To be sung to the tune of ‘Start Wearing Purple’ by Gogol Bordello:
“Start drinking Furmint drinking Furmint,
Start drinking Furmint for me now,
All your sanity – and wits – they will all vanish, I promise,
It’s just a matter of time.”
My Eastern European geography isn’t great. If you give me a pen, and ask me to draw the borders of Hungary, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia the results will be pretty dodgy.
Fortunately, Furmint, one of the world’s great unsung grape varieties, doesn’t understand these boundaries either. It’s most prevalent in Hungary, but some is found in Slovenia (where it is sometimes called Šipon – pronounced ‘shipon’) and it also occasionally strays over into neighbouring Austria and Croatia (though it changes its name to Zapfner and Moslavac and wears an enormous moustache so as not to be recognised).
It’s probably best known as being the principal grape in the sweet Tokaji wines from Hungary. They can be incredible but they tend to sit in my rack untouched for months before I can find the right excuse to open them. The Furmints that I’m most excited about are the dry ones.
It is an unusually versatile grape. The wines can vary in colour from the lighter, leaner, silver-green Furmints of Austria, right through to the deep golden versions from Hungary, with the Slovenian ones sitting somewhere in the middle. The grape is thought to take its name from froment, the French word for wheat, referring to the more common golden colour it displays. The typical aromas range from green apple and pear through to more tropical fruits such as mango and pineapple. It works well in a fruity, unoaked style, but it also takes very well to ageing in oak barrels. What all the dry styles have in common is a bright, vibrant acidity running through them, making them buzz with energy.
Furmint is like a white grape supergroup. It’s got it all: the pungent aromatics of Sauvignon Blanc; the richness and oak-friendliness of Chardonnay; the minerality and acidity of Riesling. Somehow it manages to combine all these attributes into one unified whole. Not surprisingly, it is often a pretty intense experience.
Eastern Europe is a rather unfashionable part of the world when it comes to wine. Experiments with Bulgarian, Romanian and Hungarian supermarket ranges in the past have left some of us a bit wary. But Eastern Europe has come on in leaps and bounds over the past decade, and some hugely exciting wines are now being produced in Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. Many of them, including some of the wines below, are still fantastically good value.
When it comes to food, fish, white meats and spicy dishes tend to the best bet, but since so many different types of dry Furmint are produced it’s hard to generalise. As a rule of thumb, Austrian Furmint tends to work better with relatively light, fresh cooking such as simply prepared fish or salads. Slovenian Furmints can handle a bit more intensity of flavour, working well with chicken and ham in cream sauces as well as richer fish dishes. More powerful flavours like roast pork or chicken would match better with Hungarian examples. The age of the wine also plays a part – fresh, herbal dishes pair better with younger wines, and rich, buttery dishes work well with slightly older ones, particularly those matured in oak.
When it comes to ageing, most are best drunk reasonably young, no more than 4 years after harvest on the whole. Better ones can last a bit longer, and the very best can age for a decade or even longer, building in complexity and taking on more honey, spice, barley sugar and cooking apple flavours as they develop. The best of the sweet versions can last for 50 years plus.
Though it tends to be grown in lesser known corners of the wine world, this is surely one of the most versatile white grapes on the planet. I’ve even tried some good sparkling versions. It’s got everything you could desire in a grape, being a rare combination of powerful aromatics, minerality, richness and body. It deserves to be held in the same esteem as better known varieties such as Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc and Grüner Veltliner. So if you haven’t discovered it yet – start drinking Furmint.
Some pure Furmint wines that are (almost all) available in the UK
2010 Günter Triebaumer Furmint (Burgenland, 12.5% ABV)
£12.60 from Nick Dobson Wines
Very pale green with some little silver hints. Not much on the nose to begin with, a bit of pear, a touch herbal, maybe even some seaweed. Lean, and fresh like a just-ripe green apple. Medium length, with zingy acidity and a keen minerality. 88 points, fair value.
2009 Heidi Schroeck Furmint (Burgenland, 13.5% ABV)
£19.20 from Nick Dobson Wines
Pale yellow/green with silver hints again. Green apple, but with a pleasing vegetal hint. More apple and kiwi in the mouth. Fresh, with a silky texture and mineral finish. More concentration and length than the Triebaumber. 89 points, just about fair value.
2009 Dveri Pax Šipon (Podravje, 13.5% ABV)
£10.75 from The Daily Drinker
Fresh, tangy limes. Quite full-bodied, soft and smooth in the mouth. Fresh, grippy and intense. Balanced and very long. 90 points, good value.
2010 Verus Vineyards Furmint (Podravje, 12% ABV)
£11.50 from Astrum Wine Cellars
Exciting nose with lots to entertain – peach fruitiness, smoky and herbal. Full-bodied, with more peach and nectarine in the mouth. Spicy too, with a little touch of tannin and streak of minerality holding it all in check. Well balanced, very long, compelling. 92 points, very good value.
2011 Gomila ‘Exceptional’ Furmint (Podravje, 13% ABV)
£11.99 from Wine Unfurled
Bright lemon in colour, this has a heady aroma of lemon, kumquat and banana with a hint of spice. Very clean, defined flavours. Intensely concentrated, with more citrussy acidity in the mouth, a tiny touch of tannin and a mineral edge. Medium to full-bodied, this is intense, long, modern, and very impressive. 91 points, very good value.
1993 Jeruzalem Ormož Arhiva Šipon (Podravje, 11% ABV)
Around €12, not available in the UK
Smelt faintly of natural gas and swimming pools on opening. Then started to take on some honeyed aromas and preserved lemons. Medium dry yet lean with good balanced acidity. Only light to medium-bodied, but complex flavours of pineapple and lemon in the mouth, with impressions of varnish or beeswax after swallowing. Still fresh. Very drinkable and very interesting. 92 points, very good value.
2008 Tornai Nagy-Somlói Furmint (Somlo, 12.5% ABV)
£9.41 from Astrum Wine Cellars
Smelt distinctly of corned beef when we opened it! But don’t let this put you off, it soon blew away and it took on some lemon and lime smells with a touch of rubber. Fruity, but dry and lean in the mouth, with flavours of lemon and unripe apple. Full-bodied, with firm acidity. 86 points, fair value.
2008 Kerkaborum Vörcsöki Furmint (Zala, near border with Slovenia, 13.5% ABV)
£10.00 from Pannon Wines
Medium gold in colour, with developed aromas of honey, mango, herbs and nuts. Smells like it’s going to be a bit sweet, but tastes dry. Tangy acidity, with a smoky, toasty, oaky finish. Getting a bit old now, but still enjoyable. 87 points, fair value.
2009 Royal Tokaji Furmint (Tokaj, 14% ABV)
£10.95 from Jeroboams
Deep, spicy, flinty nose, with some oak aromas. Full, soft, full-bodied with intense concentration of flavour. Dry, modern, well made. Lovely acidity and minerality, bright and intense like a jewel. High but balanced alcohol, and very long. 91 points, very good value.
2009 Oremus Mandolas Tokaji Furmint (Tokaj, 14% ABV)
£14.50 from Green and Blue
Intense nose of peach, lemon, lime and markedly oaky. Dry, full-bodied and spicy, a touch boozy, but with firm acidity. Modern, powerful, and intense. Creamy texture, and coconut flavours become more apparent while drinking, and some banana, sweet fruit flavours and toffee on the finish. Unashamedly lush, ripe and oaky, overtly hedonistic. 90 points, good value.
2010 Dobogó Tokaji Furmint (Tokaj, 13.5% ABV)
£16.00 from Highbury Vintners
Bright gold colour. Spicy and fruity, with lovely nectarine aromas and a touch of mint. In the mouth the flavours are apricot, nectarine and dried mango all underpinned by keen acidity. Full-bodied, very fruity, long and punchy. 91 points, good value.
2008 Szepsy Tokaji Furmint (Tokaj, 13% ABV)
£29.00 from Top Selection
Medium gold colour. Complex aromas of mango, honey, vanilla custard and a hint of sweetcorn. Dry and full-bodied, lovely acidity and very well balanced. Alcohol in check. A very elegant and restrained style compared to some of the more bombastic Furmints on show. A very fine wine, with pure, sweet fruit and dry, refreshing minerality into the long finish. 93 points, fair value.
And one sweeter style pure Furmint to finish off with
2007 Pendits Tokaji Furmint Édes (late harvest) (Tokaj, 11.5% ABV)
£10.00 (half bottle) from Pannon Wines
Medium gold in colour. Very naturalistic fruit aromas, mostly orchard fruits, and lots of them: cloudy apple juice and comice pear. Medium sweet, but only just past off-dry, and very well balanced. Slightly spicy oak and Demerara sugar flavours on the long finish. Not that complex but very natural-tasting and a pleasure to drink. 90 points, good value.