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Wine: Furmint frenzy goes on unabated

February has become the top time to celebrate a great grape, and the new offerings provided at this annual tasting give cause to cheer.

Sampling the flagship grape at the Furmint February event in the Agriculture Museum.

The main tasting of Furmint February has become so hotly anticipated and vast that it accurately reflects the continuing surge in popularity of Hungary’s flagship grape. With 90 odd producers pouring their wares, it was only possible to scratch the surface before the searing acidity and alcohol dulled the nerves of straining palates. Nevertheless, the fact that so many visitors (hey they can’t all be from the trade/press on freebies, can they?) piled in to the established venue of the Hungarian Agricultural Museum on February 4, paying a pretty price to taste the mainly dry offerings, shows the future continues to be bright for Hungary’s most talked about grape variety.
There are continuing signs that Furmint is also catching on internationally. For example, Királyudvar’s Sec 2012 (85% Furmint and 15% Hárslevelű) last year made Jancis Robinson MW’s Wine of the Week for being so “utterly autumnal” and for its “combination of nerve, density and strong quince flavor”. The 2013 version of this wine, from the town of Tarcal in the Tokaj region, looked like it may even surpass the 2012 with its combination of tongue tingling acidity, body and complex fusion of (already) fruity and savory notes.
For the grape to cause a serious international stir, there needs to be more wines showing the kind of pedigree and elegance associated with legendary Hungarian racehorse Kincsem, whose skeleton is a permanent resident at the Hungarian Agricultural Museum. There also needs to be more evidence of dry Furmints ageing with the kind of grace that their sweeter equivalents can. Indeed, Furmint usually forms the backbone of Tokaji Aszú, the best of which can age beautifully for decades. Like the great Riesling grape of Germany and Alsace, Furmint is able to produce the whole gamut of wine styles from bone dry to sumptuously sweet, yet we have so little experience with Furmint as a quality dry wine as it’s only been around in anything like sufficient quantity for barely a decade. Indeed, quite a few – but by no means all – of the older dry Furmints I’ve tried have been overly oily and lacking in fruit. While they won’t shout about it, many winemakers will agree. Some have even found that the less-lorded and less-fancied Hárslevelű grape, when picked early enough, can keep its freshness and fruitiness for years.

Fine Furmint across the border

Frigyes Bott, an ethnic Hungarian who makes wines just across the Slovakian border in Muzsla, impressed with his Furmint 2013, which was one of the more elegant Furmints on show at the big tasting. Often something sticks out with dry Furmint, whether it is the razor sharp acidity, the use of oak, or the excessive bitterness often characteristic of the grape or the alcohol. This was one wine in which everything was in the right place. The oak was just about tangible but didn’t impede on the pure and juicy fruit whatsoever. The reason the oak was so subtle was that this wine was aged in six-year-old barrels. Bott describes Furmint as an excellent and robust performer that performs well in all vintages and always produces high quality wines. Hárslevelű is more erratic but perhaps even more exciting for Bott. However, the most complex white wine of all he feels is from a blend of his most noble grape varieties. Not only content in putting Furmint and Hárslevelű together in his premium blend, Super Granum, he also adds Juhfark, and the results are spectacular with deeper color and concentration, as well as more layers of fruit and spice than in the straight Furmint.
Another ethnic Hungarian winery, Nagy Sagmeister, from Szeremség (Srem) in northern Serbia, impressed with a very ripe and fuller-bodied Furmint from 2013, with apricot and candied fruit notes. Here the grape is called Szigeti, which was the old established name for Furmint in many a Hungarian region before the grape was wiped out by Phylloxera in the late-19th century. Incidentally, Furmint is being replanted at breakneck speed across Hungary and is threatening to overtake the less noble Olaszrizling as the most planted white grape. It was actually nice to see Olaszrizling and Furmint hit it off in blends by the Szent Donát winery from Csopak. The exciting Szent Donát also does pure Furmints from different soils. Its Márga Furmint 2013 from marl soils was particularly pleasant with vibrant acidity and pear and quince on the nose and palate. From Eger, the Nimród Kovács Winery continues to impress with stony and focused Furmint from the pure limestone of Nagy Eged hegy. Meanwhile, the second vintage of St. Andrea’s Mária from 2013 shows that the winery has found pure elegance on the same hill by blending the grape on a 50/50 basis with Chardonnay.
When Furmint is good it can be very good indeed. It possesses distinctive characteristics that are a big plus in the world of wine. While it won’t necessarily bowl you over with an aroma orgy, good examples can exude pure quince on the nose, which is an appealing flavor not regularly encountered elsewhere. The fact that it is not that opulent on the nose actually counts in its favor for some winemakers. Judit Bodó, winemaker at Bott Pince, a renowned boutique operation in Tokaj, loves working with Furmint as she feels it allows the winemaker to reveal the difference between individual vineyard plots, due to it being relatively discreet on the nose and palate. Bott and many other winemakers agree that Furmint is also an excellent conveyer of the differences between vintages. A vertical examination going back over the vintages of Bott’s single-vineyard Csontos, whose volcanic rhyolite soil is planted with old vines, ably proves the point. That very neutrality of Furmint makes it an ideal candidate for making traditional sparkling wine, whereby much of the complexity is gained from its secondary fermentation on the lees in the bottle. A nice debut effort came the Pálffy Pince, which hails from Köveskál in the Káli Basin with its Methode Traditionelle Extra Brut 2013.

Plenty of Furmint to go around.

A veritable volcano

For the ultimate in volcanic explosiveness at the Furmint February tasting, the Mád room was full of powerful and edgy wines, which reflect the predominantly volcanic soil they come from more than the grape, although Holdvölgy for one manages to temper that vigor nicely. Holdvölgy’s Vision 2013 made the headlines last year when it was the only Hungarian wine to win a gold medal at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards (DAWA). What is especially interesting about this wine is that it’s actually a blend of Furmint, Hárslevelű and Kabar (a fruity and aromatic crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier that is permitted in Tokaj). It has vibrant but not pointed acidity with great purity of fruit and zesty freshness. While a few percent of Hárslevelű is present in many Furmints, I’d personally like to see the two grapes blended more on an equal footing, as Hárs can often take the harshness (pardon the pun!) out of Furmint. The two grapes do combine to world-class effect in Tokaji Aszú – one of the best, if not the best, of the world’s sweet wines.  Why can’t they replicate this success with dry wine? Gizella’s Szil-völgy HárslevelűFurmint Cuvée 2013 (60% Furmint and 40% Hárslevelű), which comes from a gorgeous spot near Tarcal on the slopes of Tokaj Hill, suggests they can.
Renowned wine writer László Alkonyi, who is now making wine as a partner in the fledgling Kalaka Pince, sure knows a thing or two about Tokaj and it is notable that both he and Tokaj maestro István Szepsy have invested their energies into the village of Tállya. Its wines resemble those of Mád somewhat and have rich historical pedigree. This is the new El Dorado of Tokaj and Kaláka Pinces Tökösmál 2015, which was made from grapes picked on five different harvest dates, stood out for its beautiful balance between raw energy and elegance.
Getting the oak right in Furmint is critical and Tokaj producers Oremus, Dobogó and Sauska have now really mastered the art of getting oak to enhance the structure without stripping away the fruit. An emerging trend is to dispense with wood altogether in order to capture as much pure juiciness as possible. The experienced Tokaj winemaking siblings István and Edit Bai, run the fledgling Carpinus winery and showed two exciting bottlings. They managed to differentiate between their fresh and zesty estate bottling from 2015, which was made by controlled fermentation, and all about juicy fruit, from the single vineyard Lapis 2015, which was allowed to ferment via its own yeast naturally occurring in the vineyard and in the cellar – to more complex effect. Both saw no oak!