Deep shades of red and vermilion catch the light as connoisseurs raise their half-full glasses to examine the color of the wine before sinking their noses in to inhale enticing aromas.
A sip, a swish and a spit is a wine-tasting ritual at prestigious competitions the world over. This May, it was performed on a grand scale in Central Europe for the first time as Slovakia played host to top-ranked wine competition, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (CMB).
Of late, little-known Slovak wines have been outsparkling even their venerable French cousins.
“If Slovak wines were a woman they would look like Cameron Diaz — very light, lively and they have a lot to give,” French wine blogger Daniel Berger said as he sampled Slovakia’s best.
“French wines are more like the Mona Lisa, mature and timeless, but even conservative French wine lovers are slowly opening up to foreign tastes,” he added.
While Slovak wines scored sixth place overall in the CMB, they tied with France based on the percentage of medals awarded, taking into account the number of wines submitted.
Out of 214 wines submitted for degustation by Slovakia, 60 stood out among 8,168 rivals from 50 countries. Three triumphed, winning the top CMB Grand Gold, 19 scored Gold and 38 took Silver medals.
“It’s a huge success which echoes previous successful appearances of Slovak wines at prestigious wine competitions,” Slovak oenologist and jury member Edita Durcova said.
They performed even better at the world-renowned Vinalies Internationales competition in Paris in March, taking nine gold and 38 silver medals, and charming tasters to trump France and rivals from nearby Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
“When you think of Slovakia, you don’t think of wine,” CMB jury member Luiz Alberto from Brazil said, pointing instead to the better-known Moravian wines of its larger neighbor, the Czech Republic — a traditional beer country.
But Slovak winemakers beg to differ, insisting their homeland boasts a unique terroir.
Borrowed from the French, the term describing soil quality refers to the unique set of characteristics determined by geography, geology and climate which give each wine its personality.
Vivacious Slovak wines get theirs from the country’s varied terroir, which includes a small region of volcanic soil in its southeast, on the border with Hungary, known for its Tokaj, a sweet, golden dessert wine.
“Slovakia is a traditional wine producer even though it’s one of the northernmost countries at the limit of economically sustainable viticulture,” Durcova said.
Given its location and climate, Slovakia produces mostly white wine but also has a number of delicious reds.
Opening up production post-Communism
At the Elesko vineyard in Modra, about 30 kilometers north of Bratislava, General Manager Roman Milata clambers up a hillside covered in vines to inspect the first delicate green shoots of spring.
“While Slovakia may lack the sunshine essential for the ripening of red grape varieties, its climate suits white grapes perfectly, giving wines their attractive aromas and fresh fruitiness,” he explains.
This modern winery, which also boasts an art gallery which is home to Europe’s biggest private collection of Andy Warhol paintings, won one gold and one silver medal at this year’s Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.
During nearly fifty years of Communism, vineyards were nationalized as the state-owned beverage industry focused on mass production of low-quality wines.