Exploring the Small Carpathians through wine tourism

One of the most arduous forms of travel, and often the least rewarding, is that involving alcohol. Rarely does one remember quite what one saw or what one said, and the amount of recovery needed can exceed the length of the trip itself.

(Source: Majer)

One of the most arduous forms of travel, and often the least rewarding, is that involving alcohol. Rarely does one remember quite what one saw or what one said, and the amount of recovery needed can exceed the length of the trip itself.

All the more surprising, then, that the annual Open Cellar’s Day, put on by the Small Carpathian Wine Route Association, is sold out months in advance every year. This year’s edition, scheduled for November 14 and 15, is no exception: For Sk1,000, ticket holders are entitled to visit as many as they wish of the hundreds of wine cellars between Bratislava and Trnava that will be participating in the event. They can taste as much wine as they want, and are also entitled to take home Sk500 worth of bottled wine of their choice.

Now, this may read like a recipe for disaster, or at least for an attack of the bedspins. But for those who approach the event with moderation and suitable caution, the Open Cellars Day can be a glorious ramble through the countryside below the Small Carpathians mountains. And you don’t need a ticket – you can just show up, sample some wine of your choice (for a small fee), and buy a case or two. The Open Cellars Day, because it is so busy, is one of the best times to visit these cellars to soak up the atmosphere and to find the vintner at home and in a hospitable and capitalistic mood; but you can actually arrange tastings and purchases at any time at many of these cellars by telephone (for a list of cellars that accept such bookings, see the Small Carpathian Wine Route Association’s excellent web site at www.mvc.sk, with English version available; click on Vintners).

Less route, more region

The Wine Route is not actually a route, but a broad region of about 2,000 square kilometers in south-western Slovakia. It is bordered by Bratislava and Trnava, but also includes such little-visited destinations as Smolenice, Budmerice and Bahoň; touring around in a car and stopping at these out-of-the-way cellars will allow you to experience Slovakia in a unusual and unforgettable way.

One of the most interesting directions to head in, if you are coming from Bratislava, is to take Račianská Street out of the city towards the north-east, which will bring you first to Svätý Jur, and then Limbach, Pezinok and Modra. Each of these towns (don’t call them villages within earshot of the residents, or they will not be best pleased) nestles into the Small Carpathians themselves, meaning that you can combine your wine tasting with a walk or hike into the hills. With a maximum altitude of 750 meters, these ‘mountains’ are gentle enough for everyone, and offer a variety of picnic tables and outdoor gazebos to have lunch at.

Another route to pursue is towards Senec, slightly more towards the west, through Bernolákovo and Veľký Biel. If you book ahead, you can combine your wine pilgrimage with a visit to a restaurant in the nearby villages of Chorvatský Grob or Slovenský Grob, which are famous for their goose, a local delicacy. Such meals can be surprisingly expensive, up to several thousand crowns a person, but every foreigner in Slovakia for more than a few weeks owes it to themselves to try it at least once, complete with lokše (unsweetened pancakes), pečienka (goose liver), hruškovica (pear brandy), white wine from the cellar, and, of course, the main event – a goose roasted in a clay pot over a wood fire, according to the traditional methods.

Whichever route you take, however, remember one thing: Slovak law does not allow drivers to have any alcohol in their bloodstream. For those who think police are lax about actually enforcing this law, in early September I was stopped for a roadside breathalyzer test in Svätý Jur at 7 a.m. one morning (!). So let someone else do the driving – they’ll also be able to tell you what you missed if you get carried away.

Red wine in Slovakia

Frankovka modrá, widely planted in Austria and southern Germany, makes, at its best, a red with racy acidity balanced by tannins. It is usually well extracted and has an inky color.
Svätovavrinecké, St Lawrence in English, is used by small wineries to make a powerful, well-extracted red worthy of a steak. The Hacaj winery in Pezinok gives this French grape a light, summery twist.

Alibernet and Neronet are hybrids made, in part, from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. They create concentrated, tannic wines with nice fruit characteristics.

Rulandské modré, Pinot Noir in English, is the chief ingredient in Burgundy’s famous reds. Slovak Pinots have a brick-red color, and give hints of raspberry.

Modrý Portugal, an Austrian grape, makes a light red suitable for chilling and summer drinking.

White wine

Rulandské biele, Pinot Blanc in English. This French grape is a favorite of high-end Slovak winemakers. It makes a complex wine with slight yeast on the nose and a brisk acidic finish.

Devín is a fast-ripening grape developed by Slovak enologists. It makes a full-bodied and acidic wine.

Sauvignon (blanc). When this French wine is done well in Slovakia, the taste is stunningly good: peach and currants wrapped in a harmoniously acidic package.

Tramín is known in English by its German name, Gewürztraminer. One of the world’s great grapes, Tramín has a powerful, flowery bouquet and a long, spicy flavor. Small-batch Slovak producers treat this grape with particular finesse.

Müller Thurgau, created by a Dr Müller in the German town Thurgau, is the most widely planted grape in Slovakia. It can make for a less acidic wine than other Slovak wines, but on the whole it’s nothing special.

Rizling Rýnsky, known in English as Riesling, is a German grape used to make the world’s most celebrated white wine. It is known for a powerful fruit taste and long, acidic finish.

Rizling Vlašský, known as Welschriesling or Italian Riesling, actually originated in France. Very popular in Slovakia, Rizling Vlašský delivers a flowery-fruity nose and a fresh, spicy flavor.

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