By Rose Murray Brown MW Published by The Scotsman 13 March 2021
“Furmint is such a versatile grape it can take you through a whole gastronomic meal from start to finish”, says Master Sommelier Isa Bal.
“In different styles from dry to sweet, it works with many spices from paprika, cumin, star anise and sweeter fenugreek – and dishes from Africa to Asia - Moroccan tagine, Japanese sushi to Chinese dumplings”.
I recently tuned in to a Furmint in Gastronomy workshop with Bal and Hungarian wine expert Dr Caroline Gilby MW celebrating Hungary’s flagship white grape Furmint - and its rise to fame as a dry white wine in the last two decades.
“Historically Furmint was grown across Hungary, often used as a workhorse grape”, says Gilby. “However, it is a great grape for highlighting terroir and can really deliver a sense of place”.
“In the communist era winemaking and sweet wines dominated, but this has changed and artisan producers are rediscovering what this grape can do. Terroir is now more important and with Furmint there is no place to hide”, she says.
Furmint is renowned for its notable shrill acidity, its steely backbone, vibrancy and appetising character which make it a good food match. Bal and Gilby demonstrated that with different soils, microclimates and winemaking, Furmint styles have evolved from light whites to richer intense styles often mimicking its half siblings, Riesling and Chardonnay.
Today Furmint is Hungary’s third most important white grape. Most plantings are now in north east Hungary, in famous Tokaj region where 3,416 out of 5,293 hectares are planted with the grape. Furmint was first documented in 1611 in Tokaj, where it is still an important part of the sweet Aszu wine blends with Harslevelu, but wineries now also make dry styles.
“They have had to switch thinking as they do not want rot when making dry whites”, says Gilby. “You need looser-bunched clones, smaller berries, higher vineyards away from fog with more air circulation – so it is all about rethinking sites, vineyard management and selecting pre-communist clones”.
Tokaj is a perfect place to experiment with terroir. According to winemaker Istvan Szepsy of Szent Tamas Estate, “it has possibly the most complex volcanic soils in the world”. It is a big region with microclimates varying with cooler northerly Erdobenye to warmer southerly Mad.
Outside Tokaj, there is renewed interest in Furmint with 157 hectares in Eger, Somlo, Csopak and in Badacsony near Lake Balaton, basalt volcanic soils here give firm long-lived expressions like Gilvesy’s single vineyard Varadi.
“The first dry Furmints which emerged twenty years ago were powerful and intense. Now a new generation of winemakers are gaining confidence to pick earlier for dry whites and make restrained delicate styles”, says Gilby.
She outlined four dry Furmint styles, whilst Bal suggested intriguing pairings.
The first was the light reductive style from higher yielding vines fermented in stainless steel at cool temperatures like 4H Tokaj Organic Furmint. Bal paired it with light crunchy tempura of red mullet with sea vegetables and sweet sour dip with paprika enhancing Furmint’s green apple floral refreshing style – and recommended soft-rind goats cheese as an alternative.
Second Estate style is richer, oilier and more textural from lower yields, large neutral oak with more lees contact creating both richness and delicacy, like Kikelet Estate Furmint. With this, Bal chose seared scallop with confit kombu, earthy dry sesame and citric-flavoured pickled hand of Buddha to match acidity.
The third style shifts towards intensity with older vines from cooler areas, with no malolactic fermentation retaining the grape’s acid and inherent richness. With this steely linear style, channelling the Riesling nature of Furmint, Bal matched lobster taglioni and miso broth.
The richest style, often compared to white Burgundy, made from lower yields, warmer sites, natural yeast, Hungarian oak ferment and ageing is more like Furmint’s half-sibling Chardonnay. Bal’s chose a traditional peasant dish of chicken with vinegar sauces, lyonnaise potatoes and braised turnips to match rich layered full bodied Furmint and its minerally core was one of best matches he has ever had, but also suggested pork belly, bonfire roast celeriac or old Comte might work too.
Furmint is also being made into sparkling wines and is grown in Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia & Serbia. There is so much to explore with noble Furmint.
Tokaj: 4 HAZ FURMINT ORGANIC 2017 (13.5%)
£12.25 Wanderlust Wines
Water-white with apples, elderflower and grassy notes, a soft creamy blend of Stumpf family’s 16 hectare vineyard with bought-in fruit from across Tokaj; would suit Sauvignon Blanc lovers.
Tokaj: FURMINT 2019 Nobilis Estate (13.5%) ***GREAT VALUE***
£9.95 The Wine Society
Apples, apricots and ginger; an explosive mouthful of citric fruit and honey and characteristic shrill acidity; brilliant value buy from a small artisan estate; also try their single vineyard wine from Novel Wines.
Tokaj: FURMINT 2018 Kikelet Estate (13.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£15.60 Wanderlust Wines
Loire-born Stephanie Berecz, who worked at Disznoko winery, set up Kikelet estate 19 years ago. This estate style with 5 months on yeast is a step up from the light everyday Furmint to rich succulent fruits, creamy palate and fine acidity.
Tokaj: FURMINT 2017 Dobogo (13.5%)
£19.50 Fine Wine Musselburgh; Vinvm
Top-performing Tokaj estate run by Italian Izabella Zwack and winemaker Attila Domokos; 6 months oak and age on lees has created a creamy rich textural Furmint with fine minerally core.
Badacsony: VARADI FURMINT 2018 Gilvesy (12.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£21.95 Davy’s Wines
Gilvesy was set up by two winemakers from Canada and Hungary; volcanic soils, wild yeast fermented, 9 months lees and large Hungarian oak have created an intense rich flinty honeyed Furmint with candied fruit and dense spicy finish.
Tokaj: FURMINT 2017 TR Wines (14%)
£14.99 Novel Wines
TR stands for Tallya Radicals who are rejuvenating this Tokaj village. With 3.5 hectares of mature vines on volcanic soils, part lees-aged, part oak aged this has beautiful quince, citric and nutty elements, finishing savoury and dry.
Join Rose's Meet the Californian Winemaker virtual tasting with Andy Smith of DuMOL in Sonoma on Friday 9 April 2021 www.rosemurraybrown.com