Food & Drink

Dunne on Wine: Ferment over furmint

Furmint is produced at Béres Vineyards and Winery in Hungary.
Furmint is produced at Béres Vineyards and Winery in Hungary. Béres Vineyards and Winery

Move over chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and other white wines that dominate the American table.

A new player is in town, which by its vigor and versatility may well seize the attention of American wine consumers.

It’s furmint, pronounced “fohr-mint.” It hails from Hungary, whose long but erratic wine history has entered a promising new phase of technological sophistication and marketing acumen.

Historically, furmint has been the most prominent grape of the exquisite and highly acclaimed blended dessert wine Tokaji. In the late 17th century, the Sun King, Louis XIV, reputedly praised Tokaji as “the wine of kings, the king of wines.” It must be, for a bottle of the 1834 Tokaji will set you back $7,000 at Corti Brothers.

The furmint now entering the American market, however, is a dry wine, and it is much less dear, commonly priced between $18 and $24. In hopes of securing a place on the American dinner table, Hungarian vintners in 2014 launched an ambitious marketing campaign called FurmintUSA.

Much of their promotion has been on the East Coast, but this spring five members of the organization breezed through Sacramento, pausing at The Waterboy to pour several versions of furmint over lunch.

As a group, the wines were saber-like – lean, sharp, thrusting, quick to the point. Their fruit ran to the citric, their structure wiry, their acidity exhilarating. There was a freshness, clarity and vitality to the wines that suggested they may indeed pair well with a wide range of dishes, including such challenging staples as artichoke, asparagus and arugula. In expression and build, one or the other could be mistaken for Chablis or chenin blanc or riesling, yet they stood apart for their finely honed lines, understated layering and barbed acidity.

Where has furmint been since 1611, when it first was recorded in an ecclesiastical document, though it may have been grown in Hungary long before then? Hidden in the blended sweet wine Tokaji, for the most part. (The name “furmint” is believed to derive from the Latin “furment,” for “wheat,” the golden color of which is close to the color of clusters of furmint grapes.)

Since then, the Hungarian wine trade has been dealt a series of setbacks, including a devastating invasion of the root louse phylloxera in the 1880s, the loss of territory following World War I and the Communist takeover of the country in the 1950s. “The Communists didn’t care about quality,” says David Regeczy, sales director for Beres Vineyards and Winery, one of the brands featured at The Waterboy lunch.

He suggested that the Communists preferred mediocre mass-produced semi-sweet wine and failed to keep abreast of advances in grape growing and winemaking; as a consequence, the nation’s wine standing on the international stage slipped into virtual obscurity.

At the start of this century, however, foreign investment by outside vintners and the rise of a new generation of growers and winemakers began to turn around the Hungarian wine trade.

Today, Hungary is home to some 60 indigenous grape varieties, as well as more widespread international varieties. Furmint is among the three most extensively cultivated grapes, accounting for more than 10,000 acres, nearly all of it in the rocky Tokaj region, a two-hour drive northeast of Budapest.

Despite a long history of growing grapes and making wine, Hungary produces just a little more than 1 percent of the world’s wine, according to tracking by the Wine Institute. Output is soaring, however, up 67 percent between 2011 and 2014, thus the push to develop more export markets.

“Austria did a great job the past decade for exports of its gruner veltliner and gewürztraminer,” said Regeczy. “We think Hungary can develop that kind of success in the United States.”

He noted that furmint is similar stylistically to Austria’s gruner veltliner, also dry, crisp and sinewy.

But by the tasting, furmint has more going for it than gruner veltliner – more flavor, more spine, more complexity.

Furmint is packaged in an array of bottle styles, though a movement is under way in Tokaj to put it in its own distinctive bottle – brown glass with a long slender neck, and embossed with the name of the region of origin, “Tokaj.” But in seeing “Tokaj” on the bottle might consumers think the bottle contains the sweet wine “Tokaji”? Not likely, said the Hungarian delegates, noting that sweet Tokaji comes in 500-milliliter bottles of clear glass, while furmint is in traditional 750-milliliter bottles. Bottles of furmint also will bear the name of the grape and often will carry the Hungarian designation “szaraz,” for “dry.”

Furmint tends to fall into one of two basic styles. One is youthful, customarily fermented in stainless-steel tanks with little or no oak aging, best drunk young, though the grape’s inherently high acidity helps them age gracefully. The other will be a bit heftier, with more exposure to wood, and likely to bear the name of the vineyard where its grapes were grown. Alcohol levels of furmint generally are in the 12 percent to 13 percent neighborhood, though an occasional bottle will soar to 15 percent or so.

Lighter styles of furmint beg for oysters and lightly seasoned seafood, while those with more weight can pair easily with complicated pork, chicken, rabbit and even beef dishes.

Furmint is just starting to enter the California market, but those I sampled at the tasting that I will be especially watching for are the deeply colored and rich Beres Vineyards and Winery 2011 Locse Furmint ($25), whose high alcohol (15 percent) and obvious oak added up to an example of the varietal with the muscle to stand up to game and beef; the full-bodied yet lilting Beres Vineyards and Winery 2014 Estate Furmint ($19), whose citric, spicy and barbed attributes had it singing with a salami, white bean and arugula appetizer; the mouth-filling and snappy Grof Degenfeld Winery 2013 Estate Furmint ($18); and the bright, fragrant and focusd St. Donat Estate 2013 Marga Furmint ($24), which came down refreshingly on the lemon side of the citrus scale.

Furmint’s timing couldn’t be better. With summer here, the season of lighter cuisine and fresh produce, it is an appropriately cool, refreshing and explicitly sharp companion to have at the table, as well as on its own on deck or porch. In the Sacramento area, some Nugget Markets carry a furmint, and Corti Brothers expects to stock several.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

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