THE FIERY FURMINT
By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 14 November 2015
Imagine a Chablis with a touch more spice, body and a fiery finish. That is what the Furmint grape tastes like. It is a serious classic European variety which has been around for centuries, but Furmint is only now making a name for itself with its superb powerful dry whites, which taste a bit like white Burgundies on steroids.
You might have heard of the Furmint grape before, as its main claim to fame to date is in its lead role in making the iconic sweet Tokaji (or Tokay) wines in Hungary. Pictured above is the Tokay Gecko as fiery as the dry Furmints (in case you were wondering).
Now every restaurant (particularly fish and seafood restaurants) and winemerchant worth its salt lists a dry version of Furmint wine on their lists – and you can even find them under £10 a bottle in local supermarkets.
Furmint is very much a Central European grape. The name comes from the Hungarian word ‘froment’ referring to the wine’s gold-tinged colour. Furmint is believed to be an offspring of the Gouais Blanc grape, so it is a half-sibling of Chardonnay and Riesling, but its birthplace is in the Tokaj region, north-east Hungary. Recorded here since 1571, where according to grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz there are four distinct types of Furmint: Fehrer (white berries), Lazafurtu (loose-bunched), Valtozo (variable) and Piros (pink berries).
The majority of dry Furmints you find in the UK to date come from Hungary, where it dominates in the north east región of Tokaj (97% is grown here) with 4000 hectares, as well as a small amount in Hungary’s Somlo región. But you can also find varietal and blended examples from Slovenia, Austria, Croatia and Slovakia.
Hungary definitely offers the fieriest of dry Furmints – at their most intense from the top vineyard sites in Tokaj like Mad, Tolcsva and Ratka (pictured here is Disznoko's vineyard site in Tokaj).
Furmint was poorly handled during the communist years, but now winegrowers focus on quality. Hungarian dry Furmint is always a full rich weighty wine which matches well with rich seafood or white meat; it is an excellent ‘food wine’ as Furmint has excellent high natural acidity and good ageing potential.
Interestingly what some Tokaj wine growers now do is pick the non-botrytized grapes (those not affected by ‘noble rot’ used for dry wine) after picking the botrytized ones (those used for their Aszu sweet wines). This way the acidity in the non-botrytized ones is reduced to a manageable level and flavours have had time to build up.
Another issue in Tokaj that needs to be overcome is that the sweet wines have always taken higher priority (producers have used their best vineyards and best sites for sweet wines) – so the dry wines have always played second fiddle, but this is starting to change.
I am delighted to see that plantings (of yellow rather than Green Furmint in particular) are on the increase in Austria’s Burgenland región, south east of Vienna. Currently winemakers Heidi Schrock and Triebaumer are the best known for Furmint here. A few years ago there were just 9 hectares around the pretty baroque town of Rust on the shores of Neusiedlersee, so minute plantings, but Furmint is enjoying a revival here. The yellow Furmint is also highly prized in Germany, known as Zapfner.
In Slovenia, Furmint (Sipon) is more delicate and tastes a little more like Sauvignon Blanc with a leaner structure and juicy zesty green fruit. Furmint is often blended here with other grapes, from Sauvignon Blanc to Riesling. Slovenia has 700 hectares of Furmint, mainly in its Stajerska región near the border from Styria in Austria, whilst its neighbour Croatia has just 400 hectares where it is called Moslavac.
I believe this variety could have potential in the New World, particularly as it has good drought tolerance and high natural acidity. I have only heard of it planted in Swartland in South Africa, but as our climate warms it could be seen elsewhere in warmer microclimates in the southern hemisphere.
FURMINT TASTE TEST:
Slovenia: TESCO FINEST SAUVIGNON BLANC/FURMINT 2013 (£6 Tesco)
A very gentle introduction to the Furmint grape with the help of a little Sauvignon Blanc. Delicate, vibrant and refreshing it falls a touch short on the finish, but is very good for the price. This blend is created by winemaker Mitja Herga, from grapes grown on beautiful terraced vineyards in Ormoz in Slovenia’s Stajerska región. GOOD VALUE
Slovenia: VERUS DRY FURMINT 2013 (£12 The Real Wine Co www.therealwineco.co.uk)
Furmint is also called Sipon in Slovenia This 100% varietal Furmint also hails from north eastern Ormoz. Here three friends (or ‘authors’ as they call themselves on the label) Danilo Snajder, Bozidar Grabovac and Rajko Zlicar set up the impressive Verus range. They state ‘dry’, but its palate is full and quite sweet so might suit drinkers who usually enjoy Kiwi Sauvignons.
Slovenia: BENEDICT SLOVENIAN WHITE 2013 Dveri Pax (£7.50 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
With Furmint dominant in this blend, this offers another interesting intro to the grape (and good value too) – alongside Pinot Gris and Riesling. Very floral (as you would expect from Riesling), with a musky note (Pinot Gris) and Furmint’s herby spiciness, vibrant acidity and good length. Made by Dveri Pax, one of my favourite Slovenian winemakers at Admont Abbey just over the Austrian border near Graz, where Benedictine monks first began making wine here in 1139. STAR BLEND
Austria: TRIEBAUMER FURMINT 2012 (£13.94 Alpine Wines www.alpinewines.co.uk)
A popular wine in the tasting. Elegant unoaked Furmint with pear and papaya aromas, a lovely creamy texture, sweet juicy fruits and hint of quince on the palate with good natural crisp acidity. Note the moderate 12% alcohol level. Gunter and Regina Triebaumer’s family have been growing vines here since C17 when this área was previously part of Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Triebaumers suggest serving their Furmint with crispy fried pike with savoury quince jelly.
Hungary: ROYAL TOKAJI DRY FURMINT 2012/2013 (£9.99 2012 vintage is in Majestic Wine Scotland; 2013 vintage at Laithwaites)
Wet stone, honey, vanilla and toasty spice – very dry with distinct minerally and oak notes. A well-made wine, popular with tasters, particularly those who like white burgundy. 2012 is slightly mellower with its extra bottle age, but plenty of vitality and freshness in 2013 to enjoy. Royal Tokaji is an Anglo-Hungarian venture based in the village of Mad. Their style tends to be more traditional with greater use of oak compared to others (like Disznoko).
Hungary: DOBOGO DRY FURMINT 2013 (£18.99 Exel Wines, Perth; Aitken Wines, Dundee; St Andrews Wine Co; Fine Wine Co, Musselburgh; www.eclectictastes.co.uk)
Hungarian dry Furmint at its most intense and oaky made by the Zwack family from two first growth ‘organic’ vineyards, Betsek and Szent Tamas near Mad. Rich bouquet of pears and lime with a dense smoky, almost steely palate, deep oaky notes and very long length – could be better with another year in bottle. Most definitely the highest quality in the tasting, hence its price – but not the easiest wine to drink its own – it definitely needs food – try matching with it a mild green Thai curry or very rich fish dish. STAR BUY
Hungary: DISZNOKO DRY FURMINT 2014 (£12 Richard Granger Wines, Newcastle)
Very different in style to Dobogo – this reminded me more of a sleek Chablis. Disznoko’s style is about freshness and fruit, without the use of oak in its dry Furmint. Apple, grapefruit and lime aromas, very flinty dryness, vibrant and fresh with a slightly salty finish – drink on its own or with grilled fish. Grapes for this dry Furmint were picked before the onset of noble rot; 2014 was a tricky vintage due to humidity from a hot rainy summer. Disznoko has one of the most favourable and impressive sites in the Tokaj región; named a first growth in 1732: it is now owned by the French insurance group, Axa.
Hungary: TOKAJI DRY FURMINT 2012 (£9.50 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
This screwcapped simply-labelled bottle was perhaps the most typical example of a dry vibrant Furmint at our tasting – and good value under a tenner – popular with tasters for its fruity freshness and approachability. Hints of pear and exotic fruits on the aroma, very dry, but zesty and juicy with pronounced high acid, a touch of bitterness and a good length. Made by an award winning winery, Tokaji Classic Winery – it’s certainly a classic.
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