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Furmint February Frenzy Continues, but Spare a Thought for Other Grapes

The annual Grand Tasting of ʼFurmint Februaryʼ once again rocked the Magyar Mezőgazdasági Múzeum (Hungarian Agricultural Museum) to the rafters, for the most part with Furmints towards the dry end of the scale. However, quite a number did have a few grams of residual sugar to counterbalance the grapeʼs naturally high acidity and the resulting palate still comes out as pretty dry.

As the Grand Tasting showed, dry Furmint is becoming increasingly consistent and classy with much more measured use of oak applied by the winemakers, and sometimes it is made using no oak at all. However, the dry Furmint category still has a long way to go to match the world-class standard of the botrytized sweet wine that Furmint produces, particularly as the main grape in the Tokaji Aszú and szamorodni styles.  

In the meantime, as a growing number of winemakers from across the land get to grips with Furmint’s fiery acidity (a whole row at the Grand Tasting was devoted to cellars from northern Balaton) and smooth down the rough edges of the dry style, this electric acidity is also now being harnessed to make sparkling wines of genuine promise.

The production of traditional method sparkling wine, which is made in the same way as Champagne (there and there only can it be officially referred to as Méthode Champenoise) usually calls for base wines of searing acidity, which Furmint has in spades. It is often on the neutral side, aromatically speaking, which is another plus for sparkling winemaking as it allows those biscuit-like, autolytic flavors of the ageing on the lees in the bottle to integrate into the wine and bring complexity to the finished product.

Go-to Sparkler

Kreinbacher from Somló has become the go-to Hungarian sparkler for most, and Furmint is the fulcrum of its family of four core traditional method sparklers, with Kreinbacher’s consultant Cristian Forget, winemaker at Champagne Paul Bara, saying that the acid-sugar balance provided by Furmint in Somló is quite comparable to that found with the grapes in Champagne. Kreinbacher’s sparkling wines capture a very nice balance between fruit and yeasty autolytic notes.

There are other good traditional method sparkling wines made from Furmint, especially from the tiny but top-end Pelle Pince in Mád in the Tokaj region, while Zoltán Demeter and Dereszla also make promising ones in Tokaj.

Nevertheless, some still favor the classic Champagne grapes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for bubbly, such as Anonym pince from Etyek. Let’s face it, these grapes have one heck of a track record of making top sparkling wine.

Another new entry to the traditional method fold is Csaba Koch from the less well-known Hajós-Baja wine region, who also makes some sophisticated reds still further south, down in Villány, that have been scooping various prizes.

Interestingly, the grapes for Koch 2016 Chardonnay Brut were harvested at the same time as the grapes for his premium Chardonnay still wine. Usually grapes in Champagne and for most traditional method sparkling wines are harvested quite early when the acids are high and the alcohol is low. However, when I was in Champagne visiting lots of smaller producers, there were plenty who challenged that assumption and sought to make more ‘vinous’ Champagne from later harvests.

Out Soon

The Koch sparkling wine actually received no dosage (addition of sugar) during disgorging (the ejection of the yeasty cap has that has been moved to the neck of the bottle), yet it is still a Brut, and not a bone dry Brut Nature. This is because the base wine contained some residual sugar after the first fermentation. It spent 18 months in the bottle on its lees for the secondary fermentation. This one is not out yet in the stores but will be soon and will cost HUF 4,000.

Koch 2016 Chardonnay Brut has really ripe aromas of apple and pear with a touch of honey; it’s fruity rather than complex, but with a rich, creamy mousse and a hint of brioche and yeastiness. A nice first effort from this generally underrated winemaker.

Koch has also made three other sparkling wines out of Cserszegi fűszeres and Kékfrankos - both a rosé and a red from the latter. While the idea of a red sparkler may seem odd, sparkling Shiraz does come out of Australia, for example.

Meanwhile, Sauska Tokaj Pezsgő Brut combines local and foreign talent with Tokaj’s indigenous Furmint and Hárslevelű hitting it off with Chardonnay to delicious effect. Up and down the land, Hungarian winemakers are adding sparkling wine, as are producers across the world, as interest in the style continues to soar.

Sauska also makes an exciting still wine from Sauvignon Blanc, which cannot be labelled as Tokaj. While some criticize the very existence of the French grape in Tokaj’s hallowed terroir, I like this wine (2016 is the current vintage) for its ability to capture both the essence of the grape variety and the wine region.

Another wine to do this comes from Somló in the form of Györgykovács Imre’s Tramini 2015, which has the rose oil typical of this aromatic grape on the nose, but it is not overpowering or too up-front, and delivers all the rich structure of Somló on the palate.