Chicago Tribune: Hungary’s famed dessert wine grape has a dry side

We know what we know, and the things that are most familiar to us are always on the leading edge of our thoughts. Being open to looking past the first, most familiar usage of something is not always easy.

Take the word “obtain.” Pretty much anyone could come up with a definition for it. Most commonly, we know it to mean “to come into possession of something through effort.” But it also means “to continue to be in use.” In that less-common sense, one might say, “Public political debate obtains in the United States” or “Making sweet wines from the furmint grape variety obtains in Hungary.”

Furmint is usually associated with the sweet, perfectly-balanced-by-acidity dessert wine known as Tokaj aszu. (The Hungarian word “aszu” refers to the dried, Botrytis cinerea-affected late-harvest grapes used to make the wine.) This heady, viscous treasure is Hungary’s most storied wine style, a mythical honeyed potion that comes from the country’s most prestigious wine region, Tokaj.

But when furmint, which is native to Tokaj, is not being used to produce the sought-after dessert nectar, it is used to make another style of wine, a dry white that is quite comfortable at the dining table in the courses that lead up to dessert. Don’t write off dry furmint as turkey bacon. It is not trying to be anything other than what it naturally is — a zippy, dry white wine, which, at its best could offer varying amounts of clean citrus, green apple, pear, nuts, minerality and smoke, plus high acidity, making it a great partner for food.

Wine that comes from the Tokaj region is called “Tokaji,” as the Hungarian “i” on the end of the word is similar to the Irish “O'” at the beginning of a surname. In both cases, the extra letter means “of.” The place is Tokaj, the wine from there is Tokaji and you might see either or both of those words on a dry furmint label. Whether it gets turned into dry or sweet wine, furmint accounts for close to three-quarters of the grapes grown in the Tokaj region.

In both the sweet and dry versions of Tokaj wines, the grape variety harslevelu can be blended with furmint. Harslevelu is more aromatic than furmint and can introduce roundness, softness, lusciousness and spice to the blend. But the beauty of harslevelu is that it can do all of these things without giving up the lively acidity that furmint brings, as harslevelu carries nice acidity of its own. To be clear, though, furmint is the star here.

Not all dry furmint comes from Tokaj. In a recent tasting, I tried one from the Balatonfured-Csopak region, which lies on the northern shore of the long and thin Lake Balaton, southwest of Budapest. All the way across the country, in the northeast corner, just below Slovakia and west of the Ukrainian border, is Tokaj, which is believed to be the world’s first officially designated wine region. Furmint is its treasure.

The wines below ranged from crisp and zingy to something closer to supple, and most of them will ring up at $20 or less.

2012 Barta Winery Oreg Kiraly Dulo Mad. Mad is the town, and Old King is the winery’s first-growth vineyard responsible for this complex dry furmint. Full of green apple, lime, minerality and lively acidity, this wine would be a great match for oysters and other shellfish. $38

2012 Erzsebet Pince Zafir Dulo. From another first-growth vineyard, this one combines 65 percent furmint with 35 percent harslevelu, the second most-important grape in Tokaj. Expect earthy, apple aromas, flavors of lush pear, and a softer mouthfeel. Try it with roasted chicken. $25

2014 St. Donat Estate Furmint. From the Balatonfured-Csopak region in western Hungary, this wine is full of citrus, offering a finish that leans toward tart. For those of you who love that sensation, this is your wine. It would be great with sushi and as a mouth-awakening aperitif, since it clocks in at a low 11 percent alcohol. $21

2012 Hold and Hollo. Look for the lime green, grippy rubber band around the base of the bottle. A blend of 65 percent furmint and 35 percent harslevelu, this wine offers clean flavors of pear and stone fruit with a touch more sweetness than the others, while still finishing crisply. $20

2014 Beres Tokaj Dry Furmint. This wine of balanced contrasts provides tongue-zapping acidity and minerality, along with tiny hints of tropical fruits and spice. The long finish makes it fun to drink on its own, but it would also be great with everything from fish to pork. A really good wine for the price. $19

2012 Basilicus Once Upon a Time Estate Furmint-Harslevelu. A 60/40 blend of furmint and harslevelu, this wine was aged in oak barrels for six months. Aromas of green apple and smoke lead to flavors of pear and minerality, with a pleasing nutty finish. $19

2014 Grof Degenfeld Zomborka Furmint. Organic grapes from the Zomborka vineyard went into this wine, which features lime, pear, lush stone fruits, tangy acidity and a clean finish. This is another nice wine for the price. Drink it on its own, or with lighter fare, from seafood to poultry. $18

If your wine store does not carry these, ask for wines that are similar in style and price.


Published on: 24/05/2016
By: Michael Austin