In fall 2019, Máté Szekeres and Regina Ujszászi opened Portobello, a minimalist, contemporary space on a quiet corner in Budapest’s District V. It serves a petite, vegetarian-focused menu alongside coffee, the domain of Szekeres, and natural wine, Ujszászi’s forte.
The couple lived in Ireland for a decade before they returned to Hungary and, in Dublin, Ujszászi fell in love with minimal-intervention wines. Despite their appeal in European metropolises like Paris and Copenhagen, these wines were still largely under-the-radar in Budapest.
But Ujszászi and Szekeres anticipated that Portobello would attract like-minded locals and savvy travelers with eco-conscious bottles from small Hungarian producers.
“We are fortunate that we have loyal customers, and keep gaining more, who care about what they eat and drink,” says Ujszászi. “They trust us with our recommendations and ask for our opinions. And even if they don’t agree with us, they let us know. We like to have an honest, transparent relationship with them.”
Overseas, Hungary is most famous for Tokaji sweet aszú. The country’s wine culture is far more complex, with 22 wine regions cultivating indigenous grapes like Furmint and Kadarka. Although natural wine production across the country is negligible, interest is taking hold.
Hungary has a long winemaking heritage, with its roots that trace at least to when it was a province of the Roman Empire named Pannonia.
But the country’s wine history is intertwined with phylloxera, two World Wars and the Communist party’s rise to power in 1949, which upended a once-flourishing industry. What came of it was shoddy, mass-produced wine.
When Communism began to fall in 1989, winemakers carefully set out to re-establish their notable family names.
It took years for Hungary to turn out impressive wines again. Today, Budapest sommeliers often champion well-known brands like Sauska and Kreinbacher. But there’s been resistance to incorporate domestic natural bottlings onto wine lists, as they’re often viewed as unpredictable, inferior or as a fleeting trend.
Jean-Julien Ricard thinks differently. In 2020, the French expat opened Marlou Wine Bar & Store, a brick-walled hideaway that sells small plates and a good selection of natural wines from across Europe. When he ran a wine bar in Paris, Ricard was so impressed with Hungarian natural wines that he added them to the menu.
“People were really curious about them and wanting to know and discover different and original wines outside the classical sweet Tokaj,” he says.
Ricard describes what he calls a paradox concerning natural wine in the country. Winegrowers slowly move toward natural viticulture and winemaking methods, but those wines find much more recognition in export markets than at home.
“This is why I finally decided to come and live here,” says Ricard. “My goal is to help the local winegrowers to develop themselves by having an address which brings together wines made with low intervention.”
Marlou Wine Bar & Store and Portobello have helped these wines gain a wider platform in Budapest.
The venues emphasize quality and winemaking processes that mirror esteemed Hungarian traditions.
“How the wine is made is important, but it also has to taste good,” says Ujszászi. “The winemakers we highlight are all passionate and knowledgeable, and there are stories and beautiful places behind their wines.”
The wines at Portobello are from all over Hungary and beyond, like Vaskapu Kastély in Mohács, a town on the right bank of the Danube River, or Bencze Birtok, helmed by prominent winemaker István Bencze.
Bencze Birtok is based in Lake Balaton, where many Hungarians congregate at the first hint of warm weather. Bencze abandoned a career as a software developer for one in nature, fueled by memories with his grandmother in her vegetable garden.
“I missed the spirit of the soil so much,” he says.
In 2010, after he spent a year in Florence, Bencze enrolled in courses offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). He was most interested in the notion of terroir, and so he began winemaking and settled into a small house and vineyard in Szent György-hegy, about 2½ hours southwest of Budapest.
A few months ago, Bencze’s 2019 Autochthon, a blend of Furmint, Hárslevelű and Kéknyelű, appeared on the wine list of POPL Burger in Copenhagen, a casual restaurant from star chef René Redzepi.
Bencze says his wine hasn’t received as positive a reaction in Hungary. However, through “continuous, conscious work,” he hopes to shift preconceptions about natural wine in his homeland.
Bencze would like to make more blends from what he describes as a “rich genetic stock.” He seeks to age his wines on lees in ászokhordó, which look like traditional barrels, but are much larger and are more cubic than the classic French barriques. He wants to embrace the region’s process that’s more than a century old.
Bencze and other natural winemakers, like Timea Éless of Szóló in Tokaj, seek to show that natural wines are a part of Hungary’s past and reflect “winemaking before the age of technology,” says Éless.
With a background in linguistics, Éless studied winemaking and started Szóló in 2012. She set out on the same land where her grandparents made a living producing wine and grafting vines in the village of Tállya. Szóló’s flagship varietal grape is Furmint, which can be traced to the 17th century.
“We make wine the same way my grandfather and his father did,” she says, through the use of equipment like amphora.
International markets are also the lifeblood for Tomcsányi Family Winery in Somlóhegy, two hours west of Budapest. Founder Árpád Tomcsányi worked in television and radio before his move to winemaking.
His father purchased a tiny vineyard plot atop a mountain, which inspired Tomcsányi to complete WSET and winemaking classes. Soon, he would wash barrels, bottle and harvest for other winemakers to prepare for his own venture. His operation revolves around natural wines, he says, because “I felt that there is so much more energy and vibration” in them.
He celebrates indigenous grapes like the obscure Juhfark.
“When you can work with a grape variety that only grows on about [296 acres] on the whole planet, you feel highly privileged and that there is a need to honor this,” says Tomcsányi.
Winemaker Zsolt Sütő of Strekov 1075, a natural producer in Slovakia, had encouraged Gábor Karner, founder of his namesake Mátra winery about an hour northeast of Budapest, to remove sulfur dioxide from his winemaking.
“After we had a chance to taste his great, living, vibrant wines, I decided to give it a shot as well,” says Karner. “We let sulfur go in 2017.”
Karner runs his operation, known for its Kékfrankos and Olaszrizling, with his daughter, Fanni.
“Despite the look of things, we aren’t doing anything new,” says Karner. “On the contrary, we make our wine as they did in the older times, with the help of copper and sulfur in the vineyard and without using anything in the cellar.”
Those who view natural wine as a passing fancy endanger its burgeoning role in Hungary, says Szekeres.
“Unfortunately, there is a superficial layer that causes confusion for the consumer,” he says. “Some conventional winemakers are jumping on the wave of interest and labeling their wines natural when it is false and they are never going to be a true advocate of the movement.”
Dedicated natural winemakers in Hungary are eager to forge a level of standardization similar to France’s natural wine charter implemented in 2020.
“For the expansion of the Hungarian natural and biodynamic wine world, we mostly need a natural wine law, and the not-yet-existing open-mindedness of the wine authorities and professional mainstream,” says Karner.
Bencze has spearheaded the process to prohibit producers with, say, only organic grapes with sulfites from trying to capitalize on natural labeling. Only through regulation can the industry cut through a “kind of noise” surrounding natural wine, he says.
Until that happens, Éless takes the long view.
“I trust in the up-and-coming generations,” she says. “People are becoming more and more mindful about their lives and environment. I think they can feel our determination, that we have never made compromises in winemaking.”