The fabulous grape that is Furmint is gaining more and more fans outside its homeland in northeastern Hungary. It can deliver appealing wines in just about every style you can think of. From juicy, crisp deliciousness-in-a-glass at its entry level – sometimes blended with a little Hárslevelű in this category, as in Füleky’s Fülöp, The Phenomenon (2018, £14 Amathus Drinks) – to refined sparkling wines, wonderfully complex layered dry whites – look out for DWWA Gold medal-winning Bomboly 2018 and Király 2018 from Juliet Victor (via Bancroft Wines) – and of course the legendary, simply gorgeous sweet wines (Patricius winery’s 98-point Aszú 6 Puttonyos shouldn’t be missed: 2016, £39.95/50cl Chiltern Wines).
Furmint February 4.0: Visit the official site to find out more about this year’s event
There aren’t very many grapes in the world that are able to offer such incredible variety combined with exciting quality, but a look at Furmint’s parentage reveals some clues. The grape is a half-sibling of Riesling and Chardonnay via its parent Heunisch Weiss (Gouais Blanc). It channels Riesling in that it is capable of going from bone dry to lusciously sweet, always underscored by a streak of refreshing acidity. Then it resembles Chardonnay, able to produce fine sparkling wine, steely linear whites and complex layered ones – all with the poise and structure of an aristocrat, with a twist of bohemian wildness.
Grape on the rise
Hungary is the world’s largest grower of Furmint, with 3,605ha, making it the country’s fourth most planted grape, and 3,424ha are in Tokaj itself. The region has a particularly complex terroir, shaped by some 400 volcanoes, now extinct, with the underlying bedrock created by aeons of volcanic activity and geysers stirring up the rock formations. It’s also a long region, covering 27 villages, stretching 87km to the far northeast of the country across different climate zones.
As winemakers in Hungary have grown in confidence over the last few years, the best of them are releasing single-vineyard wines, both in sweet and dry categories, to showcase these differences. As Péter Molnár (Tokaj Council of Wine Communities president, and general manager at Patricius winery) points out: ‘The development of single-vineyard wines is more about gathering knowledge than marketing.’
Ahead of Bordeaux or Burgundy, Tokaj was incredibly early in assigning classifications to its vineyards back in the early 18th century. This was based on sweet wines and remains largely valid today. For dry wines, however, it is a different story – healthy, rot-free (even if the noble kind) grapes are essential. Detailed research is going on to explore exactly which of these cru designations (or dűlő in Hungarian), and the soils within them, are best for high-quality dry wines. For instance, top sites around the village of Mád can produce amazing sweet and dry wines in the same cru but on soils with subtly different humidity and mineral uptake.
Each winemaker has their own vineyard preferences. To highlight just a few of them, close to Mád, Király is noted for more elegant wines; Betsek for the most structured styles; Szent Tamás for complex and long-lived styles; the rocks of Urágya help give mineral elegance, while Bomboly gives spicy fruitiness to its wines. In the cooler north, Rány near Erdőbénye expresses the more Riesling-like side of Furmint, giving steely, linear wine – and there are many more worth exploring.
To suit modern tastes
First mentioned by name in 1611, Furmint has a long and honourable history. It has been closely linked to Hungary’s Tokaj region and its reputation for world-class wines. Tokaj’s Aszú wines have been recorded for even longer – first written about in 1571. It’s these sweet wines that have put Tokaj and Hungary itself on the world wine map, once sought after by royal courts all over Europe. And Furmint is a key ingredient, accounting for about 70% of the region’s vines and typically the main grape in Tokaji of all styles. It’s usefully prone to noble rot (botrytis) and can reach incredibly high sugar levels, but always keeps its fantastically vibrant acidity, which gives the knife-edge juxtaposition of luscious complexity and freshness. As Molnár explains: ‘Tokaji Aszú is all about elegant balance, lively acidity and unique drinkability.’
Amazing as the sweet wines are (and they are), even in a good year they only account for 5%-7% of the volume of wine produced in the Tokaj region. The past couple of decades have seen new faces for both dry and sparkling wines. Dry wines have moved on from being ‘ordinarium’, an afterthought when botrytis didn’t appear, to becoming serious contenders on the world stage.
Alongside the progress that winemakers have made – and are still making – in identifying the best sites, they have also had to learn the best way to vinify the wines. Winemaking for dry wines has gradually moved on from lots of oak, power and full malolactic fermentation towards wines that are more refined and elegant, picked fresher, with more subtle oak. The oak most often comes from the Zemplén forest close by. Many producers have switched to larger 300-litre or 500-litre barrels, too. The best of these new styles are undoubtedly genuinely exciting wines with a true sense of this dramatic landscape. At the same time, the evolution of dry Furmint hasn’t just been about Tokaj – there are other regions growing some exciting and distinctive versions, particularly on volcanic bedrock. Somló is the second most important region for Furmint (look out for Kreinbacher’s fine Furmint-based sparkling and complex dry wines, or Kolonics for mineral-rich, ageworthy wines). On the north shore of Lake Balaton, there are good versions from Gilvesy and St Donat on volcanic basalt.
Adding a sparkle
Furmint is also proving itself to be great base material for sparkling wines. As Champenois Christian Forget realised when he arrived at Kreinbacher in Somló in 2009, Furmint showed a similar sugar:acid ratio to Chardonnay when picked at the right moment, along with refined and relatively neutral aromas that would allow autolysis to add complexity.
Vencel Garamvári was almost certainly the first to make traditional-method Tokaji sparkling in 2002, with Chateau Vincent. However, it didn’t really take off more widely until the cold, rainy 2010 vintage, which produced very high-acid wines – perfect sparkling raw material.
Credit also must go to sparkling pioneer Zoltán Demeter, who set new quality standards but also lobbied for changes to make it possible for small wineries to make Pezsgő (meaning ‘sparkling wine’ in Hungarian). Recent legislation specifies that if labelled Tokaj PDO it must be bottle-fermented, though there are cheerfully fruity Charmat versions such as the sparkling Furmint from 4 Haz (£10.50 Wanderlust Wine) that are labelled as regional wine. There aren’t so many Hungarian sparklers exported yet (in the UK, Dereszla, Sauska, Tokaj Nobilis and Zoltán Demeter can be found), but given their promising quality, more will surely follow.
Furmint is so versatile, with its vibrant undertone of acidity, there’s a style to match almost any part of a meal. And even the sweet wines can be fantastic with any course – they shouldn’t just be confined to the dessert, thanks to their depth and vivid freshness.
The last two decades have been a steep learning curve for producers of Furmint, wherever they are – building on tradition but in a 21st-century style. The results today are truly exciting, so whatever your choice – sparkling, dry or sweet – Furmint should be in your glass.
Furmint and food: sommeliers recommend
‘Furmint can make easy-drinking, lightly fruity dry wines – alternatives to Chablis or Sancerre,’ says Klearhos Kanellakis, head sommelier at Ekstedt at the Yard in Westminster, central London. But, he adds: ‘I would insist on single-vineyard versions from low-yield vines for the best examples, which belong in the same place as top wines from Burgundy or Alsace, fine German Riesling or good Santorini. Wines with personality, complexity, a unique profile and ageability.
‘We use Dobogó’s Tokaji Furmint 2017 (£24 Theatre of Wine) for our wine pairing. The dish is charcoal cream, dried potato, smoked venison and ember baked leek with a Swedish roe. It’s a signature dish of our chef Niklas Ekstedt, whose restaurant in Stockholm holds a Michelin star. This smoky, savoury, umami dish needs a wine that’s equally complex with body, acidity, smokiness, minerality and depth of flavour to balance it. I think we will always offer a Tokaji next to it.’
And as for the sweet wines, consultant Master Sommelier Isa Bal recently matched a range of sweet Tokaji to savoury dishes created by chef Jonny Lake at Trivet in London. He comments: ‘Dry wine and savoury food is quite recent (historically sweet wines would have been a more traditional choice). I want to focus on the saltiness of the food to match the sweetness and the botrytis elements.’ Some ideas that worked well included spiced poached lobster with bright young Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2016, while crispy veal sweetbreads took on a new dimension with a more mature Aszú 2013. Pigeon with persimmon was a great match with beautifully complex aged Aszú from 2003 and 2007, while for non-meat eaters, smoky roasted celeriac with bitter chicory and freekeh (young durum wheat grains) worked magically with the same wines; blue cheese is a match made in heaven.
12 to try: a selection of Furmint’s varied styles
Kreinbacher, Prestige Brut, Somló 2016
£75/magnum Best of Hungary
A glowing golden wine with fine bubbles. It has an ethereal nose with notes of lemon blossom, quince, acacia honey and nicely integrated biscuity autolysis. To taste, it’s incredibly vibrant with racy acidity, good fruit intensity and hints of lemon, quince and toasted brioche. The fine mousse is beautifully integrated and the finish is long and elegant. Organic.
Tokaj Nobilis, Tokaji Pezsgő Brut, Tokaj 2017
£19.99 Novel Wines
Pale and bright with fine bubbles. A delicate bouquet of apple crumble with lemon zest and quince. The palate is elegant and long, with notes of quince, apple blossom, a hint of biscuity autolysis and a graceful yet crisp finish. Organic.
Drink 2022-2023 Alc 11.5%
Château Dereszla, Tokaji Vintage Brut, Tokaj 2017
Inviting nose with notes of pear, lemon and brioche. To taste, it’s crisp and lively with hints of apple, lemon zest, quince and nice length.
Drink 2022-2023 Alc 11.5%
Szepsy, Urbán 73, Tokaj 2017
£58.99-£60 9 Elms Wines, Wanderlust
From vines planted in the 1930s. Beautifully integrated and refined on the nose, with hints of white peach, tropical fruit and layered creamy complexity. There’s generous, silky ripe fruit, with complex flavours of ripe apple, yellow plum and meadowsweet, which are all supported by steely mineral acidity, then a lingering finish.
Drink 2022-2030 Alc 14.5%
Sauska, Birsalmás, Tokaj 2019
£32.20 (2018) The Great Wine Co
Youthful still but already elegant on the nose, scented with lemon blossom, fresh pear and just a touch of vanilla. It’s weighty and creamy in texture, with honey and poached quince flavours and a long mineral backbone.
Drink 2022-2028 Alc 14.5%
Gilvesy, Váradi, Balaton 2019
Single-vineyard Furmint, wild yeast- fermented in 500L oak. It shows appetising aromas of lemon, herbs and pear, then there’s an understated but mouthwatering, salted-lemon and Mirabelle plum palate, with a refined, flinty finish.
Drink 2022-2025 Alc 12%
Zsirai, Középhegy, Tokaj 2018
A limpid golden and fragrant wine, complex and richly flavoured with notes of poached pear and peach, a twist of tangerine zest and a supple palate. The finish is long and mineral.
Drink 2022-2024 Alc 13%
Pajzos, Tokaj Dry Selection, Tokaj 2016
£15.95-£18.65 Blas ar Fwyd, JN Wine
A complex wine showing layers of flavour with notes of peach, barley sugar and pear wrapped in a crisp, almost Chablis-like structure.
Drink 2022-2024 Alc 13%
Barta, Öreg Király Aszú 6 Puttonyos, Tokaj 2016
£115/37.5cl Corney & Barrow
This is a fine, limpid, incredibly pure and remarkably elegant style of Aszú from the region’s highest vineyard. Spiced poached pear and tropical notes with hints of apple blossom and honey are backed by vivid mouthwatering freshness with a lingering finish.
Drink 2022-2040 Alc 9.5%
Disznókö, Kapi Vineyard Aszú 6 Puttonyos, Tokaj 2015
£116.34/50cl (ib) Berry Bros & Rudd
A single-plot wine made only in the best years. It’s shimmering gold with glorious aromas of poached pear, white peach, lemon zest, acacia honey and a hint of sweet spice. There’s stunning intensity but also refinement, with vibrant lemon and quince notes, lovely sapidity and superb length.
Drink 2022-2040 Alc 11%
Royal Tokaji, Betsek Aszú 6 Puttonyos, Tokaj 2017
£57/50cl Waitrose Cellar
Superb glistening elixir from a stunning vintage. An expressive bouquet of apricot, mock orange, candied peel, mango and sweet spice lead onto a silky, luscious palate with botrytis, juicy peach, chestnut honey and citrus. Fine precise acidity gives balance and promise of a long life.
Balassa, Bomboly Szamorodni, Tokaj 2017
£34/50cl Best of Hungary
Modern Szamorodni with its focus on fruit can be deliciously drinkable as this lovely, luscious single-vineyard wine shows. Peaches and honey with lemon curd and sultana flavours are balanced by a fresh citrus zest finish.
Drink 2022-2027 Alc 10%
Furmint February – Fall in love with Furmint
The Furmint February project has been running in Hungary for more than a decade, to spread the word about fabulous Furmint in all its guises. The series of trade and consumer events first came to the UK in 2019, and this year saw its fourth edition, with a focus on single-vineyard and sparkling wines.
Visit furmintfebruary.co.uk for more information and ask at your local wine merchant or restaurant to find Furmint to try.