By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 6 October 2018
If you like your dry white wines spicy and aromatic, you will love Hungary’s hidden gem – the Harslevelu grape.
It is best known today across the world as the grape blending partner to the Furmint grape in Hungary’s famous Tokaji Aszu sweet wines – but a new generation of Hungarian winemakers are now experimenting with Harslevelu to make deliciously honeyed dry whites with great success.
Although Harslevelu is actually an offspring of Furmint, its characteristics are very different. This late ripening grape takes its name from the ‘lime leaf’ producing wines which add an essential exotic perfume and softness to the Tokay blend, but Harslevelu on its own as a varietal wine has a distinctive floral, pear, grapefruit and quince character.
Some say it is similar to Austria’s Gruner Veltliner in character, but I find the Austrian grape is much more peppery, while Hungary’s Harslevelu has an appealing fieriness when made as a dry wine.
The rare Harslevelu has a long distinguished history in Hungary – first mentioned back in 1744. Today it is popular across many of Hungary’s 22 wine regions; often associated with Debro in Eger region, the home of Bulls Blood in the foothills of the Matra, but this region does not produce the best examples.
To find the top Harslevelu you need to head to regions with volcanic soils: Somlo in the west and Tokay in the north east of Hungary. In both these regions you can find superb examples of the grape with deep green gold colour, full flavour and a viscous honeyed palate.
Somlo, Hungary’s smallest region, produces wines with a fabulous minerality from the basalt and loess soils. Here Meinklang, an Austrian firm based on the Austro-Hungarian border, make a distinctive dry orange wine using longer skin contact. According to Meinklang’s winemaker Niklas Peltzer: “We think the potential for Harslevelu as a dry white is huge as it has a lot of structure, acidity and herbalness”.
Over 60% of Harslevelu plantings are up in the famous Tokay region in the north east corner of Hungary. Mostly used in sweeter wine cuvees, there are now really interesting examples of dry Harslevelu from Holdvolgy, Beres and Zolton Demeter in Tokay.
Laszlo Meszaros of Tokay winery Disznoko has identified a special old vine clone of Harslevelu called ‘short bunch’ which he had originally thought was Furmint.
“We had made some pure Harslevelu dry wines and late harvest from other vines and we really liked the beautiful bouquet, but found it had a lean structure and green flavours. Now we have replanted the ‘short bunch’ old clone in our special Dorgo vineyard - and we are excited to see the results of this Harslevelu clone in the future”, says Meszaros.
Another winery Carpinus in Tokay (pictured right) makes a great bargain example of the grape sold by discounter Lidl in the UK, who feature of Hungarian wines in special offers, sold at just £7.99.
Elsewhere in Hungary to the south in Hungary in Villany and Pecs regions, it tends to be softer, lower acid and earlier maturing although Bock winery is making good progress with Harslevelu.
Outside Europe, Harslevelu can be found in nearby Slovakia (called Lipovina), in Croatia (Lipolist), in France (Feuile de Tilleul) and Romania. In 2011 it was also authorised in Austria (where it is called Lindenblattrige – a translation of linden/lime leaf) – and the excellent Burgenland producer Umathum is experimenting with the grape.
There is not much found in the warmer climates of the New World, as Harslevelu is sensitive to drought. However, I have tasted interesting examples of Harslevelu in South Africa. There are 75 hectares planted in the Western Cape – mostly in Robertson in the Breede River area – and up in Swartland where Lammershoek winery has some rare 42 year old bushvines of the grape.
Harslevelu’s fascinating pear, limeleaf, honey and quince flavours offer a challenge to sommeliers to choose a perfect food match. The crisper drier styles work well with grilled fish, pork, white meats or rich goats cheese – the fuller flavoured ‘orange wine’ styles match well with a dish like roast rabbit with polenta and crispy bacon.
VARIETAL DRY WHITES
Tokay, Hungary: CARPINUS HARSLEVELU DRY WHITE 2017 (11%) ***STAR VALUE***
A superb price for this rare grape. A deliciously citric, sweet sour, rich sappy minerally style made by the Bai family – it makes a really unusual aperitif.
Somlo, Hungary: MEINKLANG H16 TROCKEN 2016 (12%)
(£19.75 Vintage Roots www.vintageroots.co.uk)
Deep orange colour and rich full flavours from longer skin contact make this a very distinctive version made by the Michlits family who own Meinklang winery on the border of Austria and Hungary.
Tokay, Hungary: HOLDVOLGY EXPRESSION HARSLEVELU 2012 (13.5%)
(£18.99 Justerini & Brooks www.justerinis.com)
A relative newcomer to the Tokay scene, winemaker Pascal Demko in the Mad commune of Tokay makes this pear scented, quince flavoured, nutty mature honeyed example.
SWEET WHITE BLEND
Tokay, Hungary: ATS CUVEE LATE HARVEST 2015 Karoly Ats (10%) ***STAR BUY***
(£17 for 50 cl bt Woodwinters, Edinburgh, Inverness & Bridge of Allan www.woodwinters.com)
A beautiful example of Harslevelu in a blend with Furmint and Muscat Lunel. A very elegant lightly honeyed dessert wine with vivid natural acidity, made from grapes picked beyond full ripeness and aged for a couple of months in large Hungarian oak. Note the very moderate alcohol.
Join Rose’s Champagne v Sparkling Wine Tasting at The Royal Scots Club, Edinburgh on 1 November £45 www.rosemurraybrown.com