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Furmint February Night at the Museum

The 2018 tasting calendar begins in earnest on February 1 with the Grand Tasting event of “Furmint February” as a relatively dry January, at least in terms of wine events, is left firmly behind.

This year’s huge homage to Hungary’s flagship grape which is once again being held at the Magyar Mezőgazdasági Múzeum (the Hungarian Agricultural Museum), and coincides with the second so-called “International Furmint Day”, which will likely lead to a frenzy of Furmint social media posts, using the #furmintday hashtag.
“Furmint is a special, exciting and really likeable variety. Its elegance and complexity are perhaps comparable only to the nicest Chardonnays of Burgundy and Rieslings of Germany,” states the www.furmintday.com website. It was founded by Dániel Kézdy, author of “Tokaj: People and Vineyards”. 
While, if truth be told, there are plethora white wine grapes that make amazing wines around the world (just look at some of the numerous Italian varieties that are starting to become more widely appreciated), Furmint is certainly attracting attention on the international stage. Indeed, the United Kingdom’s Tim Atkin MW (Master of Wine) describes Furmint as “one of the world’s great unsung grape varieties”.
Nevertheless, Kezdy keeps Furmint real and he told me a couple of years back that the grape should first consolidate its reputation on the domestic market, before pushing ahead with making a name internationally. In the meantime, Furmint has certainly gained a strong foothold domestically and initiatives like FurmintUSA are confidently knocking on the international door.
While Furmint’s pedigree in making Tokaji Aszú and other sweet late-harvest wines dates back centuries and is unquestionable, I personally remained underwhelmed for a long time by its ability to make killer dry wine, and I’m still not convinced of its ability to age well. It remains to be seen how capable dry Furmints are of ageing nicely, given the fact that the high-end stuff is very new. After a few years, some of them go a bit petroly, as Riesling does, but without retaining the crispy fruit of the German Alsatian grape as it ages. 

Go Lightly With the Oak

Furthermore, for a long time, even wines from some of the biggest Tokaj names were all too often smothered in too much oak to allow the characteristics of the grape or the place of growth to come through. Instead, all we often got was a buttery creaminess that didn’t suitably distinguish Furmint from the likes of a big fat Chardonnay. Then, the high alcohol and searing acidity could finish your palate off.
However, real progress is being made as many Hungarian winemakers have worked out that less is more when it comes to the use of oak and held back on harvesting too late and squeezing every last bit of extract out the grapes.
When Furmint is good it can be very good indeed, and it can be an awesome articulator of terroir, as it does capture the nuances of different places of growth with uncanny ability.
From the Tokaj wine region itself, it is also fascinating to taste the contrast between the more fruit-forward and round wines from the loess soils on and around Tokaj Hill with the edgier, more fiery wines from the volcanic soils around Mád. Dry Furmint is still an emerging style and let us not forget that it’s only in this century that this late-ripening, thin-skinned white grape has been making dry wines of serious breeding in Tokaj as producers, led by István Szepsy and Oremus, sought to find a dry alternative as global demand for the sweet stuff diminished.
While Furmint is often on the more neutral side, aromatically speaking, its typical note of quince is for me distinctive and exciting. Every year, more grape growers and winemakers are getting on the seemingly unstoppable dry Furmint train and planting the grape up and down the land, way beyond its traditional strongholds of Tokaj and Somló.
It is also being reintroduced it where it once thrived before the phylloxera louse devastated vineyards in the late 19th century. Furmint is now re-establishing itself around Lake Balaton, especially on and around the volcanic basalt, limestone and marl soils of the northern shore, but one of my recent favorites come from the loess of the southern shores. Ottó Legli’s spontaneously fermented Furmint 2015 is a real bargain for HUF 2,790 from Bortársaság and captures the grape’s varietal character in all its ripe, slightly tropical fruit glory, yet it retains fresh acidity. It was aged in used 500-liter barrels for seven months and the oak use is spot on.

The Grand Tasting of Furmint

February starts at 4 p.m. and ends at 9 p.m. on February 1. It pays to get there early, before the crowds build and the alcohol kicks in, and also because some of the leading winemakers tend to run out of wine well before closing time. Tickets cost HUF 9,900 in advance from: https://tixa.hu/9-furmint-februar-nagy-kostolo. The event always rocks the museum to the rafters and no information is currently available about tickets being available on the night. The tasting will feature mainly dry wines, but there will also be some sweets and sparklers. Furmint’s high acidity and relatively neutral aromas lend itself well to sparkling winemaking by the traditional method, and the results are increasingly encouraging. In all, almost 100 wineries will be pouring at least 150 wines.