Festive Furmint Flexes its Wings

Drinks

Furmint is forging ahead as Hungary’s flagship white grape and in common with some of the great white grapes of the world, it can be used to makes wines in a gamut of styles to excellent effect.

Christian Forget

Indeed, it has Riesling and Chenin Blanc’s ability to make wines that are outstanding from dry through late-harvest sweet to full-on botrytized, even sparkling, as well as Chardonnay’s capacity to make complex dry whites (in Burgundy, Chablis and in many of the New World’s most prestigious wine regions) and sparkling wines (just think of champagne).  

All are fine articulators of terroir and can express the subtleties of individual vineyards. Indeed, Furmint appears to be of rather noble origin and it has recently been discovered that it has a common parent to Riesling and Chardonnay – none other than Gouais Blanc (now barely planted but boy did it leave its mark behind!), according to Caroline Gilby, Master of Wine.

This kind of makes sense when I think of all the comparisons to that trio I’ve made over the years when writing about Furmint. In the previous edition, I extolled the virtues of that grape for its role in providing the backbone of Tokaji Aszú; a must for the holidays, and once opened the wine won’t spoil for weeks, allowing sparing seasonal sipping.

(For more on how Aszú is made, see my previous column: “It Absolutely Must be Aszú for Advent!”)  

Sweet Szamorodni from Tokaj is a fruitier, lighter (typically aged for less time) and a cheaper alternative to Aszú, made in the same way as other great sweet wines like Sauternes (from Bordeaux), with the bunches comprising both regular and botrytized grapes picked together, and then pressed.  

Oremus’ Édes (Sweet) Szamorodni 2015 is great value at HUF 3,250 from Bortársaság, in which Furmint is complemented by 40% Hárslevelű (also capable of making excellent dry wine: from Somló, Barnabás Tóth’s 2017 is one of my wines of the year), then 15% Zéta and 15% Sárgamuskotály. It has 75 g/l of residual sugar, considerably less than Aszú, which starts at 120 g/l.  

Dry Szamorodni is sadly dying out but when it’s good, for me it is a thing of brutal beauty. Samuel Tinon, who was born in Bordeaux and, having made wine all over the New World, set up his own winery in Olaszliszka (233 km northeast of Budapest in the Tokaj wine region), is the go-to winemaker for this ultra-rare wine style.  

His 2009 is made from 90% Furmint and 10% Hárslevelű, given 12 hours of skin contact, fermented by wild and cultured yeast, and then aged for a whopping six years in used oak barrels. It is full-bodied, seriously intense, very nutty (especially walnut) with those botrytis dried apricot and ginger notes, with vibrant acidity balancing its power. It cost HUF 7,430 from wineloverswebshop.hu.

Festive Cheer

Meanwhile, there are other ways in which Furmint can bring festive cheer. Somló’s Kreinbacher winery has been uncompromisingly committed to the sparkling wine cause, paying remarkable attention to detail in the making of traditional method sparkling wines (where the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle, as is the case with champagne, among others), with Furmint at the forefront of its approach.  

No expense has been spared, both in financial and sweat equity terms, and the results are spectacular. Not only did Kreinbacher bring in Coquard presses and Champagne yeast in from France, they also called in the Champenoise savoir faire in the form of Christian Forget, winemaker of Champagne Paul Bara.

Kreinbacher’s sparkling wine was very good from the first moment: I still remember the first sip and my palate being transported to Champagne via Somló.

Having completed nine harvests, Kreinbacher now has a whole host of base wines to play with in blending when making traditional method sparkling wine. The grapes now don’t only come from the volcanic basalt of Somló Hill, but also from both sides of Lake Balaton, Etyek and Vashegy; the latter is part of the Sopron wine region (Kékfrankos for the rosé sparkler), from where the winery’s own team manually picks the grapes.  

Forget is still involved as a consultant, especially when it comes to the art of blending. Nine harvests is nothing in the bigger bubbly picture, and Norbert Bodorkós, estate manager, recalls a hilarious moment from a blind tasting of base wines when he thought he had got this sparkling stuff sussed.  

Having believed they had picked out an ideal candidate for a base wine, Bodorkós and a couple of his colleagues were surprised to see that Monsieur Forget had already discarded it.  

Kreinbacher’s Prestige Brut is 100% Furmint, has dosage of 8.5 g/l and spent a lengthy 24-30 months on the lees as part of the second fermentation in the bottle. It is really yeasty with lots of brioche and biscuit notes, from the autolysis, whereby the lees integrate with the wine, though there is lots of juicy quince to give real substance and drinkability, on top of that complexity (HUF 5,900 from Bortársaság).  

Kreinbacher’s Brut Classic (HUF 5,300) allows some of that sparkling wine super grape of Chardonnay into the blend, and – even though a little lighter – can sometimes even eclipse the Prestige.

The Brut Classic is particularly magnificent in its Magnum format (HUF 16,000 with gift box), with the smaller amount of oxygen that sits between the wine and the cork, when compared to the volume of a regular-sized bottle, bringing about subtler and slower ageing.  

Over in Tokaj, the likes of Sauska, Zoltan Demeter and Chateau Dereszla are also making serious traditional method sparklers. 

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