In spite of my repeated stays in Budapest these last few years I hadn't been aware of the existence of Terroir Club, a Hungarian distribution company focused on artisan and natural wines from all of Europe and Hungary as well, and I was tipped on it by my friend Deborah in Portland, Oregon who knew the manager András Kató from the time he spent in Oregon a few years ago. I was set to visit him on the outside of central Budapest last july but the heat wave at that time was so bad that I preferred to cancel the interview and postpone it for another time. January was pretty cold (minus 8° C when I was there) and the night comes fast but this was easier to handle and I managed to have the time to visit András at his office and warehouse in the 3rd district in the north-west corner of the Hungarian capital.
Terroir Club is now a well established distributor, a company that imports into Hungary artisan and natural wines from different European countries and distributes them nationally along with a number of Hungarian wines fitting in the same quality category. Hungary has a thriving winery sector that has been recovering from the communist-regime years when the land including the vineyards were state owned (except for the small family plots) through Borkombinats and traditional winemaking was replaced with high-yield industrial production with vineyards planted on flatland where soviet-made tractors could maneuver. Hungary has been recovering since then, replanting on the slopes and has now both mainstream wineries and smaller, more authentic wine farms aimed at more demanding wine amateurs.
Terroir Club is having a pivotal role in the emergence of these wineries in Hungary as well as in the awareness of the Hungarian public about the fundamental difference between conventional growing/winemaking ways and the ones practiced by these artisan wineries.
András is a diplomed winemaker and he has been working in the wine business since he completed his enology training in the Budapest University more than 20 years ago. He first worked for different wine merchant companies here, beginning in the early 90s' with Bortársaság which he started with an associate in 1994, this company started with a single shop and it's now the biggest wine merchant in Hungary with some 20 retail shops across the country. Then he worked for the French supermarket chain Cora in 1997, he was the buyer for the drinks there, then he worked as a wine writer for Alkonyi László and his wine magazine Borbarát [Friends of Wine] from 1998 to 2000 (picture of copies on right). András says that although he doesn't consider himself as a trained writer (unlike Alkonyi László who was trained as a journalist) he did this job for 3 years, the magazine (which isn't around anymore) was focused on quality reporting and stories, not flashy wine-hype, and this was a new approach of wine reporting in Hungary. Then he worked for a wine export-import company named Monarchia.
Then around 2004 and 2005 as he was going to tastings events he came across some natural wines, he says that back then the term "natural wine" was not much used yet, especially here in Hungary, they'd be named simply as organic or biodynamic wines, and even 5 years ago people in Hungary weren't knowing anything at all about the difference between conventional and organic viticulture and even less between the different cellar wine management, this wasn't aknowledged at all, wine was supposed to be made the same way everywhere, more or less. András tasted these organic or natural wines when he began 10 years ago to attend large tasting events in Europe like the ones of Renaissance des Appellations and Greniers Saint-Jean, the first of this type of wine tasting he went to was certainly Vini Veri which took place in Italy near Verona, that's where he met Nicolas Joly, one of the pioneers in biodynamic farming in the Loire and the founder of Renaissance des appellations (also known as Return to Terroir). He found out that the wines coming from a biodynamic domaine tasted very different, they were more alive and he wanted to know more about these wines and what made them so different.
At the time in the early years when he went to these organic/biodynamic tastings in Europe it was for his own interest, he was doing some restructuration work for the magazine's publishing then and had not yet started his wine import & distribution business, he was also back then arounf 2005 working as freelance consultant for several wineries, something he still does today by the way, as he is also a trained enologist. In those years while discovering the natural/biodynamic wine milieu in France and Italy he began to think that there was something to do in this field in Hungary, he spoke to other distributors in Western Europe like the Caves de Pyrene who were doing this type of wine distyribution in the United Kingdom.
This was late 2005 and into 2006, and at that time virtually nobody in Hungary understood what all of this was about when he talked about the issue. But he had enough of working for the big companies like he had done before and he wanted to start working with these other wines he loved. So he began to look around in Hungary for winemakers who would fit in this category of artisanal wine, he knew already 5 or 6 of them who farmed organically if not fully certified, then he found another 2 or 3 wine farms and the concept of the Terroir Club company came to life in 2006. András and his associates knew this wouldn't be easy at first, and actually only a few restaurants began to buy them some wine. To make it harder they started the company just as the economic crisis struck Hungary, in 2009 and 2010, which added another delay in the maturation of the public regarding these wines.
From the start, András used a van equipped with air-conditioning for his deliveries in Budapest (pic on left), something which he says is not commonly used for wine shipping in Hungary, he stresses that even if the distance is short you may be stuck in a traffic jam and it doesn't take long to ruin a wine in the hot summers of central Europe, so all his shipping is done in temperature-controlled trucks.
From the start of the company in early 2006 he travelled again in order to have a list of foreign vignerons he'd import the wines of, the goal being also to show domestic consumers and sommeliers what was this about, how these organic/natural wines were different, and also because he couldn't fill the portfolio just with Hungarian wines, there weren't enough of them in this category. There was a lot of educational aspects in these early years of Terroir Club, including precisely on what terroir is, the Hungarian public didn't know this word in the first place 10 years ago and lots of educational work had to be done, like he brought back from his domaines' visits lots of visual proofs of the different nature of soils, with stones or clay picked both in Hungary and in different French regions.
The warehouse/shop of Terroir Club formally opened in november 2006 with only 6 or 7 Hungarian wineries and some 15 imported wineries, mostly French but also some from Italy, Spain, Germany and Croatia. He was highly interested in French wines because of his tasting travels but it was not easy to import French wines 10 years ago, the Hungarian public being then in its New-World wines trend. It took time to have the Hungarian public including restaurant professionals get interested in these new type of wines.
The organic/biodynamic thing was a hard sell including for the wine-shop people or the restaurant owners who didn't know there was a difference between a conventional wine and an organic/natural wine. From the start he also try to import the "classics" with good Burgundy, good Champagne, Alsace (which his favorite region), building the region list along the years with some Loire, some Rhône, later some Bordeaux and so on. They were selling wines that were unknown in Hungary, the quality of which was not on a nice label or a flashy Appellation name or renowned domaine, that was a new way of selling wine compared to what the mainstream distributors were doing then.
Another difficulty was that the economic crisis of 2008 which struck Hungary more like in 2009 and 2010, this was another obstacle slowing the access to these wines, people then would spend the minimum on wine and take ordinary bottles in the supermarket. Happily the economy rebounded after that [Hungary is not part of the Euro zone and it has seen a steady growth of its economy for several years in a row] and consumers from the upper middlr class are spending more for quality products.
What counted a lot in the early years of Terroir Club was the fact that a few high-end restaurants that were bent on authenticity rather than on fancy labels chose to buy them wines, making these sometimes-obscure wines known to a demanding public. Some of these restaurants were in Budapest and some were abroad as they were also exporting Hungarian wines, like in Stockholm where they export through Wine Trade and where the best restaurants were not only switching to organic supplies for the food but extended the move to all the wines, the rest of Stockholm's best restaurants following suit in 2007 and 2008. The fact that a few top restaurants filled their wine lists with unknown appellations or vulgar table wines instead of established labels and appellations has certainly been a big help to popularize all these domaines that were working naturally.
In Budapest a restaurant like Onyx did a lot to help make these wines known and loved. With a short look at their long wine list [Borlap in Hungarian] you'll see that indeed for the regions and countries you're familiar with, this is serious stuff, and the other way around if you're unfamiliar with Hungarian wines you can just pick all the Hungarian domaines' names here and do your shopping with the certitude you're getting the best thing. In order to make these wines known in Budapest at the beginning when they were still only 2 people at Terroir Club they organized many tastings, inviting restaurateurs and sommeliers.
Meinkland, a winery they sell the wines of is an interesting story, it's an Austrian biodynamic, 5-hectare domaine sitting just at the border with Hungary, András says they are very progressive thinking and doing a great job with their wine range, including a Pet-Nat (natural sparkling, label pictured on left)). The Michlits family who owns this domain is part Croatian, part Hungarian and part Austrian, actually when the Austro-Hungarian partition took place in 1920 their village (Pamhagen in German or Pomogy in Hungarian) was cut in half, the village part being on the Austrian side and all the agricultural land being in Hungary. At this time the family lost its land and had to plant on the Austrian side, and only after 1989 they could claim some parcels on the Hungarian side, and also get a Hungarian passports which they did thanks to a new law granting citizenship to Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries.
In their Austrian vineyard also they make wine from unpruned vineyards (keeping the wood untouched for 5 years in a row) and the result is beautiful, with the vines finding their natural growth balance at one point. András says their Pet-Nat is lovely, it was a bit of work at the beginning to have people accept the simple crown cap instead of the wire cage and cork, but people learnt to put this aside.
András shows me a bottle from the Meinklang winery made from the Somló terroir which is a small volcanic area. The name of the cuvée is J 12 meaning Juhfark 2012, the name meaning sheep's tail in Hungarian because of the shape and length of the clusters for this local variety. The parcels are biodynamic farmed here too. This bottle costs about 4500 Forints here tax included or about 14 €.
Today there are 8 people working at Terroir Club but in the early years they were only two doing everything, shipments, deliveries, tastings and travels to visit the domaines. 2012 was really the year the company took off on the Hungarian market, with a 30 % growth every year since. Of course there were the restaurants who were ordering, and also some independent-minded wine shops which were until then relying only on the big distributor Bortársaság but realized the monopoly was dangerous, and they began to turn to Terroir Club in order to get different wines, plus a number of private people also began to buy these artisan wines.
Asked if winemakers could provide to sustain this growth, András says that more and more winemakers join the fray and work naturally which eases the supply. Now he buys from about 20 domaines in Hungary, and there's now an organized group similar to Renaissance des Appellations in Hungary, it's Terra Hungarica which is a 30-domaine-strong group, you'll find in their website video interviews of the vignerons, including 3 whom I profiled recently, Bálint Losonci as well as Tamás Szecskő and Gábor Karner. To be part of Terra Hungarica you have to follow the requirements and rules which included both organic farming and natural winemaking.
The website also has a page explaining to the Hungarian public the major differences between a mainstream/corrected wine (pic on left) and a natural wine (pic on right), most people (like in our Western-European countries by the way) being unaware of the long list of additives and manipulative corrections involved in commercial wines. With learning to distinguish between Autentikus borkészítés [athentic winemaking] and Technológiai borkészítés [technological winemaking] the consumer will better understand why the wines taste so differently and it will help his/her awakening to the best-kept secrets behind the commercial wine or industrial wine [ipari bor]. The domaines who follow Terra Hungarica don't correct the wines with any of the many common additives, includung lab yeast [which are often allowed in other organic certifications].
Now there's a Terra Hungarica tasting fair [BorSzalon] every november in Budapest (video here) where you can access to the best organic/natural wines of Hungary.
In the early years he travelled across Hungary looking for more vignerons who could work in the direction of organic farming, it took time but now growing well. I asked about the cellar corrections that are common today in conventional wineries, András says that Hungary was quick to catch up with modern, commercial winemaking after the end of communism, it's very easy here too to order all the additives and get delivered the next day, plus you have a crowd of wine laboratory agents going door after door in the wine regions to push for the purchase of their wonder products, wether to lower the acid content, clear the green tannins and many other corrective tools like heating the juice for extraction and color.
The Királyudvar winery (bottles pictured above) is a successful rebirth of an estate once owned by the Hapsburg dynasty, this domaine having been supplying the Royal Court of Hungary since the 11th century. There's an old mansion there with 15-century cellars underneath, but its decline started long ago, after the Hapsburg dynasty was dismantled. After WW2 it was managed by the Tokaj Research Institute of Viticulture and Oenology is now American owned, the owner being Mr Anthony Hwang who later in 2003 purchased Domaine Huet in Vouvray, and Huet's Noël Pinguet did a lot of consulting work for the Hungarian estate, helping getting it back to excellence.
Today also there's a good cooperation between Huet's cellar master Jean-Bernard Berthomé and Királyudvar including the winemaker Szabolcs Juhász. This was the first Hungarian estate to experiment with organic and biodynamic viticulture after the fall of communism, and with 40 hectares of fully-organic vineyards (20 of which biodynamic) this is one of the biggest domaine Terroir Club is working with. The domaine benefited a lot from the experience of Domaine Huet and Noël Pinguet, as Huet was farming biodynamic since 1989.
Pictured on left : Kiralyudvar Tokaj Dry Furmint 2008, they also have the 07 and 08 in the shop and restaurants in Budapest begin to be interested in having several vintages of the same wine, András says that it's an interesting new development on the restaurant scene.
There's no wine bar specialized on organic/natural wines in Budapest although there's a positive development of wine bars, but wine restaurant are doing the job, and beyond Onyx you can go to Csalogány 26 which sits of course on Csalogány utca (street) 26 on the Buda side, click on the English version and go to the wine list, this is the sort of place you can order blind.
Otherwise you can go to Borkonyha which is a bistrot-style venue with two young sommeliers who are very open.
A major step to make those organic/natural wines better known in Budapest was when Terroir Club had Nicolas Joly's group Terroir des Appellations (or Return to Terroi) come at the historic Festetics Palota in november 2008 for a Közös Kóstolója (open tasting) with a large number of vignerons. For the first time the Hungarian wine lovers and restaurant professionnals could taste the wines of and meet in person many of the top names of the natural wine sphere. This was a bit of a challenge to organize that open tasting in Budapest because unlike Paris, Milan or London the country was not yet a market for these wines and we can thank all these growers and winemakers for having come here to meet the public.
Just look at the people that were there that day, and you'll understand that the event was a palate awakening for many of the sommeliers and professionnals :
Domaine Pierre Frick (Alsace), Domaine Marc Tempé (Alsace), Domaine Kreydenweiss (Alsace), Domaine Josmeyer (Alsace) Domaine Leroy (Bourgogne) Domaine Ferran (Bordeaux), Château Lagarette (Bordeaux), Château Le Puy (Bordeaux) Champagne Fleury (Champagne), Champagne Leclapart (Champagne), Champagne Bedel (Champagne) Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Jura) Domaine Leon Barral (Languedoc Roussillion), Domaine du Traginer ( Languedoc Roussillon), Domaine Cazes ( Languedoc Roussillion) Domaine de Château Gaillard (Loire), Château Tour Grise (Loire), Coulée de Serrant (Nicolas Joly) (Loire), Domaine Saint Nicolas (Loire), Pierre Breton (Loire) Château Sainte Anne (Provence) Domaine du Coulet (Rhone), Domaine de Villeneuve (Rhone), Domaine Viret (Rhone). Montirius (Rhone)
Albet i Noya
Descendientes de J. Palacios
Cosimo Maria Massini
Azienda Agricola Campinuovi
Cascina degli Ulivi
Fabbrica di San Martino
Terre a Mano
András also imports this turbid sparkling from Italy, it's made north of Venice by the small domaine Costadilà, he says the cuvée is made in the old, pre-Prosecco style,
adding that 20 years ago Prosecco wasn't even the name of a wine region, the winegrowing families would typically keep this sparkling wine for themselves, it wasn't even commercialized, they'd keeping as is, undisgorged and drink it themselves.
Prosecco was the name of the grape variety then and that's only later when the sparkling was marketed as Prosecco that the grape variety name was changed for Glera. It's interesting to learn that the hidden story of wine names and history, like when you learn that Blanquette de Limoux is much older and traditional than Champagne...
András says that the guy at Costadilà makes the wine like his grandfather and ancestors used to do, keeping the yeast and sediments. This is the aim of Terroir Club, he adds, to bring interesting wines that have authenticity, not the cheap version of the thing, he could find cheap commercial Prosecco but this pre-Prosecco version is much more lively and enjoyable. This wine is made with wild yeast and there's no SO2 added, making it a good comparison between the Prosecco found in the conventional wine shops and the real thing that Italian locals drank a mere couple of decades ago.
Villány is a smaller wine region compâred to Tokaj, it became kind of famous on the Hungarian market in the early 1990s' shortly after the end of Communism because some domaines began to use wood and age wines in barrels, yielding tannic and powerful wines, but that's not the true face of Villány, Andras says, because commercial wineries do some extraction during the fermentation which makes wines very heavy, also they harvest too late, in part because of the conventional/chemical farming : The chemicals sprayed on the vines slow down the phenolic ripeness all the while pushing up the sugar ripeness, and on a hot year you reach a stage where you have already enough potential alcohol/sugar in the grape but without having reached phenolic ripeness, that's why they have to wait more and at the end you get a 16 % syrup of Cabernet. On the other hand with the biodynamic farming this problem disappears altogether, the plant yields fruit which is balanced regarding sugar, phenols and acidity, and the alcohol never goes beyond 13,5 % at Wassermann, compared to the common 15 % or 16 % in the region.
András shows me a bottle of Villány red made by a biodynamic domaine, this is such an authentic wine where you eschew the usual heaviness of this region. The Domaine is Weingut Wassermann, they're actually from Germany and bought land in Villány in 1998, they now speak perfectly Hungarian. Rolf was originally a winemaker while his wife Suzan was a lawyer and they heard about Villany from friends of theirs who were Swabians (German ethnic minority, formerly German settlers who came to live long time ago in this region), they travelled to Villány, liked the region and started a new life here, leaving everything behind in Germany. They only farm 2 hectares, doing everything by themselves, and when they began to farm on biodynamics every body around thought they were crazy, until 2007 when they won the Siklós [Villány] Wine Competition with their Portugieser wine, and with this grape variety that was until then looked down in Villany, they beat all the local cabernets and syrahs in the blind tasting there. As a result in the last 5 years people are hiring them as viticulture consultants in the region, another factor being that the EU is subsidizing the conversion to organic farming, which pushes some conventional growers to reconsider their practice.
The price range of Wassermannwines go from 7 € for the rosé to maybe 25 € for the top-tier cuvée.
Read the History of the Wassmann winery
Here is a wine that comes from Serbia but from a region that was historically part of Hungary before the partition of the Empire in 1920. Oszkár Maurer is a Serbian national from the Hungarian minority and he also got recently a Hungarian passport thanks to the openness of the Hungarian government toward Hungarian minority enclaves in the neighboring countries.
Oszkár Maurer was already working naturally before being spotted by Terroir Club, the domaine is stretched over two locations, growing local varieties including 130-year-old Kadarka (pic on right), the farming is fully biodynamic.
The wines are bottled by a collective set up by Raw Fair's Isabelle Legeron who is fond of this region (Hungary and other estarn-European countries) and would like to promote and encourage its best artisan winemakers. The back label on the bottle gives more detail on the whole enterprise :
The Collective is a modern take on the wine coop : a collection of individuals who each contribute to a whole that is, hopefully, greater than the sum of its parts. A bit like a play.
Founded by Isabelle Legeron MW & a handful of Hungarian friends [András and the Terroir Club], this collaborative project aims to help organic & biodynamic growers in the Pannonian Basin make wine naturally, by giving them the freedom to experiment without shouldering the entirety of the risk. The grower commits to making a natural cuvée under The Collective's guidance, and The Collective commits, in turn, to buying the wine come what may.
That is a very interesting concept indeed : it's often at the beginning that winemakers are afraid to do the first step because they don't have experience for fully-natural winemaking and are afraid they might loose a cuvée if things turn south, with all the money loss going with it, and if at this pivotal stage there's someone to guarantee the sale of the whole cuvée he will feel secured financially and in the future may be more open to replicate his SO2-free vinification without a safety net. The wines sopld under the Collective label are not sold in Hungary, they're exported to the UK, Denmark and Sweden. Terroir Club is part of the project and Andras explains that this will help the Central-European winemakers to be more brave and take risks in the vinification without bearing the cost of the risks. The first winemaker Isabelle Legeron wanted to work with was Oszkár Maurer, the Collective has now 4 different wines in its list (2013 vintage), and it is adding other domaines including in 2015 a Furmint from a 7-hectare domaine from Tokaj, Bott Pince (the Furmint is not bottled yet), the young woman at the wheel, Judit Bott as well as her partner József Bodó are Slovakians of the Hungarian minority. Judit discovered Tokaj while working in Italian Tirol in the course of her agriculture studies because the wine farm she worked for in Tirol had invested in a few Tokaj parcels (read this profile in English about the Domaine Bott).
Terroir Club has opened a wine shop in downtown Budapest where you can have easy access to all these Hungarian and Eastern-European artisan wines. The shop is located in the convenient metro hub Deák Ferenc ter at the lower end of Andrassy boulevard with several Metro lines (1, 2, 3) passing through. The shop also sells cheese and other artisan food products but Terminal Market is foremost the ideal place to find natural wines from Hungary and the region, and from what I know this is the only wine shop specialized in this type of wines in Budapest.