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Furmint and Hárslevlű: a Marriage Made in Tokaj

While the frenzy around the Furmint grape gathers ferocious force as we head into “Furmint February”, which this year will be chimed in by the world’s first “International Furmint Day” on February 1, I do feel sorry for the oft-neglected Hárslevelű grape. While I’m not saying that the much-lauded Furmint is an ugly sister to Hárslevelű’s Cinderella, it is all too often assumed that Furmint is far superior, although my palate tells me that many – often dry – Furmints actually flatter to deceive and that Hárs deserves its share of the spotlight.

As Tokaj started to move in a progressively dry direction following the millennium – with the region’s winemakers realizing that demand for sweet wine was well and truly on the wane – Furmint got most of the attention, with dry Hárs being more of an afterthought. Dry Furmint with its taught, steely character, racy acidity and quince (unique), citrus fruit and hazelnut notes, as well as its ability to capture the nuances between different vineyards, can indeed be outstanding. However, it can sometimes be a little too austere on the nose and palate. Meanwhile, as more attention has gone into getting the best out of Hárslevelű, the second most widely-planted grape in Tokaj after Furmint, it appears that it can also be an articulator of terroir. Hárs also tends to have more generous aromas and flavors that nicely merge fruit with florality, and it can also age very well. 

Someone once described, in what sounds like slightly sexist language in 2017 (but I’ll say it anyway), that Furmint is the wife, providing structure and focus, while Hárslevelű is the wild, passionate lover that can take you places you never envisioned. The point is that together they are hard to beat and work so beautifully in tandem, although that racy description applies especially to sweet wine and Tokaji Aszú – the more I taste sweet wines from all around the globe, the more I’m convinced that Tokaji Aszú is up there with the very best, if not the best.

However, what if both grapes went to the dry Tokaj wine ball? Not only is it a compelling story due to the fact that the two team up so successfully in Tokaji Aszú, but the proof has very much been in the pudding with some excellent blends coming out in the last few years.

Here are two exciting offerings, the first of which daringly brings a third grape into the mix:

Holdvölgy Vision 2014 

40% Furmint, 40% Hárslevelű and 20% Kabar (a crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier) with the grapes picked and vinified separately, and later blended, with 50% of the wine spending four months in used oak barrels. Coming from an extremely difficult vintage, the grapes required three to four times more selection than in a regular vintage in order to throw out any bad eggs, i.e. disease-afflicted grapes. However, this wine received the best of the grapes usually destined for the premium single-vineyard wines, which were not made in this challenging year.

Vision 2013 scooped a seriously impressive gold medal at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards 2015 and wowed with its freshness and airiness combined with a good chunk of concentration. The 2014 is a little richer, with more body but not with quite the same lightness of touch as its predecessor. It has a smidgen of butteriness with pineapple and melon along with citrus and lime zest. The 5g/l of residual sugar is nicely balanced by the relatively high 7.2 g/l of acidity and actually results in a dry, quite refreshing finish. Different in character to the award-winning 2013, but none the less impressive and great value at HUF 3,000. It is available from Üveg/Ház, CultiVini Borgaléria and Andante Borpatika.

Kaláka Tökösmál Cuvée 2015 

Containing more Hárslevelű than Furmint, the grapes for this wine were picked on a remarkable eight occasions. It comes from a single vineyard near the village of Tállya, which is the latest “El Dorado” of the Tokaj wine region. Founder/owner László Alkonyi knows a thing or two about Tokaj’s vineyards, having written some of the best books on Tokaj, and was also an early advocate of the single vineyard approach. The Tökösmál vineyard, which has a 600-year-history of growing grapes and was historically ranked as first-class, lies at 250 meters above sea level and has very good air circulation to protect against disease. The vines are in the prime of life at between 40 and 50 years old and grow in a cocktail of prized volcanic soils comprising rhyolite, andesite and kaolinite.

It is practically organically cultivated on all but paper, with just small amount of copper and sulfur being applied in the vineyard and cellar. The Hárslevelű and Furmint grapes are pressed by a 100-year-old Kossuth press and the must then goes into a steel tank and is fermented by its own yeast. In an exciting twist, the must from the grapes harvested at a later date are then poured on top of the fermenting wine. There are multiple harvests to ensure that each batch is ripe but not overripe, thus avoiding bitter phenols from under-ripeness and surging alcohol levels from leaving the grapes out too long. The wine receives no ageing in oak, but is remarkably rich for all that.

The upshot of all this is an outstanding wine that strikes a great balance between crispiness, complexity, concentration, fruit and stoniness, whereby the characteristics of neither grape dominate. At HUF 10,000 (from Bortársaság) it may seem very expensive for such a new winery, but a heck of a lot of effort and attention to detail has gone into making it.