Furmint as I See It

In an unorthodox interview configuration, the author asks herself what the furmint grape has meant to her over the years.

 

Today, the furmint grape is grown in appreciable quantities in two wine districts in Hungary, Tokaj and Somló; its presence elsewhere is sporadic at best. This is due to several reasons, not last among them the wide-spread opinion among growers that the variety is a finicky one to work with. During the decades of Communist rule and the attendant planned economy, several clones were planted widely across the country that come up significantly short of meeting the requirements of quality wine production today. Reluctant growers tend to cite what they see as the variety’s excessive vigor of growth and the wine’s propensity for oxidation.

It goes without saying that growers in Somló and Tokaj have a completely different attitude to the grape, as doing without the decisive furmint is obviously out of the question in these two districts. That said, everyone interested in achieving superb furmint quality is actively seeking out furmint plantations established before World War II, as a source of quality stocks for propagation.

 

Despite its ability to ripen with high sugar degrees, furmint is typically vinified dry. It does have a tendency to contract botrytis, which is a great plus when the aim is a naturally sweet wine, but is to be avoided like the plague when you want to make a dry wine. Grapes intended for a dry wine must be 100% sound and unaffected. If botrytized or even just overripe, shriveled berries find their way into the must, the wine will soon develop undesirable oxidative notes both on the nose and on the palate that inevitably mask distinctive terroir — something that the grape is otherwise exceptionally talented at expressing — and the wine will age prematurely. Already when young, these wines can often be recognized by hints of apple, honey, and sweet corn which, when combined with the variety’s frequently sharp acids, result in a rough, discordant wine.

By contrast, when made from perfectly healthy grapes grown to yield limited quantities in sites ideally suited for dry wines, furmint is capable of achieving superlative dry wine character in Tokaj as well as in Somló.

 

Vintners do not see eye to eye when it comes to maturing furmint reductively and/or in wood. There are fine examples of either style, to be sure, although furmint wines aged — possibly also fermented — in wooden casks tend to be longer-lived than those that have only seen stainless steel.  

The reliable acidity of the grape — which nevertheless presupposes reduced yields and perfect ripeness — makes furmint a potentially well-balanced, fascinating wine even if it is matured in steel tanks only. A healthy and vigorous steel-fermented furmint typically has a lively, enthralling attack with hints of white butter pear, as well as sufficient acidity and alcohol to ensure optimal balance even in average years. The good acid composition and rich taste can impart adequate complexity, body, and concentration even in the fresh style.

The other school, that of maturing and even fermenting furmint in wood, provides more room for diversity. Although examples both fermented and matured exclusively in small new oak can occasionally attain considerable elegance in three to four years after the harvest, recent experiences suggest that the finest dry furmints rarely come from virgin casks, and that the ideal barrel size is between 300 and 500 liters.  

Furmint does not necessarily require malolactic fermentation; its desirability is a function of the vintage year. In the best case scenario, some of the malic acid already metabolizes inside the berries, but this process inevitably takes low yields and perfect ripeness to occur. Some growers insist that the malolactic should go down in the cellar, while others — certainly the majority in Tokaj — say that it’s a crime to stimulate malolactic fermentation. In my opinion, it is best to deal with this flexibly, as dictated by the specifics of the vintage year. The goal should always be optimizing balance and harmony in the finished wine, which may from time to time require malolactic fermentation or even batonnage.

 

No one is likely to mistake a furmint from Somló for one grown in Tokaj, largely on account of the divergent soil conditions.  Somló furmint tends to be less fruity, leaner, with a more restrained, neutral vinous nose and taste. In both districts, the dry wines may cellar well for up 15-20 years; the sweet styles considerably longer. In recent years, outstanding growers of furmint in Somló have included Tornai, Kreinbacher, Györgykovács, and Takács, each of whom release furmints in their own distinctive style but to invariably higher than average  quality standards.  

Perhaps most suitable for a vertical comparative tasting at this time are the furmints from Györgykovács Imre. We have sampled all of his furmint vintages since 1994, and have kept track of their evolution. With their purity, faithful varietal character, superlative acidity, and accomplished balance, these wines established a benchmark for Somló white despite their less than ultimate concentration when measured by the fleeting trends and consumer expectations of the day. Traditional maturation in large barrels seems to amplify the synergy between the furmint grape and the terroir, and there is not much technology to interfere with the primary flavors.

The use of small new oak for fermenting and maturing wines was introduced to Somló by the Kreinbacher Estate. Without a doubt, new oak tends to overwrite the character of the grape and Somló terroir when the wine is young. On the plus side, fermentation in casks should impart creamy texture and overall elegance as a result of completed malolactic and the interplay between wood and yeasts. For his part, Takács Lajos relies on overripe grapes for his hallmark wine style, but he never transgresses the boundary beyond which the wine would assume a languishing, southern character; the overripe grape material only manifests itself in the higher than usual alcohol content. Takács’s wines reliably and consistently embody a large-scale, grand furmint style in which the technology takes second place to the virtues of the grape.

 

Unlike the rather homogeneous soil conditions of Somló, the great diversity of soil types within Tokaj have enabled a much broader range of furmint styles to emerge. The Kopasz Hill (also known as Mount Tokaj), which can be thought of the center of the district, and the looser loess-based soils around it in the vicinity of the communes of Tokaj and Tarcal typically yield lighter wines with softer acidity. The epitome of this style has been supplied by the Hétszőlő estate. Berecz Stephanie of the Kikelet Winery cultivates her vines on similar soils, but her wines are firmer and more characterful than similarly priced examples from Hétszőlő, Degenfeld, or the Andrássy Kúria. The same narrower area is also home to the Dorogi brothers, Dereszla, and Hímesudvar. The wines of the Dorogi brothers are notable for what may well be the most harmonious implementation of new oak in the elevation of furmint. Yet if I had to choose a single grower in this zone of Tokaj, it would be Demeter Zoltán, whose wines exhibit a remarkable consistency of great character, reliably excellent quality, and standard-setting purity. His furmints from the Lapis vineyard have deservedly been recognized among the very best in Tokaj for years. The Királyudvar Winery, whose holdings overlap with Demeter’s sites, has proved that a Tokaj wine can have excellent aging potential, even if it does not build on firmly etched acidity. Older vintages from this winery that we have had the opportunity to taste have certainly borne out this observation. With their elegance and aristocratic taste, these wines, whether vinified bone-dry or with a hint of residual sugar, are also textbook examples of a great white wine. The new entries from Sauska, who recently rekindled his operation in Tokaj, are so young still as to make any detailed description a matter of guesswork rather than informed judgment. One thing is certain, though: These furmints will meet international expectations much more closely than current Hungarian tastes, which tend to be slightly indecisive and often biased for the rustic. Sauska also seems to rely heavily on new oak, and to value perfectionist technology over the expression of the unpredictable character of any vintage year.

Furmint wines grown on soils more densely packed and with a higher concentration of trace elements than those in Tarcal and Tokaj proper first became commercially available in meaningful quantities starting with the 2003 vintage. In terms of overall quality and numbers (not of the bottles produced but of growers of consequence) the commune of Mád rises head and shoulders above the Tokaj average. Nobody questions the pioneering role and continuing leadership of Szepsy István, who is based in this village, although one may wonder whether in certain years he really made a decision suiting one’s personal tastes by electing the grape material for a single-vineyard release, or whether his dry estate furmint was more appealing in its own right. Unexpectedly, the specifics of a given year have turned out capable of overwriting the wine character of crus formerly thought to be impervious to the vagaries of weather. (A case in point is the 2007 Szent Tamás.) Even though Szepsy himself confesses to not being done with experimentation, the diversity and superlative quality of his sites and the exemplary discipline with which he cultivates them provide enough grounds for declaring him as the number one grower in all of Tokaj. Just as importantly perhaps, he seems to be the one among Hungarian winemakers whom the international wine authorities take most seriously. His presence and recognition abroad, the international reputation and prestige of his wines and work supply plenty of evidence for what is an established fact for us. For me personally, the most outstanding dry and semi-dry furmints from Szepsy have been the 2005 Szent Tamás, the 2006 Urbán and the Estate, as well as the still very young 2008 Estate and Szent Tamás. The 2006 Estate may have carried the imprint of the barrel for a long time, but the wood never completely masked the inimitable elegance and magnificent structure of the wine. In terms of harmony, sheer concentration, and overall impression, I don’t think any dry white wine is capable of giving more. The mentioned furmint examples from Szepsy represent the best proportions and highest unity of terroir, grape variety, technology, and the spirit of the man who made them. Some vineyards in Mád — such as the Úrágya, the Szent Tamás, certain sections of the Király, the Holdvölgy, and the Betsek, among others — are uniquely gifted for growing grapes for dry wines. The full potential of these terroirs remains incompletely charted, and each new single-vineyard release holds out the promise of new discoveries. The massively stony, zeolite-filled soils of the Úrágya established a reputation early on with great dry whites from 2000, 2002, and 2003. The grapes harvested from old vines trained on the stake-support system yielded grand-scale wines not only for Szepsy but for DemeterVin as well. This latter winery’s furmints may have suffered from the powerful new oak for a while, they eventually proved positively long-lived and elegant despite the hot vintage years. The 2008 Úrágya furmint turned out much better balanced and stylish than its predecessors. A certain similarity of style characterizes the wines from the latecomer Barta Károly, who planted new vines in the Király. His 2007 Furmint from this great vineyard represented a tremendous improvement in terms of refinement of structure and wood application. As of early 2010, the 2009 from the same grower stands as one of the finest furmints from around here. The initial similarity between the wines of the two wineries (DemeterVin and Barta) may have had something to do with the fact that all were made by the same Orosz Gábor, whose wines under his own name also happen to be worthy of note. His 2006 and 2007 furmints from the Betsek vineyard are differently styled but equally authentic expressions of their terroir. Distinctive and stimulating, they are both rich and smooth, almost fat in the mouth without being cumbersome by any reckoning. Their taste is concentrated and persistent with lingering mineral flavors.

Based some distance away, but with roots and interests in Mád, Márta Wille-Baumkauf has not yet settled on a mature furmint style of her own, which may be due to several reasons. Firstly, she has single-handedly shouldered the task of “naturalizing” biodynamic farming in Tokaj, which must have been daunting. Secondly, given her personal history, she has an understandable affinity for lower-alcohol whites along the lines of a fine Mosel. Her 2006 Krako Furmint was superb; we can hardly wait to see where she will be going from here.

Royal Tokaji seems finally to have decided to let Áts Károly spread his wings. In terms of value for the money, Royal’s furmints consistently perform far above the Tokaj mainstream. They bottled a lot from the crop of the Szent Tamás in 2006, which was never released commercially. Fermented and matured in new oak, this grew into an intricately filigreed, subtle wine with delicate mineral flavors. Lenkey Géza is perhaps the least known among the growers in Mád. The style of his wines could take some buffing, but the potential for greatness is obviously inherent in them. Lenkey never releases his wines while they are young, so they are fully settled and ready to drink by the time they come out. In our opinion, these wines might benefit from malolactic fermentation, even as we recognize the well-established view that sharper acidity is part and parcel of a good Tokaj furmint.

The Dobogó Winery is based in the town of Tokaj, but most of the fruit they work with comes from thicker soils in the district. The wines taste like genuine Mád wines more than anything else, and are distinguished by a very stylish touch of new oak.

The communes of Erdőbénye, Tállya, and Rátka have natural conditions — including a longer distance from the Bodrog River and more tightly bound soils — that make them  perhaps even more clearly suited for growing mineral-rich, acid-driven white wines in the dry style. in terms of sheer quality, the most exciting wines have come out from the village of Erdőbénye, starting with the 2003 Lőcse Furmint of the Béres Winery. The 2007 also promises thrills. We found it to be among the best of its category when we tasted it in early 2010. (Béres’s Furmint from the Omlás vineyard was not quite as successful, possibly on account of the young vines, although the 2008 Hárslevelű from the same vineyard is excellent.) The 2007 Lőcse shows no trace of leanness. Probably owing to the cooler microclimate of the Lőcse vineyard, it retained an energetic acid structure despite the hot year, all for the better this time. The wines of Karádi and Berger need time. Their 2004 furmints from the Palandor and Narancsi vineyards took five years to settle into the kind of consummate purity and distinctive taste that all furmint fans look for. It is smooth, full, complex, and very long, with a hallmark neutral but energetic character that leans heavily on mineral content. Karádi and Berger’s 2007 Furmint took advantage of the year much in the same way that the Lőcse did from Béres. For his part, Homonna Attila harvested his furmint sooner in 2007, reaping the returns of a crisper, more vibrant vinous character than most of the 2007’s from other growers. It is not the most weighty wines around, but its fine proportions and delicate flavors never fail to elicit praise. The same area is now also home to a newcomer winery called H. Bardon.

The zone we might term “Upper Tokaj,” which includes Bodrogolaszi, Bodrogkeresztúr, Szegi, Tolcsva, Sárospatak, and Sátoraljaújhely, offers yet another furmint style. Bárdos Sarolta of Tokaj Nobilis and Bott Judit have been releasing very distinctive interpretations of the variety. Bott’s wines are capable of great elegance despite their relatively high alcohol.  The smooth and creamy Teleki and Csontos crus have been household words among furmint aficionados, and will invariably benefit from being left undisturbed in the bottle for a few years. Theoretically, the Nobilis furmints are more accomplished in terms of balance, but this is a stylistic difference more than anything else; both wines are of superlative quality. The Barakonyi vineyard has also demonstrated excellence for years running.

If for no reason other than production volume, the Patricius Winery is more akin to Oremus, the winery with the longest track record of making fine dry furmint. As with Oremus the quality goes hand in hand with quantity, they are in many ways the winery to beat in Tokaj. Perhaps nobody has experimented more with the dry furmint genre than Bacsó András of Oremus, and he sure seems to have hit on a solution. Fermenting in new oak, electing to permit or refrain from malolactic fermentation as dictated by the vintage year, and lengthy aging in the bottle have ensured attributes that international consensus holds must be present in any great white wine worth cellaring. Bacsó certainly has reason enough not to release his dry furmints a year following the harvest. The wines may not be the ultimate expression of minerally terroir, but they have been distinguished by impeccable structure and elegance since 2000. Patrícius wines tend to be lighter, with a taste less influenced by (partial) maturation in wood. The furmints from both wineries remain hard to compete with in terms of their price/performance ratio.

Pajzos and Megyer seem to be a little bit lost lately, though you would seldom tell this from the wines. On the contrary, we have been more than once pleasantly surprised by wines that will be worth watching. Given a few years in the bottle, Megyer’s dry Furmint routinely runs rings around its competition in the category. There is nothing ostentatious about this wine. For years, it just sits there in a corner, so to speak, and then will suddenly overflow with elegance, length of taste, and understated generosity at five years of age. 

At the northern “outpost” of Tokaj, the grower Asztalos Zoltán indeed represents a sort of extremity in terms of the heroic effort that he brings to cultivating his vines in the Vióka and Kácsord vineyards. If you climb to the top of the Vióka and look around, you too will get the feeling that this place cannot possibly produce inferior wine. And it does not. AZ’s furmint leaves some room for improvement regarding the specificity of taste, but it is more than competent in terms of structure, terroir expression, and particularly its palette of bracing acids. Any impression of leanness here is only skin deep, and is a matter of where you locate your references anyway.

As another noteworthy event during 2010, the British wine press have finally been alerted to pay some attention to the furmint phenomenon. I confess to having had a hand in the matter, just as I must claim credit for establishing the parallel between furmint and chenin blanc, which I first wrote about some 15 years ago.        

mg         

Wineguide Hungary 2010-11