Better than it looks. Fungus and rotting barrels conceal premium quality Tokaj wine.
Driving over this pass now and dropping down to the plains on the far side is like passing through a gateway to another country. The forested hills which typify most of Slovakia give way to a seemingly endless plain. Perspective is somehow lost, and the empty kilometres to the horizon can only be marked off by the occasional spindly willow tree or ball-and-stick water tower. "Bodrog" - what an appropriate name for a river in such a low, wet country!
The weather is almost uniformly grey and damp. Sprawling fields are crowded with black rooks and thatched by endless cables: electricity, telephone, railway. "A million tons of grain from the lowlands" was the Communist slogan, and the aim was achieved in typical defiance of natural obstacles. An Institute of Irrigation was founded in Michalovce, and miles of channels constructed to drain the land for agriculture. The only trees left standing were intended as windbreaks, running in thin lines along the ditches.
To the south of Trebišov, a grim little town where only the churches are not grey and cuboid, small hills give relief to the flat landscape. A rough road leads to the twin villages of Veľká and Malá Trňa. Here, dug into the soft volcanic tuff, are 20 kilometres of underground wine cellars. The prototypes were shelters used during attacks by the Tartars or the Turks. Since then, so many cellars have been excavated and subsequently enlarged to multi-level structures that it is not uncommon for tunnellers to break through into a neighbour's cellar.
It is in this region where the famous and delicious Tokaj wine is made. 80% of the wine producing district lies in Hungary, which has registered the Tokaj brand name in many countries, thus restricting export opportunities for Slovak producers. The state company is now in liquidation after under-pricing its products, allegedly in a privatization scam. Nevertheless, small producers are going strong and sales are rapidly increasing.
Tokaj wine, with its characteristic taste and golden colour, is not made every year, as conditions are not always favourable for the complicated processes involved in its manufacture. If the month of August happens to be damp, fungi often damage the surface of some grapes in the vineyards and create raisins. A dry autumn is then needed to stop further decomposition. The raisins are collected by hand and crushed to make a sugar-rich extract or "sibeba", which is added to the wine after it is made in January or February. Wines are given a "putňo" rating from 3 to 6 (there is also a 2 rating in Slovakia, but this is not recognised by the Hungarians) according to the amount of extract added: the higher the number, the more extract the wine has and the sweeter, stronger, tastier and more expensive it will be. In past times, the extract was carefully measured according to ratios of standard barrel sizes, the most important of which was the 136 litre Gornský barrel. Now this is all mathematically calculated.
The wine, once bottled or barrelled, is stored in the cellar for a minimum of 3 years. Fungi again play a role. A "mature" cellar has a fine film of cotton-wool fungus which balances the humidity of the air and creates ideal storage conditions. There are holes in the ceiling of the cellar for bacon storage racks and a loaf of bread will keep fresh for a week. Dusty bottles and hefty barrels line the walls of the cellar, tree roots poke through the ceiling. Sitting in an earthy room, sampling a 6 putňový Tokaj which will go on sale in the spring - hiding from an invading army might not be so bad.
Tokaj wine, clearly, is intimately connected with the country in which it is made, and even seems to be sensitive to its people's fortunes: 1989 (the Velvet Revolution) and 1956 (the Hungarian Uprising) were both excellent years for Tokaj. One producer, Mr. Ostrožovič (tel. 0948-938150 to arrange a visit or place an order), has exported to Sweden, hopes to arrange a deal with the Czechs to sell his wines in Prague, and is experimenting with a new product: Tokaj Liqueur. The delicious Tokaj taste at 30 percent alcohol: it could be a knockout.
12. Mar 1998 at 0:00 | Robin Rigg