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SPLIT BETWEEN SLOVAKIA AND HUNGARY, THE TOKAY VINEYARDS ARE PRIZED AMONG WINE LOVERS

Tokay region: An earthy paradise

WINTER is not typically the best time to visit a vineyard. But in Slovakia's tiny Tokay region, tucked into the country's lower right-hand corner within shouting distance of Hungary, late winter provides a dramatic setting for tasting one of the world's most exotic wines.
That is because there is something mysterious and elusive in a sip of well-made Tokay; an effect echoed by the thick, gauzy fog that blanketed the area during a recent visit to the J&J Ostrožovič vineyard in Veľká Tŕňa. The village, whose size belies its name (veľká means large in Slovak), amounts to cluster of a hundred or so frame houses surrounding an unremarkable church.
The morning of our visit, the village almost seemed asleep, or in hibernation. Occasionally a pedestrian walked languidly along, or a car roared down the battered road into the white mist. But the village's glory lies on its outskirts: fields planted with furmint, lipovina, and yellow muscat grapes, the ingredients for Tokay's celebrated dessert wine.


photo: Courtesy of Jaroslav Ostrožovič

WINTER is not typically the best time to visit a vineyard. But in Slovakia's tiny Tokay region, tucked into the country's lower right-hand corner within shouting distance of Hungary, late winter provides a dramatic setting for tasting one of the world's most exotic wines.

That is because there is something mysterious and elusive in a sip of well-made Tokay; an effect echoed by the thick, gauzy fog that blanketed the area during a recent visit to the J&J Ostrožovič vineyard in Veľká Tŕňa. The village, whose size belies its name (veľká means large in Slovak), amounts to cluster of a hundred or so frame houses surrounding an unremarkable church.

The morning of our visit, the village almost seemed asleep, or in hibernation. Occasionally a pedestrian walked languidly along, or a car roared down the battered road into the white mist. But the village's glory lies on its outskirts: fields planted with furmint, lipovina, and yellow muscat grapes, the ingredients for Tokay's celebrated dessert wine.

Bathed in fog, snow-dusted, and drooping, the grapevines looked surreal, an odd source for a product so alive and delicious. Inside the Ostrožovič compound, the mood is much less lugubrious. Amid handsome displays of the vineyard's products, people buzz about doing the operation's winter work: filling orders, preparing machinery for spring, monitoring wine in various late stages of production.

The operation is owned and run by a married couple, Jaroslav and Jaromíra Ostrožovič, who took it over in 1990. Ms Ostrožovič was busy managing some project while we were there, so her husband showed us around. Mr Ostrožovič, a large, robust man with an easy laugh and a passion for his product, showed us first the warehouse where the wine is made.

The room, high-ceilinged, chilly, and workmanlike, reminded us where we were: on a farm. Huge wooden vats of fermenting wine, delivering the pungent live smell of yeast and grape juice in the process of transformation, rose from the dirt floor nearly to the ceiling. A few workers milled about, checking gauges and moving things around.


JAROSLAV Ostrožovič has been producing Tokay since 1990.
photo: Petra Pašková

Ostrožovič patiently explained the process of Tokay production, which starts like any other wine: grapes are picked, crushed, filtered, and then mixed with yeast, which transforms some of the sugar into alcohol. However, what sets Tokay apart is the addition of grapes that are affected by a fungus called botrytis cinerea, also known as "noble rot".

The Tokay region tends to have wide temperature swings in early fall, with night temperatures averaging around 10 degrees Celsius, versus 20-25 degrees by day. This tends to cause a strong morning dew, and later fog.

"A little drop of morning dew on a grape is just enough to let botrytis live for a few hours," Ostrožovič says. "As the temperature rises, the fungus dies off. But just the right dose of noble rot can pierce a grape's skin, causing it to lose moisture without rotting its juices."

And that shrivelling effect is what concentrates the grape's juices, giving the final product its immense concentration of flavour. Grapes affected in this way are called cibebas (aszu in Hungarian), and they are the signature ingredient in Tokay dessert wine. But the conditions for creating cibebas aren't ideal every year, and that's why Tokay is only produced in certain years.

Another quality that makes cibebas precious is that noble rot only effects certain grape bunches - or even certain individual grapes - on a particular vine. That means cibebas must be hand picked, which is labour-intensive work.

"A worker can only pick about eight or 10 kilos in a given day, and that's one reason why the final product is more expensive than regular table wine," Ostrožovič says.


BARRELS in the cellar.
photo: Petra Pašková

In years when noble rot has worked sufficiently, the cibebas are crushed and added to freshly fermented wine made from unaffected grapes. The mixture macerates for between 24 and 48 hours, and is then pressed, filtered, and placed into special wooden barrels. This is when the wine descends into a cellar for ageing - and that's where Ostrožovič took us next, after a detour in the tasting room (see sidebar page 7).

Fortified against the cold by our few sips of the precious nectar, we left for a brief trip to the other side of the village, where a system of cellars is carved into the rocky, volcanic terrain. These cellars are truly strange places.

There tend to be several of them clustered together on one hillside; small, semicircular passageways five or six meters apart, easily hidden from, say, a band of conquering Turks. Ostrožovič unlocked the door of one of them, and a strong, musty smell burst out.

Many wine regions have made good use of the "noble rot" technique pioneered in Tokay, but few others put fungus to work a second time, in the ageing of wine. On the circular ceiling, on the aged, stone black walls, on the battered wooden barrels full of Tokay, on everything in sight, sit clumps of black, fuzzy fungus. The atmosphere is intensely humid; the proper ageing of Tokay requires humidity of between 80 and 95 percent, and patches of the wall not covered by fungus were literally dripping wet. Wetness was everywhere; in the cave's side room, where Ostrožovič holds tastings in the summer, the floor was covered in six inches of standing water, the result of melting snow.

Ostrožovič says that the relationship between the ageing wine and the mould is symbiotic. Wine stored in wooden barrels loses 2 per cent of its volume per year to evaporation. The resulting wine vapour creates the proper atmosphere for the mould.

"If we were to remove the wine from the cave, the mould would perish," he says. The mould, in turn, helps maintain the high humidity, and also creates the microclimate critical to the final flavour of Tokay. That's because the porous wooden barrels also allow the wild aroma created by the mould to infuse the wine.

In short, a Tokay cellar is a world unto itself, a microcosm teeming with almost as much life as a rain forest, and yet at the same time dark and chilly. The temperature is 10-12 degrees Celsius year round; combined with the humidity, it feels quite cold down there.

But to a true wine lover, these cellars graphically represent the constant intermingling of human skill and capricious nature needed to create great wine. They are an intensely earthy paradise.

For more information on Tokay wine production, visit www.tokajske.sk.

Topic: Tourism


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