Olaszrizling the Hungarian Volkswein

If we were handed the task of summing up Hungarian wine in three words; then possibly the trio of fröccs (spritzer), Bikavér and aszú would be the smartest choice. Being translated into grape varieties, it would be Olaszrizling, Kékfrankos and Furmint. Aszú, which is known as “the Wine of Kings” is more a source national pride than an everyday staple. Kékfrankos is still dominated by the Austrians -- we can try as hard as we want but the variety is for those who place an emphasis on quality and also put marketing behind it. The true Volkswein out of this trio is Olaszrizling.

A Gyulánál Az Olaszrizling Az Olaszrizling A rezeda A pohárban

Olaszrizling is the most planted variety in Hungary, loads of us have socialised while imbibing it; this is the basic flavour that our mouths know. This is a wine whose aromas, flavours and acids our receptors become accustomed to in our teenage years. And there is no jostling for this variety, we can keep it for ourselves. 99 out of 100 people would agree with that.

 

But what is Olaszrizling?

Surprisingly when flicking through the pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica of grape varieties – Wine Grapes, Allen Lane, 2012 London – we looked up Olaszrizling under letter “o” and “w” for Welschriesling without much success. From both words we are referred to the Graševina entry. Our Croatian neighbours have hijacked our Olaszrizling, which is only a tiny-lettered synonym under Graševina’s fist-sized font. But the authors of the book also feel that their decision warrants explanation. They put forward the reasoning that this is the most widespread variety in Croatia, and that “Laški Rizling, Olasz Rizling, Riesling Italianico, etc.” are misleading names since Olaszrizling (meaning Italian Riesling) is neither Italian, nor a Riesling.

In response to their first argument, we could say that it’s no different in our country, although it’s a fact that the Croatian area planted with the grape is double the size of the Hungarian one. However, we don’t really have an answer for the next one: Olaszrizling is indeed absolutely not a Riesling. As far as it can be traced back, its origin can be found in Central Europe; more closely to the valley of the Danube and Croatia, while it only appeared in north Italy in the 19th century. According to other sources it arrived here via Champagne or en route from Heidelberg in Germany and spread rapidly in the places where vines wiped out by the phylloxera louse once grew. And there was plenty of space for it: the louse had decimated two-thirds of the vines. While in Ireland it was the potato famine that filled up the boats, the majority of Hungarian people working with grapes also chose America as their new home.

 

From where? To where?

Olaszrizling’s true origin and relatives were obscure for a long time. We know today why this is so: it’s a lonely, solitary and ancient variety. Its family tree doesn’t have any excitement in it for there are no surprising ancestors, big-name relatives, or successful forbearers. Has anybody ever heard of Bussanello or Flavis? Genetic research revealed one interesting thing: a grape variety grown in southern Spain, Borda, has an identical DNS-profile to Olaszrizling.

 

What is a good Olaszrizling like?

While we would like to adopt it, give it our name and ban the Croatians even from visitation rights, we can hardly say anything tangible about it. For example we still can’t put any other flowers alongside the often mentioned reseda whose aroma we are already familiar with. Even if the hard fact is that the aromas of Olaszrizlings with a pure blood line are pronouncedly floral and are most likely reminiscent of a flowery meadow. The other frequent note is almond, which can often be traced on the nose, palate and finish. Its third distinctive quality is the delicately vibrant acid structure – in Olaszrizling harvested when ripe there are never sharp or boisterous acids. Olaszrizling is certainly not the wine of dramatic entrées and 3D action scenes. It can be complex, elegant and rich, showing different shades – especially when it’s grown on volcanic soils. When grown on stony soil, it can gain wings, but on a basic level it’s the wine of familiarity, peacefulness and security. It’s finding the way home after wandering. Even full-bodied, outstanding, deep Olaszrizlings can come from clay, red stone, loess soils following a nice and pleasant late harvest. Nevertheless, the birthplace of the most distinctive, long-lived personalities is possibly the Balaton- felvidék’s hills and Somló. Year after year, a Györgykovács or an Ambrus Bakó wine for example, is the Phaeton among Volksweins.

 

Phylloxera

Phylloxera, or Viteus vitifoliae as it’s called in Latin, belongs to the family of the Phylloxeridae louse that arrived in Europe from the New World, where it became famous sooner than Dallas. It first appeared on the old continent in France, in 1863, and by 1875 it had ruined the roots of the vines in Pancsova (in present day Serbia) where it destroyed the valuable vines from which a significant part of society made a living.

As the tiny monster, also known by the name finóca, thrives on the kind of compact soils that most vines were and continue to be planted in, two-thirds of the plantations on the continent were wiped out within three decades. Despite social cooperation, restrictions regarding the transfer of grapes and state-organised protection, the final cure was brought along by resistant American rootstocks and the spread of grape growing on sand (as the louse cannot survive on low-silicate content soil). That’s how it could happen that on the previously Furmint-dominated white wine areas, Olaszrizling as a more resistant and abundantly growing variety, could spread in a flash in the quickly appearing wine scarcity.