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Every now and again one runs across a specific European vineyard or a wider region of wine production which has become the stuff of legend. Think Pétrus (near Bordeaux), Corton-Charlemagne (in Burgundy) or Ornellaia (in Tuscany). Move to central Europe and there are many bright stars in the constellation of fine wines. None shines brighter than Tokay, the anglicized name for the wine-growing region in and around the lower foothills of the Carpathians.
Tokaj or Tokaji
Say Tokay and most people will immediate think Hungary. But the Tokay region, which produces some of the world’s most celebrated and sought-after dessert wines, transgresses borders, and the northernmost portion of the designated Tokay region is actually in Slovakia.
This is a part of the world where one letter makes a big difference. On maps, the range of wooded hills that dominate the Hungarian part of the Tokay region is known at the Zemplén Mountains. Move north into Slovakia and they become the Zemplín Mountains. In Hungary, the wine is known as Tokaji. But in Slovakia, the name is rendered as Tokaj.
The wines on the Slovakian side of the border are every bit as distinguished in character as those from Hungary. They rely on the same three basic grape varieties and the production and quality control standards of Slovakian Tokaj wines conform to those laid down for Tokaji in Hungary.
A taste of Slovakian Tokaj
Last week, we took time to explore the Slovak side of the Tokay region. We stopped off here and there in quiet villages like Malá Trna—where Hungarian is evidently still the most commonly spoken language. It’s a nice reminder that modern frontiers in Europe do not divide ethnicities or language groups. Then we moved north to Vel’ká Trna, a predominantly Slovak-speaking community, where we met Jaro Ostrozovic.
Jaro was born just a few miles away to the south in the border town of Slovenské Nové Mesto, but is now based in Vel’ká Trna, where he and his wife Jarka manage one of the premier Tokaj wine businesses in Slovakia. The Ostrozovic Estate produces the full range of Tokaj styles from the tongue-tingling dry samorodné through various grades of sweet aszú-style wines (locally known as Tokajský výber) to the intoxicatingly sugary esencia.
They also produce regular wines from each of the three main grapes that are combined in making the region’s signature Tokaj wines. Those grapes are the furmint, the yellow muscat and the lipovina—the latter will be familiar to lovers of Hungarian Tokaji under the name hárslevelü.
The Ostrozovic Estate
Visitors to the Ostrozovic winery in Vel’ká Trna can tour the cellars, sample the wines and stay overnight. Room rates start at €35 for a single or €25 per person in a shared double. It is a chance, too, to try some of the local Zemplín cuisine.
As to the wines, you’ll be in for a treat. The rich concentration of natural grape sugars and favorable conditions for the development of botrytis give Ostrozovic favored status for making classic Tokaj sweet wines. And they won’t break the bank. Prices start at just over €10 for a Tokajský výber. We happen to be fans of the drier samorodné style, which is often frustratingly hard to find outside the Tokay region and one or two other markets (such as Poland, where it has long found favor as an aperitif). The Ostrozovic version is delicious and just €6.80 a bottle. Just look for the word suché on the bottle to be sure that you really are buying the dry wine. It is something quite special, redolent in many ways of palomino sherry.
The Slovakian Tokaj region deserves to be far better known. It is overshadowed by its very much larger Hungarian counterpart to the south, and it is a small player within the wider Slovak wine industry. If you have a big budget, sixty euros will buy you a very fine bottle of Ostrozovic esencia. Taste it to discover why historically Tokay has been feted as “the wine of kings, and the king of wines.” But even a sample of the lesser wines from the region will be enough to convince you that Tokay is something very special—especially when it is Tokaj from Slovakia.