Research institutes in Hungary, as in other wine-producing countries, are constantly experimenting, and searching for the perfect grape variety for specific needs. In Hungary, they have bred a wide range of grapes in an effort to achieve certain things—such as specific flavor characteristics or resistance to frost and disease. Of course, not all of these are successful or even make it into production. Sometimes they may simply end up anonymously in blends. But two 20th century Hungarian white crossings have proved remarkably popular in the last few decades—Irsai Olivér (ear-shy olive-air) and its offspring, Cserszegi Fűszeres (chair-seg-ee foo-ser-esh), dubbed the unpronounceable grape by one British Master of Wine.
These two varieties are generally snubbed by wine connoisseurs as being csajos, meaning girly or feminine and not terribly serious. They are both fruity, aromatic varieties that are best consumed fresh and young. But they shouldn’t be dismissed so easily since there’s plenty of room for light, summery, easy-drinking wines. Hungarians certainly seems to think so too, as these grapes are ranked 2nd and 6th in terms of white plantings in Hungary according to a 2016 report.
Irsai Olivér, the parent, has a name which trips off the tongue with slightly greater ease than its offspring. It was originally produced as a table grape in 1930 by Pál Kocsis at the Kecskemét Research Institute by crossing Pozsonyi Féher and Csaba Gyöngye. Officially registered in 1975, it only started being used for wine in the 1980s. Then it quickly became popular thanks to its delicate acidity, fresh fruit, grape and Muscat aromas. It’s best drunk young, however, as it tends to lose its aromas very quickly. It may also be blended with other varieties, thanks to its fragrance, to make a quaffable summer white. By the way, although it’s floral and aromatic, it’s produced as a dry or off-dry wine, not a sweet one.
There are various stories as to how the grape ended up with a person’s name. Some say that Olivér Irsai (in Hungarian surnames come before first names) was a wine merchant who paid to have a variety named after him. Others say that he was the winner in a card game, but the most reliable theory is that he was József Irsai’s son (Irsai was a friend of Kocsis).
In Hungary, Irsai Olivér is widely cultivated on around 1,500 hectares in cooler regions such as Pannonhalma, Mátra, and Neszmély. Balatonboglár is the most southerly region where it does well. It’s also planted in neighboring Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Austria, but can be found as far afield as Japan, India, China, and Australia, as well as the former Soviet Union (Kocsis gave them many vines after World War Two).
Cserszegi Fűszeres has done even better than its parent and is now cultivated on around 4,300 hectares, recently overtaking Olaszrizling to become the country’s second most widely cultivated white variety. It was bred by crossing Irsai Olivér with Savagnin Rose at the Pannon University of Agriculture in 1960 and was officially released in 1982. Károly Bakony’s aim was not only to produce a variety that would make attractive wine, but that would also withstand the winter cold and ripen quickly. It was intended for the northern part of the country, where there is less sunlight, earlier autumn, and cooler temperatures. It didn’t take off right away, but with the cold winters experienced between 1984 and 1987 people started to pay it more interest.
Lots of Cserszegi Fűszeres is found on the Great Plain, where it makes everyday aromatic dry and off-dry whites. It also does well in Etyek-Buda, Balaton-felvidék, Mátra, and Neszmély, where the Hilltop Winery is based. For years, their Woodcutter’s White brand, exported in large quantities, was the most popular take on the variety. Presumably, they didn’t dare use its unpronounceable name on the label in the UK!
More full-bodied than Irsai Olivér, its Muscat character, hints of lychee, aromas reminiscent of wild flowers, and lively acidity have made it popular with drinkers in search of fresh, aromatic wines. It also has lovely spicy notes, including white pepper occasionally, from which it derives its name—fűszeres means spicy. Like Irsai Olivér, it can be found both as a single varietal and also in blends, to which it gives a spicy, perfumed kick.
Drink either variety chilled as an aperitif in the summer, in a refreshing fröccs or perhaps as an aromatic foil to a spicy chicken dish.
Want to taste Hungarian wine straight from the source? Taste Hungary has daily small-group wine tours featuring the Tokaj, Villány, Balaton & Somló, and Eger regions. We also offer daily private tours to all regions.