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Slovak Wine: Transition and Potential

    Celebrating the wine harvest in 1950s Slovakia.
 Celebrating the wine harvest in 1950s Slovakia.
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

Slovakia produces some very good wine (see "Low Mountains, Small Batches, Big Flavours"). But it's not the wine-lover's paradise it could be.

Wine has been made on Slovak territory since as far back as the 7th century B.C. Its viticultural history overlaps with that of Austria, one of the world's greatest wine-producing nations; and of Hungary, a stalwart producer of inexpensive quality wines, along with some high-end boutique ones. And for good measure, Slovakia's southern wine regions lie on the same latitude as Burgundy and Alsace in France.

Slovakia's potential is endorsed by the prestigious Oxford Companion to Wine. In its 1994 edition, the companion states that Slovakia's "wines show very good fruit character...Identification of the best individual sites and mesoclimates is so far in its infancy, but injection of technical knowledge and capital investment are expected to help ... Slovakia produce some wines of distinctly fine quality."

Yet pluck a Sk120 (€3.50) bottle of white from a supermarket shelf, and you're as likely to be confronted with something sour and rough-edged, as you are with something delicate and drinkable. Wine very much cheaper is almost sure to be terrible; doubling that price improves your chances, but doesn't ensure a good bottle. And finding a good red wine is even more difficult. What's going one here?

Forty years of Soviet-style Communism - with its fever for rationalisation, for quantity over quality - essentially severed Slovakia's ties with the old Austro-Hungarian winemaking traditions. In rural areas under Communism, each adult was allowed a maximum of 10 acres of land on which to grow whatever they wanted. The rest was collectivised. Thus the great bulk of wine-growing land was bundled into huge lots, and cared for by state employees whose main incentive was to increase yield.

The government's crude grading system awarded top prices to a few fancy varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Rhine Riesling (Rizling Rýnsky in Slovak). But these grape types never gained much of a foothold, because their yields were too low to make them worth planting. Less distinguished - and more prodigious - varietals such as Müller-Thurgau and Welschriesling (Rizling Vlašský in Slovak) ruled the day.

Meanwhile, vast, centralised production facilities sprang up. Wine grapes became a commodity, to be sold to the state-owned wineries at set, subsidised prices. "In the process, the relationship between grape grower and wine maker gradually disappeared," says Fedor Malík, a Slovak wine authority. Under Communism, state-owned factories produced more than 80 percent of the Slovak territory's wine. Smallholders produced the rest, for private consumption or for barter.

Wine became just another industrial product, like auto parts or machine tools. Quantity soared - according to Igor Šarmír, secretary of the Slovak Grape and Wine Producers Union , the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia was, by 1989, producing a third more wine than it consumed, with the surplus being sent to the Soviet Union or northwest to the Czech Lands.

Quality, meanwhile, plunged.

When Communism crumbled in 1989, the winemaking system crumbled with it. What's been left in its wake remains a work in progress. The problems started with land restitution. According to Šarmír, the government tried, not always successfully, to return collectivised land to its former owners. "Many of the original deed holders had died, so the government split up their land in small parcels and offered it to their heirs," he says. But often the heirs had moved away from the country, or there were so many of them that the parcels were too small to make much of.

"There's a lot of vineyard land out there just lying fallow," Šarmír says. "Either no one's really sure who it belongs to, or the people that have inherited it just haven't done anything with it."

As a result, Šarmír says, the total amount of land planted with wine grapes has fallen by half, from 30,000 hectares in 1990 to 15,000 in 2002. Sadly, Slovakia will likely never regain anything close to its old capacity. The European Union, which zealously regulates how much land its member states can use for commercial wine making, has allotted Slovakia 20,000 hectares of wine-producing land upon entry in 2004. But each plot must be "registered" with the EC - and land not registered in time for accession in 2004 will likely forever be banned from producing wine.

"The EC has allotted Slovakia 20,000 hectares, but if the number of registered hectares stands below 20,000 at accession, the Commission will be happy to lower its limit to whatever Slovakia has managed to register," says Daniel Ács of the European Commision's delegation to Slovakia. He adds that the industry is finding it difficult to add to its 15,000 registered hectares, for the reasons cited above.

And whereas under Communism the area produced a third more wine than it consumed, it now consumes a third more than it produces. The shortfall is mostly made up for by the Czech Republic's Moravia region, which is very close to Slovakia's important Small Carpathians wine-producing area. Some lower-priced Hungarian imports are available here, as are wines - typically either very expensive or very cheap - from France and Spain.

The situation actually benefited the wineries that emerged after Communism, because they can sell everything they produce at home. What's more, in 1993 the government imposed stiff tariffs on imported wine, important protection in a country where the population was suddenly able to travel to places like Spain and Italy, where you can easily find a drinkable bottle for just a few euros.

Thus if post-Communist events assured that the wine industry would survive, they haven't done much to improve overall quality very rapidly.

Angela Muir, a London-based wine expert who wrote the Czech and Slovak Republics entry for the Oxford Companion to Wine, argues that the progress toward high-quality wine in Slovakia has been slow and sporadic since the fall of Communism. The demand surplus, along with protective tariffs on imports, has "effectively made it unattractive for Slovak producers to try and compete ... on the world market," she says. Why should they, she asks, when "they can sell all they produce and more to the home market?"

Nor are foreign wine importers, beyond those in the Czech Republic, particularly interested in buying Slovak wine. Producers here "had a very false idea about how their wines stacked up against the competition. There is therefore a huge price gap between what the local market will pay and what anyone else - particularly a British supermarket - will pay," Muir says.

The situation has essentially buffered Slovakia from a brutally competitive international wine market. Unlike in Slovakia, international supply exceeds demand, putting downward pressure on global wine prices. With the opposite situation prevailing in Slovakia, its producers can charge higher prices than producers in areas like southern Italy, some parts of Spain, Chile, and Australia - without having to match up in quality.

But things could change fast. Slovakia is scheduled to gain membership to the European Union in 2004. With entry to the EU, wine tariffs will have to tumble, meaning consumers will have access to international wines at competitive prices. That could force more vintners to join the effort - described in the profiles on Small Carpathian and Tokay producers - to create concentrated, distinctive wines.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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