I visited the Slovak Tokaj for the first time in 2012, when the wine competition Concours Mondial de Bruxelles was held in Bratislava. There was a press trip before it, which I was also invited to and we travelled around Slovakia for five days. To be honest, I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it was an honour that even though the official channels have never been too good between my home country and Slovakia, they had still invited me on an official press trip. On the other, I have always regarded this opposition as a kind of ‘done deal’, a sort of political playground. It is certainly true that there have been conflicts between the two peoples, but basically we have lived together for a thousand years; we had the same king, the same emperor and the same enemies. And there’s also a special aside to the whole story, one of my ancestors was born on present-day Slovakian soil, and not as a Hungarian, but quite unequivocally as a Slovak. I don’t know a single word of Slovakian, Romanian, Serbia or Croatian, but still think of myself rather as a Central European than anything else. But enough of personal things, back to the Slovak Tokaj.
On the press trip, I hit it off with Jaroslav Macik, a charismatic young winemaker from Malá Tŕňa where I got to taste some beautiful wines. I’m telling you all this because I’ve been lucky enough to visit nearly all the Hungarian wineries, I go to the region regularly and attempt to follow the changes from year to year. Jaro once told me, “I am from Tokaj first and foremost and only then from Slovakia”. I was really taken by this and it comes to mind often even till this day. If only it were this simple! I hope so. Since then, I’ve often been back to visit him and I also finally got to meet two good ‘internet’ friends with whom I’ve been exchanging letters and messages about Tokaj for years.
One of them, Peter Drotar, works in Kosice, where my grandma went to school, in the place where one of Hungary’s most important twentieth century humanist writers was born and lived for a while, the city of Sándor Márai. (It says a lot about Márai that there is a statue of him in Kosice and, as far as I know, Slovakians and Hungarians alike love and respect him, and cherish his memory. What’s more, to this day, he’s one of the most popular writers in Italy. And all this, even though he originally came from a German family!) The other, despite being so young, is a true, obsessive Tokaj fan, although he lives in Normandy. Igor Vizner often visits the Tokaji wine region and is the editor of the Slovak Tokaj map, although, of course, he does know something about wines from Hungarian producers too! For the last year or so, the two of them have been inviting me to every event taking place on the Slovakian side of the border. Now the time had come for me to go to one of them.
So I got in the car with Tamás Doma, with Katherine Chapman completing our little group in Sárospatak, and the three of us then set off to Jaro Macik’s place, where we also met up with Igor and Peter. (Jaro’s wines are consistently excellent, and I’m starting to feel ashamed that I’ve not yet devoted a separate post to him, but better late than never!) From there we headed for Čerhov where we started the tasting, the reason we had actually been invited.
The guys also told us that a small community of wineries was starting to emerge in the Slovak Tokaj, in the village of Veľká Tŕňa. Really small producers, interested, open and love to experiment, but their wines are as yet not available practically anywhere. It sounded just as if I were writing in Hungary about the Tokaji wine region in the 1990s. Moreover, I knew that there was a kind of spiritual leader, someone who would hold the group together, Matus Vdovjak. I couldn’t help it, but István Szepsy immediately came to mind, without whom Tokaj would definitely not be where it is today. And then it came out that this small, enthusiastic group, organised by Peter Drotar, had just been to see István Szepsy half a year ago, to learn to taste with the master! The first winery we visited was Marian Takac’s. He hadn’t managed to come to the joint tasting because of the current ‘open winery’ days, so we went to visit him. As a key member of the local fire brigade, wine-making is still just a hobby, but given the wines we tasted, it won’t stay like that for long. The labels are also lovely and his wine-making experiments are also promising. From here, we headed over to Veľká Tŕňa, where the other wineries are pretty much next to each other.
Matus Vdovjak was next, the only one of the group who is also officially a winemaker, whose job it is and who lives from it. Previously he had been the Ostrozovic winery’s head winemaker, but he then set up his own winery. Nowadays, he works on about three hectares and is clearly moving towards organic farming. The desire to experiment is not missing here either: he has just taken possession of a qvevri, although he’s not going to bury it, rather just install it in the cellar and will soon be maturing wine in it. Here, next to Matus’s not entirely uninteresting wines, we also held a mini course about Furmint, with the help of two Hungarian and one Slovenian wine. After this, things started to run together a little, out of the cellar, into the cellar, tasting, chatting, at Laci Tasani’s, at Ladislav Varanai’s at Martin Danko’s and then at Stefan Hornik’s. One thing is certain. Everyone found at least one wine they found promising. With the exception of Matus Vdovjak, the others simply consider wine-making a hobby, they are not producing for the market. However, based on our experience, I think I’m right in saying that sooner or later we’ll also find their wines on the shelves of wine shops.
In the meantime, however, some good advice (the guys really asked for it, so that’s why it’s here): Experimentation is all well and good, but is shouldn’t last too long, as it will confuse consumers. A typical problem we found here is the overuse of oak, rather unsuitable barrel management for modern tastes. Furmint and oak are definitely friends, but only as long as the oak doesn’t overwhelm the flavour. As concerns the sweet wines, they have already figured out what they are doing with Aszú (since some time in the 15th century), although I do know a little about ice wine, sweet orange wine and sweet Furmint made with the Recioto method. Although, however good these are, Aszú (in Slovakian Vyber) is basically what made Tokaj world famous. It would be a shame to break from this wonderful, close on 600-year-old tradition!
As a kind of concluding remark: Although we have already pointed out that you can’t get the majority of wines anywhere, to be more precise, you actually can - at their wineries. This is a trip not to be missed. So, let’s head for Veľká Tŕňa and its cellars!