FurmintUSA on Napa Valley Register

Furmint comes to town

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.

Published on: 11/13/2014
By: L Pierce Carson