20 November 2019, The Tablet

New grape on the block

From the Vineyard

New grape on the block

Beefy reds from Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary were ubiquitous staples at student parties in the 1970s and 1980s and supermarket shelves heaved with good quality, easy-drinking Eastern European wines. Restrictive trade regulation and pervasive corruption in pre-1989 communist countries eventually compromised quality and availability.

The last decade, however, has seen a remarkable, if little remarked, revival in countries such as Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, where wines of exceptional quality and good value are now being produced. Furmint, one of the least known of all grape varieties, is without doubt the star of the show. It’s found mainly in Hungary, where it was introduced in 1241 by Tartar invaders. The name was originally froment, possibly from the ripe wheat colour of furmint.

If you have heard of the grape at all, you probably associate it with one of the world’s greatest wines, the intensely sweet Hungarian Tokaji Aszú, beloved of Louis XIV, who called it “le roi des vins et le vin des rois”. Since the seventeenth century furmint has been its dominant grape. Its acidity, tannins, and its proneness to botrytis (or “noble rot”) make it the perfect sweet-wine grape, and Tokaji has been known to be still alive after a century in the bottle.

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