Ageing gracefully is something much admired in wine – as it transforms from fresh and fruity into something more layered, complex and intriguing. Not all grapes can age but most of the best do.
Ageability is one of my arguments in favour of adding Furmint to the list of great grapes, channelling aspects of its half-siblings like Riesling and Chardonnay, both noted for longevity. Furmint itself is relatively neutral, with notably high acidity. This neutrality makes it honest: it amplifies defects in the vineyards and poor wine making as there are no aromatics to hide behind. At the same time, this is also a great strength – it can really express terroir and it gives winemakers lots of options.Furmint has the most credibility and longest history in Hungary’s far northeast corner. As a key ingredient in sweet Tokaji, there is a track record of Furmint’s ageability; Aszú from 1956 tasted recently was still in great shape (sugar and acid are great preservatives), in spite of coming from an era when yield was the prime focus.
A new era for Aszú dawned in 1990s, but even in this world-renowned sweet region, dry wines are coming to the fore. There are multiple reasons: Furmint makes great dry wines; the volcanic Tokaj terroir is amazing and economically it’s easier to sell dry wines – people drink more on more occasions, than a rare glass of sweet wine.
Tokaj dry wines
Wine drinkers will quite reasonably want to know if what they’re buying needs drinking up or has more to offer over time. Tokaj in particular is building a reputation for dry Furmint worth ageing, and it has a headstart over other countries and regions where it grows. As serious quality wine in its own right (rather than an afterthought when noble rot didn’t appear), dry wines in Tokaj have barely two decades of history.
The renowned István Szepsy was behind the 2000 Úrágya from Királyudvar, which made a serious impression on those lucky enough to taste it. Then the warm, dry vintage of 2003 brought wider change, with many wineries launching their own premium dry wines. This required a switch in mindset about viticulture – sweet wines need conditions for rot (albeit the noble kind) whereas grapes for dry wines must be healthy. That meant identifying the breeziest, sunniest and most stony sites above the humidity of autumn fogs.
One such site is Úrágya vineyard (dűlő in Hungarian), which means “god’s bed” as the sun sets over this ridge from Mád village.
‘Our most mineral vineyard full of hard rhyolit stones,’ according to Géza Lenkey, while Szepsy explains that, ‘Plantations in higher rocky sites mean roots to go deeper (up to 12-15m).’
He adds, ‘Wines produced this way should have a long life and develop well.’
Szepsy’s 2003 and Lenkey’s 2006, both from Úrágya, were tasting superbly in London in January 2020. This is not the only great site for dry wines, though still work-in-progress as Attila Domokos of Dobogó notes, ‘There are 400 extinct volcanoes in the region, so each vineyard differs and it’s still a learning curve.’
Producers have also had to learn new winemaking approaches. Szepsy notes, ‘Early Furmint wines were made from later harvested grapes and complexity was emphasized while elegance was overshadowed, resulting in higher alcohol and softer wines.’ In spite of this, rare tastings of the few that still exist (no one kept archive stock then) show wines still in amazing shape. Izabella Zwack (Dobogó) reckons that ‘Furmint’s depth and minerality is the key and shows through in every vintage.’
Today’s winemakers are tending towards picking earlier for elegance and freshness and winemakers know their sites better and understand more about how Furmint reacts to barrels and oak quality.
Most premium dry Furmint will be barrel-fermented (and matured around 6 to 10 months), though nowadays usually in larger 300 to 500 litre barrels with as little as 10% new wood, while some such as László Szilágyi of Gizella are moving almost entirely away from oak. Most prefer local oak from the nearby Zemplen Hills, where the more desirable Quercus Petraea dominates.
It’s a hugely complex topic though, producers also need to choose exactly what barrel, spontaneous versus cultured yeast, or even selected wild yeast, and whether to encourage malolactic or not. None of this would even be a debate if it weren’t for the fundamental quality and ageing potential of Furmint – which everyone agrees is a wonderful grape.
Ageability in Furmint-dominated sweet wines is pretty much a given but increasingly it’s the premium dry wines that are showcasing both the fantastic volcanic Tokaj terroir and the sheer class of Furmint as Charlie Mount of Royal Tokaji sums up, ‘We believe that Furmint, combined with the volcanic soils of the region, has the potential for greatness.’
This wine style may be less than two decades old but is already showing that these wines can age with true grace. Géza Lenkey states, ‘I have demonstrated that Furmint wines are suitable for long ageing and that I can trust my region Tokaj.’ With better understanding of vineyards and winemaking, today’s wines should have an even brighter future.
Furmint fact sheet
Proposed parentage Heunisch Weiss (Gouais Blanc) x Alba Imputotato
Likely origin Tokaj region Hungary
First mention by name 1611
Area in Hungary 3,928ha
Area in Tokaj 3,766ha
Area in other countries Slovenia 543ha, Slovakia 290ha, Croatia 159ha, Austria 11ha, Serbia 6ha