This exhibition is very carefully, I would say almost coquettishly, installed. It follows the Austrian restaurant and is located in the part of the Palais that faces south. The direction of the exhibition is entrusted to Mr. Ladislas de Wagner, delegated commissioner, who kindly gave me the notes with which I was able to write this work.
Austria, towards the end of 1866, had 607,171 hectares of vines spread over the various provinces of the empire. Production amounted to 18,558,046 hectolitres. Hungary alone comprised 296,962 hectares and produced 7,200,000 hectolitres of wine. This is almost half, in terms of area and production, of the two total sums.
The Austrian monarchy is, after France, the country in Europe with the most vineyards and the most wine. Does this mean that Austria is equal to us in this industry and even follows us closely? No, today we have about 2,400,000 hectares of vineyards that produce 60 to 70 million hectolitres, depending on the year. Our planted areas are therefore in the same ratio to Austria as four is to one, and our production is in the same proportion. From this it must be concluded that, for the same surface area, the vines of Austria produce as much as the vines of France.
But there are very great differences in the nature of the products. The red wines of Hungary are very similar to our Burgundy wines. The whites can be divided into two types: sweet and dry. The sweet wines dominate, and their nuances vary greatly. The highest expression of this type is the tokay, which has a very penetrating smell and a sweet flavour of a high grade. After that come the vintages whose smell and flavour gradually diminish until they reach the limit of dry wines.
The latter do not all have the same characteristics. They are more or less dry and have more or less finesse. The most esteemed are those which come from the Riesling grape, which we grow on a fairly large scale in Alsace. Then there are other crus which, with different nuances, reach the limit of sweet wines.
Among the red wines, there are some that retain a certain sweetness. Others are closer to the great mass of French wines which have the taste of the bunch or of the chew, as we say in Burgundy, a taste which seizes you on the palate and carries slightly to the throat. This flavour is only found in the products extracted from grapes that are not too ripe, and whose seeds contain a fairly large quantity of tannin. When the grapes are left to ripen too much, and the tannin is lacking, then only flat wines are obtained, such as, for example, those from Hérault destined for boilers.
I said that the red wines of Hungary resembled our Burgundy wines very much, but they do not have the bouquet that floods your sense of smell and caresses your olfactory nerves so pleasantly; the bouquet is an agent that is still little known. It is attributed to the essential oils held in suspension in the liquid and which are only released after a certain number of years.
The Alsace region is a small producer of the various types of white wine that are harvested in Austria. When you know these products well, you have a compass to guide you in the study of German wines. Our Alsatian whites are either sweet or dry, and among the various shades of these two categories, one finds, albeit to a lesser degree, almost all the varieties of products that distinguish Germany. I will only add that the wines of the German Rhine have a certain acidity which makes them unpalatable when first tasted. These types also exist in Austria and in France in the Lower Rhine and Moselle regions.
The most renowned wines from Austria are firstly those from Hungary, which won five gold medals, three silver medals and two bronze medals. Next come the wines of Lower Austria with two gold and three bronze medals; those of Transylvania with two gold, one silver and one bronze medal; those of Styria with one gold, one silver and one bronze medal; those of Croatia with one gold, one silver and one bronze medal. The Tyrol, Dalmatia, Moravia, etc., give only common products.
Sweet Tokay ranks first among the wines of Austria. It is made like those of the German Rhine. The grapes are picked and pressed, the must is put into barrels of 3 to 5 hectolitres, it is topped up, and at the end of the third year it can be drunk. Tokay can be kept for over a hundred years. In France we have only one wine that comes close to it in terms of duration, and that is Château Châlons (Doubs). I drank one that was 130 years old. This wine is white-yellow and very alcoholic, a circumstance that allows it to age.
The tokay is also very alcoholic. It is 18 to 22 degrees. The price of the first growths varies from 5 to 20 francs per half-litre bottle, depending on their age. The second growths are only worth 3 to 10 fr.
The wines of Lower Austria are much lighter than those of Hungary, they have only 12 to 13 degrees of alcohol. Their acidic taste is reminiscent of the wines of the German Rhine, the Lower Rhine and the Moselle. They are pleasant and light in summer, especially when drunk with seltzer or even pure water. They are said to refresh and have a beneficial effect on health. These wines are sold at 1 to 2 francs per half-litre bottle.
The common products that are used for everyday consumption are worth 40 to 60 centimes a litre and are shipped in barrels. The Germans, according to Mr. Ladislas de Wagner, prefer them to our ordinary Bordeaux. This is understandable, because the German petty bourgeoisie only knows Bordeaux by name. But if they only drank it for a few weeks, they would probably not want to drink any more.
The red wine of Hungary is the one we are most interested in knowing, because it is considered a serious competitor to our Burgundy wines. In 1863, I tasted quite a few samples of these wines in Pesth for the international exhibition in Hamburg. Well, I must say that this tasting did not frighten me in the least for our Côte d'Or wines. The Hungarian winemakers still have a long way to go if they want to reach us. I admit that the country I crossed, from Bazias to Pesth, resembles Burgundy very much; I recognise that the black and white pineaux which produce our great vintages of the Côte d'Or, also compose the major part of the Hungarian vines; but I must add that the wines which come from them are not worth ours. They have less bouquet, less flavour, less finesse, less distinction. This is most likely due to the fact that the vinification and conservation processes applied to them are much inferior to ours. In oenology, manpower is everything. What proves this is that certain Bordeaux wines classified in the third and fourth rank have gone up one or two degrees, by the mere fact of better care.
Among the many samples I tasted in Pesth, there were some turbid, some sweet, some acid. The well-made, well-preserved samples were rare. From this I conclude that we do not have to fear competition from Hungarian products, as long as Hungarian winemakers are not on a par with our Côte d'Or winemakers. With cellar masters such as ours, Hungary could perhaps give us serious competition. But it might take them more than a century to match us, so we have nothing to fear for the moment.
Does this mean that we should sleep in sweet security? No. Hungary is making commendable efforts to open up new outlets for her products. In 1866, Austria exported 34,500,000 kilos of wine or 345,000 hectolitres. It is mainly in England that efforts are being made.
There is a Croatian in London who sells 600,000 bottles of Croatian wine every year, and whose connections are growing daily. These wines are sold from 3 to 5 shillings (from 3 fr. 75 to 6 fr. 25), which are very good prices for ordinary products.
We have wines in France which are much better suited to the somewhat jaded palates of our neighbours than these. But the producers who would be responsible for organising themselves and selling directly in England leave this to a deceptive trade which ruins our old reputation and does the greatest harm to our winegrowing property. In the face of the eagerness with which the Hungarians are seeking new buyers, our apathy would one day prove fatal to us.
We must therefore not let the lesson that the Universal Exhibition has taught us be lost. France could have twice as many plantations. What it lacks are consumers, which it will undoubtedly find when it seriously seeks them.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée