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Wine: A celebration of Olaszrizling in October

A sampling of Hungary’s most widely planted grape produced some ordinary vintages and some real winners.

A source of fine Olaszrizling: Badacsony, right and the surrounding hills. (Photo: kirandulo)

The animated and youthful crowd at the Grand Olaszrizling Tasting, the centerpiece event of Olaszrizling Október, at Sofitel on October 10 certainly served to show that this pan-Central European grape is continuing to shed its one-time lowly reputation. Indeed, the prospect of a day of serious tasting devoted to the Olaszrizling grape would have seemed preposterous just a few years ago, but the fact that this has become a hotly anticipated event shows things can change once vintners take a grape seriously.

While plenty of offerings were clean and correct but ultimately no great shakes, there were some that showed that Hungary’s most widely planted white wine grape is capable of making excellent wine. Some of the prime hot spots for Olaszrizling in Hungary fall on the slopes around the northern shores of Lake Balaton, where the soils range from volcanic basalt around Badacsony, with limestone entering the mix in the Káli Basin part of the Balatonfelvidék region. Red Permian sandstone, rendzina, Triassic period limestone, dolomite and marl come into play at Balatonfüred-Csopak. All of these soils appear to favor the grape, enabling it to retain the kind of acidity required to make the wine lively and interesting as the grapes ripen sufficiently to gain enough concentration. The problem with the Olaszrizling grape can be that the structure-building acidity drops off when it picks up enough sugar to be able to ferment it into a big wine. However, this appears to be less of a problem in northern Balaton, where the moderating effect provided by the lake itself could also be beneficial. However, even around Balaton some winemakers admit to adding a bit of acidity to perk up the wine in a hot vintage, although that’s a poor substitute for the electricity brought by the real thing. 2014 was no such vintage, which has led to a number of wines having a real natural zest about them.

The 2014 offering is the third vintage that Gyula Szabó, of the Káli Kövek cellar in Köveskál, opted to make his Rezeda wine purely from Olaszrizling. Rezeda is the Hungarian name for the Reseda (mignonette) plant and the scent of its fragrant flowers is said to be reminiscent of local whites, especially Olaszrizling. To find the ideal balance in 2014, Szabó blended his Olaszrizling from Szent György Hill, where the acidity had dropped off but the flavor was intense, with the more marked acidity of Fekete Hill. The result is a wine of firm body and an enticing combination of stony, nutty, fruity (pear and green apple) and floral notes, with vibrant tension throughout. Incidentally, Olaszrizling often has a touch of almond about it, which some consider a winemaking fault, but a tiny amount can add complexity to the wine.

Related by name only

Incidentally, Olaszrizling is no relation to the noble Riesling grape that’s associated with Germany and especially Alsace. Nevertheless, it is notable that the cool vintage of 2014 has somehow made wines to rival the great Riesling grape. Not only is the aforementioned wine on par with Káli Kövek’s own full-bodied and varietally pure Szentantalfa Riesling 2014 from the Sósi vineyard, the same also occurred with Frigyes Bott’s takes on Olaszrizling and Riesling from 2014. These wines are made by Bott, an ethnic Hungarian, just over the Slovakian border in the region of Muzsla, and the Riesling is usually a notch or two above the less sophisticated Olaszrizling. Bott himself has even said that he doesn’t consider Olaszrizling worthy of making the cut to go into his top blend of Super Granum, which comprises only local varieties of Furmint, Hárslevelű and Juhfark. Bott’s 2014 Olaszrizling, which was soon drained dry by an adoring public at the Olaszrizling Grand Tasting, had a complex and pure nose and palate with peach and apricot merging nicely with nutty notes, along with ideal structure, weight and length. At present it is in even better nick than the similarly impressive Riesling whose acidity is just a touch on the pointy and mouth-watering side, although it should soften with a bit of bottle ageing.

To make matters more confusing, Rizling is an oft-used moniker for the Olaszrizling grape and the two are sometimes blended around Balaton and, indeed, complement each other nicely. Over the border in Austria, Olaszrizling becomes Welschriesling, which typically makes cheap and cheerful bottom shelf dry whites, but comes into its own in being a key ingredient of the world-class sweet wines from around the shores of the Lake Neusiedl (Neusiedler See in German and Fertő tó in Hungarian).

Back at the Balaton and Grand tasting, while Figula’s excellent Olaszrizling from Balatonfüred had been guzzled before I got there, the exciting Szent Donát from neighboring Csopak impressed with five different Olaszrizling bottlings from the 2013 vintage; one estate blend and four single vineyard offerings from four different kinds of soils. While they had much in common, there were subtle differences to be found between the wines on close inspection, and the quality is indeed high. It was no marketing trick to show these vineyards separately but rather the vintage that allowed it: One of perfect ripeness yet with really vibrant and zesty acidity. However, due to the vagaries of the 2014 vintage, Szent Donát are probably likely to come out with a single estate blend only, which was in good shape at the tasting. A similar approach was taken to good effect by the upcoming Petrányi Pince, which is also from Csopak.

While not much Olaszrizling sticks around long enough to age, it was nice to get a chance to sample wines going progressively back to the 2006 vintage from Somló’s Kreinbacher; really impressive specimens that were still very much alive and kicking. Somló has similar volcanic basalt soils to Badacsony and retaining acidity (an important component in enabling a wine to survive the passage of time and subsequently pick up complexity) is seldom a problem. Somló is also one of the few places where you can truly compare Olaszrizling with Hungary’s most prestigious and hyped white wine grape: Furmint. The latter is quickly catching up with Olaszrizling in terms of its share of area under vine in Hungary as wineries rush to plant it up and down the land. However, experience does show that Olaszrizling often has the audacity to outperform Furmint on Somló Hill.