Exploring Dry Furmint through Thick & Thin
LITTLEWINE speaks to two crusaders of dry Furmint, Michael Wenzel and Franz Weninger, about the past, present and future of Furmint as a fine white wine variety
The white grape variety, Furmint, is thought to have originated in the Tokaji region of Hungary, where its existence was first documented in 1571. Throughout the following centuries, the sweet wine created from the variety - Tokaji Aszú - became famous and amongst the most sought after wines in the world. It was even believed to have medicinal powers; the Essencia wine - so rare and so sweet that it is served from a spoon - was given to the seriously ill in hospital. Soon, Furmint itself as a variety - instead of simply the wine region of Tokaj - became well-known also for its dry styles, and the variety was abundant in the fields of what is now known as Austria and Hungary.
With modern-day DNA analysis, we know that it is the child of Gouais Blanc - an obscure, ancient variety that is no longer used for wine production. This might sound bizarre, but in reality it’s not: this variety was widespread in the Middle Ages and has given birth to many of today’s most celebrated varieties, such as Gamay, Riesling and Chardonnay.
There are many legends surrounding the variety, almost all of which have largely been disproved. For a long time, people believed the Altesse grape variety of the Savoie to be Furmint (false) and there are rumours that Furmint came to Tokaj as a gift from Italy, which - while it’s impossible to say that it’s completely false - is extremely unlikely, as DNA tests show us no Italian link whatsoever.
Etymologically speaking, why Furmint?
The simple answer is that we don’t know; its etymology remains shrouded in mystery. Some believe it might come from the Hungarian word, froment, meaning wheaten - referring to its colour - but we have no evidence to support this, so it remains a loose theory.
Ever since the sweet Tokaj wines made from Furmint came onto the scene in the Middle Ages, the wines have been seen as a luxury product. For centuries, sugar was a rarity; even as recently as the early 19th century when Napoleon blocked the trade routes across the seas. As Franz Weninger, who has vineyards on either side of the border - in Burgenland, Austria and Sopron, Hungary - points out:
“There wasn’t sugar cane around - so sweet wine was one of the most important things.”
In historical documents of the 1800s, Furmint was recorded as a noble white grape variety - not only for sweet wines but also for dry wines. However, poor Furmint was about to enter a period of war - both literally and figuratively - with many battles to overcome.
From Fame to Ashes: Furmint’s Vinous Deforestation in the 20th Century
As Michael Wenzel emphasises,
“Back in the 19th century, these writings tell us that Furmint was the noblest white grape. In fact, some wine growers were so interested in Furmint that they grew it exclusively. But then came the arrival of phylloxera [a louse that almost entirely wiped out Europe's vineyards in the 1800s], World War One, Economic Depression, World War Two, the Russian Occupation… These political changes are the reason that Furmint wasn’t grown anymore.”
He continues to explain that after the new National Border was defined in 1920, it became increasingly difficult (almost impossible) for growers to bring vine cuttings across the border into Austria to propagate. In addition, in a post-phylloxera world, growers were scared to plant anything that wasn’t considered super-reliable. Furmint is not always the easiest white grape to cultivate, as it tends to go through an uneven flowering period, and thus produces unstable yields. This, combined with the growing trend for Western European grape varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Müller-Thurgau and Riesling - meant that Furmint was to some degree abandoned.
To make life even harder for the struggling Furmint, the Second World War caused the breakdown of the important wine distribution channels in Sopron. These were largely governed by Jewish families, who were forced into hiding, in order to escape the Nazis.
This build up of unfortunate circumstances led to what we could call the vinous deforestation of Furmint, and in just one century, the variety had all but been forgotten in Austria. The only remaining Furmint was planted higgledy-piggledy in Gemischter Satz field blends.
Wenzel to the Rescue
However, Michael’s father, Robert Wenzel, was convinced that Furmint held great potential, and bravely smuggled suitcase cuttings across the iron curtain from Hungary in 1984. The vines that he planted first bore fruit in 1987, and already by 1988 had the variety been announced by the Austrian Wine Board as a quality grape for wine production. As this was happening, more and more Riesling and Müller-Thurgau was being planted - somewhat paradoxically - as the German tourist trade was demanding varieties with which it was familiar.
Franz Weninger thinks this was as much a mental hurdle to overcome as it was a physical lack of the variety:
“It is so important for Austrian winemakers to learn about their roots. Most of the time, Austrians were happy to be in the West, not in the East; people didn’t feel proud of their history. But before phylloxera, Furmint was the main variety here, and time is slowly changing - we’re happy to trust the past and go further with it.”
“Eastern varieties were in the East, and they wanted to be fresh in the West. It was all in the head. The more Burgenland accepts its roots - who we are and where we come from - the more important it is to know our history. We have to develop our own history again, and Furmint is part of this.”
Both Franz and Michael maintain that Furmint is a wine for fine wine production, not for entry-level wines. Michael says,
“It’s a variety for top wines, but it’s nearly impossible to produce an entry level wine with the variety as it takes so much attention of the winemaker.”
It’s not been an easy ride, as almost all prior knowledge of how to tend Furmint for dry wine in the region had been lost in the chaos of the last century. He remembers,
“It was an adventure, like climbing a summit in Austrian Alps: we had lost so much knowledge. From rootstocks, to trellising, to how to prune, we had to rediscover the best way to handle the grape variety.”
He explains that the variety was the perfect antithesis to the ripe style of the 90s - when everyone else was focusing on somewhat overripe, creamy and oaky Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that lacked structure. Furmint is the antipode of this style. It is fresh, with vibrant acid, a natural tannic structure, and medium-low alcohol levels.
Quietly, both Michael and Franz have been pedalling the Furmint bike to where they are today. They are still discovering how to best express the wine in its dry style, and both are continuing their experiments in the cellar. Franz says,
“I like to work with Furmint as it shows the place very purely. There’s not loads of fruit [aromas] - so little takes the focus away. Instead, there’s an acid background, and secondary aromas from how you age the wine. There’s lots of space for the place to show. I like the acid - it reminds me of Blaufränkisch in this respect. It gives a clean line to the wine.”
Franz feels the future of fine Furmint lies within exploring its potential for oxidative winemaking, saying,
“I look at the grapes and decide whether or not to keep the skins, and I love the oxidative aroma potential of Furmint… I want to experiment more there.”
Michael nods in agreement, adding,
“Furmint is a terroir translator. It really reflects limestone, quartz, loess, volcanic, etc… That’s something really exciting - it is indigenous and translates our origin, and in dry wines I think you can show our soils more obviously than in botrytis sweet wines.”
He also thinks the future of the grape is with oxidative styles:
“I tried for too long in stainless steel and failed. The tannins can bind the oxygen, and the wine gets more freedom even with slightly oxidative or aromas from flor. This shows more excitement than if it’s made in a very reductive state.”
In addition, the pH is never high, so naturally the variety suits no or low sulfite winemaking, with which both growers are experimenting.
The Future of Furmint
There is a beacon of light for Furmint’s future: this natural low pH and late ripening nature of Furmint means that it might be a survivor in a world where its fellow white grapes are struggling. Both growers emphasise that it seems to handle heat spikes very well, which are becoming more and more common in the region. They both feel optimistic about its future, but as Franz emphasises,
“The way of farming is the way. Farming will always be the solution, not the variety.”
Fancy a Furmint Refresher? Try this variety in four guises, crafted carefully by these two winemakers.