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.

The name takes a little unpacking to understand. The Királyudvar winery is located in Tokaj, a renowned wine region near Hungary’s northern boundary. Although this region is most famous for Sauternes-like Tokaji Aszú, a lusciously sweet wine made from botrytized Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes, this Furmint/Hárslevelű blend is sec, or dry. Sweet wines from Tokaj have been prized for centuries, but dry table wines are a relatively new phenomenon.

Because Furmint grapes are particularly susceptible to the botrytis fungus (noble rot), they’re ideal for Tokaji Aszú, but much harder to use in dry wines. Rather than use chemicals to tackle the botrytis, Királyudvar found a hillside vineyard called Percze where botrytis sets in very late in the season, allowing the grapes to fully ripen before being affected by the fungus.

The resulting dry Furmint delighted all of us at the table. It had a rich, enticing and exotic aroma of overripe pear and perhaps a touch of camphor. Others smelled dark berries and even bubble gum. The lush texture and honeyed flavor reminded me of why Furmint and Hárslevelű work so well in Tokaji Aszú. Ample acids provided refreshing balance, and I loved the clean, minerally finish. The acids also stood up well to my version of “Fisherman’s Soup à la Szeged,” though the pairing didn’t make any sparks fly.

I felt nervous about my $8 bottle of Egri Bikavér, also known as Bull’s Blood, Hungary’s most famous red wine and the only Hungarian red I could find. As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, this Kékfrankos-based wine from Eger (halfway between Budapest and Tokaj) “has been notoriously variable in both quality and character” since the 1980s. My gamble did not pay off. This wine tasted like vanilla-soaked wood, and not much else. It was undrinkable. Fortunately, the Furmint could hold its own even against the beef pörkölt, a thick stew with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and spicy paprika.

I wish that more of Hungary’s finer reds would make their way stateside. Unless you have a reputable source, sticking to whites will be safest. If you do see a dry Hungarian white, I strongly recommend giving it a try. It will likely have been made by a forward-thinking winery and crafted with care. And if you do happen upon a well-priced bottle of Tokaji Aszú, for goodness sake buy it, and bring it over immediately.


2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec: A delightful and unusual white, with a rich aroma and rich flavors tempered by food-friendly acids and attention-grabbing minerals. Drink with light cream- or olive-oil based sauces, or even lightly spicy Asian cuisine. Chill well before serving.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this bottle at Binny’s in Lakeview (in the Austrian section) for $20. Ignore the website’s description — it’s not a dessert wine. It’s fruity, but unquestionably dry.


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.


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