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Slobodné

It is impossible to evoke on paper the emotional turmoil—and subsequent relief and ecstasy—that the family behind Slovakia’s Slobodné Winery have felt over the past 100 years. The story of the country, in Miso Kuropka’s words (one quarter of the Slobodné quartet), “is complicated and tragic.” What happened to their family is a microcosm of what happened to so many people in the country; their land was forcibly taken from them in 1948 at the start of the Communist era; under the guise of nationalisation. 

It wasn’t until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that the family even began to consider that they might be able to regain their ancestral property. Thanks to a box of old papers stashed away in the basement of an apartment building in Prague, they were able to embark upon the long and challenging administration process to reclaim their land. But for the sake of reclaiming what rightfully belongs to your family, no task is too demanding.

LITTLEWINE visited Slobodné in December 2019, and interviewed Miso Kuropka for this piece.  

Meet the Family of Slobodné 

Slobodne Vinárstvo is the name of the wine produced from Majer Zemianske Sady; an independent family farm in Zemianske Sady, near Hlohovec in Slovakia. It is run by sisters Agnes Lovecka and her partner, Andrea Lovecka, and Katarina Kuropkova, and Katarina’s husband, Miso Kuropka (who modestly says, ‘I’m just the son in law’). 

Agnes and Katarina’s family bought the property in 1912; when modern-day Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1914, the First World War began, and in 1918, Czechoslovakia was established. Miso says, 

“It’s important to understand that this was a really complicated time in the history of Central Europe. Until 1918, the wines of Slovakia were in fact regarded as Hungarian wine—just like most of the wines from Burgenland in Austria, for example. The Tokaj wine region is both in Hungary and Slovakia; many people don’t realise this. Due to this complicated and tragic situation, we don’t really have detailed knowledge of what was here…” 

Although they might be missing the finer details, they do have a significant amount of information; enough to piece together the general picture. 

Their property was a progressive farm, run by Agnes and Katarina’s great-great uncle, Maximillian, who grew wheat, corn, rape, apples and pears. There was a distillery on the property, and he also established a cooperative distillery across the street to unite the local farmers. The farm’s specialty was tobacco; he built the biggest tobacco drying facility in central Europe in the mid 30s; and was employing more than 100 people. 

Growing vines and winemaking, meanwhile, was a relatively small side job—but despite the destruction caused by phylloxera, Maximillian had been determined to re-establish the vineyard plantings that had historically been found in the area. Miso explains,

“From what we know, he replanted the vineyard following phylloxera (phylloxera arrived in the area 20 years after France). If you look on old maps, you can see that vineyards have been here for at least 200 years, and probably longer—by looking at the castles here it’s clear that there was wine production. But after the dissolution of the monarchy, markets faded away, so by the time the great-great uncle had the winery, he was making only around 15,000 to 20,000 litres.”

He planted more or less the same varieties they grow now; classical cooler climate central European varieties such as Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Blaufränkisch and Pinot Noir.

A wild vine growing on the house

“Back then, it was very different – there was no industrialisation, it was very labour intensive. Horses, not tractors, were the major power to farm the fields.”

The farm reached its peak right before the Second World War, and due to their farming expertise, the family was to some degree spared the horrors that awaited others. 

“Although the family was Jewish, they had special permission to stay and manage the farm—because the country became a fascist state which needed the produce—and they didn’t have many managers at this level. So, Maximillian was a significant figure. He was able to maintain the control of the property until 1944; until then, Slovakia was part of the German regime.  In 1944, the Slovak national uprising took place, when a significant part of the Slovak army rebelled with partisans, taking over central Slovakia for 40 days. Then the Germans came and took over the country, and all remaining Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Maximillian was able to survive, but my wife’s uncle was killed in the uprising.” 

After the war, Maximillian regained control, until 1948, when Czechoslovakia came under communist administration. Then, all property was nationalised. 

“For 40 years, the country was closed. There was only one heir to the property—my wife’s grandfather, and he dedicated his whole life to music, living in Prague, which at that time was the capital of Czechoslovakia. It really seemed that there would be no change of regime; even right up until 1989 it was not clear. My mother-in-law has some childhood recollection of being here, but this place had become something of the past. The grandfather didn’t speak much about what had happened.”  

When the Velvet Revolution occurred in 1989, it was announced that nationalised properties would be returned. Miso smiles, 

“It’s a funny story – the documents [regarding the property] were stored in a room under the stairs in the basement of a flat in Prague where my mother-in-law used to live—way, way back in time. She never realised that they were so important, so she left them in the basement and moved away. When her father came to her and said he wanted to reclaim the land, they went to that basement. A wall had been built where the room under the stairs had been, so they had to literally dig a hole through the wall, and miraculously found the abandoned box there. Without that box, it would not have been be possible. Administratively, it’s very demanding; you have to prove everything.” 

They managed to claim their land back in 1992. We cannot even begin to imagine how that must have felt. The family had been living in Bratislava, working in construction, but by 1995 had decided to move back to the historic property to try to rebuild it. 

“It was really like building it from scratch. Most of the property was literally in ruins, and there was almost no machinery. Most of the vineyards were replanted by my father-in-law, starting in around 2000. He was always making wine, so he reconstructed the historical cellar as well, but only to make wine for himself.”

In 2009, Agnes joined her parents to help with the farm, and in 2010, Katarina and Miso joined, too. And now, after a century of war and disruption, the farm is at peace.

The Vineyards

The farm itself is almost 500 hectares in total; 350 of which are fields (the core business is growing wheat, corn, rape, barley and poppies; farmed conventionally at the moment but this will change in the future; “it’s more complicated than for wine, but we’re working on it,” Miso explains). They also have 100 hectares of forest, and 17 hectares are planted to vineyards. Their winery was established in 2010, when Katarina and Miso joined. 

“Slovakian wines are lesser-known and less recognised, but having been part of the strong Hungarian wine culture for 900 years, we share the same varieties and same traditions. Pinot Gris, for example, has a tradition here dating back to the 16th century. Grüner is the most planted white variety, as well as Riesling. We don’t have it, but there’s also Welschriesling, which is likely the most important Central European variety. If you compare us to other regions, the most similar is the Weinviertel in Austria. But it’s relatively different, as they have mainly Grüner and we’re also very strong in red wines – Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent, as well as Blauer Portugieser. We don’t grow it, but it’s very popular—it’s a bit like Gamay, making light reds to be enjoyed young.”

Agnes and Katarina’s father put much thought into deciding what to grow, choosing what he considered to be premium varieties. As well as the aforementioned more classic varieties, this also included the lesser-known Devín variety. This is a cross between Gewürztraminer and Roter Veltliner. Miso smiles, 

“It’s a good story. There was a project that began in the 50s; a research group led by a lady named Ms. Pospíšilová, who is in her 90s now. They were trying to create varieties that would combine the good properties of international varieties while adapting to local conditions. Devín was one of the first group of ten that were recognised; created in 56, and registered in 96.”

He explains that it combines the aromatic side of Gewürztraminer with the acidity of Roter Veltliner:

“Gewürztraminer is one of the oldest noble white wine varieties. It’s like the grandmother. But when it’s ripe, it lacks acidity, so there’s often a problem here: you can end up with strong, powerful high-alcohol wine without acidity. Devín is much fresher, and has these musky aromas. Gewürztraminer is very spicy, but not so musky; it has pepper or rose petal scents, but the musk flavours are what you find in Devín.” 

Devín is joined by another lesser-known red counterpart: Alibernet; a Ukranian cross of Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon. Like Alicante Bouschet, it is a teinturier, meaning it has red pulp, thus producing darkly coloured wines.

"In Slovakia everyone who grows vines has some Alibernet; I would say it’s like the Eastern European brother of Cabernet Sauvignon. It really has this cassis character, but it’s more juicy, herbal and wild.”

He explains that it’s very late ripening, so to get it really ripe—to the level that there are no green flavours—you have to wait to harvest it until mid-November, which in most cases is almost impossible. 

“We tried, but it doesn’t make that much of a difference. It always has some green aromas, which we like, and poppy seed aromas. We use it only as part of a blend. It’s thick skinned, with small berries; we don’t crush and only destem it; and it provides this density and juiciness, as well as the colour.” 

Slobodné sheep

They decided to convert the vineyards to organics in 2016. Before then, they had worked according to ‘integrated production;’ somewhere between conventional and organic; a little like the French ‘lutte raisonnée’ approach. Then, they decided to farm biodynamically, also. Miso says,

“For me, the biodynamic approach is one step further than organic. Organics and biodynamics are connected, but different. Yes, it’s become trendy, and yes, it’s regarded as very holistic; special; deep-rooted. But, some people think it’s just this ‘voodoo,’ and that it’s esoteric, which it’s not. We always want to improve the quality of the land. Working organically is much better than conventionally, but in a sense, organic farming is just an alternative to conventional. The logic and the approach to farming is the same; instead of spraying harmful substances you spray something else—which is not as harmful—but it’s still industrially produced. In this context, what biodynamics brings is a return to principles; to roots. Yes, there is this very deep, philosophical, ethical and mystical background, but at its core, it’s just pure practice. I think that’s why it’s important.”

As there wasn’t a biodynamic organisation in Slovakia at the time, Slobodné joined Demeter, an Austrian biodynamic organisation.

“At that time, nobody in Slovakia was interested. But since, we’ve established Demeter Czech & Slovakia—together with colleagues from the Czech Republic—one year ago. The Austrians have been very helpful. Generally speaking, I consider the whole biodynamic and natural wine movement to be this net of people with the same ideas and values. The wines are very different. I think the term ‘natural’ is more cultural; how people distribute wine and pay respect to food chains and distribution chains. For me, it makes perfect sense.” 

It’s much more than simply a certification; it’s changed Miso’s outlook on life. He dwells,

“I’m very glad that we started working this way; it completely changed my perspective; on reality, and how we observe the world. I really think it’s a science. A strange kind of science, but I think more relevant than it appears. And if scientists paid more attention to it—with open minds—it could be beneficial for everybody, for living beings, for the land, for grapevines, and for the wine.”

The Wines

Although both Agnes and Katarina’s family and Miso’s family had made wine, it has always just been for familial consumption, as was the norm in rural areas in many parts of Europe. 

“We had never studied winemaking, and we hadn’t thought about it as a career, so right from the beginning we realised that we didn’t want to be hardcore technical or manipulative in the winery. We realised that would require a lot of skill, which we didn’t have—and nor did we have time to acquire these skills—and a lot of capital. And we knew that wine can be made in a relatively primitive way.”

When they began making wine, the wine scene in Slovakia was drastically different to what it is today; the vast majority believed the more technological, the better. However, they met natural wine pioneers such as Zsolt Sütó of the winery ‘Strekov 1075’; one of the crucial ‘maverick’ figures of the Central European natural wine movement. 

“We realised— they’re not doing anything different, they just let the wines do what the wines want to do: just leave them. Zsolt was the first to tell us: don’t be afraid.” 

This encounter coincided with the trio’s first wine trips to Slovenia, and the first orange wine festival; organised and funded by Slovenians. 

“That was when we realised that there’s this Central European movement also. Maybe the big names started in France in the 80s, but Central Europe became parallel in the late 80s, with the majority starting in the early 2000s. Austria is special, in the sense that in ten years from now, I think everybody relevant in Austria will be working biodynamically and naturally. There are many modern wine producers who just ten years ago were very sceptical about organic wines, and now have converted. They realised that without farming organically, they aren’t accepted. And it can be done on a large scale; just look at Meinklang! If you’re organised and do it well, you can upscale organic farming to any level.”

Since converting to biodynamics, it’s not only the vineyards that appear healthier, there’s been a drastic change in the wines, too. Miso says,  

“I see significant improvement. Since seeing our wines that were made when we were farming according to ‘integrated production,’ to seeing the change that has happened in these six years, well… it’s huge. The quality of the juice is way better.” 

However, they have been facing backlash from Slovakian authorities; in 2019 there was a movement to ban the sale of Slovakian wines that were cloudy. Slobodné gathered more than 2,000 signatures to appeal, and thankfully they are able to continue selling their wines. Miso says,

“We’re the smallest wine producing country in central Europe, with 8,000 hectares of vines. 80% of the wine is sold through supermarkets, and 80% of that wine is produced by the ten biggest Slovak wineries. So, it’s sort of like a monopoly; they say what is good and what is right. Slovakia, being a relatively young and underdeveloped society… well, everything needs to be written on paper. Anything not written down—or anything different to what the majority regards as normal—is problematic. So there’s a lot of politics and economic pressure involved. The controlling authorities think they can dictate everything, and they said these wines are bad. So we had to appeal that they have no rights to censor the wines unless they are actually harmful. It’s still ongoing.”

Despite all of these unjust difficulties, we can’t help but admire how optimistic and positive Miso is. He smiles as he says,

“It’s changing, and it’s going to change for the better. It’s funny, because two years ago—when talking about the conventional side of wine—the majority of producers were really against cloudy wines. Now, there’s a boom of pét-nats in Slovakia. Even the big modern wineries are making pét-nats like crazy, and thinking about biodynamics. I think that this is the right and natural progression. All the big, premium brands are realising that they don’t need to do hardcore manipulation to their wines, like they did in the 90s, when they were trying to please Robert Parker.”

He is the shining example of what it means to leave your ego at the front door; here is a guy who truly and deeply believes in the greater good of biodynamics, and who looks at the situation in black and white. 

“I am 100% pragmatic. I don’t like big corporations; I think that wine is not purely business excel sheets; but if they work organically and they don’t manipulate, then it’s a fair competition, and it’s better for the planet. And if they push these notions, then the rest of the market will go in that direction, also.”

It’s one of the most refreshing, honest conversations we have had in a long time, and as we say our goodbyes, we can’t help but think the world would be a much better place if more people thought in the way that Miso does; focusing on how we can make lasting environmental change.

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