Nobody quite knows where the Furmint grape originated. A white varietal, it is cultivated today under various names in eastern parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire— especially in Hungary near the town of Tokaj, about 120 miles northeast of Budapest (almost to Slovakia and Ukraine). But it is not native to Austro-Hungary. DNA sleuths say Furmint is closely related to a grape known as Gouais blanc, which is found in France and is one of the parents of Chardonnay.
According to grape geneticist Carole Meredith: “Furmint is either a parent or offspring of Gouais blanc. There is not yet any definitive genetic evidence to prove which is the parent, but historic references to Gouais are older so it is more likely that Gouais is the parent of Furmint and not the other way around.”
Sources say that King Béla IV may have brought Furmint to Hungary in the 13th century. It’s a good story, but not necessarily a true story. We know for sure that Furmint has flourished around Tokaj since at least 1571. It is the region’s predominant grape today, ahead of Hárslevelü.
Furmint is an interesting grape from a viticultural perspective. It produces lots of sugar, complemented by healthy acidity. Dry wines made from Furmint tend to be high in alcohol—around 14 percent. It ripens late and is susceptible to mold.
Hungary has a long history of winemaking—1,500 years or more. Writer Karen MacNeil notes that enterprising Magyars established “the first system for classifying wine on the basis of quality” in about 1730. This was in order to protect and promote the celebrated sweet wines of the Tokaj-Hegyalja region.
Like other European countries, Hungary was hit hard by phylloxera toward the end of the 19th century. (Phylloxera is a tiny aphid-like insect that feeds on the roots of Vitis vinifera vines.) The Hungarian wine industry had barely begun to recover from phylloxera when the tumult of two world wars, the Great Depression and civil strife sidetracked development. During the subsequent Communist period, wine production was controlled by the state, with the results one might expect. Things began to turn around after the Communists were ousted.
The Royal Tokaji Wine Company (royal-tokaji.com), established in 1990, has been one of the leaders of Hungary’s post-Communist enological renaissance. The company was inspired and founded by Hugh Johnson, the noted author and wine historian. According to Royal Tokaji, Johnson’s goal was to revive and bring back to international acclaim the wines of one of history’s most renowned wine regions—wines that “would make angels sing out loud in praise.”
A former singer myself, I decided to assess the potential to inspire vocalism of these unusual elixirs.
Royal Tokaji has been producing varietal Furmint wines for a decade or more. The company recently gave its dry Furmint a new name.
Royal Tokaji The Oddity Furmint 2013 ($17) is more unfamiliar than odd, reminiscent somehow of Sauvignon Blanc or even unoaked Chardonnay from the south of France, but different. About 60 percent of the wine was fermented and aged in barrels of Hungarian oak; the remainder in stainless steel. The Oddity is elegant and tasty, pale in color, with a lilting bouquet of citrus and honeysuckle. Its rich, mouth-filling flavor alludes subtly to its oak heritage, and at the same time offers twinkles of citrus, mineral nuances and food-friendly acidity. After a while one may notice restrained pear and apple flavors.
We enjoyed the Oddity with broiled cod, with which it paired very well. The wine’s crisp acidity nicely balanced the melted butter on the fish. We realized too late that we should have served the Oddity with chicken paprika, which would have been a really amazing combination. Royal Tokaji suggests pairing it with Asian food.
Mád is a village near the town of Tokaj where, according to Royal Tokaji, “noble wine producers have gathered to conduct business and merry-making for centuries.” Mád once was the home of a thriving Jewish community, now gone. It is the site of a baroque synagogue, constructed in 1795, that the World Monuments Fund restored in about 2000.
Royal Tokaji Mád Cuvée 2012 ($21) is a late-harvest wine made of Furmint, Muscat and Hárslevelü grapes that remained on the vine until they developed high levels of sugar. The Mád Cuvée is a light shade of amber. Its bouquet evokes the Muscat in the blend, with additional fragrances of pears and spices. In the mouth it is rich, sweet and fruity, with a halo of honey and nutmeg. My wife kept saying, “This is wonderful!” as we sipped it.
You may want to enjoy the Mád Cuvée lightly chilled as an aperitif before a meal. We tasted it while consuming fresh fruit—strawberries and cantaloupe. The wine’s flavor resonated especially well with the melon.
Produced near the town of Tokaj, Tokaji wine is made from Furmint grapes, often with additional quantities of Hárslevelü and other indigenous varieties. The winemaking process is complicated. Grapes are harvested well into the fall. In the moist local air, some of the grapes are attacked on the vine by botrytis cinerea. This noble rot draws water out of the grapes, increasing the concentration of sugar and other flavorful compounds. The botrytized grapes—called aszú—are picked by hand and turned into a sweet paste that is added to new wine made from unbotrytized grapes. After a day or two, the blend is put into wooden casks where it ferments and matures.
Traditionally the aszú paste was collected in a wooden bucket called a puttonyos. Although winemakers no longer use the old buckets, Tokaji still is rated for sweetness based on the quantity of paste added to the barrels, stated as puttonyos.
Royal Tokaji Red Label 5 Puttonyos Aszú 2008 ($45), aged 30 months in barrels of old Hungarian oak, is a rich, golden honey color. Its complex bouquet melds fragrances of yeast and honey with aromas of orange blossoms and wet stones. The wine is sweet— luminously, intensely sweet— with a halo of bright acidity and an ethereal fruitiness redolent of apricots, peaches, apples and poignant lemon.
Reading this complicated story of aszú, puttonyos and intense sweetness, you might well suppose that Tokaji would be overly sweet or even cloying. This is not the case: To say that Tokaji is “too sweet” would be like saying that the young Ingrid Bergman was “too pretty” or that the final pages of Tristan und Isolde are “too beautiful.”
The Red Label Tokaji pairs particularly well with peach tarts. Serve it slightly chilled.
Most wine drinkers are familiar with Tokaji, the legendary “king of wines and wine of kings.” Other Magyar royals are not so well known. It’s time to make their acquaintance.
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.