There is a wide array of indigenous white grape varietals will require an introduction for those unfamiliar with Hungarian wines, and sometimes even for those with some knowledge. We have picked selection of our favourite varietals to give a short description of their most common characteristics.
1. Furmint: The best known and most commonly grown grape in Hungary’s world famous Tokaj region, Furmint had to be our first Hungarian grape. It makes up around 70% of the vines planted in Tokaj, and has also made a name for itself in the Somló region. It produces fine, fiery dry wines, with high levels of acidity, which can make them good for aging.
For dry wines the harvest starts usually in September, however sweet wine specific harvest can start in the second half of October or even later, and is often inflicted with Botrytis, or the Noble Rot.
The name Furmint may have been taken from the Hungarian word “froment” because of the characteristic wheat-gold colour of the wine. The origins of the grape varietal are not certain, but is possible that the grape was brought to Hungary in the 13th century during the reign of King Béla IV.
2. Hárslevelű (pronounced Harsh-leva-loo): We promise it does not taste ‘harsh’! This white grape may be hard to pronounce, but it is the second most widely planted grape in Hungary, and makes up approximately 18% of the vines in Tokaj. It is most famous as one of the three grapes that make up the sweet wines of Tokaji, where it is added to Furmint and Muscat to bring floral aromas and richness to the blend. These days it is also increasingly appearing on its own as an independent dry varietal white. The name Hárslevelű translates as “Linden Leaf,” and good examples of Hárslevelű wines are powerfully aromatic, rich, green-gold, with Linden honey flavours. The Hárslevelű of Somló is particularly prized, where it produces wines with greater minerality and less aroma.
3. Olaszrizling (pronounced Olas-riz-ling): These vines were widely planted throughout Central and Eastern Europe under Communism due to its high yields, and it remains Hungary’s most planted white grape, despite being introduced to the country less than a century ago. It is the same grape as Austria’s Welschriesling, although examples from Hungary tend to have more body than their Austrian counterparts due to Hungary’s warmer climate – Olaszrizling produced around Lake Balaton, Somló, and Eger is particularly prized. It responds well to aging in oak and has a unique bitter almond character. Despite the name it has no link to the Riesling grape of Germany.
4. Irsai Olivér (pronounced Ear-shay Oliver): A relatively recent introduction to Central and Eastern European wine, this is an example of cross breeding Pozsony and Pearl of Csaba grapes. Developed in the 1930s for basic table wines, the resulting Irsai Olivér ripens early and easily and produces wines known for their perfumed, Muscat-like aromas. Irsai Olivér wines are typically light and refreshing, with a juicy tropical fruit character on the palate.
5. Cserszegi fűszeres (pronounced Chair-seg-ee foo-ser-esh): This is a white native Hungarian grape variety. It is named after its place of origin: Cserszegtomaj near Keszthely. The word fűszeres means “spicy”. The white Cserszegi fűszeres is a hybrid between the Irsai Olivér and Roter Traminer, a member of the Traminer family and closely related to Gewürztraminer. It was created in 1960 by Károly Bakonyi, whose family we are very close to, at the Pannon University of Agriculture.
6. Kéknyelű (pronounced Cake-nyel-loo): Unlike most of the red varietal grapes that start with “kek” (which literally translates as “blue” in Hungarian), Kéknyelű is a white grape; the name translating as “blue stalk.” This venerated grape was once widely planted, but due to its extremely temperamental nature and tiny yields it came close to disappearing altogether during Communist times. It is now found almost exclusively on the north shores of Lake Balaton, where it produces small quantities of very unusual wines.
7. Mustact Lunel: there are many types of Muscat grape, but the one we are most concerned with here is the extensively titled Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, thankfully also known as Muscat Lunel or Yellow Muscat in Hungary. The oldest and finest grape in the Muscat family, it makes up about 8% of the planted vines in Tokaj, and is the third major component of Tokaji Aszu. Lots of people ask why you can’t say a wine tastes of grapes – well, muscat is one of the varieties where you traditionally can, without expecting to be laughed at. Look out for orange flowers and spicy hints as well, and a strong perfume. Outside of Tokaj another variety of Muscat – Muscat Ottonel – is the most widely planted, and takes up considerably more hectares than Muscat Lunel.
8. Juhfark (pronounced You-farc): Meaning ‘SHEEP-TAIL’ this grape is of Hungarian origin, and prior to the outbreak of the phylloxera blight, it was well-known and widespread in Hungary. Its name is nowadays mostly connected with Somló, but it is springing into new life as an independent variety in several places, mostly on the northern shore of the Balaton. It takes its name from the shape of the grape bunches on the vine, which are slightly curved, like a sheep’s tail. This white hunga-ricum, like furmint and kéknyelű, yields a wine of restrained bouquet but strong, full bodied character and high acidity. It amply repays being allowed to mature, and ages excellently.
9. Leanyka (pronounced Le-aan-ka): We can date the spread of this varietal, which originated in Transylvania, to the mid- nineteenth century. It favours primarily volcanic soils as these encourage its discreet bouquet and soft acids. Thus we find it mainly in the Eger and Mátraalja regions, where the wine from it often becomes nectar-sweet in bouquet and pleasant in flavour. It is an ideal ‘conversation-wine’. In better years it reaches quite a high level of sugar, which makes it not only medium- sweet but also slower to mature.
10. Kiralyleanyka (pronounced keer-ay-le-aan-ka): An exciting cross between Koverszolo (known as Grasă in Romania) and Leanyka. Light bodied, with a nice balance between fruity and floral. Dry and fresh with acidity and specific flavour.
11. Zenit (pronounced zen-eet): Zenit is an early ripening hybrid of Bouvier and Ezerjo. The wines are normally enjoyed young, during the same year as the vintage. Zenit is predominantly used making Hungary’s favourite sparkling wines – Pezsgo. Its aromatic with many primary fruity notes.
And the list of delicious white varietals doesn’t come close to ending here. Among them are the main indeginous white of the Sopron region, which is Zöld Veltelini (or more commonly known as Grüner Veltliner), and we shouldn’t forget Ezerjo or Szürkebarát for either.