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Introducing Furmint: The Wine of Kings or The Next Big Thing?

"Against a backdrop of dizzying choice, some might ask why we have chosen a less well-known grape predominately grown in an often-forgotten corner of the Old World as the destination of our latest voyage of wine discovery"

Cellar Magnifique delights in guiding customers on voyages of taste discovery, and we are particularly excited to showcase the Furmint grape this February. Yet, in a world of so many different wine styles, it is sometimes tricky to pick a destination for our exploratory sojourns. Indeed, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s calendar alone reveals an international wine or grape day for almost every week of the year. Against the backdrop of this dizzying choice, some might ask why we have chosen a less well-known grape predominately grown in an often-forgotten corner of the Old World.

Furmint is a white grape characterised by vines that bud early and yield thick-skinned and late-ripening grapes in loose bunches. It is the offspring of an even less well-known grape, Gouais Blanc, but is a half sibling to both Riesling and Chardonnay. Its history is contested and almost mysterious: it arrives in the written historical record in the Hétszőlő vineyard in Tokaj in 1571 but Hungary, Italy, Serbia and even Turkey each claim to be its original birthplace. Today, though, its cultivation is largely limited to Hungary and select neighbours.

Tokaj is the wine region that remains the spiritual home to Furmint and spans both Hungary and Slovakia. The nearby Zemplén mountains bestow a unique volcanic soil, whilst the converging Bodrog and Tisza rivers deliver a humidity that cuts through an otherwise dry climate. Additive to this favourable environmental terroir is a viticulture than heralds from Roman times, or even earlier. Vineyard classification was pioneered in Tokaj in 1730, some 125 years before the pivotal 1855 Médoc classification of Bordeaux, France. More recently, the region became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 in recognition of its outstanding universal value.

Dry furmint from Tokaj has been cited as “the next big thing” by Decanter magazine. Typical Furmints are characterised by crisp acidity but, according to Master of Wine Caroline Gilby, the grape otherwise varies as a function of its specific terroir. To that extent, this February we have opted to showcase a dry wine hailing from a single vineyard, Barakonyi, that forms just one part of the larger Tokaji Nobilis Vinery. Their 2018 vintage exhibits aromas of pear and mint, with a hint of vanilla that reflects 5 months spent in small Hungarian oak barrels. On the palate, it is rich and complex with a long aftertaste.

Late Harvest wines are made from grapes left to dehydrate on the vine after they have reached peak ripeness. They represent a style of sweet wine that nevertheless remains fresh and fruity – a tentative first step for the dry wine drinker perhaps. Our exemplar this February is from the historic Hétszőlő vineyard itself and blends Furmint with another local favourite grape, Hárslevelű. On the nose, we are greeted with citrus, elderflower, and fresh tropical fruit notes. These are joined on the palate with a hint of minerality and a balancing acidity.

Louis XIV hailed Tokaji Aszú as “The king of wines and the wine of kings”. These golden wines are made from grapes affected by botrytis, a “noble rot” arising due to the specific local microclimate. Individual Furmint grapes are laboriously individually handpicked – an average labourer may only harvest eight kilograms of aszú berries a day and might return repeatedly to the same vines. They age in oak for years. Our award-winning example this year is a wonderful 2011 vintage from the Béres Winery. Expect honey, dried fruits, and spices. A real wine for special occasions.

Pioneers are exploring yet more styles. Hungary’s first Platinum Award in the Decanter World Wine Award’s sparkling category was a méthod traditionelle Furmint blend, this time from the Somló wine region near the Austrian border. A ‘pezgő’ classified as Brut, this wine is a far cry from the low quality, mass produced, and sometimes overly sweet Hungarian sparkling wines of the socialist era. Similarly, just last year the International Wine Challenge’s Canopy magazine favourably profiled Hungarian and Croatian winemakers experimenting with Furmint-based orange, or skin contact, wines. Should these styles become the next, next big thing we will be sure to feature them at Cellar Magnifique too.

In summary, there were many reasons for us to choose Furmint as our February favourite – including its rich history, royal glamour, and sheer versatility. We hope you have a chance to pop by to our humble bar and learn more about this grape superstar.

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