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Furmint Frenzy Spreading to British Isles, Kabar Catching on at Home

The locally famous Furmint grape, in its dry guise, appears to be gaining more traction on foreign markets as the impact of communication campaigns kicks in, twinned with ever-improving quality.

In a February article in The Guardian newspaper, Kate Hawkings asks whether Furmint is “the tastiest grape you’ve never heard of?” and declares: “Of all the grapes in all the wines in all the world, Furmint is probably my favorite.”

It looks a very good idea to have put Furmint on Pall Mall, at number 67 Pall Mall to be precise, at a trade and press tasting on January 30; hats off to organizers, Wines of Hungary UK.

An article in The Irish Times dated February 25, urges readers to: “Try something different: Furmint grape makes delicious, dry white wines.” The wine featured in the article is Taste the Difference Dry Furmint, Tokaji 2017, which is made by Royal Tokaji. This British-owned winery made a sumptuous splash in the wine trade earlier this month when it launched what it claims is the world’s most expensive wine: a 1.5 liter bottle of 2008 Essencia that costs a mere USD 40,000 a pop.

Made only from the ultra-intense free-run juice of botrytized (mainly Furmint) Aszú grapes – which are picked individually, noble-rot berry by berry in several sweeps of the vineyard – Essencia steps out of the usual wine spectrum with its very low level of alcohol (4% tops) and remarkable amount of residual sugar (in excess of 400 g/l).

Some 181 kg of botrytized grapes have gone into each of the 1.5 liter decanters, making it even more intense than most Essencias. The alcohol is so low because the yeast dies off sharply in such a sugar rich environment when fermenting in glass demijohns. Just 18 magnums have been made of this wine, which is often served in a dessert spoon rather than a glass, with one already destined for Beijing.

Dominant Grape

Back in Budapest, Furmint unsurprisingly dominated the dry top ten ranking of Winelovers’ Tokaji Március event; around two-thirds of the Tokaj region is planted with this grape. This list, compiled from the results of a blind tasting involving a number of experts (as a regular participant in such Winelovers’ tastings, I can vouch for its professional approach) involving wines generally available at the big public tasting, was topped by the upcoming Erdőbénye-based Préselő Pincészet’s Omlás Selection Tokaji Furmint 2015.

Note to self and all wine lovers: do turn up early to tastings like the Grand Tasting of Tokaji Március if you want to taste the top-rated wine! This spontaneously-fermented wine was in fine shape – complex, waxy, concentrated yet lively – at the main Furmint February tasting and reflects owner/winemaker Zsolt Nagy’s oak approach of using the “the barrel for micro-oxygenation, not for oak influence.”

This wine has run out by now on the market and at the cellar, but for something well outside the box, try Préselő’s fruity yet suitably restrained and elegant rosé (HUF 1,800 from the cellar), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Kékfrankos and Merlot. It cannot be sold as Tokaj due to the grapes not being among the permitted varieties, so is marketed as Zempléni.

Like Préselő, Tokaj Sanzon also has a plot in Erdőbénye’s exciting Rány vineyard, whose wines often exude exhilarating acidity and a Chablis-like, cool-climate chillingly fresh factor. Sanzon’s Rány Furmint 2016 (HUF 6,290 from Onlinebor.hu) took third place.

While this wine has the vineyard’s trademark firm acidity (the temperature here is usually a few degrees colder than Mád, for example), it is also really elegant with lots of soft fruitiness to take the edge off the acidic bite. It was made only in the tank, which helps seal in the considerable zesty freshness, but it doesn’t miss the body or texture that many believe can only come from vinifying in oak.

Nuanced Tastes

Sanzon also claimed sixth spot with its Classic Furmint 2016. Furmint is prized by vintners for its ability to capture the nuances of the very different vineyards that exist across the plethora of mixed volcanic soils, as well as loess, and is therefore just the ticket for single vineyard bottlings. However, it can also work very well as an estate blend encompassing several plots as the balanced and quincy Sanzon Classic 2016, which sees a few months of ageing in oak, shows. Incidentally, the 2015 version was top dry white in last year’s ranking.

Kabar, one of the permitted grapes for Tokaj since 2006 and a crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier, continues to perform well, taking two of the top ten places in an otherwise Furmint-dominated hit list.

Kabar can possess seductive fruitiness that can make it stand out and last year propelled it past the rest of the pack with the upcoming Péter Pincészet’s Tokaji Kabar 2016 claiming top spot last year. The fledgling Tokaj-town based cellar’s 2017 bottling followed up nicely this year by coming in fourth.

Füleky Pincészet’s Kabar 2017 (HUF 4,480 from borbazis.hu) was the runner-up in this year’s top ten. It has a citrusy nose and a soft, caressing palate of fruit salad notes, but with zesty acidity to hold it together.

Rózsa Pincészet is the new name in this year’s hit-list with two entries in the top ten. It’s “Együtt” Tokaji Furmint 2017 is an absolute bargain at HUF 2,500, available from the cellar in Tállya.

This year, perhaps surprisingly, Kabar’s parent grape of Hárslevelű, which can sometimes outperform the steelier Furmint with its often more seductive aromas and texture, only made the list partnering with Furmint in a blend, but not as a single varietal.