First published in The Buyer in March 2020
Very little is known of Slovakian wine in the West, although that looks set to change, argues Elizabeth Gabay MW, who describes it as one of the most exciting wine regions she is working with. The once-marginal climate led to a whole slew of crossed grape varieties including Alibernet, Dunaj, Devín and Svojsen being developed by vine breeders who have since achieved cult status for their work. Many of the wines are ‘on-trend’ featuring skin contact, high acidity, purity of fruit and experimentation with fermentation and ageing vessels. In this insightful piece Gabay looks at the producers of ‘authentic’ Slovakian wine, the varieties they are working with and highlights the wines that she thinks are worth seeking out.
“‘Authentic’ wines from Slovakia with diverse fruit character and vibrant acidity, serve as ambassadors of quality, regional character and a blend of modernity and historic traditions,” writes Gabay.
A surge in new estates and young winemakers, creating wines which are uniquely Slovakian, with both international varieties and a large range of crossed varieties, is a breath of fresh air in a market looking for something new, and makes Slovakia one of the most exciting regions I work with. Reductive winemaking with purity of fruit and high acidity are a hallmark of modern Slovakian wine, with some experimentation, harking back to pre-Communist traditions, including spontaneous fermentation, skin contact, different fermentation and ageing vessels.
Slovakia lies in the heart of Central Europe, bordered by Hungary to the south, Austria and the Czech Republic to the west, Poland to the north and Ukraine to the east. Until recent climate changes, its southern vineyards around 48N were regarded as the northernmost limit for winemaking in Europe with the northern Tatra mountain ranges being too cold. This northerly climate has resulted in strong German influences, such as the expression of potential alcohol levels in “fermentable sugar” and labels indicating a wine’s sweetness. Vintage variation, especially for reds is important.
This marginal climate led to a number of crossed varieties being developed throughout central and eastern Europe. Red crosses used include Alibernet (Alicante Bouchet x Cabernet Sauvignon), Dunaj ((Muscat Bouschet x Oporto) x St. Laurent); Hron and Nitra (both crossings of Abouriou Noir x Castets) and André (Frankovka Modrá x St Laurent). Amongst the whites, Devín (Red Traminer x red-white Veltliner), Svojsen ((Pinot Gris x FeteascăAlbă) x Riesling), Milia (Müller Thurgau x Traminer), Breslava ((Traminer x Chasselas) x Santa Maria d’Alcantara), and Noria (Ezerjó x Traminer). Vine breeders, in particular Dorota Pospíšilová in Slovakia, has hallowed status.
International varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir (particularly successful), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and Central European varieties such as Frankovka Modrá (Blaufränkisch), Svätovavrinecké (St Laurent), Modrý Portugal (Portugieser), Grüner Veltliner (Veltlínské zelené), Welschriesling, Furmint, Lipovina (Hárslevelü), and Traminer.
The country is divided into six regions, although these are administrative rather than terroir-based and, outside of Tokaj, grapes from all regions can be blended together. Regional character is developing.
The Small Carpathian hills, running south-east to north-west north of Bratislava, are based on granite with outcrops of decomposed schist and phyllite, resulting in greater minerality, zesty acidity and a floral note to the wines. Karpatska Perla, one of the largest estates, has almost forty different labels. Single vineyard wines show diversity with Grüner Veltliner (Ingle: zesty lime and white fruit and Noviny: rich cream, honey and nuts), Rieslings and Pinot Noir.
Neighbouring estate, the family owned Terra Parna works with similar varieties. Its elegant Portugieser, a variety present in the region since the 17thcentury, has structural inky black fruit and saline finish. Vladimir Magula’s new estate makes natural wines, including an apple-crumble rich Olaszrizling with zesty acidity; a spontaneous ferment Portugieser and Frankovka Modrá and Unplugged Frankovka Modrá (cranberry, spice, blue flower minerality and silky tannins). Martin Pomfy, a new, rapidly growing estate has a mix of varieties, with whites sourced in the Small Carpathians (including a delicious creamy Chardonnay) and reds from the south. Local variety wines include Breslava (fragrant floral fruit and long citrus acidity) and Red Traminer (intriguing Christmas spice, crystallised ginger and Seville marmalade).
Oenologist Edita Ďurčová works with several different wineries to make a classic Pinot Noir red, Pinot Theresian, an aromatic white from Devín and a fruity Nitria-based rosé in her Vinifera range.
Slobodne, on the border between the Small Carpathians and Nitra, currently converting to biodynamic, has a large range of wines: Eggstasy of the Alpinist, a skin-contact Riesling in amphora (long and fresh with an orange tang); Cutis Deviner, an orange wine of Devín and Traminer (aromatic with saline texture) and Pyramid, a Gewürztraminer in qveri, (citrus-fresh, creamy ginger.)
The gentle hills of South Slovakia (level with Burgenland) slope down to the Danube, on largely calcareous clay, loess and alluvial soils, producing riper, rounder fruit. Winemaker Miroslav Petrech at Chateau Béla, (owned by Egon Müller), makes elegant lime and floral dry Riesling, reminiscent of Mosel and rich late-harvest wines.
Nearby Chateau Rúbaň produces similar Rieslings, aromatic wines from Svojsen (fresh citrus and herbal freshness); Noria (off-dry, violets and peaches) and Milia (honeysuckle and lemon). Brothers Lukás and Matús Berta of Vinárstvo Berta have a floral Moravian Muscat (Muscat Ottonel x Prachtraube); a tropical rich Pinot Gris and Rúbaňand Berta both have leafy floral Alibernet’s with cassis fruit and bitter chocolate tannins. Tomáš Sládeček at Velkeer, has an intense Riesling (peach and lime cordial) and an orange wine made with Pálava (Czech crossing: Red Traminer x Müller-Thurgau) and Traminer full of orange flower perfume, Seville marmalade and saline finish. The Kasnyik brothers have skin-contact Riesling and Welschriesling (honeyed rich dried fruit), a concentrated floral, peach and cream Grüner Veltliner, an orange Riesling and a stylish Pinot Noir. Bott Frigyes, an established biodynamic producer, has a wide range of varieties including a lime and mineral Riesling and an intense black cherry Pinot Noir.
The Central region includes the south-facing slopes of the extinct volcano, Sitno, with the old gold-mining city of Banská Štiavnicain its crater. Brano Nichta produces Dunaj from some of the oldest plantings in the country. On volcanic soils, the minerality and structure carry Dunaj’s floral notes and show ability to age. Natural winemaker Marek Uhnák of Čajkov makes a pink skin-contact Pinot Gris (creamy red fruit and complex notes of orange and spice) and a partial skin-contact Devín which retains the variety’s aromatics with extra mineral structure.
Tokaj in south eastern Slovakia is a geological extension of the Hungarian region, using the same varieties Furmint, Lipovina and Yellow Muscat, and measures the botrytis berries with puttonyos. Ostrozovic and Tokaj & Co produce dark gold, rich marmalade and Christmas pudding style wines. Macik has moved towards more reductive style Tokaj with fresh fruit.
In the context of the wider, more commercial Slovakian production, these ‘authentic’ wines, with diverse fruit character and vibrant acidity, (only available in relatively small quantities, RRP ranging €8 to €30), serve as ambassadors of quality, regional character and a blend of modernity and historic traditions.