In the first of a new series on how leading wine buyers discovered a wine or a winery for the first time, we talk to Corney & Barrow’s head wine buyer, Rebecca Palmer on how she was able to track down, with the help of Wines of Hungary, a winery that she believes captures the very best of what Hungary can currently offer buyers. Here she introduces her Hungarian discovery: the Barta winery on the steep slope of the Oreg Kiraly (Kings Hill) vineyard outside Budapest.
For a buyer finding a new wine or winery is always a special moment. But some are more special than others. Rebecca Palmer from Corney & Barrow explains how a lot of leg work, and tastings, brought her and the C&B tasting team to Hungary’s Barta Winery in the heart of the Tokaj wine region.
There comes a time when you need a grown-up relationship. For a while, Corney & Barrow had been toying with parcels of Aszu and flirting with Furmint, to satisfy a few customers. And even if there was a certain ambivalence for the drier styles, it was clear to me that the seed was growing, and that we should keep an eye out for a proper partner. Fast-forward to June 2016, the day after the Brexit vote and in pouring rain (how apt), I found out rather last-minute about a Hungarian wine tasting and raced there, arriving soaked to the skin in my bike gear, but at least in time to taste the wines. At least this seemed to amuse Lilla O’Connor, of Wines of Hungary, and we started talking.
I was quite clear about the type of producer C&B would like to work with and the style of the wines, so Lilla started making introductions. Over the next months my buying team co-pilot, Elliot, and I auditioned many wines. And while some got close, none was quite right. I had become, I’m afraid, quite fixated on a particular style, to the extent that as time went on I wasn’t even sure if it existed. Fortunately, Lilla is nothing if not persistent, and one day Barta samples arrived: all floral–savoury scent, precise fruit, and fine incisive acids; depth and laser length.
You know when you know. Even the C&B sales team – hard taskmasters – were bowled over!
So a few weeks later in November 2017 I found myself driving from Budapest up to the village of Mad in Tokaji, to meet the quietly brilliant, self-effacing Karoly Barta and his talented young winemaker Vivien. We scrambled up the steep slope of the Oreg Kiraly (Kings Hill) vineyard, and tasted the wine it had made, and laughed at how on earth we were going to sell a wine called ‘Egy Kis’ Furmint to the English market.
We are shipping our first order now, just in time for the Wines of Hungary tasting on May 10 in London. I’m very pleased that winemaker Vivien Ujvari from Barta will be joining us to present the wines. It’s a new adventure for us and we’re not alone in the trade. While harvest issues and price rises in key classic regions are challenging for wine distributors, they can also be liberating, freeing buyers to push boundaries.
The potential for Furmint is enormous, in my view. In special sites and hands, it has the perfume, texture, mineral tension and finesse to challenge white Burgundy. Exciting times.
- The Barta Winery is an organic winery and Tokaj specialist and has become a popular tourist spot for wine lovers, and buyers, visiting the region. It looks to use what it calls “spontaneous fermentation almost exclusively” in its winemaking, “trusting the natural yeasts found in the grapes and cellar to do their work”. Winemaker, Vivien Ujvȧri, has worked around the world doing vintages in Napa Valley, at Saint Claire Family Estate in New Zealand, and in Australian before returning to Hungary in 2013 and the Barta Cellar in July 2016.