drinker until being wowed on my first trip to Tokaj in 1993, just when things were starting to take off there, four years after the end of communism, where we had Aszú that dated back to 1956 – the year of the Hungarian Revolution. Soon after that I ended up in Spain, where I really started enjoying soft, fruity and sometimes spicy reds. I lived right next to the Campo de Borja region in Aragon, where Moncayo’s lower slopes are planted with old vine Garnacha. The region has evolved remarkably in the last 20 years. I was also very close to Navarra and not far from Rioja.

Did you always plan to be a journalist or did this aim emerge later?

I had absolutely no plan to become a journalist and I wonder how many people who become journalists actually study journalism at degree level. It was while doing a Masters in Business Administration when they asked me if I could write a few words about a recent trip to Cuba, when Fidel Castro still ruled the roost, for the Uni rag. I really struggled to get the first words out but after a while it flowed and my first article was entitled ‘Communism in the Sun’. While looking for a job in business, a vacancy appeared at a business paper – The Budapest Business Journal (BBJ). I covered IT and Telecommunications but when they needed someone to write a supplement on Hungarian wine, I jumped at the chance. I’d written my Master’s thesis on Hungarian wine marketing in the UK, or lack of it! I found this project a lot more exciting and gradually transitioned over to wine writing.

I learnt the trade completely on the job. I still write a wine column for the BBJ, which now comes out every two weeks. Despite the limited page space, it’s good to see that due to the surging interest [in Hungary] in wine from locals, expats and visitors alike, that the editor wants a wine column in every issue.

What brought you to Budapest, so soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

When I graduated with a degree in economics in 1992 it was right after the Thatcher/Lawson bubble burst and jobs were suddenly extremely difficult to come by for fresh graduates and I also wanted to travel a bit. I decided to teach English as a Foreign Language, combining travel with getting some work experience. A student exchange as part of the newly titled course ‘Economics of East European countries in transition’ had already taken me on a study exchange to the Warsaw School of Economics. I was fascinated by the country and managed to land a teaching job in the city of Poznan, which I’d already visited. I learnt Polish for a few weeks, only to be told that the job had fallen through, but they asked if I’d go to Budapest instead. Having seen how beautiful the city was while interrailing in 1992, it was a nobrainer.

Who were your early mentors in the wine world?

Shortly after writing the aforementioned wine supplement, I was introduced to David Copp by a mutual friend and I learnt a lot from him, particularly about classic European wines.

Darrel Joseph also inspired me with a comparative tasting of Austrian and Hungarian wines. It was great to interview Hugh Johnson for a business story about Royal Tokaji, and his and Jancis Robinson MW’s Wine Atlas became regular bedtime reading, as did Oz Clarke’s Wine Atlas – both of which were delightfully written in quite different styles, with the latter having excellent maps as well that could almost drop you in the regions. It was a great experience to judge and talk with Liz Gabay MW fairly early on. Earlier, I recall it was while watching Jancis on the BBC while I was supposed to be swotting up for a painfully dreary finance exam when she was exploring the difference between Burgundian and New World Chardonnay, that I knew I wanted to be involved in wine. Also, I was a big fan of Keith Floyd’s cooking programmes and I loved it when he was joined by Jonathan Pedley MW for a series.

What do you enjoy about editing wine books and articles?

The chance to travel the wine world without leaving your desk – not that I don’t like travelling. It also enables you to really get into the subject and help the authors better express themselves when necessary.

What Hungarian wine region is exciting you right now?

There’s been a general improvement across the board in recent years as winemakers work out how to get the most out of their given terroirs and indigenous grapes. Szekszárd has been particularly impressive lately for developing a clear message based on Kadarka, Kékfrankos and Bikavér, and the wines have come on leaps and bounds.

Is there another under-the-radar central or eastern European wine country we should watch out for?

There’s such a lot going on I really wouldn’t single one out as there are so many exciting and distinctive nooks and crannies to explore. On a recent trip to Bulgaria, I was impressed by some of wines made from local grapes but they remain firmly in the shadow of the international varieties.

How has the Budapest wine scene changed in the past five years?

It’s changed beyond recognition. Just a decade ago you could hardly find a genuine wine bar but now they’re shooting up like mushrooms and there’s also a lot of interest in wine education.

What Hungarian wines do you reach for most often when you’re at home?

I really try to sample as broad a range as I can but the whites tend to be much more consistent than the reds. While there’s so much hype around dry Furmint, I think Hárslevelű – which is often considered as Furmint’s ugly sister when it comes to dry wine – can sometimes make wines of greater overall roundness. There are some great results from blending the two together in dry wine and why not since they work in such fabulous tandem in Tokaji Aszú.

Olaszrizling, especially from the volcanic and mixed soils on the northern side of Lake Balaton, can be exciting and good value.

And a Hungarian producer who’s breaking the mould?

There’s no shortage of innovative producers here, all they need is a tad more consistency, so pass.

Which wine region in the world that you haven’t visited yet would you most like to visit and why?

Gimblett Gravels [in New Zealand] – not only because of the funky name but also because I recently had a distinctively vibrant red blend from there.

What do you do to relax in Budapest?

Run around Margaret Island (Margitsziget) and then reward myself with one or two of a growing number of tasty local craft beers in one of the buzzing District VII’s bars – to refresh my palate and take a break from the wine.


Interview and intro by Wink Lorch