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Furmint February Fever at Home and Abroad

Drinks

Szilard Csaki/Shutterstock

Furmint February has become a favorite fixture on the Hungarian tasting scene, with the centerpiece Budapest tasting backed up by sister events in the Hungarian cities of Miskolc and Debrecen, as well as in the Romanian city of Timișoara, and in London, in 2020.

A cluster of botrytized furmint grapes in the fall, during late harvest in the Tokaj Wine Region. Photo by Szilard Csaki/Shutterstock.

Zsuzsa Toronyi, the figurehead of Wines of Hungary U.K., which organized the London event that saw 36 Hungarian Furmint producers head to the British capital, described “huge interest” with 300 trade and press visitors, and more than 100 consumer visitors to the tasting held at Merchant Taylor’s Hall on January 29. Incidentally. Jancis Robinson MW, known as the “Madonna of wine”, was one of the experts in attendance.

Meanwhile, the main Budapest tasting of Furmint February, held at the Hungarian Agricultural Museum on February 7, was as buzzing as usual, and marked the start in earnest of the 2020 tasting season.

Furmint, which has forged ahead as Hungary’s flagship grape, is starting to garner more attention beyond Hungary’s borders and is very much liked by critics for its ability to make wines in a gamut of styles to excellent effect.

Last February, Kate Hawkings in The Guardian asked whether Furmint is “the tastiest grape you’ve never heard of?” and declared: “Of all the grapes in all the wines in all the world, Furmint is probably my favorite.”

The last 20 years have been about developing high quality dry wine from the grape that was synonymous with sumptuously-structured sweet botrytized beauties.

It now appears in the dry category that Furmint can do both lighter reductive wines that are vinified only in stainless-steel tanks, as well as fuller bodied oaked wines (though a common problem has been over-oaking, which can block out Furmint’s fairly restrained, but often elegant aromas.

Classic Quince

A fine example of the former style is Carpinus’ steely, fresh and fruity Furmint 2018, with the variety’s classic quince note. I actually preferred it to the same winery’s oaked efforts (which were still very good wines) for representing pure, unadulterated Furmint and for being so zesty, crispy and mouth-wateringly delicious.

Furmint’s ability to capture the characteristics of different places of growth, including even individual vineyards (another big tick in its quest for greatness) is very apparent when you taste a wine from a vineyard like Rány in Erdőbénye, in the Tokaj region. The vineyard effect with this stony spot is so strong that is overrides the grape and often even the winemaker.

Made by Sarolta Bárdos, Tokaj Nobilis Rány Furmint 2018 (HUF 4,350 from Bortársaság), which comes from old vines, has the vineyard’s trademark Rány acidity (that I’d compare to an edgier Chablis), even though 2018 was, overall, lacking in acidity across the region, and a grassy-herbal note that I’ve found in other wines from the same vineyard.

This, and other wines from the same spot, such as by Tokaj Sanzon, are very distinctive indeed and exude an exhilarating cool-climate chillingly fresh factor.

Another very nice, yet entirely different, dry Furmint from Nobilis is the juicy, waxy and oily Barakonyi Furmint 2018, which was spontaneously fermented in used, local Zemplén barrels, from organically grown grapes.

Furmint frenzy is reaching fever pitch as Hungarian growers up and down the land race to plant it, or in many cases re-plant it in areas where it once thrived before being wiped out by the phylloxera louse that devastated European vineyards over a century ago.

‘We Love Furmint’

When I quizzed Gyula Pálffy about what Furmint means to a winemaker in the Káli Basin, close to Lake Balaton, he pointed to his “We love Furmint” badge.

“Olaszrizling is very important to us and we really like working with Riesling, but Furmint is really in our hearts,” he said, explaining the important historical connection with the grape.

It was once widely planted around Lake Balaton, and went by the name of Szigeti, before phylloxera turned up. Now it is taking hold once again.

Pálffy’s Furmint Brut Pezsgő 2016 shows the grape’s ability to cut it as a traditional method sparkling wine, possessing all the traits of a good bottle-fermented sparkling wine, with an appealing zestiness, elegant bubbles but that varietal quince character.

This sparkler has run out at the winery, but there are still some examples available at Bortársaság for HUF 6,950.

Over in Somló, the Kreinbacher winery makes outstanding traditional method sparkling wine, with Furmint at the forefront.

Pannonian Plain

Some say that the Furmint grape hails not from Tokaj, but from Szerémség (Syrmia), an area that today straddles the southern Pannonian Plain, between the Danube and Sava rivers, located in what is now northern Serbia and Croatia.

When I asked Ernő Sagmeister, an ethnic Hungarian winemaker who makes wine in Serbia, whether he thought the Furmint grape originates from Szerémség, he didn’t quite jump at the opportunity to claim it for his own region.

“Perhaps, but it’s also a responsibility to have a connection with Furmint. It’s not just ours, it has too many lovers by now, but this is OK; we just have to love it and be happy to share it.” His excellent Kanias Furmint 2016 is available from Bortársaság.

The main Budapest Furmint February tasting featured many new releases from the 2018 vintage, which was very hot in Tokaj and, remarkably, the grape variety’s notoriously sharp acidity has been tempered, in many cases in fact a little too much so, rendering some wines very much in the “drink now” category.

It was those who beat the heat who made the most impressive wines. The pocket-sized Pelle Pince did just that to deliver a delectable Birtok (Estate) Furmint from the vintage and owner László Pelle explained that small can be beautiful, and indeed flexible, in terms of getting to the grape in time.

The next thing that will need to be proven in Furmint’s pursuit of greatness is for the wines to age well, picking up complexity along the way. As yet there aren’t many older vintages knocking around to test this.

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