Wine aficionados are always curious when presented with a little-known grape variety or a bottle from a new winemaking venture.
Last weekend, a gaggle of wine writers, followed up by an eager group of consumers, descended on the Sonoma Community Center to learn about and taste one of Hungary’s indigenous grapes, furmint.
The occasion was the launch of FurmintUSA, a new effort by a group of Tokaj producers eager to get the word out on the region’s outstanding dry white wines, primarily made from furmint. It was most appropriate that the furmint campaign kicked off in Sonoma, sister city to Tokaj, where the sweet aszu wines are renowned.
Wines from a dozen producers were hand carried to California, thanks to the efforts of Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Buena Vista Winery, a cellar launched by a dedicated Hungarian winemaker in the latter part of the 19th century.
Tastings were conducted by noted sommelier Laszlo Balint and FurmintUSA project director Balazs Humayer. Representing the enterprising Tokaj Women and Wine Association, Otilia Majer brought along her husband, Janos, the mayor of Tokaj, to demonstrate this is a wine-producing region eager to let the world know the dry wines of Tokaj are as important to them as the sweet.
The Tokaj wine region is located in the northeastern region of Hungary, just over Zemplen Mountain from Slovakia and down river from the border with Ukraine. South-facing slopes of rocky ash, dense clay and loamy loess over volcanic bedrock provide the foundation for the region’s grapes, of which the lion’s share is furmint — a grape prone to the noble rot that the climate promotes at harvest time.
An indigenous grape variety, the first known mention of furmint dates from 1611 when an ecclesiastical document referred to it being grown in a vineyard near the village of Erdobenye. When the Tokaj Grape Nursery was founded in the mid-19th century, furmint was identified as one of the top three most widespread cultivars out of roughly 63 grape varieties in use at the time, according to Balint. “Furmint became truly dominant when vineyards were replanted after the devastating phylloxera plague in the 1880s.”
Balint noted the Tokaj region consists of about 27,500 acres, 15,000 of which are planted to grapes. There are six grape varieties used for the production of sweet aszu wines — furmint is the most popular. About 70 percent of the vines are furmint, he added.
While Tokaj is recognized as the world’s first region to classify wine (DOC) because of the late harvest wines, production and marketing of dry Tokaj wines is relatively new, launched in 2000, Balint pointed out. He also informed us there are two furmint clones — one best suited for sweet wines, the other for dry. In addition, sparkling wines have come into the market in the past few years.
When furmint is fermented and aged as dry wine, it shows off its intensely perfumed and mineral-laden qualities, offering smoky, spicy aromas and flavors of pear and lime.
Balint said furmint is marked by high acidity, balanced by a minerally backbone and a touch of residual sugar. While a number of dry furmints are fermented and aged in stainless steel — for what he called “cash flow labels” — others are aged in reusable Hungarian oak tanks for six to eight months. Some producers also add a little bottle age to the mix.
The European Union-financed campaign to introduce furmint to American consumers will continue into next year. Humayer said a larger consumer tasting will be held in San Francisco next February or March, with member winemakers in attendance. Taking part currently are Balassa, Bardon, Barta Cellars, Basilicus Vineyard, Erzsebet Cellars, Gizella, Grof Degenfeld, Kvaszinger, Majoros, Paulay, Sauska-Tokaj and Tokaj-Hetszolo Vineyard.
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Additional information about Tokaj furmint and videos can be found on the organization’s website, furmintusa.com. Soon, information about where to purchase dry furmint will be included. Meanwhile, you can purchase both dry and sweet furmint at bluedanubewine.com.
Some tasting notes
2013 Tokaj-Hetszolo Furmint ($20) —
- Fermented in stainless steel and aged in oak, this offering from winemaker Gergely Makai is a softer expression of this high acid grape, due in large measure to the time it spent in Hungarian oak. Nice citrus, apples and a bit of vanilla on the finish.
2012 Erzsebet Cellar Kiraly Dulo Furmint ($35) —
- A complex wine from the Mad region, powerful, strong mineral notes mid-palate, fermented and aged in oak, well balanced. An elegant representation of the grape.
2013 Grof Degenfeld Zomborka Furmint ($30) —
- First vintage in the new Tokaj bottle being promoted in the region. A bit more residual sugar — balanced by good acidity and mineral on long finish — should appeal to those who prefer furmint with a sweeter edge.
2013 Balassa Betsek Riolit Furmint ($60) —
- A very elegant white, made from grapes grown in riolit (gray stony soil), great body; apples, pears and minerals on the slightly sweet finish.
2012 Gizella Szil-Volgy Furmint ($60) —
- A big fan of social media, winemaker Laszlo Szilagyi aged this vineyard-select furmint in Hungarian oak for six months, resulting in a well balanced wine with great structure and a lovely long finish of lime and pear.