This regularly updated feature on Slovak wine includes information on production and harvesting, as well as how to tour the wine routes.
There’s a certain irony in saying that Slovakia is considered among the so-called new wine-producing countries of the world.
Winemaking in these parts has a history dating from the 6th–7th centuries BC. Yet the comparatively low awareness of Slovak wines abroad is largely a result of its patterns of consumption: almost none of the wine makes it past the keen wine-drinkers of Slovakia itself. That largely means that if someone wants to try Slovak wine they need to come here to do so.
The recognition of Slovak wines has improved rapidly in recent years, as proven by recent results in international competitions. Slovak wines won 18 gold and 37 silver medals at the Viniales Internationales Paris 2016 competition and won dozens of medals at competitions in Madrid and Tokyo.
When in 2013 Bratislava hosted one of the world’s most prestigious international wine competitions Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (CMB), its president Baudouin Havaux said that the tasters discovered a region which is maybe less known but has [a lot] to offer. He lists Slovakia alongside places like Chile, New Zealand and South Africa as emerging nations, separate from countries most noted for a tradition of wine production such as Italy, Spain and France.
According to CMB President Baudouin Havaux the tasters discovered a region “which is maybe less known but has [a lot] to offer”. Havaux lists Slovakia alongside places like Chile, New Zealand and South Africa as emerging nations, separate from countries more noted for a tradition of wine production such as Italy, Spain and France.
Wine in Slovakia
“The time for a new wave, which will balance these two tendencies between traditional countries and the so-called new countries, has arrived,” said Havaux. “We see this development also in central Europe. And Slovakia is a notable example of this development where the quality of wine is really on a high level and keeps rising.”
There are six main wine-growing areas in Slovakia: Malokarpatská (Small Carpathians), Južnoslovenská (South Slovakia), Stredoslovenská (Central Slovakia), Nitrianska (Nitra), Východoslovenská (Eastern Slovakia) and Tokaj. White wines make up 75 percent of local wine production, with the most common grape varieties being Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling and Műller-Thurgau. Blaufränkisch and Saint Laurent are the most commonly grown red grape varieties.
“We here in Slovakia cannot afford to produce cheap, low-quality wines,” said Jaroslava Kaňuchová – Pátková, executive director of the Association of Grape and Wine Producers in Slovakia (ZVVS), adding that in this market, foreign bulk producers can beat almost any domestic producer.
There are new varieties among Slovak wine producers, which are specifically cultivated to tap into the full potential of Slovakia’s climate and soil. These wines cannot be made anywhere else.
“You can taste Chardonnay almost everywhere in the world, but the Devín, Dunaj, and Milia varieties you can taste only here in Slovakia,” said Kaňuchová – Pátková. “This is how we can establish ourselves in the world. Devín and Dunaj are wines that are also harvesting success in world competitions.”
White Devín and Blue Dunaj are the most popular Slovak grape varieties among winegrowers.
“These two varieties occur in the portfolio of almost every Slovak winemaker,” Ľudmila Miškovičová from the Slovak National Collection of Wine told The Slovak Spectator. She estimates that, in total, Slovak grape varieties make up about 3 percent of the area cultivated as vineyards in Slovakia but that the use of Slovak varieties has been growing significantly in recent years.
Miškovičová specified that the white Devín grape, a cross between the Tramín červený (Gewürztraminer) and Veltlínske červenobiele varieties, produces a green-yellow wine with a moderate spicy aroma, leaning towards Muscat. This variety, crossbred by Dorota Pospíšilová and Ondrej Korpás in 1958 at the Wine Research Institute in Bratislava, produces dry wines as well as naturally sweet wines.
“They enthral with spiciness, fullness and perfect harmony,” Miškovičová said, adding that Devín, within its aroma and taste, reveals hints of dried apricot, dandelion honey and bread.
The Dunaj variety was created by Pospíšilová in 1958, when she first crossed Muscat Bouchet with Oporto and then with Svätovavrinecké (Saint Laurent). With its early ripening, it is a very suitable variety for Slovak climatic conditions. It also has strong resistance to frost.
Sometimes contrasting, other times complementary, traditional and modern elements are visible in Slovak viticulture. In addition to producing white and red wines, the winemakers are constantly trying to come up with something fresh, new and attractive, particularly for younger generations, including rosé or sparkling wines.
“If I needed to choose a rosé from all the wines of the world, I would definitely choose ours,” Ján Mezey, head of the Department of Fruit Production, Viticulture, and Enology from the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra said. “Slovak rosé is exceptional.”
Taste of the Small Carpathians
Bratislava and its surroundings belong to the Small Carpathian wine-growing area, and the region’s changing terrains mean that each of its wine-growing districts is known for a different variety. In Rača it is Blaufränkisch or Frankovka modrá; in Vajnory it is the white Leánka; and Devín is best known for its currant wine, according to Kaňúchová – Pátková.
Frankovka has a royal seal of approval, bestowed by Empress Maria Theresa in 1767. She was reputedly enchanted by its taste and quality and deemed it suitable to be served at the imperial table. Two centuries later, scientists were able to give her opinion some additional credence when they discovered resveratrol, an ingredient believed to have heart-healthy benefits, in Frankovka.
According to Kaňúchová – Pátková, the sunny location of the vineyards in Rača accounts for the quality of Frankovka, a belief echoed by Miloš Máťuš, a grape grower and winemaker from the region, who added that the area also enjoys distinct soil conditions. Máťuš, who is also one of the organisers of the annual festival of Frankovka in Bratislava, describes Frankovka modrá wine as soft, full of concentrated bouquets of fruit and berries, with a harmonic and well-rounded taste.
Many Slovak wine experts insist that wine should be tasted where it is produced, and a lot of winemakers have opened their cellars to allow visitors the opportunity to do just that. Numerous ancient cellars or brand-new premises are open throughout the year, many clustered along the so-called wine roads that snake through the countryside.
Tokaj hails from the Lower Zemplín region in the southeastern corner of Slovakia. One of the smallest winemaking regions, it has built its reputation on a rich historical background: French King Louis XIV called Tokaj the “Wine of kings and king of wines”. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great is said to have cherished Tokaj so much so that he regularly sent a military escort to guard the merchants bringing wine from this region. Slovak Tokaj, spreading over 907 hectares of seven small villages, is the home to four big winemaking companies and a number of smaller producers scattered among the green lanes of vineyards on the sunny hills, overlooking the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisa Rivers.
The unique taste of Tokaj is created by the region’s subsoil and microclimate. The subsoil is made of volcanic igneous rocks, creating a unique blend of nutrients, and the nearby Zemplínske hills create a special climate.
These conditions guarantee increased production of cibebas and the formation in the grapes of aromatics typical for this area. Cibebas are grapes contaminated with the noble rot botrytis cinerea. In appropriate conditions the rotting serves to evaporate water from the grapes and increase the sugar content by up to 40-60 percent of its weight. A label ranging from three to six putňas is assigned based on the amount of raisins added to wine as it ages. Putňa contains 23 kilos of raisins added to 136-litre barrels. Therefore six putňas is the maximum possible amount. It is prohibited to mix Tokaj wines with wines from other locations, and the law regulates alcohol content and maturation time, in addition to limiting the yield.
The actual production process draws on family traditions going back several generations. Harvest is manual, staged and gradual, and only ripe cibebas are collected.
Open cellars in Slovakia
One of the ways to start a visit of Tokaj might be by visiting a Tokaj viticulture exposition in the historical building of the South Zemplín Museum and cultural centre in Trebišov.
However, many might prefer exploring the region via the Tokaj Wine Road, which connects the history and traditions of the region with winemakers, wine shops, tourist attractions, catering and accommodation.
With advance booking, visitors can enjoy unique wine tasting in the volcanic tuffa cellars along with local foods. Jaroslav Ostrožovič, owner of one of Tokaj’s biggest wineries, recommends the traditional Zemplín dishes, such as plnená kapusta, cabbage leaves filled with rice and meat, chicken soup with plnka, a ball made of flour, herbs and meat, or duck with sweet cabbage and lokše, thin potato pancakes.
The Small Carpathian Wine Route (MVC) is the oldest wine route in Slovakia and hosts several popular events through the year, including the annual autumn Day of Open Wine Cellars and the annual spring St Urban’s Day of Open Cellars. On both occasions, many of the top wine producers open up for visitors to taste both young and vintage wines. Meanwhile, the Slovak National Collection of Wine in Bratislava offers a collection of the 100 best wines from Slovakia to taste or buy year-round. While these open cellars festivals date only from the fall of the communist regime, there are also a number of grape harvest festivals, known as vinobranie, whose traditions even the government change could not interrupt.
During the harvest season, there is at least one festival per weekend in each of the wine-growing regions, where the speciality burčiak (or burčák) is served. This thick, cloudy liquid – a still-fermenting grape juice – is nothing nice to look at but has a distinctive sweet-sour taste. It is said to be healthy and contains a lot of vitamins, and although it might taste like sweet lemonade, the drink contains up to 6 percent alcohol. Growers across the country also organise smaller tasting events, so it is rarely difficult to find a festival on any given weekend. Sometimes wine tasting is combined with other industries or endeavours, such as at “Wine and Lavender” near Pezinok, where organiser Vladimír Píš grows lavender and other Mediterranean plants and herbs alongside sauvignon in a steep and sunny vineyard.
In Pukanec (western Slovakia), locals grow grapes in vineyards lying at a record altitude of 480 metres, producing wine counted in the mountain category. Other options for enthusiastic wine drinkers include Chateau Béla (southern Slovakia), a restored aristocratic mansion now converted into a five-star hotel, which also produces wine, and Elesko winery, complemented with the Bratislava-area Zoya Museum exhibiting Andy Warhol’s works. There is also the Terra Parna winery (western Slovakia), in which the Zvolenský family has combined the traditional aspects of the profession with modern architecture and high-end technology.
By Miroslava Germanová and Jana Liptáková
Slovak wine regions
B Small Carpathian Wine Region
W Nitra Wine Region
W South Slovakia Wine Region
C Central Slovakia Wine Region
E Eastern Slovakia Wine Region
E Tokaj Wine Region
B Bratislava: Slovak National Collection of Wine in Bratislava, www.nsvsr.sk
B Pezinok: Víno Matyšák, www.vinomatysak.sk
B Šenkvice: Karpatská Perla, www.karpatskaperla.sk
- Small Carpathian Tourism Information Office in Modra
- Villa Modur Modra (wine tasting), www.villamodur.sk
- Chateau Modra (wine tasting), www.chateaumodra.sk
- Elesko, www.elesko.sk
W Trnava: Víno Mrva & Stanko, www.mrvastanko.sk
W Krakovany: Chateau Krakovany, www.chateaukrakovany.sk
W Topoľčianky: Vinárske závody Topoľčianky, www.vinotop.sk
W Belá: Hotel Chateau Béla, www.chateau-bela.com
W Sereď: Hubert J. E., www.hubertsekt.sk
W Báb: Vinidi, www.vinidi.sk
W Čajkov: Víno Nichta, www.vinonichta.sk
C Veľký Krtíš: MOVINO, www.movino.sk
- Tokaj Macik Winery, www.tokajmacik.sk
- J. & J. Ostrožovič, www.ostrozovic.sk
- Tokaj&CO, www.tokaj.sk
- Zlatý strapec – Viničky, www.zlatystrapec.m3.sk (Slovak only)
E Trebišov: Tokaj Wine Road Information centre, Museum in Trebišov, www.tvc.sk
E Tibava: Pivnica Tibava, www.tibava.sk
E Orechová: Pivnica Orechová, www.pivnicaorechova.sk