ALTHOUGH central Europe doesn't get the amount of sun that some regions of France, Italy or Spain do, Slovak wines are fast climbing the quality ladder. And there is a long tradition of winemaking here, stretching back 3,000 years to the time of the Celts.
However, Professor Fedor Malík of the Department of Chemical and Food Technology at the Slovak Technical University in Bratislava, told The Slovak Spectator that this country has only recently started making modern European wines.
Professor Malík is a highly respected figure in central European viticulture, and was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the French government.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How old is the tradition of viticulture in Slovakia?
Fedor Malík (FM): If you had asked me this question 20 years ago, I would have said that it was the ancient Romans who brought winemaking to Slovakia. However 700 hundreds years before the Romans there were the Celts.
Archeological findings, such as clay crocks and knives for cutting the vines that were found in the 1950s under the Molpier hill near Smolenice, prove the Celts grew vines and produced wine a few hundreds years before the Romans. Thus, by my estimation, the tradition is approximately 3,000 years old.
TSS: Where in Slovakia is winemaking typical and what wines characterise these regions?
FM: The wine-growing regions are mentioned in the Slovak law on wine.
They are the regions of Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians), Nitra, southern Slovakia, central Slovakia, eastern Slovakia and the special region of Tokay. Each of them has its own rich history.
I suppose we have more information about the Malé Karpaty region than the others. It's not surprising, though. After all, Bratislava, which is near the Malé Karpaty hills, lies at the crossing point of centuries' old trading paths. It wasn't just a royal town.
I'm not a professional historian, it's more of a hobby, but I have been researching the tastes and bouquets of the wines of the regions in various documents.
Matej Bel (17th to 18th century polymath) writes very interestingly on the subject, and many others before him too, such as Ján Matej Korabinský (18th to 19th century geographer and educator), who described wines from the Modra region.
This sort of wine was known for its powerful and acidic finish and that is how it remained for centuries.
Typical for the Malé Karpaty region are white wine varieties that have been there for 200 to 300 years: Silvánske zelené, Veltlínske zelené and Rizling Rýnsky and Rizling Vlašský (in English, Riesling, and Welschriesling or Italian Riesling).
It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that varieties of the Burgundy vine started to be grown, producing wines like Rulandské biele, Rulandské sivé and Rulandské modré. During the past 20 years we have seen that blue-vine types are spreading in the Malé Karpaty, resulting in interesting red wines.
TSS: If you had to compare Slovak wines, their flavour and bouquet, how would they fare?
FM: I enjoy reading Ján Smrek, the Slovak poet. In his poem "Inšpiruje ma vaše víno" (Your wine inspires me) he writes, "The wine is a bit sourer than I want but maybe that's why I love it". It means that Slovak wines had a stong, sharp flavour.
Nowadays, we are learning how to make more delicate wines, lessening the impact of the acids. We make our wines "more European". This applies mainly to white wines. A well-made wine from central Europe or Slovakia is the equal of, or even better, than many Italian or Spanish wines.
The situation is a little different when speaking about red wines. The blue varieties need more sunlight, but unfortunately this region does not get enough sun - something we've been witness to this autumn.
However, human beings are ingenious. Vine-cultivators have succeeded in producing interesting blue type vine that does not need so much sunlight, and which requires a shorter vegetation period.
Winemakers are able to produce very interesting red wines from them, like Modrodub Nitra, and Hron. These are very similar to Cabernet Sauvignon with spicy bouquets, and they are comparable with many dry wines from France, Spain and Italy.
TSS: Which of the wines made in Slovakia are considered to be the best?
FM: I cannot tell you this because viticulture ethics doesn't allow it. But your question may be well answered in the new guide to Slovak wines that is appearing before Christmas.
TSS: Do you think that well-known international wines like French or Australian are more a result of good marketing or are they really of a higher quality? And what about Slovak marketing and viticulture?
FM: Well, all the factors go hand in hand. The continuous tradition of building a winemaking company in France or other countries has not been interrupted by an experiment that took 40 years, socialism in Slovakia. Without that, Slovak wines would occupy a far better position on the market than they do today.
The whole winemaking tradition and viticulture in France has a much stronger cultural basis than in Slovakia. On the other hand, development has been more dynamic in Slovakia, like in the "New World", where viticulture doesn't have such a deep tradition.
However, viticulture in Slovakia still lacks investment. The truth is that the good wine is made where the investment is. If you are aiming at a regulated fermentation process and the transformation of all the good characteristics of a grape into the wine, you need modern fermenting equipment, which costs a lot of money.
TSS: What about the culture and consumption of wine in Slovakia? It is known, for example, that in France people like to drink a little wine after a meal. Do people in Slovakia know how to drink wine?
FM: Well, I'm not going to talk about consumer habits like drinking wine after meals. In Slovakia, there never was such a tradition. No one here has a two-hour break after lunch to be able to do that.
On the other hand, the culture of wine consumption has been much improved over the last few years. I see it in the people. People have started to perceive wine as a sign of culture.
Maybe it is also a result of the growing amount of literature about wine in Slovakia. Wine is now perceived less as an alcoholic drink and more as a cultural beverage that can protect health and cheer a man up.
TSS: You mentioned some problems with Slovak viticulture, such as a lack of investment. Are there any other problems?
FM: The thinking amongst winemakers has changed a lot in the last 10 years. But there are unsolved ownership issues, as a result of decades of socialism that are, in my opinion, the biggest current barriers to the further development of Slovak viticulture. It is common that several owners lay claim to the same piece of land and so nobody wants to invest in it.
The other problem is that Slovak winemakers, especially the small ones, very rarely go abroad to obtain experience. You could literally count on one hand those who have been abroad for several months or years. Many of our winemakers are convinced they are the hub of the universe and that everything they do is just wonderful.
But the truth is that Slovakia makes only 0.2 percent of the world's wine. And we're nowhere near self-sufficient in wine - about 40 percent of wine consumed in Slovakia is imported.
1. Nov 2004 at 0:00 | Marta Ďurianová