Hungary boasts two related white varieties which are often confused. Királyléanyka, which translates as ’princess’ and Leányka, which means ’maiden’ or ’girl’.
Difficult family relations
In this case, the maiden came before the princess. Királyleányka is believed to be the product of a spontaneous crossing of Leányka with Kövérszőlő, one of the permitted varieties in Tokaj. This is where it gets confusing though. The two varieties probably both originate in Transylvania, once part of Austro-Hungary, now in Romania. Nowadays, there are two white varieties grown in Romania named Fetească Regală and Fetească Albă (so ’princess’ and ’white maiden’ in Romanian) as well as a dark-skinned variety called Fetească Neagră (’black maiden’), which is totally unrelated.
For many years, Királyleányka was believed to be one and the same as Fetească Regală and Leányka to be identical to Fetească Albă. Given that Fetească Albă is said to be the parent of Fetească Regală together with Grasă de Cotnari (the Romanian name for Kövérszőlő – ’fat grape’), there would seem to be method in this madness. However, DNA profiling has apparently proved this to be incorrect. This is where I become slightly bewildered as I wonder how the original Transylvanian princess and maiden disappeared unless they totally upped sticks to Hungary and were replaced by new varieties in Romania.
If I’m lost, you probably are too, so let’s move on to talk about the varieties themselves.
Leányka is said to have got its curious name during the War of Independence (1848-1849) when villagers were unable to pay priests for services such as baptisms or weddings. So, when a child was born and baptized, the priests were paid in vines which were planted into the Church’s vineyards. Many girls were born, as was a new variety, which the priests wanted to name. They decided to name it after the child whose parents had planted the most vines in her honor. Naturally, this led to some conflict, so to please everyone, they chose the name ’Leányka’ for the new variety.
This old Hungarian variety is less popular than it once was; due to its low productivity and thin skins which are susceptible to berry rot. So it was clearly not the best candidate for large-scale cultivation. Its low acidity also means that the harvest needs to be timed with great care.
It does best in Eger, where the limestone soils enable it to ripen fully and retain acidity. Yet the legendary Egri Leányka’s heyday is clearly over. It’s also found in the nearby Bükk and Mátra, as well as further west in Mór and Neszmély, and south on the Great Plain.
If yields are kept low, Leányka is capable of fine quality, longevity and great versatility, producing both dry and sweet, late-harvest wines. However, Leányka is more commonly used as a blending variety and is often key in Eger blends such as Egri Csillag.
Varietal wines are relatively full-bodied with some floral notes, but with generally rather soft acidity. Historically famous wines also include Móri Leányka which is often semi-sweet.
Pair a dry Leányka with poultry or veal and a semi-sweet Leányka with a slice of spicy apple strudel.
Királyleányka is more widely grown than its probable parent, despite only being introduced to Hungary in the 1970s. It first gained ground around Balatonboglár but is now also grown widely in the Kunság as well as in Eger and the Mátra, where it seems to feel most at home.
The wine is fresh, lightly perfumed and often grapey. It’s more aromatic with herbal and floral notes and has more vibrant acidity than Leányka. Although it’s become popular as an easy-drinking summer quaffer in the last decade or so, its firm acidity also makes it a popular ingredient in blends with more aromatic varieties, where it supports rather than overwhelms them. Unlike Leányka, it’s not a wine with great longevity, so it’s usually produced with reductive technology and best drunk young.
Producers are now also experimenting with other technologies, producing late-harvest sweet versions as well as traditional-method sparkling wine where its relatively low alcohol content and high acidity come into their own when producing base wines. Bottle fermentation further enhances its characteristics and results in gently perfumed sparkling wine.
Youthful Királyleányka pairs well with light dishes like salad or seafood. You could even try it with some fresh cheese, like Gomolya. Otherwise sip it on the terrace or add some fizz to it in a fröccs.