Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.
In many people's minds, the wine world dead-ends right around the eastern borders of Germany and Austria. What lies beyond is just a hazy tangle of Eastern European countries and, somewhere beyond that, Russia, the Middle East and Asia. No wine there.
At least, that's how my mind saw the (simplified) map, until I embarked on this Weird Wine Grapes adventure last December. But in the last six months, I've ventured east into Slovenia and Croatia, Hungary, and Greece. I've been stunned by the beauty of wines in those parts, and slowly my mind map has filled in gorgeous imagery—cyan coastlines, fire-red fields and nearly black caverns hiding precious golden liquid—in places where only empty space existed before.
Today, fill in another hole on the map: Slovakia.
Slovakia, as it turns out, is closer than I thought. Its capital city, Bratislava, is literally on the border with Austria—less than an hour from Vienna. Drive instead 20 minutes south, over the Danube River, and you're in Hungary.
My friend Petra, the wine director at Epic Roasthouse in San Francisco, is from Slovakia. I received a cryptic voicemail from her one afternoon: "I have a little bottle of wine I want you to try. Also I have a bunch of reading materials for you. Come to Epic."
"Little bottle"? "Reading materials"? I was intrigued but not convinced. She called again one day, insisting that I see the materials and taste the mysterious "little bottle of Devín."
I went straight to Wine Grapes, which told me that Devín was made in 1958 by crossing the headily floral Gewurztraminer grape with the peppery Roter Veltliner. It was grown in the Czech Republic "before being named after a ruined castle near Bratislava" and authorized in Slovakia in 1997. That means Petra's wee bottle has less than 20 years of history in these parts.
Wine Grapes says that Devín "produces full-bodied, low-acid, lightly aromatic—spicy, fruity, and floral—wines." I also learned that Devín is susceptible to botrytis, that mystical mold that gives grapes a seductively spicy, honeyed aroma and flavor.
I'll see you Thursday, I told Petra. A master of building suspense, Petra poured us bubbles and Burgundy first and sent out piles of snacks: crazy-good steak tartare, bone marrow with toast points, hamachi ceviche, a wicked pea salad, and truly 'epic' mac and cheese. Three hours later, the mysterious "little bottle" finally appeared.
I could tell by the short, slender bottle that it was a dessert wine, but beyond that were just a bunch of words and accents that meant nothing to me. From top to bottom:
Karpatská Perla Dīlemūre Devín Hrozienkový Výber Biele Sladke
Petra served it with a funky and creamy goat's milk cheese and dried apricots. It may have been the visual suggestion of the fruit on the plate next to my glass, but I'll be damned if it didn't smell exactly like those apricots, with a similar dried and waxy fruit character. There was ginger and lemon zest, too; and childhood memories of dusting the coffee table with Pledge furniture polish came rushing back. The second sip teased out a wild, floral and weedy quality, conjuring up images of summer afternoons using dandelion petals for face paint or, more recently, quiet mornings with chamomile tea.
I'm usually wary of dessert wines as they often don't have enough acid to keep me interested, but this did quite the opposite, with a roundly sour mid-palate and a finish that whooshed in notes of ash and white pepper. It kept me so interested, in fact, that when Petra stepped away for a minute but left the bottle on the table, I poured myself another glass and drank it greedily in between bites of cheese.
Back at home, I tried to search online for the words I'd found on the label. I learned that Karpatská Perla is the producer, výber means something like "selection," and sladke is sweet. It's not much to go on, and it turns out the wine's not even available in the United States (sorry, guys)... But what's most important is that now in my mind's map, Slovakia isn't just an empty white space but a beautiful crescent of land where I lie in a field of chamomile flowers, my face streaked with sunshine and dandelion petals. I hope another bottle of Devín shows up soon. I'm already eager to revisit.
2007 Karpatská Perla Dīlemūre Hrozienkový Výber Devín
The Grape: Devín
The Region: Malokarpatský (Small Carpathians)
Retail Price: You won't find it in the US... though if you happen to go to Slovakia, the "little bottle" will run you roughly $18.
The Importer: None (yet?)
About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in the new Wine Grapes tome. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.