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An October ode to Olaszrizling

The continued rise of the Olaszrizling grape goes to show that unfancied, journeyman grapes are capable of making quality wine when the vines are treated with respect and tender loving care in the vineyard and the cellar.

While many people will still turn their noses up at the mere mention of the grape, increasing examples show that it can take its place towards the top end of Hungarian whites, and although there is still plenty of the (at best) average stuff around, most of it is at least drinkable, which certainly couldn’t be said in the past.  

Many of the country’s best Olaszrizling offerings will be poured – some 70 wineries with 200 wines – at the sixth Olaszrizling Október Grand Tasting, which will be held at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest on Saturday, October 13 from 2-10 p.m.

While it may once have been a big ask to devote one’s palate to this supposedly humble grape for a whole day, many tasters have still been up for more when the shutters have come crashing down at closing time in the last few years.

Olaszrizling is a highly versatile grape that can make not only dry still wine from the light, fresh and zesty to the rich and concentrated, but is also a key component in botrytized sweet wine, such as the TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese) wines of Austria’s Burgenland, which rival Tokaj Aszú.

Sparkling in Brazil

It’s interesting that it is hardly used to make botrytized – that is grapes afflicted by so-called ‘noble rot’ – sweet wine here in Hungary, although I have had a good one in the past from Badacsony’s Borbély Családi Pincészet (read on for more on them). In Austria, where the grape is called Welschriesling, it is also used to make sparkling wine in the Weinviertel (particularly from grapes sourced from Poysdorf). It is even used in Brazil to make sparkling wine.  

The grape, which is no relation to Riesling, most likely originates from northern Italy (Olasz meaning Italian in Hungarian), where it can be found in regions such as Friuli, Collio and Trentino as Riesling Italico. Central Europe has become a stronghold of the grape, and some those northern Italian regions have historically been part of Central Europe. Indeed, the grape sometimes keeps its Austrian moniker in Trentino’s Alto Adige (also known as Südtirol or South Tyrol).

This essentially pan-Central European grape makes some fine wines in Croatia in Kutjevo and Ilok as Graševina, which are often dry but sometimes sweet and sumptuous. In Slovenia, it goes by the name of Laški Rizling, while in Czech Republic and Slovakia it’s Ryzlink vlašský. It also pops up in Romania as Riesling Italian.

For the grand tasting, a jury of experts blind tasted assorted Hungarian Olaszrizlings to pick the Top Ten. The results certainly confirm the notion that the grape excels on and around the northern side of Lake Balaton, with eight of the top wines coming from there. Badacsony’s Borbély Családi Pincészet scooped top spot, with its “Nász a Bácson” Badacsonyi Olaszrizling Limited Selection 2016, as well as sixth place with Bács hegy Badacsonyi Olaszrizling Selection 2013. This cellar manages to make Olaszrizling that is both concentrated and well structured.  

Moderating Influnce

Badacsony is noted for its volcanic basalt soils but it would be wrong to assume that the grape only thrives in volcanic soil. It can often be hard to retain Olaszrizling’s acidity as the grape gains in sugar as it ripens, but the lake appears to play a moderating influence, preventing the grapes becoming overheated on hot summer nights.

Second place was claimed by the great value Dobosi Pincészet Bio Háromszög Olaszrizling 2016 (this one is just HUF 2,390 from wineliner.com), with Figula Pincészet’s Öreghegy Olaszrizling 2017 third and Sáfránkert Olaszrizling 2017, fourth. Mihály Figula has shown that Olaszrizling can be an excellent articulator of terroir with the wines showing subtle differences. In seventh, the same vineyard pops up again with Homola Pincészet’s Sáfránkert Olaszrizling. These particular wines all come from the Balatonfüred-Csopak region, which has an impressive array of mixed soils that are conducive to retaining that all important acidity to build the wine’s structure.

It’s back to Badacsony for eight place with Laposa Birtok’s Apukám Világa 2016 – a wine made by Zsófi Laposa in a more rustic style that her dad likes – from slightly overripe grapes, fermentation in the barrel and longer ageing than the cellar’s more reductive style. It’s then on to Pannonhalma for Pannonhalmi Apátsági Pincészet Olaszrizling 2017, which is made from various Olaszrizling clones. Pannonhalmi prides itself on its Riesling, but it is important for a leading cellar like this to offer something local. Incidentally, I was up there recently during the harvest and the sensitive Riesling grape seriously suffered from the ongoing rains of September.

Tenth place was claimed by Spiegelberg Kézműves Borpince’s Somlói Olaszrizling 2015. While Olaszrizling isn’t at all planted in Furmint’s Tokaj fortress, and Furmint is only just finding its way into Olaszrizling’s orbit via a frenzy of new planting, the tiny but sacred (in wine terms) Somló Hill is perhaps the only place where a true comparison of Hungary’s two leading white grapes can be made across many vintages. It must be said that Olaszrizling often surpasses Furmint in Somló. For Tamás Kis of Somlói Vandor Pince, Olaszrizling is second only to the Juhfark grape from the volcanic basalt of Somló Hill, while Furmint is fourth in line in terms of the quality of the wine (behind Hárslevelű in third for him).

A pre-purchased ticket to the Olaszrizling Október Grand Tasting costs HUF 9,900 and offers unlimited tasting of Olaszrizling, which some would consider limited in itself – but not me anymore! The price goes up to HUF 10,900 on the day itself.