Should not Hárslevelű be the next big thing out of Hungary

Hárslevelű is so more than “the other” grape to Furmint in Tokaj.

Hárslevelű, which is Furmint crossed with Tzimlyansky Belyi, is an aromatic, Hungarian variety first mentioned way back in the 18th century and used for both sweet and dry wines. It goes by many names including Budai Féher, Lindenblättrige and Lipovina.

An offspring of Furmint (Confirmed by José Vouillamoz), makes Hárslevelű a sibling of the old Swiss variety of Hungarian origin, Plantscher, confirming its Hungarian roots, and it was used to breed other Hungarian varieties such as Kabar and Zéfir.

Hárslevelű is a productive, mid budding, late ripening variety with big, loose bunches of small to medium-sized, thin-skinned berries, which is best suited in warmer, volcanic soils. It is prone to noble rot (less so, though, than Furmint) and thus well suited to produce Aszú wines, too.

Wines from Hárslevelű are aromatic and delicately spicy and in blends it adds perfume to the more fiery Furmint in sweet Tokaji wines. Wines are softer than Furmint and mature more quickly.

For food, dry versions pair well with typical Hungarian dishes like chicken paprikás, while aromatic wines with a touch of residual sugar go well with Asian dishes.

But why this focus on what it brings to a blend, when the wine is perfectly capable to deliver beautiful wines on its own?

Hárslevelű may not yet take pride of place in any one wine region – and maybe that is why, but we really should pay greater attention. Hopefully, at the end of this article, readers will agree with me.

Although 65% of the total of Hungary’s roughly 1,500 ha plantings with Hárslevelű – only the country’s 10th most planted grape variety – are in Tokaj, it is grown throughout Hungary: Eger (notably in Debrő), Badacsony and not least Somló. Even in Villány, Hárslevelű is produced, yet in a softer and more honeyed perfumed style.

Producers such as Zsirai, Sanzon and Barta in Tokaj and Tornai in Somló, are taking advantage of the volcanic soils in Tokaj and Somló and are proving the great potential of Hárslevelű in dry wines and I do believe, that the future for the variety lies just there due to its elevated levels of acidity and potential to produce full bodied wines that take on oak very well. It often displays honeyed, smoky aromas and it can take on a herbaceous character and it is even made in flor style similar to Sherry or Vin Jaune of Jura.

Hárslevelű is depending on vineyard selection, clone and age of vine combined with attentive winemaking, and it makes the production of high quality Hárslevelű challenging, but the gauntlet has been picked up and top vineyards in Tokaj such as Öreg Kiraly (rhyolite tuff and clay), Betsek and Szent Tamás are now producing varietal Hárslevelű with winemaking often includes barrel fermentation and ageing for micro-oxidation to soften the wines.

It tends to be easier than Furmint to fall in love with. Smoother and more aromatic with fruity, floral and honey aromas, nice balance, a salty, mineral finish and a fresh acidity and it could be an exciting new style for Tokaj, illustrating the importance of terroir as well.

Mádi dűlő – possibly part of the answer for Hárslevelű from Tokaj.

A group of producers in Mád have joined forces to create an even stricter set of rules than the already strict Tokaji rules – and those for Mádi dűlő are really strict and include:

Only 5 tons per ha – and only 50% can be used for Late Harvest and Szamordoni and only 1.4 litre of Aszú wine can be produced from 1 kilo of Aszú grapes. And only varietal wines – no blends – and only from Furmint or Hárslevelű. Dry wines must be barrel-aged for at least 6 months and the name of the vineyard must be written with the biggest writing on the labels.

This should really highlight Hárslevelű as a variety and the different terroirs of Tokaj!

Barta Pince is one of the producers of Mád and Mádi dűlő wines and they produce brilliant wines from Öreg Király. In general wines with great concentration, genuine varietal typicity and overall elevated levels of acidity (Wines presented at Rovinhud 2019 had 6,1-8,2 grams/litre), which was well balanced with just a touch of residual sugar (Válogatás 2015 had 9,4 grams/litre of residual sugar).

In Somló, vines center around the Somló hill, Somló-hegy, which rises stoutly up within the Nagy Somló PDO, similar to Burgundy’s Corton in shape, latitude and topography, but quite different in geology.
Somló-hegy is an extinct volcano with basalt-rich and sandy soils and has more in common with the volcanic regions of Rangen in Alsace or Etna. The basalt-rich soils particularly prevalent on the upper slopes give a distinctive mineral quality to many of the wines. 

Many Somló wines have been and are barrel-fermented whites seeing oaky, mineral components balanced by marked acidity. The oxidative winemaking makes for wines that age really well and – to many people’s surprise – are best enjoyed slightly below room temperature. 

Somló wines used to rival the fame and reputation of Tokaj because of a centuries-old rumour that drinking these wines increased a man’s chances of conceiving male children… Emperors of the Habsburg dynasty traditionally drank Somló on their wedding night, and the wine was nicknamed ‘naszejszakak bora’ (Wedding night wine). Well, maybe it is time to reclaim its fame. 

A very interesting take on Hárslevelű is the production of sparkling wines. With the grape’s inherent elevated levels of acid, it really makes sense to produce bubbles from it, doesn’t it.

Béres in Tokaj, who really specialize in Hárslevelű, have produced a Tradtional Method sparkling wine in the fashionable Brut Nature style, which shall be really interesting to follow.

Let me share with you some wines, that I have tasted:

Barta Öreg Király Dűlő Hárslevelű 2019
Hárslevelű being more aromatic than Furmint shows in this wine. Tropical fruit aromas such as mango and pineapple mingle with elderflower, white flowers and grapefruit. This wine, too, has high acid levels. It appears softer in texture than the two Furmints, yet possesses a similar minerality.

Sanzon Rány Hárslevelű 2018
This wine is enormously comforting, but also comes with a intense acidity White flowers, apricot quince, lemon peel, roasted hazelnuts and a whiff of saffron. On the palate this flinty minerality underneath the honeyed, buttery sensation.

Sanzon Rány Hárslevelű 2019
I know Erika’s wines quite well, but this new Hárslevelű was really something else. 50% of Hungarian clay amphoras and 50% of 500 litres oak barrels from the brilliant, Austrian cooper, Stockinger, also producing barrels for e.g. Burgundian producers like Rémi Jobard in Meursault.
Really floral with loads of white lily. Ripe lemon zest and an obvious phenolic finish to it. Stony, salty and overall truly mineral. And I love it!

Tornai Grófi Hárslevelű 2015

This is 100% Hárslevelű from Grófi vineyard. Lots of pineapple and ginger with lime and a flinty character. A slightly oily texture is kept in check by a racy acidity. Tropical and spicy on the palate with a large dose of lime zest.

Tornai Grófi Hárslevelű 2017
From the same vineyard as the 2015, but the difference in these two wines… The 2017 was made from super ripe grapes, some 20 hours maceration, fermentation in oak and six months on the lees with lees stirring. There is so much going on in this wine: Candied ginger, honey, nutty, super ripe Golden Delicious apple, orange marmalade and honeysuckle. Amazing acidity to balance out the richness and thick texture of the wine.
The 2017 comes with 10 grams/litre residual sugar and 16% alcohol – but the alcohol was hardly felt in the wine.
IWC Gold and trophy – 2019

Great Hárslevelű is produced elsewhere, too:

Palkó Zsolt Hárslevelű 2020
The Hárslevelű from Badacsony is floral with fennel, ripe pear and bruised apple and a very intense, fiery and mineral expression.

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