Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wine 101 - Furmint

“vinum regorum, rex vinorum” – the wine of kings and the king of wines. This is how King Louis XIV of France described Tokaji Aszú, arguably Hungary’s most famous wine. Originating in the 15th century, Aszú predates the more famous Sauternes by about 200 years and was championed by kings and czars throughout Europe. This wine was so highly respected that the Hungarian archbishop Draskovich presented it as a gift to Pope Pius IV at the Council of Trent in 1562. "Writers looked to it for inspiration and its virtues are included in the Hungarian national anthem." Tokaji Aszú primary ingredient: the Furmint grape.

Tokaj is a region of land situated in eastern Hungary close to the Ukrainian border and Tokaji simply means “from Tokaj”. Tokaji Aszú is an ultra-sweet white wine and is characterized by an apricot and honey aroma and taste. In fact, it is one of a few wines where the aroma is exactly like the taste. The sweetness and quality of the wine is measured by puttonyos. The wine is made by selecting individual Furmint and Hárslevelu grapes affected by noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea). These grapes are collected in 2.5kg (55 lbs) tubs called “puttonyos”. The grapes in each tub are then mashed and dried into paste (Aszú). Then a certain amount of puttonyos (between 3 and 6) are added to 136 liters (36 gallons) of white grape must. The more puttonyos added to the base stock the sweeter and higher quality the wine. Finally, the wine is matured in small wooden barrels for seven years and later bottled in the classic white Tokaji bottles.

Furmint grapes are not only cultivated in Hungary, but also in Austria where it is known as Mosler, Slovenia where it is called Sipon, and in California, where Limerick Lane Cellars produces two styles: a dry and late harvest dessert. In fact, Limerick Lane Cellars is the only American winery to create wines from Furmint. And their NV Late Harvest Furmint follows as much as possible, the traditional Hungarian methods. Michael Collins, the owner and former winemaker, visited Tokaj and returned with Furmint and Hárslevelu cuttings. After harvesting, Collins and current winemaker Ross Battersby soaked the grapes in their own juice after de-stemming. This allowed the rich flavors from the raisins to be absorbed into the liquid. After pressing, the juice was fermented in old oak barrels and left "sur lie" for three months. The wine was then racked off the lees and barreled for a minimum of three years. The first wine, the 2001 Late Harvest Furmint, exceeded 5 puttonyos and displayed the classic honey and apricot characteristics of Tokaji Aszú. The winery states that this wine is drinking well now and with good cellaring should last long enough for your grand-children to appreciate (at least 50 years). Hungarian winemakers have visited to taste the wine and have been quite impressed. The 2001 Late Harvest Furmint is now sold out, but the current NV Late Harvest Furmint is a blend of three vintages: 2002, 2003 and 2004. This wine has 3 puttonyos of white grape must. Earlier attempts to market Furmint were difficult as "hardly a soul ever heard of it here" – even by California wine aficionados. However, the dry Furmint sold out relatively quickly - even though it was sold strictly from their tasting room as a house white wine. Wine aficionados must be waking up.

If you find yourself in Sonoma make sure you visit Limerick Lane Cellars. While tasting the Zinfandel and Syrah, ask about their Furmint and discuss the level of puttonyos and Aszú. The winery will be impressed with your wine knowledge.
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