Man of Good Karakterre
In praise of one of Europe's most singular natural wine fairs
When natural wine fairs started to spring up in major cities a decade or more ago, they were a breath of fresh air for anyone who had ever suffered a major wine trade event. In place of the sterile conference centre, a slightly gritty warehouse location – the more exposed brick the better. Instead of massive booths that boast how much cash the winery has to splurge, the same standard issue folding table for every exhibitor. Not to mention the significantly higher chance of tasting something thought provoking - and maybe even transcendent, depending on your preferences. It might have become a formula, but it’s a formula that clearly works – just witness the massive growth of Raw Fair, which started out in London and now takes place on multiple continents and in half a dozen different locations each year.
But there’s been a lot of soul-searching about wine fairs in the post-Covid era. Some have suggested that their time is nigh, that they’re inefficient and too costly for winemakers – who sometimes feel they’re bankrolling everyone else’s all-you-can-drink party. Now more than ever, each new rival event has to justify its existence both to the growers – who pay handsomely to participate, in addition to pouring their wine for free - and to the punters and professionals who pay entrance.
Karakterre always felt like a bit of an outlier to me. It started out small and chaotic in Vienna in 2013, but has quietly morphed into one of the scene’s most major happenings. Almost 200 growers participated at 2023’s European edition in Eisenstadt, and a successful New York chapter has now seen two editions in 2022 and 2023. That success is especially surprising given that the fair focuses almost entirely on central and eastern Europe. These terms might have a clearer political or cultural meaning than a geographic definition, but for Karakterre they signify a firm anchor in Austria, with significant showings from growers in Germany, the Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the Balkans. You read that correctly: the world’s most major wine producing countries, France, Italy and Spain, are not part of the concept.
Wot no France?
The absolute dominance of France in terms of reputation, column inches and shelf space is a constant in the wine world. Call me an heretic, but I suggest this has far more to do with volume than anything else. France is not the only place on earth that boasts clay limestone soils, high quality indigenous grape varieties or a long heritage of wine production. But it does produce almost 20% of the world’s wine. That in turn has translated into occasional myopia, or even prejudice in the eyes of many wine lovers when it comes to the output from less lauded parts of the world. Perhaps the memory of communism and its destructive effect on wine production in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans lingers too strongly in some people’s minds.
Karakterre’s co-founder and organiser Marko Kovac is well aware of these issues, and the event is a response to redress the balance. “The area that we are addressing is an historic region for winemaking” he says. “People forget that this is one of the places where wine was born. If you look at Croatia for example, it was a natural path for wine from Armenia, Turkey, Georgia and Greece”. He adds that while the French wine industry was becalmed due to Phylloxera, the Balkans enjoyed a further half century of production. I teased Kovac gently, asking if a French wine lover could expect to find something of equivalent quality at the event. “Not just as good, but probably better” was his unequivocal reply.
Sampling the best
My own sampling over the two days of Karakterre substantiated that claim. For me, the central and eastern European focus offers a smorgasbord of exciting discoveries and a diversity that would be hard to replicate in most ‘classic’ wine countries. Austria is of course very much the top dog, not just because it is the host country but also due to its extremely strong natural wine sector. Before we go any further, let’s clarify that ‘natural wine’ according to Karakterre – and to me – does allow for the use of limited amounts of added sulphites. Almost 70 Austrian growers participated, and if there were such a thing as Austrian natural wine top trumps then you could grab the whole deck. The biggest crowds flocked around Gut Oggau, Sepp Muster, his son Elias and Christian Tschida - The natural wine world also has its rock stars. Looking for new names, I was blown away by Kobatl, Michael Gangl’s winery in south-eastern Styria. Predominantly whites and oranges, they have a laser-like focus and superb concentration. They are fine wines on any level, and even more impressive when you learn that Michael only works with modern disease-resistant varieties (aka PIWIs) such as Souvignier Gris, Bronner and Muscaris.
If there is one Hungarian region that really excites me right now, it is Tokaj – but for dry wines rather than sweet. Tasting with Szolo (Tímea and Tamás Éless), the purity and energy of their whole range really stood out. If you love that Burgundian hint of gun flint, paired with Furmint or Hárslevelű’s thrilling acidity, look no further. Heading north to Slovakia, Filip Nagy is a name to watch. Nagy showed the wines from his 7 Řádků (aka 7 Rows) project, which started out in Moravia (Czech Republic), but now includes wines made near Bratislava (bottled as 7 Riadkov). Nagy has a knack for making everything he touches sing. I particularly love his “Black label”, a silken textured field blend of white varieties. I offered a sip of his elegant Frankovka Modra to a visiting Canadian wine importer friend, telling him “this is the Czech Republic’s best Blaufrankisch”. He gave me a quizzical, disbelieving look before tasting the wine, and then announced his intention to buy the entire stock.
Sticking with reds but heading to Slovenian Styria (Štajerska), the spicy freshness of Srečko Šumenjak’s Pinot Noir wowed me. His lightly macerated whites all excelled too, showing the lighter, fresher touch of this region when compared to more westerly Primorska (Brda et al). Heading to Croatia, two growers convinced me that it’s possible to make elegant and refreshing wines even in hot, southerly Dalmatia. Vinas Mora (Krešo Petrekovic and Niko Dukan) focus on Babić, a local red variety that tends to play second fiddle to the more well-known and more blustery Plavac Mali. Their Andreis is my pick for the perfect balance between velvety fruit and refreshing acidity. Based a little further inland, Filip Bibich coaxes fascinating, understated wines from varieties such as Debit, Lasina and Plavina that don’t usually get much love. Confusingly, his father Alen’s more conventional range shares the Bibich name, but with a completely different label concept.
Staying with the theme of confusion, fairs like these often come under fire for vaguely defined conditions of entry. Karakterre has a little manifesto that forms its ‘participation criteria’, but adherence is entirely based on trust. Growers are expected to be family run, farm organically or biodynamically, not to exceed 50mg/L of total sulphites in their wines and to “actively promote authentic grape varieties, sustainable farming and living”. Kovac insists that this woolly sounding approach works, saying “We rely heavily on the input and knowledge of the community to guide us”. What they don’t state openly is that entry is also refused to wineries who only farm or vinify part of their production according to the more minimal intervention canon. I found this useful, because it avoids having the hall filled with major commercial wineries who want to dip a toe in the waters of the natural scene without fully embracing it.
Kovac further distinguishes Karakterre by saying that it is not a wine fair or tasting per se, but rather a salon. I asked him to clarify what that meant. “People don’t just come for a few hours to the fair” he explains. “They come for several days, they visit winemakers, we take them into the vineyards”. The fair itself had a festive, convivial atmosphere, helped by perfect weather and the expansive terraces of Eisenstadt’s orangerie, situated in the middle of the Esterhazy palace park. It’s clearly at the core of a vibrant and expanding Mittel European scene, filled with passionate winemakers and their clients. Even if some wine events fall by the wayside, Karakterre’s singularity should ensure it survives and thrives.
Originally published in Noble Rot, issue 33.
Illustrations by Zebadiah Keneally