In The Bag

How Athena Bochanis Carved a Niche for Hungarian Wine

The importer uses storytelling and tastings to get buyers excited about unfamiliar varieties

Thomas Cheeseboeuf.
Athena Bochanis. Photo by Thomas Cheeseboeuf.

In our series In the Bag, wine and spirits sales reps discuss the bottles they’re tasting with customers today.

Ask anyone in the U.S. wine industry to point to the American expert on Hungarian wine, and they’ll direct you to Athena Bochanis. Six years ago, however, Bochanis had never even dipped a toe in the wine industry. Armed with a law degree, a passion for Hungary, and a painstakingly cultivated mastery of the Hungarian language, Bochanis set out to create Palinkerie, a small importing company focused exclusively on Hungarian wines. After two years, her dream became a reality when the first wines in her portfolio arrived in the U.S. in March 2014.

“I spent a long time trying to figure out how I could work within the confines of what was already happening,” Bochanis says when asked why she founded her own company rather than joining an established one, “but I didn’t see anyone doing what I thought should be done. I realized that it just made more sense for me to do it myself.” Bochanis fell in love with Hungary and its wine culture while studying law in Budapest in 2009 and 2010. While the city hadn’t yet cultivated its now-pervasive wine scene, Hungary as a whole proved to have a surprisingly wine-centric culture, filled with educated wine lovers and small, young wineries making quality wines that represent excellent value.

Few of these wines were making their way to the U.S., however, held back by tiny available quantities, low demand, and a significant language barrier. Bochanis decided, then, to dedicate herself to promoting these wines through Palinkerie. “In order to be 100 percent behind this concept, I needed to only do Hungarian wine,” she says. “It signals to the people buying from me that Hungarian wine is important enough to warrant its own book.”

Since most of Palinkerie’s producers are artisanal and relatively young–the oldest is less than 25 years old–as well as focused on native grape varieties, storytelling is key in order to appeal to the curiosity of both buyers and consumers. So too is education, since even in the wine industry misconceptions abound about Hungarian wine. While many now know of the virtues of both dry and sweet Tokaji, vines are in fact grown across the country, throughout 22 regions and in climates that range from warm to cool and Mediterranean to continental.

Hungarian wine thus encompasses a broad range of styles, and the country is still experimenting with new methods. Bochanis notes that she travels to Hungary to taste the new vintage of each wine that Palinkerie imports, since so much tends to change within a winery or even a particular cuvée from year to year. Bochanis finds this rapid change exciting and says, laughing, that she “just cannot keep up with what’s going on over there.” One thing remains constant, however: Though the quantity of wine production has dropped since the fall of communism in 1989, the quality improves yearly.

While Bochanis has had some bewildered reactions on presenting an all-Hungarian book, she was fortunate to have supporters from the very beginning of her company. Not only did receptive sommeliers and buyers introduce her to other industry members, but having Palikerie’s wines included on top lists validated the quality of Hungarian wines. “It was such a great reaction from certain people in the industry that I really respect,” she says. “I don’t even think they know how much I owe them.” One sure sign of progress in Bochanis’s eyes is that while at first most of her sales were on-premise, where a sommelier could readily advocate for an offbeat wine to a guest, many more are off-premise these days, indicating real consumer interest.

On a hot summer day, Bochanis is focused on tasting bright whites and rosés with buyers—and she’s headed to Hungary soon to load up on reds, which were in huge demand over the winter. These six bottles are the picks in her bag today for summer drinking, Hungarian-style. (Listed are wholesale bottle prices for the New York market.)

Bottle 1: Somlói Vándor Juhfark 2015; $17

The Somló region, located north of Lake Balaton, is one that Bochanis finds exciting and underrated. The area’s volcanic soils lend this Juhfark a certain smoky character, distinct enough that she could see a sommelier familiar with the Juhfark grape blind-taste this Somlói Vándor wine correctly.

Bottle 2: Lenkey Pincészet Human Furmint 2011; $16

Bochanis just brought this laid-back Tokaji vintner’s wines into the U.S. this year, but she first tasted them in 2013, while she was working to open Palinkerie. She was worried that the bottles were too expensive for dry white Hungarian wine to sell well, but after five years, she couldn’t hold out any more and has seen excellent reception, especially with the Human Furmint from Lenkey Pincészet. “Hungary doesn’t have a reputation for expensive dry white wine,” Bochanis says, “and it really should.”

Bottle 3: Lenkey Pincészet Dűlőházasság 2007; $24

A blend of Hárslevelű and Furmint, the classic sweet Tokaji combo, this dry white is aged for 11 years before release, a technique that Lenkey is known for. Bochanis thinks that it is showing exceptionally well, with plenty of vibrancy and texture, and says, “We’re still experimenting and learning when we should be drinking these kinds of Hungarian wines.”

Bottle 4: Dúzsi Tamás Kékfrankos Rozé 2016; $10

“I thought all rosé was bad—and then I went to Hungary,” Bochanis says, laughing. This was one of the first wines that Bochanis tasted and committed to selling in the U.S. when she was creating Palinkerie. The Kékfrankos Rozé from Dúzsi Tamás, she says, is fresh, clean, and just as well regarded by the locals as the winery’s whites and reds.

Bottle 5: Gróf Degenfeld Terézia Hárslevelű 2015; $12

Hárslevelű is a grape that Bochanis continuously tries to wrap her head around, primarily because there weren’t many dry versions available until recently. She particularly likes this wine from Gróf Degenfeld because it tastes so different now from when she first brought it into the U.S.—drier and layered, with subtle minerality. “Hárslevelű is a very shy grape,” she notes. “It seems like the longer it ages, the better it is.”

Bottle 6: Kardos Tündérmese Tokaji Late Harvest 2016; $17 (500 ml)

Though most of Bochanis’s portfolio is focused on dry wines, she marvels at the time and labor that go into Hungary’s sweet wines. She notes that dessert wine is still a tough sell in the U.S., but it’s worth the battle to her. This late-harvest Hárslevelű from Kardos packs so much complexity and balance that Bochanis remarks, “For what it is, it’s dirt cheap.”

Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She has written for Forbes.com, VinePair, and Wine Folly, among other publications, and she is currently pursuing the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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