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Furmint – Hungary’s Flagship White

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The name Furmint has been bandied around a fair bit in the last couple of months, with articles declaring it a great new discovery and lauding its versatility. Events were held in its praise throughout Hungary during the month of February, which for the past several years has celebrated ‘Furmint February’ as a result of the efforts of local wine writer Dániel Kézdy. And this year Furmint even made it across the Channel to London when the first Furmint February tasting in Britain was held at the prestigious 67 Pall Mall Club—admittedly at the end of January, but what’s a few days here and there!

Wine aficionados have long known of the delights of Furmint, especially in the form of the delectably sweet Tokaji Aszú, and increasingly over the last decade or two in its latest dry incarnations. Records show that it has been planted in its Hungarian stronghold, the UNESCO World Heritage site Tokaj, since the 17th century, becoming its leading variety by the early 18th century and gaining ground elsewhere around the country.

However, little is known about its origins. Some say it was brought to Tokaj by Italian missionaries or colonists in the 12th or 13th century. Yet it is not found in Italy nor does it have any genetic link with any Italian variety, although it has been used to breed some modern crosses there. Others posit that it comes from Syrmia, today’s Serbia. However, neither seems to be true. Studies have found great genetic diversity in Tokaj which points to this being its birthplace, but the truth is still lost in the mists of time. What is known is that it is either the child or the parent of the Casanova-like variety Gouais Blanc, which has sowed its wild oats throughout Europe over the centuries, spawning at least 80 other kids. Thus, Furmint is most likely the offspring, making it the half-sibling of both Riesling and Chardonnay–not bad company to be keeping. It also appears to be the parent of its Tokaj stablemate Hárslevelű, with which it is often blended, both for dry and sweet wines.

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Although Furmint has the closest ties with Tokaj, it’s other main home in Hungary is the tiny region of Somló. It is now also increasingly popping up elsewhere, such as on the northern shores of the Balaton, where it was also once widely planted and known as Szigeti.

Outside of Hungary, furmint is also planted in Slovenia and northern Croatia (where it is known as Šipon) and in Austria, particularly around the Neusiedlersee where it’s used to make the lusciously sweet Ruster Ausbruch; here, it’s known as Mosler. Of course, like most other Central European grapes, it has found its way into most of the neighboring countries with various monikers.

Furmint is a late-ripening, thin-skinned variety with piercing acidity, high sugar levels and susceptibility to botrytis, making it the ideal candidate for producing naturally sweet, incredibly complex wines, the most notable one being Tokaji Aszú, which brought the region fame in the past. It’s also used to produce Szamorodni and non-botrytized late-harvest sweet wines. Furmint is also often blended with Tokaj’s other authorized grapes (Hárslevelű, Yellow Muscat, Muscat Lunel, Zéta, and Kabar) or produced as a single varietal.

The last couple of decades, however, have seen a Furmint revolution in Tokaj. The grape produces fantastic sweet wines which maintain their balance thanks to the grape’s piercing acidity. And despite serious sugar levels, producers in Tokaj are also turning out wonderful dry wines, either as single-varietals or in blends (generally with Hárslevelű). Styles vary from fresh, crisp, fruity wines with flavors of green apple, lemon, lime, pear and grapefruit to more serious barrel-fermented and matured wines with great body, structure, and complexity. Flavors here lean more to peach, quince, citrus, and vanilla with a good dose of much-debated minerality.

Thanks to its relatively neutral personality, Furmint is also adept at reflecting terroir. So we can see big differences between the more austere, seriously mineral wines from Somló (which need more time to mature and open) and the more approachable ones from Tokaj. Additionally, the latest trend in Tokaj is to showcase the differences in terroir within the region through vineyard-selected wines. Tokaj’s volcanic soils vary hugely from one vineyard site to another, thanks to its succession of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, and Furmint is proving the perfect candidate for such terroir-driven wines.

Furmint’s razor-sharp acidity, which is often rounded by a few grams of residual sugar, its slightly tannic character, and its lean structure seem to promise great longevity, although as dry Furmint has only been a thing since about 2000, we will have to be patient. Initial signs are promising, but will it develop like a good Burgundy, a Chenin Blanc, or a Riesling? That’s the question.