By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 19 March 2022
There are very few grapes in the world capable of making top quality wines across all styles: sparkling, dry and sweet wines.
Hungary’s flagship grape Furmint is one of these gems, a grape that can take you right through a gastronomic meal from start to finish.
This versatile grape is best known for making sensational sweet botrytised ‘Aszu’ wines in Tokaj region in north-east Hungary, but in the last 20 years Furmint has also shown itself capable of producing top class dry and sparkling wines – and it also even makes superb ‘fino-style’ flor wines.
Furmint’s many guises were on display recently as ‘Furmint February’ came to Edinburgh for the first time. With 22 Hungarian producers from Tokaj, Balaton and Eger regions showing 80 Furmint-based fizz, dry and sweet wines, illustrating the diversity and quality of this grape.
Tokaj producers dominated at the tasting, as their region (pictured above) has 3,424 hectares of the total 3,605 hectares of Furmint grown in Hungary. It was also in Tokaj that the first dry Furmints were made just over twenty years ago.
“My father Istvan was the first to bottle dry Furmint in 2000 with grapes from our Uragya vineyard”, explained Istvan Szepsy Jnr, who was showing his family wines at the Edinburgh tasting. Dry Furmint pioneer Istvan Snr has also spent a lifetime understanding the complexity of Tokaj’s 380 extinct volcanoes.
It seems that Furmint grows particularly well on volcanic soils, giving it intensity, steely backbone and searing high acidity from Tokaj’s andesite and rhyolite tuff soils.
Now that Hungary’s winemakers are growing in confidence, going back to using old pre-communist clones and reducing yields, they have found that Furmint can highlight different terroirs and deliver a ‘sense of place’. They also now understand that to make quality dry Furmint they need looser bunches, smaller berries and higher vineyards away from fog, compared to sweet Aszu vineyards.
Contrasting styles of single vineyard dry Furmints were demonstrated at the tasting. Winemaker Kata Zsirai of Zsirai winery makes a steely linear Riesling-like Furmint from cool-sited Kozephegy vineyard, whereas Vivien Ujvari of Barta Pince makes a more Burgundian Furmint with its rich citric oaky style from Oreg Kiraly (Old King) vineyard.
Interestingly Furmint is a half sibling of both Riesling and Chardonnay through its grape parentage, Gouais Blanc. Like Riesling it can make superb dry and sweet wines – and like Chardonnay it has affinity with oak and is a great base for fizz.
In the Pannon basin south-west of Budapest, Badascony’s volcanic soils are basalt (Mount Badascony pictured above). Winemaker Robert Gilvesy is reviving ‘Szigeti’ (as Furmint is known here) on the legendary Szent Gyorgy-Hegy vineyard on Lake Balaton’s north shore, making impressive single vineyard Varadi Furmint and traditional method sparkling.
“Furmint was grown here in the past, but suffered after phylloxera, wars and communism. On basalt soils, Furmint gives fine acidity, minerality and salty savoury sensations”, says Gilvesy.
Another contrasting style is found in Eger region where Furmint is grown on Triassic limestone on Nagy Eged hill, Hungary’s highest vineyard. Kovacs Nimrod’s Sky Furmint is weighty and broad, but still minerally.
The latest Furmint developments are with traditional-method sparkling – now made in Tokaj and Eger in the east across to Badascony and Somlo in the west. It is early days for Furmint fizz, but the quality emerging from wineries like Demeter Zoltan, Sauska, Barta, Kikelet and Gilvesy is impressive.
Badascony: PEZSGO 2019 Gilvesy
£23 Davy’s Winemerchants
Nutty aromas, lemony core, creamy texture, toasty yeasty, balanced acid with good length; impressive second fizz vintage for Gilvesy.
Tokaj: T FURMINT 2020 Pajzos ***GOOD VALUE***
£11.80 McSwiggans; Ellis Wines; Malux Hungarian Wines
Mango, lychees and apricot notes with creamy texture; attractive blend of 85% Furmint with Harslevelu and a touch of Yellow Muscat.
Tokaj: ESTATE FURMINT 2017 Szepsy
£30 Wanderlust Wine; Novel Wines
Quince, apple and spice, pear and lime with vibrant acid and minerally core; impressive intense Furmint.
Tokaj: KOZEPHEGY FURMINT 2018 Zsirai
Floral, linear, steely backbone, shrill acidity with vibrant acid and salty length.
Tokaj: DRY SZAMORODNI 2009 Breitenbach ***STAR BUY***
N/A in UK : The famous ‘flor’ yeast meets botrytis in this superb mature ‘sherry-style’ of Furmint: fabulous nutty dried apricot flavours with incredible long length.
Tokaj: OREG KIRALY DULO SWEET SZAMORODNI 2013 Barta
£25.95 for 50 cl bt Corney & Barrow
Candied fruit and caramel with bitter marmalade and sweet ripe apricot notes, rich silky texture, dense sweetness, but vibrant and fresh, finishing dry.
Tokaj: ASZU 5 PUTTONYOS 2011 Disznoko
£19.99 hf bt Waitrose
Spice, honeyed and wax with green tea notes, minty freshness, sweet marmalade notes and saline finish in Disznoko’s wonderfully understated style.
Join Rose’s forthcoming Tokaj Masterclass in Edinburgh www.rosemurraybrown.com