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.
I must admit we don't often drink Rivesaltes, and this bottle was an awakening to what we miss : Here is a fortified wine from the Roussillon region, a Rivesaltes Vin Doux Naturel 1996 made by the Parcé brothers of La Rectorie winery, this wine being made through their négoce wing Les Frères Parcé (purchased grapes). See this map with the tiny orange spots of the Rivesaltes and Maury appellations (2 fortified wines) on the upper-left corner of the pink Roussillon area.
This Rivesaltes wine went through 18 years of élevage in barrels and was bottled very recently, on march 2015. It seems that the Parcé Frères have a large number of barrels of this wine and that they bottle along the demand__see this page featuring the same 1996 wine with a 17-year élevage, bottled in april 2014. The wine is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeu and it makes 16,5 % alc. It went through skin contact from what I learned.
Let me tell you that you drink this wine comme du petit lait like we say in French, it sports a great freshness in spite of the sugar and alcohol, you have these soft spices and this rich range of aromas along a saline edge, a delight. Was superb with a Bleu des causses cheese and also a Roquefort. Costs a mere 15 €, incredibly cheap given the long élevage... Plus I'm sure you can just put the cork back and help yourself days later, it won't spoil.
Smallest natural-wine bar ever : Wine Stand Bouteille (Shibuya)
Izakaya, tachinomi-ya, wine bar...
Here are a few places I came across during this trip, beginning with this natural-wine bar in Shibuya. The area is just a stone throw from Hachiko crossing and you feel like in an other age, with a couple of alleys along the railroad tracks, it's some sort of Piss Alley like the
one near Shinjuku, just smaller
and less crowded.I was tipped about it by John but had completely forgotten and it was a colleague of Terumi, our friend in Tokyo, that pointed to this place after failing to find another venue in the area that had probably closed since last time he went there. He was looking specificly for what Japanese call a senbero which means literally "getting drunk for 1000 [¥]", this amount being the equivalent of 7,5 € or 8,3 USD, this is the type of place I love in Tokyo even if the booze they pour is not of the highest quality.
This couple of narrow alleys along the railroad tracks in Shibuya is known under the name Nonbei Yokocho (drunkards alley), see the map here for directions (area underlined in yellow). It's basically a cluster of tiny bars and restaurants, so tiny that you wonder how you could find a slot between the patrons. A couple of places have wine and one is fully about natural wine. It was full when I first walked there but coming back after a while I managed to find some room. As you can see maybe 5 people can stand along the small counter, that's really the wine equivalent of a tachinomi-ya, these cramped standing bars that are a long Japanese tradition. Like any "drunkards alley" in Japan the place was certainly smelling urine in the past (that's why they were dubbed "piss alleys") but now they've strategically put efficient, easy-access toilets at both ends of the small area (pic on right). This speaks volumes about the amount of beer and nihonshu (mostly) that is being downed there...
Real sake & natural wines at Maruchu Kamabokoten in the Tateishi shopping arcade
Two wine bars and a great izakaya
When you look for wine bars in Tokyo you don't think first to a Shitamachi area, these remants of the old working-class Tokyo with its poorly-lit, narrow alleys and low buildings, and I don't even dare to think about a natural-wine bar, your first guess for these would be neighboroods like Shibuya, Roppongi, Ebisu, in short, trendy places for modern Tokyoites. Shitamachi is for the simple people, you go there to find mom & pop's izakayas squeezed into cramped venues where you'll slurp
noisily your ramen along with an overflowing glass of cheap sake, bathing happily in the steam coming from the
behind-the-counter-kitchen... That's what I'm looking for at least in Tokyo, and not only because these places are damn cheap but because they're real and no fuss.
This story began oddly with my interest in a national figure named Tora-san, a fictional character that is known to most Japanese because of the TV series Otoko wa tsurai yo (means "it's hard to be a man") which ran from 1969 to 1995 (making it the longest-running movie series starring a single actor), featuring a bachelor and itinerant salesman, some sort of looser with a big heart. In the series, the hero's home roots in Tokyo were in a Shitamachi area, Shibamata in the north-east edge of Tokyo, and my initial query was to go there and find some cheap drinking spot favored by ordinary Japanese locals. I didn't find anything there, at least my Japanese intel sources Terumi and Tadashi didn't find anything interesting in that field, although the neighborhood had a lovely provincial touch with the nice Taishakuten buddhist temple and some sort of small Asakusa-like alley lined with shops (video of temple & alley -- not a single gaijin in view when I went there !). You'll find souvenirs (the first thing you see when you step out of the station is Torasan's statue...) and traditional sweets like in Asakusa, plus many souvenirs featuring Tora-san, portraits with his iconic brown suitcase, and also a museum fully devoted to the TV-series character, I strongly encourage foreign visitors to visit the museum (closed for renovation alas when I went there recently) as well as watch at least a Tora-san movie because it helps understand Japan I'm sure (on min 6:42 begins a scene that takes place in the Shibamata alley).
I was a bit disappointed that Shibamata hadn't a local izakaya or tachinomi that could fit my taste for athentic watering hole and that's when I asked John W., an experienced Tokyoite who knows better than many locals about the immense resources of the city and who recently moved back to Australia for his kids' studies, he was back in Tokyo for a month of [Australia's] summer vacation and he told me there was another shitamachi area not far from there, in Tateishi, where he knew both an authentic local drinking spot and TWO natural-wine venues.... Each time you come back to a city you should discover some place out of the beaten path and this was it, thank you John !
Nirasaki, Yamanashi Prefecture
Japan is also a wine producing country, and some of its producers have reached such a quality that their wine is virtually sold before it is made, and this is the case for the wines of Eishi Okamoto, who founded the small domaine Beau Paysage in the high valleys of Yamanashi with the reassuring Mount Fuji in view.
The demanding wine lover in Japan has long been wary and mistrustful regarding domestic-produced wine, there's of course the large
volumes of Koshu wine made with the indigenous variety but wineries aren't all into quality winemaking and the farming techniques are far from traditional. In the
last decade though, a serious work has been done by some winemakers, with great results for those choosing the organic farming and low intervention in the cellar, you can certainly witness that firsthand year after year by tasting the Japanese domaines taking part to the wine fair.
Okamoto-san farms his vineyards organically with a Japanese twist, the farming culture in this country having also a long tradition of uninterventionist modes using different ways that the ones we know in Europe. The weather in Japan is way more complicated for organic farming with a hot and humid summer and lots of rain (just imagine, people often say the Bordeaux region is unfit for organic farming...), but there are Japanese ways to make with these conditions without resorting to chemicals, one of them being the type of permaculture advocated by Masanobu Fukuoka, managing fields and vineyards without ever plowing them to preserve the microbian life on its surface.
We reached the small city of Nirasaki after some 3 hours in a limited-express (Azusa) train on a JR line departing from the Shinjuku station in the direction of Kofu, under a bright sky. As I wrore earlier people in Europe usually don't know that november and december are great months to visit Japan with blue skies and temperatures that are usually milder than in France at the same time. Of course we were heading to the mountains and we experienced a temperature drop compared to Tokyo.
Yotsuya (east of Shinjuku), Tokyo
Wine importers have been playing for a long time an important role for the development of wineries and domaines, but for the segment of natural wine producers a few wine importers were certainly of strategic importance, particularly in the 1990s' when the nascent non-interventionist winemaking movement was still short of a strong domestic market for its wines. At that time when the future was still
uncertain for the vignerons leaving the "security" of conventional winemaking for the unchartered waters of real wine, a few importers were certainly of great help, and Mrs Yasuko Goda of Racines was certainly one of them. The Japanese wine lovers, or at least enough of them, turned to understand very early the appeal of these wines that departed so much from the norms of what was done at that time, and they put their money where their mouth was, giving a decisive boost to many vignerons who were also encouraged by this sign of appreciation coming from so far away. Mrs Goda's name bounced back to me along the years as I was visiting all these artisan producers, along the one of Mr Ito, another big and early player in the field, and I decided to at last visit her and her business partner Masaaki Tsukahara in their offices downtown Tokyo.
Mrs Yasuko Goda's inspiration for her future career probably needed a French episode and it materialized when in the late 1980s' her husband (who had just spent 3 months in Europe for his job) suggested she takes a year off in France with their 2 young children and find something to do that she'd like, the children were young enough so that she could move with them, and if she waited more they'd be stuck with the studies. She left for France and enrolled at the University of Bordeaux [you see it coming] to learn French and there she found tasting courses that were given by a few people including Denis Dubourdieu and Emile Gaillon. She says with a laugh that she didn't understand much to these courses, it was pretty hard but she got the beginning of her wine education there.
The yearly wine event Festivin just took place in Tokyo a few days ago, it's a smoothly-functioning wine-tating fair taking place in two sessions in a single day on the last sunday of november. It has such a success among wine lovers in Tokyo that the tickets are sold well in advance. I attended my first Festivin wine fair in march 2014 but it was kind of a minor-key version of the real thing because there had been issues back then on renting the usual exhibition space. This was already a great tasting event, even though like usual I could taste few wines considering the time I spend at each table plus the time spent looking at people, listening to the music and shooting pictures... This Festivin 2015 was in line with my first experience, add to that a music entertainment that was by itself worth the
ticket even if you had been a teetotaller, the credit for that great music part goes of course to our friend François Dumas, the French
Tokyoite and wine importer who also has a long experience and good taste in music shows. François Dumas is pictured on the right with John Wood, a New-Zealander who spent years working in Tokyo (moved recently to Melbourne for the studies of his children) and who worked several years as staff for Festivin.
The wine tasting even took place at Ebis303 which is a convention & exhibition centre in Ebisu, a trendy area on the south-eastern edge of Shibuya. That day was very sunny and mild (few people know Japan has great weather in november) and I walked all the way from Ikebukuro, where I was staying, and Ebisu, spending time in Takadanobaba, Shinjuku, Harajuku & Shibuya on the way, great stroll and a great way to discover a city by the way, even when the walked-through neighborhoods aren't of touristic value.
The entree fee was high on Paris standards where tastings are often free or charged a symbolic 5 € (which usually pays for the glass), but I was willing to pay the ¥ 7500 (56 €) asked for the 4-hour session because that's really a way to feel the beat of natural-wine in Japan and have a glimpse on its public. As an introduction while we were beginning to enjoy the wines we had a speech by Shinsaku Katsuyama, the core organizer of the event who sported for the occasion a hat made of corks (pic on left). Katsuyama-san is a pioneer in natural wine in Tokyo and he is the founder of Shonzui, now an institution for natural wine and great food in the Japanese capital.
A few weeks ago B. brought back this copy of News Digest magazine from the Japanese quarter near Opéra in Paris; you may know that there are a few streets near the Métro Pyramides and the rue Saint Anne where there's a high concentration of Japanese businesses, offices and venues, and in many of these places including the restaurants you can pick one of the several free Japanese magazines catering for the large expat community living in Paris.
I reported a couple years ago about 33 Vin, another free magazine that helps the Japanese expats discover wine with great pictures, in-depth reports and also this knowledgeable interest for natural wines. Here although I don't read or speak Japanese I was intrigued by a long wine subject where it seemed that outstanding Japanese chefs living in France were asked to pick a wine of their choice. This was another illustration of the high regard for fine wine among the Japanese, with an approach that goes beyond the prestigious labels and Chateaux.
Time for a few more vintage scenes involving people sharing a glass of who-knows-what (not always wine but let's be tolerant...). All these anonymous actors may be gone by now and that makes the contemplation of these scenes more nostalgic. As you know I find these pictures on flea markets and brocantes, vides-grenier (neighnorhood-street flea markets), they've been recovered presumely when an elderly person died and there was no one to collect her papers and family pictures. I often come across great pictures with this excellent quality of black & white prints showing sharp, crisp scenes which are a useful tool to get to feel the way people were living and experiencing their daily life. Inspiration is somehow a more efficient tool to decipher History and understand our elders' reality, and it certainly help us reassess our values and what we should consider really important.
As usual when there's some info with year written on the back of the picture I'll note it, otherwise I'll put the estimated year (may be off target but at least I tried).
Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
Another important practice of biodynamie is the preparation 500, shortnamed usually as the 500, it involves manure that has spent the winter in cow horns disposed underground on the farms's land. This page by Biodynamie Services will get you the essentials of this preparation. This farming practice is even more controversial for
conventionally-trained farmers (and for the general public at large raised on public-school Cartesianism),
just think about it a second : filling cow horns with manure and burying them a couple feet under for a few months, just for the purpose of using the manure for a dynamized-water preparation to be sprayed on the vineyard, the fields and the vegetable garden...Not really easy to explain to the regular guy.
You may know in your own field how it's difficult to go against the mainstream narrative, we humans often behave like sheep and prefer to brush off unsettling concepts that don't fit in our agreed-upon model. I guess many farmers who were tempted to at least give these farming practices a try have been put off by the anticipated uproar in their community. Today in 2015 it's easier of course, the thing may look as weird but so many farmers and growers embraced it (some being top-tier domaines) that at least you can take virtual protection from their own time-proven experience (and wine-rating success) against the mob of critics.
If Biodynamics lacks in recognition in the mainstream farming milieu it can compensate with the generous sharing and emulation culture of its followers, this session was as much to learn the basics of making a preparation than exchanging freely one's own thoughts and experiments, be it in a private vegetable garden or in a vineyard.
this workshop took place in a beautiful day in october.