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Olaszrizling—a Riesling in name only

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Hungary’s most widely planted white grape variety, often snubbed by those with more discerning palates, is Olaszrizling (which translates as “Italian Riesling”). This archetypical Central European variety goes by a variety of monikers. It’s  Welschriesling in Austria, Riesling Italico in Italy and Romania, Laški Rizling in Slovenia, Rylink Vlašský in the Czech Republic, Rizling Italyanski in Serbia, and Rizling Vlašský in Slovakia.

Confusingly, the grape is not at all related to Germany’s noble Rhine or White Riesling (which is typically referred to simply as Riesling).  And it’s not Italian, which many of the names imply. The Hungarians tried to remove this confusion a few years ago by suggesting a name change, offering several alternatives—Nemes, Oris and Mandula. But the idea never caught on, so Olaszrizling it remains. Croatia is perhaps the variety’s real stronghold, with around 5,000 hectares planted, plus several thousand more in back gardens across the country. But there’s no confusion in Croatia since the variety is known as Graševina, which has become the internationally accepted name.

So, why is this variety generally maligned, often unfairly? Well, it is frequently found in local bars and restaurants as the cheapest house wine. It’s often sold in bulk as folyó (jug) wine. And it is generally seen as a basic quaffer, as well as being the typical wine to use in the Hungarian wine spritzer, fröccs. Olaszrizling is grown everywhere in Hungary except Tokaj, and it has long been viewed as a workhorse grape, with nearly 5,000 hectares planted. In Croatia, it’s a standardized cheap wine with some residual sugar, representing every fourth bottle sold in the country. Austrian Welschriesling, mainly from Burgenland and Styria, is a light, dry wine with crisp acidity.

Yet, the variety is capable of far more. It’s productive, late ripening and budding, but retains acidity if yields are controlled, which they frequently aren’t. Around the Neusiedlersee in Austria, often blended with chardonnay, it can produce wonderful, unctuous botrytized sweet wines, which scoop up numerous international awards. When taken seriously, it can yield rich, terroir-driven, single-vineyard, refined dry wines.

Olaszrizling is Lake Balaton’s wine, which is perhaps where it got its bad name! Drunk in large quantities by holidaymakers not particularly concerned about quality but only interested in slaking their thirst, Balaton Olaszrizling was certainly able to live up, or down, to its repute. However, the situation has been changing over the last few years. Balaton winemakers have decided to make Olaszrizling their grape and are trying to up its image and quality. As it can produce both easy-drinking and more sophisticated wines, the Balaton winemakers have decided to let it do just that, yet with a bit of control. Clubbing together, they’ve created a standardized, entry-level brand—BalatonBor—that can be produced all around the lake by any producer, so long as it meets certain requirements and passes a tasting panel.

The next stage is a community wine—Hegybor—which must come from one historic winemaking ‘hill’. In the past, wines were often sold with the name of the hill they came from, e.g. Badacsony, Szent György-hegy, or Somló, rather than the variety. These wines should be fuller bodied with more oak influence. The top level—vineyard-selected—should show more terroir-driven characteristics. The variety really comes into its own on the volcanic basalt soils of Somló and Badacsony where the wines show greater depth. Whereas the variety’s Hungarian spiritual home can be found further along the northern shore at Csopak, where quality-conscious producers have established a strict quality system, the Csopak Codex, which has been functioning successfully since 2012. Csopak’s producers turn out some seriously sophisticated vineyard-selected wines that show what Olaszrizling is capable of.

Wines made from Olaszrizling range from simple wines with flavors of lemon, apple, almond, and perhaps some floral notes to more sophisticated, terroir-driven wines with mineral, salty notes and riper peach or mandarin fruit. Csopak wines may also have a touch of rhubarb. Some Olaszrizling is made into botrytized sweet wines, which are luscious with ripe fruit and honey, with brittle, burnt caramel, marzipan and vanilla notes developing as they age.

So, quench your thirst with an Olaszrizling-based fröccs in the summer along with a lángos down at the Balaton. Sip it as an aperitif or pair it with some rantott hús, aka Wiener Schnitzel, smoked fish or some local cheese. Enjoy a single-vineyard Olaszrizling with salty mineral notes at a fine-dining restaurant in Budapest. Oh, and don’t forget to save room for dessert to savor with a sweet late-harvest or botrytized wine. Simply enjoy the versatility of this most Hungarian of grapes.

Want to taste Olaszrizling from Hungary? Visit The Tasting Table Budapest. Order from our menu, or book one of our daily tastings: Wine, Cheese, & Charcuterie Tasting and Essentials of Hungarian Wine Tasting). 

Want to taste Hungarian wine straight from the source? Taste Hungary has daily small-group wine tours featuring the TokajVillányBalaton & Somló, and Eger regions. We also offer daily private tours to all regions.