Gastronomy is hardly one of the Czech Republic’s strong points. With a few notable exceptions, the cuisine has barely progressed in the 30 years since the Velvet Revolution. Think meat (and lots of it), served without much thought or care.
Wine, however, is a different matter. The Czech Republic’s wine industry has undergone a low-key transformation with new investment and wine-making talent pouring into southern Moravia, where most vineyards are located (only 4% are in Bohemia).
A visit to the vaults of the National Wine Centre in Valtice, near the Austrian border, demonstrates how important wine is in this region. With bottles lining the walls and floor, visitors can taste from 312 wine villages and 1130 vineyards with Veltlínské zelené (Grüner Veltliner), Ryzlink Rýnský (Riesling), Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling) and Müller-Thurgau the most popular white varieties, and Svatovavřinecké (St. Laurent), Frankovka (Blaufränkisch) and Rulandské modré (Pinot Noir) the main red.
Styles are generally light and accessible, with their low-ish alcohol making these wines very much à la mode. Moravian wine has a following in North America – with demand presumably driven by Czech exiles – and in Germany and Scandinavia, but in few other places.
So, why isn’t Czech wine better known?
Dagmar Fialová, marketing manager at Sonberk – one of Moravia’s best known wineries located just outside Mikulov and winner of many awards for its white wines (notably Riesling and Pálava, an aromatic 1953 crossing between Müller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer) – suggests various factors.
Sitting over a glass of Pálava and looking over to the hill that gave the variety its name, she says that most of the wine produced in the Czech Republic stays there because most foreign consumers rather associate the country with beer.
‘Our wines are also pricey, because labour costs are high and we don’t have the lower yields and bigger volumes that some producers have in say, Hungary and Romania,’ she says, admitting that very low unemployment makes it hard to find pickers at harvest-time.
This low profile may be about to change
In May 2019, the London Czech Embassy held a Moravian Wine Day, with 15 wineries showing in the UK for the first time. Key producers included the young, dynamic Jan Stávek, who specialises in Frankovka in a range of styles; his Karmazin (the grape’s old name) is distinctively made according to ancient techniques and sits well alongside his other high-end Frankovka reds and roses.
Amongst the other stand-outs were Marcus Wine, which makes a diverse range of excellent Rieslings; Josef Valihrach, with his sparkling Sylvaner and spicy Carménère; Skoupil Winery, boasting another great range including some Zweigelt and Irsai Olivér (a Hungarian white variety); and Templar Wine Cellars, with its delicious Hibernal, another crossing between Seibel and Riesling.
Next year in May, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles will be held in the Moravian capital Brno. And the Wine Society now stocks two outstanding unfiltered, low-intervention wines produced by the late, highly regarded natural winemaker Tomáš Cacík, the Svatovavřinecké 2017 and the Rulandské Bílé (Pinot Blanc) 2015, the former showing amazing depth of flavour with just 11% alcohol.
The last decade really has seen a transformation in Moravia’s wine landscape... small and family producers... are making really expressive, low-yield wines
Clearly, it is now time to wake up to the range of what’s on offer in this little-known wine region.
‘The last decade really has seen a transformation in Moravia’s wine landscape; there is real energy and drive, particularly amongst small and family producers, who are making really expressive, low-yield wines,’ says Zainab Majerikova, a former sommelier who set up Basket Press Wines two years ago, a UK-based agency specialising in Moravian wines.
So far they import from 14 producers, mainly family owned (typically 40,000 to 50,000 bottles a year) making organic, low-intervention wines, and next Monday 14 October they have their first UK tasting at The Grocery Wine Vault & Bar in Hackney, London.
This is a key moment as producers move away from the heavier, sweeter style popular in the domestic market, towards expressions that can be appreciated more in the wider world
The range – which features rare grapes like Roter Traminer and Pálava, blends, and more established varieties – is surprisingly wide. Ben’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2016 from Benjamin Stapleton is deep and full-bodied, while Impera 2017, a blend of Svatovavřinecké and Frankovka from Dva Duby is light but savoury.
Majerikova reckons this is a key moment as producers move away from the heavier, sweeter style popular in the domestic market, towards expressions that can be appreciated more in the wider world.
She says the wines reflect local traditions – Moravia was a key part of the Habsburg Empire – with a Czech twist, with for example Frankovkas made in a lighter, leaner style than Blaufränkisch from Austria. But she admits that in fact, the growth in interest in wines from Austria – and indeed Hungary – has boosted Moravia.
‘The response has been really impressive, especially from sommeliers and consumers who appreciate authentic wine with a strong sense of place.’