The Buyer
Getting under the skin of Hungary’s new-style dry Furmint

Getting under the skin of Hungary’s new-style dry Furmint

In the past 20 years dry Furmint from Hungary has been improving in leaps and bounds, not just in Tokaj but right across this underrated wine-producing country, argues Justin Keay. In a fascinating roundup of Furmint February, this former Hungarian foreign correspondent highlights the four styles of dry Furmint, good food-pairings to go with them from Isa Bal MS and which six producers Keay reckons are the ones to start investigating.

Justin Keay
6th March 2021by Justin Keay
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

“A new generation in Tokaj, Eger and lesser known regions like Somlo and Badascony are transforming dry Furmint into one of the most exciting varieties in Europe today,” argues Keay.

When Wines of Hungary UK launched Furmint February in 2019, the versatile but under-appreciated Hungarian variety was put under the spotlight, with the UK trade discovering its appeal through a series of highly successful tastings and other on-trade initiatives. For me the tasting held at 67 Pall Mall was one of that year’s wine highlights.

Justin Keay (r) at Furmint February tasting, 67 Pall Mall, February 2019

One year on, WOH repeated the formula but Covid-19 was casting its grim shadow and winemakers and importers consequently failed to make the progress they’d hoped for in further boosting awareness. So how do you do Furmint February 2021 in the strange and unsettling new world that we find ourselves in – with physical tastings a no-no, restaurants closed until May and Brexit casting its own bureaucratic shadow across the industry ?

Zoom to the rescue.

Over February and into March, WOH UK has been holding a series of online tastings and webinars hosted by the indefatigable Caroline Gilby MW including ‘Furmint in Gastronomy’ with Isa Bal MS, a highly discursive one for the Institute of Masters of Wine, looking at Furmint’s role in the wider context of the contemporary Hungarian wine industry, and another attended by winemakers for 67 Pall Mall members. Others planned for March include a public-facing tasting hosted by the equally indefatigable Oz Clarke, a long-time cheerleader for the variety, with WOH UK hoping for a series of other initiatives when restaurants finally do open.

“The idea really is to share the love of Furmint,” says Zsuzsa Toronyi, MD of Wines of Hungary UK.

Zsuzsa Toronyi

So is dry Furmint worth the love?

In a word, yes. Less known than either Grüner Veltliner – which grows across Central Europe but which Austria has taken for its own – or Greece’s Assyrtiko, this year’s go-to grape, Furmint is probably more versatile than either. It can assume Riesling-type characteristics, defining itself by sharp acidity and green apple flavours, or morph into a Burgundian/ Chardonnay-style variety, showing rich aromatics and a rounded, buttery palate. And that’s before it reveals the full gamut of fascinating flavours when affected by noble rot and made into Hungary’s iconic sweet Tokaji Aszu.

Hungarians have a reputation for being so canny that they can enter a revolving door behind you only to step out in front, so it seems appropriate that they should be blessed with a shape-shifting grape that can assume whatever character winemakers want. The only mystery really is why they’ve been so shy about showing it to the world except, of course, as sweet Azsu or its cheaper cousin, Szamorodni, which dominated wine production in Tokaj in Communist times, between the World Wars and during the Habsburg era.

Dereszla winery

Part of the reason is that these sweet wines and indeed Tokaj, Hungary’s most famous wine region, were for years virtually synonymous with Furmint. When I was a foreign correspondent in Hungary in the early to mid 1990s dry Furmint was pretty thin on the ground and what existed, frankly, was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

This was echoed by Izabella Zwack in her Zoom chat with the Institute of Masters of Wine; Zwack is the scion of the family famous for making Unicum, Hungary’s iconic digestif, and which now owns Dobogó, one of Tokaj’s most respected producers. She says that despite Furmint now being grown across Hungary (and indeed in neighbouring countries) the volcanic region which remains Furmint’s spiritual home felt like the “back of beyond” in the 1990s.

“In many ways we were starting from scratch,” she recalls. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

Indeed. Where producers once favoured quantity over quality, the sine qua non of Communist era winemaking, a new generation in Tokaj, Eger and lesser known regions like Somlo and Badacsony are transforming Furmint into one of the most exciting varieties in Europe today. Its versatility, the fact it is relatively well-priced (thanks in part to Hungary retaining the Forint) and easy to pronounce (‘Fuer-mint’ though, rather than ‘Fur-mint’) suggest a bright future in a UK trade always eager for novelty and value.

The four dry styles of dry Furmint

In an ambitious presentation to the trade and wine media last month – attended virtually by amongst others, Hungary’s Ambassador to the UK Ferenc Kumin – WOH UK showed four contemporary styles of Tokaji dry Furmint, along with food-pairing suggestions proposed by Isa Bal MS.

Food-pairing suggestions from Isa Bal MS with Caroline Gilby MW looking on

There was an entry level Everyday example, made using grapes taken from a number of vineyards across the region (well matched with Tempura, according to Bal), an Estate wine (lightly spiced Asian food, if you’re asking) and two Single Vineyard wines, one showing a higher acidity Riesling-style face (Lobster) the last showing a more rounded Burgundian one, well-paired with Bal’s suggestion of Chicken with a vinegar sauce, Lyonnaise Potatoes and braised turnips). Bal recommends soft rind cheese/Comté style cheese as working pretty well with all the styles.

My four wines, tasted out of a special Riedel glass sent with them which did seem to enhance their aromatic profiles, showed how well producers are creating a spectrum of choice out of the variety. And also keeping prices low with almost all wines less than £20 a bottle (DDP).

At one end, the ‘everyday’ screw-capped 4 Haz Furmint 2017 was a wonderfully fresh, modern, spritzy wine with vibrant acidity that soon settled down to allow the wonderful apple and quince flavours to show (the same producer also makes a well-priced wonderfully fresh sparkling Furmint, easy drinking with pear and lychee on the palate, both available from Wanderlust Wines).

In the middle, the ‘estate’ Furmint from Zsirai Winery is made by Hungary’s 2018 young winemaker of the year Kata Zsirai who works a number of first growth vineyards across Tokaj with her sister Petra to make moreish, well-rounded wines.

Of the ‘single vineyard’ wines, the Chateau Dereszla Tokaji Selection 2019 is a soft, approachable wine showing apple and quince flavours, and the sophistication you would expect of a well-respected producer which can trace its lineage back to the 18thcentury, whilst the Hetszolo Furmint Selection 2017 was top class, with wonderful acidity and balance supporting the subtle fruit flavours.

Kata Zsirai with her sister Petra

Exciting times ahead

Whether or not winemakers are producing Furmint as an everyday, estate, single vineyard, sparkling or skin contact wine, it is clear that these are exciting times in Tokaj and right across this underrated, fast evolving, wine producing country.

“Furmint is a fantastic grape for reflecting terroir,” says Gilby, emphasising that Tokaj is home to 380 extinct volcanoes and that winemakers, having only seriously embarked on making dry Furmint in the last 20 years, are still discovering which soils and locations work best with particular styles of wine.

“The shift away from the focus on sweet wines has required a completely different approach to winemaking,” she says.

And as the list below suggests, this is a process that has happened right across Hungary.

Six of the Best – three great producers from Tokaj and three from beyond

Robert Gilvesy: one of an exciting new breed of winemaker

Tokaj-Hetszolo Organic Vineyard – This historic vineyard has some of the oldest vines in Hungary and, rare for Hungary, is 100% organic. Their Furmint Selection 2017 is a rich, matured wine showing the sort of character you might expect, with wonderful freshness and a long, lingering aftertaste Tokaj-Hetszolo is now part of the Domaines Reybier group, which also owns Clos d’Estournel. (Les Caves des Pyrene).

Szepsy Wines – Istvan Szepsy is considered by many to be the father of Tokaj – and Tokaji – and his dry Furmint Selection 2017 confirms why. This is classic Furmint, rounded and balanced, with considerable aromatic complexity, soft peach, lychee and almond, with wonderful balance. A classic. (Top Selection)

Sanzon Rany – This new fully organic boutique winery was established by Erika Racz and aims for minimal intervention in their grapes, which include Harslevelu and Muscat. The Furmint Tokaji 2018 is a delicious apricot and apple-charged single vineyard wine. With six months on lees it has great expression, rounded with lingering acidity and, with 14%, quite some power too. (Novel Wines)

Gilvesy – Canadian-Hungarian Robert Gilvesy returned to his ancestral land nine years ago and has spent the intervening time building up his winery north of Lake Balaton, in the volcanic Badascony region. He makes a range of wines from varieties including Riesling but it is his Furmint wines that have received understandable acclaim: the Varadi 2018 is a wonderfully fresh, lean take on the variety, hand-picked with natural ferment, spicy fruit and just 12%. His skin contact Furmint GP 2017, just 11.5%, is a stunner, lots of spice and weight, a fantastic and welcome left field take on the variety. (Davy’s Wine Merchants)

Kolonics – For travellers passing through the small Hungarian Plain in west Hungary, the huge volcanic Somlo hill that lies at the heart of the country’s smallest wine region is hard to miss. And the volcanic, pure estate wines made by Karoly Kolonics – low yielding, hand harvested – are hard to ignore. His Nagy-Somlo Furmint 2018 is a classic, full of apple, pear and quince flavours supported by a brace of fine balanced acidity. (Wanderlust Wines).

Nimrod Kovacs – Eger is usually associated with red wine (notably the iconic Egri Bikaver) but Nimrod Kovacs has demonstrated that this volcanic region is also great for whites, including Furmint. The Nagy Eged Grand Cru Furmint is from the best site in Eger (Nagy Hill) and the 2015 shows great terroir character and balance, as well as great age-ability. The Nagy Eged Sky Grand Cru 2016 is the best of the best, made from the best parcel in one of the best years, and aged in Hungarian and French oak. This will just get better and better.

  • The Agricultural Marketing Centre has been set up by the Hungarian government to help organise trade fairs, exhibitions and events to help promote food and wine from Hungary.