Hárslevelű is another Hungarian and Carpathian Basin variety, with yet another name that trips nicely off the tongue is (that’s harsh-level-oo). Naturally, like all varieties in this region, it also has a myriad of other names, including Budai Fehér, Lindenblättriger in Germany and Austria, and Lipovina in many Slavic countries. Its name derives from the shape of its leaves, which resemble the leaves of the Linden tree. In Hungarian it translates as “linden leaf.”
Like its Tokaj stablemate Furmint, it was long thought that Hárslevelű originated from Italy, although without any real evidence. However, it has now been shown by DNA testing to be the offspring of Furmint. Its other parent has not yet been identified. Hárslevelű is also the sibling of Plantscher, an old Swiss variety of Hungarian origin, thus confirming its real roots. Hárslevelű has been used to breed modern Hungarian crosses like Zefír, Kabar, and Ezerfürtű.
Hárslevelű has been around for centuries and is planted across much of Hungary—notably in Tokaj, which boasts around 65 percent of plantings, and the tiny region of Somló. Despite its many good qualities, it seems destined to play a supporting role to other Hungarian whites like Furmint and Olaszrizling. Wines made from Hárslevelű have remarkable depth of flavors and are typified by linden honey and blossom, pollen, chestnut, cloves, pear and elderflower. It adds plumpness to Furmint’s austere structure; and the two are often blended together to produce both dry and sweet wines. Hárslevelű is distinctively aromatic but never overly perfumed or Muscat-like. It’s receptive to botrytis thanks to its large, loose bunches with thick-skinned berries, so is often an ingredient in the Aszú recipe, although a few producers also produce single-varietal Aszú from it too. What’s not to like?
Well, there’s plenty to like. Producers are realizing this too and are increasingly making single-varietal wines from Hárslevelű. Wines produced on loess are smoother and more floral, whilst those on the volcanic soils of Tokaj and Somló have more intense acidity and a rather more honeyed nose, with those from Somló tending to be more mineral. Hárslevelű from hot southern Villány-Siklos is softer and fuller bodied with riper fruit and plenty of aromatic honey. Hárslevelű has the potential to produce equally great dry wines as the current rising star, Furmint, with the best being full-bodied and viscous. Its honeyed, floral character also makes it a popular variety in Tokaj for the recent trend in sweet, late-harvest wines. This truly exciting diversity is one of the variety’s strengths, yet perhaps also a weakness, as it’s difficult to put your finger on what exactly Hárslevelű is.
Hárslevelű is the tenth most planted variety in Hungary and with enough appealing characteristics to become one of Hungary’s flagship wines. But it doesn’t play the leading role in any wine region. Nor do many producers hail it as their top wine, despite now beginning to pay it greater attention.
Unfortunately, Hárslevelű is also tarred with a brush from Hungary’s socialist past, which doesn’t do anything to further its case. Many people still see the off-dry Debrői Hárslevelű as a reference for the variety. Debrői Hárslevelű is a brand assigned to Debrő in the Eger wine region during the planned economy and synonymous with high yields, poor quality and often added sweetness. To add insult to injury, 15 percent of other varieties, even aromatic ones such as Tramini, can be added to the brew, thus giving Hárslevelű the image of sweet, aromatic plonk. High quality wines from quality producers, primarily from Tokaj and Somló, on whose volcanic soils the variety feels particularly at home, should help to put this image to rest, but unfortunately impressions linger on and such wines continue to be made for the bottom shelf.
Hárslevelű is also grown across Hungary’s borders in Slovakia, Romania and Austria, where it is used primarily for dry wines. Interestingly, a more remote pocket of Hárslevelű can be found in South Africa’s Swartland, where a handful of producers make appealing single-varietal wines, although the majority is swallowed up in blends.
So, although Hárslevelű does not yet take pride of place in any one wine region, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t pay it greater attention. 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. Sweet wines, whether fruity late-harvest or Aszú style, counter the saltiness of blue cheese perfectly.
Want to taste and learn about Hungarian wines? 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).