The name furmint has been quietly cropping up more and more on shop shelves and wine lists in the UK. It's mostly famous as the key ingredient in the amazing sweet wines of Tokaj, playing a key role in the reputation of sweet Tokaji as the 'King of wines and wine of kings', but over recent years it has been building a reputation as a grape to watch for a new generation of thrilling dry wines.
Furmint is incredibly versatile. It has aspects of riesling in its ability to go from bone dry to intensely sweet, always underlined by a streak of appetising acidity. Then it has similarities to chardonnay in its ability to produce great sparkling wine, steely linear whites (think fiery, spicy Chablis) and complex layered ones (think Burgundy on steroids).
This all makes genetic sense: furmint is a half-sibling of riesling and chardonnay via its parent gouais blanc (aka Heunisch Weiss). But there's much more to it than just a copy of its siblings in the way it captures a little bohemian wildness along with the poise and build of an aristocrat.
Botrytised furmint aszú grapes in Hungary: like Riesling, furmint has the ability to go from bone-dry to intensely sweet
Where is furmint from?
Furmint may have originated in Hungary where it first appeared by that name in 1611. Of the 4,954 hectares planted in the world, Hungary has by far the most with nearly 4,000 hectares, but it is also grown in several of Hungary's neighbouring countries. Its second-biggest home is Slovenia where it is better known as šipon (supposedly a corruption of the nickname Napoleon's soldiers gave – Si c'est bon – for 'it's so good').
In the past it was treated as a high-yielding workhorse but now winemakers are identifying parcels of old vines, harvesting at low yields and giving it proper respect in the winery.
An important feature of any quality grape is an ability to reflect terroir. Furmints grown in Slovenia, Romania or even other Hungarian regions like Somló are distinctive, while within Tokaj, single vineyard selections show clearly how it responds to different micro-locations.
Can furmint age?
The final question for a grape to establish its quality credibility is age-worthiness. There's a long track record of the luscious Aszú wines being able to age for decades, but serious dry wines are relatively new on the scene, though the signs are already there that dry furmint can age. Dry wines almost certainly always existed as a by-product when sweet wines couldn't be made, though in Tokaj, it was the warm dry vintage of 2003 that was a turning point for many producers. A switch in thinking was essential: about how to make dry wines deliberately rather than as an afterthought. This requires different vineyard management for healthy grapes, rather than noble rot, and new approaches to winemaking. Luckily, it turns out that furmint, with the right care and attention, can deliver exciting dry wines too.