Furmint is more than just one of the primary varieties used in Tokaji Aszú dessert wines. From a dry, crisp wine to a sweet wine, Furmint is Hungary’s flagship grape.
The first mention of the Furmint grape was in a reference in an ecclesiastical document in 1611. Then in the mid-19th century, Furmint was identified as one of the top three most widespread cultivars of the 63 grape varieties in use at the time. In the 1880s, after phylloxera damaged the vines, the vineyards were replanted with Furmint and it became the truly dominant grape variety.
The heritage of Furmint is replete with myths. Stories claim that it came from abroad, possibly from Italy, brought over by missionaries, colonists, soldiers or kings. Actually, Furmint is the result of a natural genetic cross between Gouais Blanc (an ancient variety) and an unknown, likely extinct, local variety. With a genetic link to Gouais Blanc, Furmint is half-siblings with European grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Gamay and Riesling.
Today, 90 percent of the plantings in Tokaj, Hungary are to Furmint, with more than 10,000 acres of Furmint planted. Small amounts of Furmint have spread to other parts of Hungary, as well as neighboring countries. In Austria and Germany, it is called Mosler; in Slovenia and northern Croatia, it is called Šipon; in Croatia, it is called Moslavac Bijeli; in Transylvania, it is called Som.
Furmint is a vigorous grape that ripens late. It expresses terroir and produces wines with powerful acidity that gives the wine longevity. Historically, Furmint was used to make sweet botrytized wines, similar to Sauternes, but today it is also being made into dry, crisp wines.
One person who saw that Furmint had the potential to produce great dry white wines was Andras Basco. During the Soviet occupation, Basco was the head of the local cooperative making super-sweet, fortified wines. But with a special passport, he was able to travel to different countries and explored other wine regions, especially Burgundy and Alsace where great white wines are produced. When Communism ended, Basco understood that Tokaj had to return to its traditional roots and make wine as they had in the 19th and 20th centuries before Communism.
Basco turned to the outside help. The Alvarez family, who owns Vega Sicilia in Ribera del Duero in Spain, came to Hungary in 1993 and immediately loved the region. They purchased the Oremus vineyards and estate, credited with producing grapes for the first Tokaji Aszú made in the 1620s and classified as a “First Growth” vineyard in 1803. The Alvarez family established Tokaj-Oremus Viñedos y Bodegas.
New ownership from outsiders was a transition for the region but Vega Sicilia replanted vines, and rebuilt the caves. They brought their Spanish philosophy of using organic materials, no pesticides and clonal selection into practice.
Andras Basco was the general manager and head winemaker at Oremus from 1993 until he retired in January 2021. Basco’s curiosity, as well as his love for the white wines of Burgundy and Alsace, made him wonder if a great white wine could be produced in a region known for sweet wines. He tried different grape varieties, including Muscat, and saw that Furmint had the most potential to make a great dry white wine.
In 2015, Basco consulted with Burgundy winemaker Kyriakos Kynigopoulos on white wine production with the objective of helping to better understand and interpret the plots and to fine-tune the aging in oak. As a result, Oremus pioneered the vinification of high-quality, oak-aged dry wine made from the Furmint grape and today produces styles ranging from dry to sweet.
Ripe, un-botrytized Furmint produces a wine that is a pale straw or light amber color with aromas of pineapple, lemon blossom, orange rind, ripe pear, white peach, yellow peach and apricot. What makes Furmint special is the lovely acidity and lengthy, sometimes silky, texture. And Furmint has the potential to age, something not seen in other indigenous Hungarian grapes.
Oremus 2017 Mandolás Dry Furmint ($26)
Mandolás was first released in 2001. Mandolás, planted only with Furmint, is one of the Oremus vineyards. The 2017 is fresh and crisp with notes of lemon, lime, peach, green apple, and minerality. On the palate, it is elegant and balanced with a rich mid-palate and a spicy, mineral finish.
Oremus 2017 Petracs Dry Furmint
The newest release from Oremus, Petracs is sourced from an exceptional densely populated ancient plot. Oremus had always vinified these grapes separately and then blended them into Mandolás. However, in 2015, they began to notice something special of the ten-acre plot and decided to make a single bottling in 2017. The grapes come from 60-year-old bush vines and are hand-picked. The grapes are fermented in new French and Hungarian oak barrels, aged eight months in oak with three months of lees stirring every week, plus six months of aging in stainless steel tanks before bottling. Petracs is aged for longer than Mandolás. Only 250 cases are made.
The nose is utterly intriguing with notes of lime pith, white flowers, wet stones, honeycomb, and lemon cream. On the palate, the wine has intense acidity and a lovely depth and roundness on the mid-palate. The wine has a fascinating salinity on the palate and a mouthwatering finish.
Oremus 2017 Tokaji Late Harvest ($36)
Furmint is blended with Hárslevelű, Kövérszőlő, Zéta, and Sárga Muskotály, other indigenous Hungarian varieties. The grapes are picked late so that forty to fifty percent of the grapes have noble rot (called aszú in Hungarian). The grapes ferment very slowly and then the wine spends six months in small wood barrels, followed by one year in the bottle. The 2017 Late Harvest has notes of orange blossom, lemon, orange and peach, and is rich on the palate with flavors of apricot and peach. The sweetness is not overpowering and is balanced by the acidity.
Oremus 2010 Tokaji 5 Puttonyos ($80)
Tokaji Aszú (meaning dried) wines are painstaking to make as the berries require humidity, heat, wind, and rain to create botrytis which concentrates the sugars and acidity. The berries are picked individually, and the shriveled grapes are pounded into a paste and stored in tubs called puttonyos. The grape paste is mixed with a base wine and left to macerate for six to eight hours. Aszú wines can range from 1 Puttonyos to 6 Puttonyos. Traditionally, this indicated the number of Puttonyos (20 kilograms) of Aszú berries added to each 140-kilogram cask of base wine (or Gonci). Today the final classification is based on a technical analysis of sugar levels. Tokaji 5 Puttonyos has 120-150 grams of sugar per liter. After maceration, the grapes are pressed, and the sugar-rich mixture continues a long and slow fermentation that can take up to two months. The wine is then put into wood barrels and aged for a few years before being bottled and aged for another year.
Tokaji 5 Puttonyos were wines of the kings. It is an artisanal product that takes time to produce. The resulting wine is a luxury product that can age 100-150 years. It is an extraordinary wine. It has intoxicating aromas of apricots and honey. On the palate, it is sweet, but not too sweet, and the acidity is so bright that the wine is in perfect balance. This wine is everything a sweet wine should be.
Furmint is an exquisite grape with beautiful acidity. It can be expressed as a dry wine or a sweet wine. It is the flagship grape of Hungary and deserves to be among the great white wines of the world.