Furmint

Drink Like The Czars – Erzsébet Pince

12 July 2014

Vineyards near TarcalEastern Europe has only one historically great wine region. Many parts of Eastern Europe are capable of producing top-quality wine, certainly, but Tokaj in Hungary stands in a class apart. Its vineyards were classified some 150 years before those of Bordeaux, and its wines were coveted by the Russian and French royal courts for generations.

But Tokaj had a rather rough 20th century, to put it mildly. It had yet to fully recover from phylloxera when World War II hit, and when peace finally came, the communists took over, nationalizing wineries and putting quantity far ahead of quality. Fortunately, some winemakers in Tokaj stubbornly stuck to tradition, producing excellent wines against all odds and passing down their knowledge to the next generation.

Nowadays, Tokaj is no longer recovering from phylloxera, nor war, nor the depredations of communism. Tokaj has unquestionably returned to full, triumphant health. If I learned anything during my two-day stay in Tokaj, I learned that. Tokaji wine is no longer the “legendary” wine of the czars. There’s nothing legendary about it anymore. The wine exists. It is there, in all its regal glory, ready to be tasted by anyone willing to visit.

Erzsebet PinceWine lists in Budapest typically have several options from Tokaj, but nothing compares with going straight to the source. I started with a winery named for Czarina Elizabeth, Erzsébet Pince.

Its cellars, built into a hillside in the town of Tokaj itself, date back to at least 1743, but just five houses down, the cellars bear an inscription dating back to the 16th century. They smell of sweet, old wood and are caked in layers of beneficial black mold, which helps maintain a constant level of humidity, explained owner Hajni Pracser. Her parents started work for the state wine company in 1974, and they founded Erzsébet Pince in its current form in 1989 (its first vintage, however, was not until 1993). They now produce about 10,000 bottles per year, and plan on working up to a maximum of 20,000.

If you can find an Erzsébet Pince wine, don’t hesitate to buy it. We sat down to a tasting on the terrace of Pracser’s winery/home, and each of the wines I tried was a delight:

Erzsebet Pince Cellars2012 Lunée: This cheerful 100% Muscat Blanc had aromas of honeydew and orange peel. There was the expected sweet Muscat fruit on the palate, but it was very light on its feet, with tart, lively acids.

2011 Zafir Dűlő: A blend of 60% Hárslevelű and 40% Furmint, which are classic blending partners in Tokaj — the Hárslevelű adds perfume and softness to the spicy, fiery Furmint. Its name refers to the Zafir vineyard (dűlő), set on a south-facing hillside near Tarcal. This privileged location yielded a predictably excellent wine with a nose of fresh wood and peach pie. It had honeyed fruit, focused acids, some white pepper and notes of oak. I wrote, “Scallops, please!”

2012 Zafir Dűlő: The following vintage had more of a pie-crust smell topped off with citrus, and the flavor had a more distinct orangey note. Again, balanced and zesty.

2012 Estate Furmint: This brilliantly light-gold 100% Furmint comes from the top-quality Zafir and Király vineyards. There was that lovely citrus in the nose again, along with brioche and something floral. It felt very elegant, with notes of bread and fresh white fruits. Sharply focused acids kept everything tightly in balance.

2011 Betsek Dűlő: The Betsek vineyard outside Mád is very stony, in contrast to the clay-heavy Király vineyard. That minerality appears clearly in the finish of this wine, a blend of 90% Hárslevelű and 10% Kabar, a new crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier. It smelled rich and round, with an unusual note of caramel. Aromatic and fruity, the wine felt round and juicy, with lemony acids, a bit of funk and something that reminded me of a baked good, like a danish. The stony finish left no doubt, however, that this is essentially a dry wine.

2012 Király Dűlő: Király is one of Tokaj’s top vineyards, and it shows in this 100% Furmint. It had a light brioche and lime aroma, and notes of white flowers and honey. Bright acids maintained strict balance, and the finish kept going and going. A delight.

Tasting at Erzsebet Pince2011 Late-Harvest Kövérszőlő: This variety, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, almost died out in Tokaj during the phylloxera epidemic. But it was revived in the late 1980s and 90s, and a few wineries like Erzsébet produce varietal wines from it. It had a fresh honeyed aroma, but despite its high sugar content, it did not feel at all syrupy. And not because of powerful acids — instead, there was a wonderfully light, ethereal quality to this wine. 

2004 Szamarodni: Aged for four years in a 500-liter oak barrel, this wine takes on an oxidized, sherry-like character. It smelled of honey and wood but tasted very dry, with lemony acids and more notes of wood. Woodsy, yes, but balanced nevertheless.

2010 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos: Very simply, the more puttonyos in a sweet, Sauternes-like Aszú wine, the higher the sugar content and the richer the flavor (see more specifics here). Six is the maximum, and as of very recently, five is now the minimum (you can still find three- and four-puttonyos wines from past vintages, however). This wine saw two years in new oak, but it retains a very light color and most important, an underlying freshness. It had the classic green honeyed aroma, and richly honeyed fruit balanced by orangey acids. Even so, as Pracser noted, “Your palate is left dry.” No mean feat, considering the sugar content. If you think you don’t like dessert wine, this one might just convert you.

2003 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos: A vibrant amber, this vintage had a darker honey aroma, but it was leavened by some freshness underneath. Thick and rich, the wine had notes of butterscotch, cream, tropical fruit and apricots, kept somehow in balance with prickly acids. Fantastic.

1999 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos: At this age, the wine had turned a shiny caramel color, and the aromas had turned towards brown sugar, burnt caramel and molasses (Pracser also pointed out leather and plum jam). Flavors, too, became more complex — orange marmalade, tobacco, even mint. The wine felt rich and deep, yet still very light on its feet. What a joy to drink.

1993 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos: This wine, from Erzsébet Pince’s very first vintage, had mellowed in its age, with dark, dusky flavors of caramel and candied orange. Yet it was still quite lively, with round acids and some soft tannins on the finish. Even after 21 years, the wine still felt wonderfully alive.

Wine writers who discuss Tokaj love to relate how the czars defended their shipments of Tokaji wines with special detachments of cossacks. But really, when you’ve got wines like these, is it any wonder?

Postcard From Bratislava

7 June 2014
2011 Macik Tokaj Mono Furmint

Macik “Mono” Furmint

I’ve never heard anyone express interest in Slovak wine. I’ve never seen a bottle on an American shelf. But I am certainly glad I tried some local wines while visiting Bratislava. As in all Eastern Bloc countries, the Slovak vineyards and wineries suffered under communism, which demanded only quantity, not quality. Now, things are changing for the better, and if you have the fortune to visit Slovakia, you’ll discover an array of unusual and delicious wines on local menus.

I had this 2011 Macik Winery “Mono” Furmint at Ufo, a surprisingly excellent restaurant on top of a communist-era bridge crossing the Danube. This 100% Furmint comes from Slovakia’s tiny chunk of Tokaj, Eastern Europe’s most renowned wine region, the vast majority of which lies in Hungary. It had aromas of honey and green peppercorns, and flavors of sweet fruit, lemony acids and focused gingery spice. Despite its honey tones, the Mono is a dry wine, and its acids worked very well with food.

Slovakia exports a little of its wine to the Czech Republic and Poland, and almost none to the U.S. So should you find yourself in Vienna, take an extra day or two and visit Bratislava, which is just an hour away. The city is an absolute delight, and as unlikely as it sounds, so are the local wines.

An Exotic Hungarian Beauty

23 March 2013

Evolucio FurmintThe wines of contemporary Hungary have yet to achieve the fashionability of their Austrian neighbors. Although Hungary’s decadent Tokaji Aszú was all the rage in the 18th century — in fact, in 1707, the vineyards of Tokaj were part of “the first national vineyard classification anywhere,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine — there have been a few bumps on the road since then, most notably when the communists invaded and the state monopoly took over.

Communism tends to value quantity over quality, and during this unfortunate period in Hungarian history, much of the wine industry was devoted to exporting “huge quantities of very ordinary wine to the USSR,” as the Companion explains. Fortunately, Hungary managed to maintain a somewhat mixed economy even under the communist fist, and many individual vineyards remained privately owned, easing the transition to a mostly free-market economy.

Hungary once again exports high-quality wines, both red and white, though it’s usually much easier to find the famed Tokaji Aszú than any of the fine dry table wines being produced. Part of the problem may be that, like Germany and Austria, Hungary often labels its wines according to the grape variety used to make them. This theoretically should be an advantage in the U.S., where we’re far more comfortable with varieties than geographical locations, but it starts to get dicey when the varieties have names like Kadarka and Hárslevelű. And Furmint.

Furmint, unlike Hárslevelű, we Americans at least have a shot at pronouncing. If you happen to find a dry Hungarian white wine in your local shop, it will likely be made from this exciting variety. The Companion calls Furmint “fine and fiery,” and The World Atlas of Wine notes that when Furmint is treated like Chardonnay, “the result is dry, intense, perfumed and mineral-laden.”

The delights of Furmint are unknown to most wine consumers outside of Hungary, however, which means that Furmints tend to be excellent values. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the 2011 Evolúció Furmint is the best white-wine value I’ve tasted since I started writing this blog. The Furmint in this wine came from Tokaj (just to keep things confusing, Tokaj is the region and Tokaji is the sweet wine), where volcanic soils and plenty of south-facing slopes make for ideal vine growing. Beyond that, some sort of magic must happen in Tokaj, because they managed to bottle a thoroughly memorable wine that retails for less than $10.

I knew at first sniff I would love the Evolúció — the spicy, exotic aromas of incense, apples and ginger sucked me right in. It had lush fruit, a midsection of ginger and white pepper, and a punch of tart acids on the finish. I can’t deny that it had a bit of a watery underbelly, but it tasted exotic and sexy nevertheless.

When I found this wine at Binny’s on North and Clybourn, I bought half a case. I never do that. But with flavors like that and a price tag of just $9, I dare say I found my new house white.

SUMMARY

2011 Evolúció Furmint: Aromatic and sexy, with lush fruit and exotic spices. Chill well before serving, and pair with mild to moderately spicy chicken and pork dishes. An amazing value for the money.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this wine at Binny’s for $9.

Read about another fine dry Furmint I tasted here, an unusual late-harvest Furmint here, and a Slovenian Furmint here.

Furmint And Bull’s Blood

23 May 2012

A dear friend and talented graphic designer did me the great favor of designing my business cards some time ago, and I resolved to thank him in proper Odd Bacchus fashion. Since his paternal grandfather is of Hungarian extraction, it seemed like a fun idea to cook up a full-blown Hungarian feast for him and his wife, complete with wine pairings.

Frustratingly, sometimes it seemed that making a full-blown Hungarian feast was easier than finding fine Hungarian wines.

A number of shops in Chicago carry Hungarian wines, but too often it’s low-quality, “semi-sweet” plonk. Binny’s, for example, had a number of unpromising looking bottles in its small Eastern European wine section, to which Georgia, Armenia and Bulgaria apparently send the wines too appalling to drink at home. These countries actually all make fine wine, but it too rarely makes it to the United States.

I moved on to the Austrian section, planning to use the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an excuse to serve wine from across the border. What a pleasant surprise to find a bottle of 2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec hiding in a forest of Grüner Veltliner! And how telling, that Binny’s chose to place this Hungarian wine in the high-class Austrian section, rather than in the Eastern ‘hood with its over-sweet compatriots. I snatched it up.

(more…)

The Tasting Room – Part 1

3 March 2012

We Chicagoans are blessed with an array of fine wine bars, such as In Fine Spirits, Webster’s and Avec. One of my favorites, The Tasting Room, boasts not only an intriguing by-the-glass wine selection, but also beautiful views of the city’s skyline. On my last visit, it was the Sears Tower I contemplated out the second-floor windows, not the Willis, so a return trip was certainly long overdue.

Some old friends and I met up on a clear Thursday evening, arriving early enough to score a plum table by the windows. I perused the wine list, planning my strategy for the evening. A number of unusual and obscure options tempted me, but there was no question what my first drink of the evening would be: a non-vintage (NV) Eric Bordelet “Poire Autentique” from France’s Pays d’Auge region (part of Normandy). This sparkler comes from pears, not grapes.

Monsieur Bordelet, a former sommelier, presides over bio-dynamically farmed orchards of heirloom pear and apple trees, some of which date back to the 18th century. As many as 15 different kinds of pears go into this light yellow/green sparkling cider, which has a mere 4% alcohol content, making it quite easy to drink. Its powerful aroma of ripe, golden pears sucked me right in, and I was impressed by the elegantly tiny bubbles (though there were so many of them as to make it almost foamy). It tasted sweet, acidic and, of course, peary, but the cider finished surprisingly dry. $5 for a three-ounce pour or $10 for six.

I also couldn’t resist trying the 2010 Verus Furmint from Štajerska, also known as Slovenian Styria. I’ve long had a fondness for Slovenian wines, and Slovenia, for that matter, but this glass turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The Oxford Companion to Wine calls Furmint a “fine, fiery white grape variety,” but this fruity, tart wine felt rather flabby, with a watery, slightly chalky finish. It livened up nicely with food, but all in all, it seemed to lack structure. I may have sampled a bottle that had been open too long — noted wine critic Jancis Robinson lavished praise on the 2007 Verus Furmint in this article, which also relates the fascinating story of the company. $5.50 for a three-ounce pour, $11 for six.

Some delicious reds would soon overshadow this small disappointment, but that’s for another post…

 

The Wine Of Kings (Almost)

12 October 2011

Before Bordeaux became the standard for quality wine, there was Tokaji. This Hungarian wine dazzled the royalty for hundreds of years, becoming known as “The king of wines and the wine of kings.” Tokaj’s vineyards were classified into first, second and third growths more than 100 years before their compatriots in eastern France (Tokaj is the place, Tokaji is the wine).

Sweet wines made from Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes rule here. These wines, like fine Sauternes, owe much of their flavor profile to the botrytis fungus, known more poetically as “noble rot.” The renowned Tokaji Aszú, ranging in concentration from two to six puttonyos, is not inexpensive, but it’s a wonderful splurge.

But this is not a post of puttonyos. It’s been years, unfortunately, since I’ve allowed myself a bottle of Tokaji Aszú. Our ridiculously weak dollar has not helped its affordability.

I sampled a somewhat less royal cousin of Tokaji Aszú, a 2008 Disznókő Late-Harvest Tokaji Furmint. This wine, according to the Disznókő website, is aged but a few months in barrels, in order to preserve “intense, fruity flavours and aromas.”

Since one doesn’t run across a non-Aszú late-harvest Furmint every day, I was excited to give it a try.

(more…)