Visit to a Tokay Winery
An Earthy Paradise
That's because there's something mysterious and elusive in a sip of well-made Tokay, an effect echoed by the thick, gauzy fog that blanketed the area during a recent visit I paid to the J&J Ostrožovič vineyard in Veľká Tŕňa, a village whose size belies its name (veľká means large in Slovak.) Veľká Tŕňa amounts to cluster of 100 or so frame houses surrounding an unremarkable church. The morning of our visit, the village almost seemed asleep, or in hibernation. Occasionally a pedestrian walked languidly along, or a car roared down the battered road into the white mist.
On the outskirts of the village lies its glory: fields planted with Furmint, Lipovina, and Yellow Muscat grapes, the ingredients for Tokay's celebrated dessert wine. Bathed in fog, snow-dusted, and drooping, the grapevines seemed an odd source for a product so alive and delicious.
Inside the Ostrožovič compound, the mood is much less lugubrious. The winery boasts a handsome, tourist-ready modern production house. Inside, amid handsome displays of the vineyard's products, people buzz about doing the operation's winter work: filling orders, preparing machinery for spring, monitoring wine in various late stages of production.
The operation is owned and run by a married couple, Jaroslav and Jaromíra Ostrožovič, who took it over in 1990. Mrs. Ostrožovič was busy managing some project while we were there, so her husband showed us around. Mr. Ostrožovič, a large, robust man with an easy laugh and a passion for his product, showed us first the warehouse where the wine is made.
The room, high-ceilinged, chilly, and workmanlike, reminded you of where you were: on a farm. Huge wooden vats of fermenting wine, delivering the pungent live smell of yeast and grape juice in the process of transformation, rose from the dirt floor nearly to the ceiling. A few workers milled about, checking gauges and moving things around. Mr. Ostrožovič explained the whole capricious process of making genuine Tokay, with its dependence on naturally occurring fungi at two different stages (see "The making of Tokay" page 22).
Next, fortified for the cold by a sampling of the precious nectar, we left for a brief trip to the other side of the village, where a system of cellars is carved into the rocky, volcanic terrain. These cellars are truly strange places. There tend to be several of them clustered together on one hillside, small, semicircular passageways 15 or 20 feet apart, easily hidden from, say, a band of conquering Turks. Mr. Ostrožovič unlocked the door of one of them, and a strong, musty smell burst out.
Many wine regions have made good use of the "noble rot" technique pioneered in Tokay; but few others have put fungus to work a second time, in the aging of wine. On the circular ceiling, on the aged, stone black walls, on the battered wooden barrels full of Tokay, on everything in sight, sit clumps of black, fuzzy fungus. The atmosphere is intensely humid; the proper aging of Tokay requires humidity of between 80 and 95 percent, and patches of the wall not covered by fungus were literally dripping wet. Wetness was everywhere; in the cave's side room, where Mr. Ostrožovič holds tastings in the summer, the floor was covered in six inches of standing water, the result of melting snow.
Mr. Ostrožovič says that the relationship between the aging wine and the mould is symbiotic. Wine stored in wood barrels loses 2 percent of its volume per year to evaporation. The resulting wine vapour creates the proper atmosphere for the mould. "If we were to remove the wine from the cave, the mould would perish," he says. The mould, in turn, helps maintain the high humidity, and also creates a microclimate critical to the final flavour of Tokay. That's because the porous wood barrels also allow the wild aroma created by the mold to infuse the wine.
In short, a Tokay cellar is a world unto itself, a microcosm almost as teeming with life as a rain forest; and yet at the same time dark and chilly. The temperature is 10-12 degrees Celsius year round; what with the high humidity, it feels quite cold down there. But to a true wine lover, these cellars graphically represent the constant intermingling of human skill and capricious nature needed to create great wine. They are an intensely earthy paradise.
J. & J. Ostrožovič,Veľká Tŕňa 233
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.
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