Much as we don’t like to think of ourselves as stuck in a rut, when it comes to grape varieties, most of us, even us imaginative and adventurous Swiggers, tend to stick rather unimaginatively to a bucket of about 15 varieties that we know and like.
With its greatly varying and ancient volanic soils, terroirs and indigenous grapes, Tokaj couldn't be any better a place to experiment with terroir, which is exactly what our friends Szilvia Karadi and Zsolt Berger are doing in the close to the town of Erdőbénye, north eastern Hungary. Their wines are fruits of some of the finest vineyard sites in Hungary (the Palandor vineyard was classified as a ‘first growth’ in 1795) and have graced the candelabra-ed dinner tables of Hungarian royals for centuries – but over here, beyond a few wine anoraks and sommeliers, hardly a soul knows their value.
Palandor Vineyard - Karadi-Berger
Tokaji Furmint Palandor Karadi-Berger 2019 £18.50
Tasting wines like this Furmint reminds us how very important is it is to think outside the box, to step out of our comfort zones and to try something new, particularly from a country as exciting as Hungary. It's so refreshing to find a wine that's so unique, yet so appealling, managing to be succulent as well as stony. It throbs with key lime zest, meadow herbs and a juicy whipped lime pudding, shimmering with a volcanic soil-derived nervy minerality. The palate has more of that lovely limey-ness, but is more plush, baked apple and quince, with some floral high notes and even a hint of cardamon, finishing long and with furmint’s trademark mouthwatering acidity. Really a very gastronomic wine that could take you through a number of courses- try with roasted fig, mozzarella and parma salad with torn basil leaves, monkfish skewers, chicken with morels or roast pork loin with apple sauce. We think it would be a marvellous pairing with an aromatic Indian curry too with lots of cardamon.
"Some Hungarian purists think that producers in Tokaj should stick to the traditional sweet styles of wine that made the region famous. But I love these dry wines made from the region’s distinctive and noble grape variety that has so much fire-and-brimstone personality – and ages particularly well." Jancis Robinson MW
The lowdown on Hungary and the Furmint grape
Tokaj is the birthplace of one of the world’s oldest sweet wines, Tokaji Aszú, a wine respected the wine-world over as one of the truly classic desert wines. Every Hungarian child knows the lines of the national anthem referring to the famous wine (’you poured nectar on the vines of Tokay’) and its fame and adoration predates Sauternes.
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, and it's only really since then that Furmint has shaken off its reputation as a high-yielding, workhorse grape and been accepted of producing really superb dry wines.
You might have raised your eyebrows at our comparison to white Burgundy, but Furmint in fact shares a parent with both Chardonnay and Riesling, and like Chardonnay, is incredibly versatile, and capable of producing sparkling, sweet and still dry wines that can vary hugely according to soil type and winemaking- from zingy, lighter expressions, or more rounded and highly concentrated versions courtesy of the old vines, like this wine. All wines retain the grape's streak of of appetising and moreish acidity that makes them so very food-friendly.
The town of Erdőbénye