I’m sorry, I only have a picture of the Bohemian vineyard. Simply a brief post about a good meal, this one. The meal happened to contain some of the best (possibly the best) meat I’ve ever eaten, that of the Mangalica pig, a hirsute swine native to Hungary. Renowned for it’s high fat content, the animal has become sought after for it juicy, tasty flesh. The animal is considered a national treasure, and maybe appropriate as a symbol for a government that has fallen well towards totalitarianism. (The pigs of Animal Farm had power, but did they have such wavy locks!?)
Bogdan knows a vendor who comes up every other week with meat from organically raised Mangalica. He was hosting a very important wine family within the world of Czech natural wines; he bought a lot of pork neck from the vendor. We brought it up to the domaček, worked in the vines the whole day and then got down to the important labor of grilling. I split seasoned oak in tiny slats for kindling and then finger-sized and then into pieces roughly the size of a rolled up newspaper (“In my day, kids, someone would deliver the newspaper everyday to your door, tightly rolled and held by a rubber band”). I lit the match; the kindling burned; old grape branches burned; the finger-sized pieces burned…The logs became coals. Bogdan had cut the meat into chunks and placed them on flat skewers, to grill them in the Georgian shashlik style. The coals were ready, we put salt on the meat – that is all – we put the skewers over the coals and the meat sizzled. After a few minutes we rotated the skewers. After a few minutes more, we rotated again, and again. Then we tried the meat.
One time, my father and sister and I had hiked in the Bear-tooth Mountains of Montana. We hiked a lot, slept on pads, took the protein from the fish we caught. After 4 or five days of this meandering, we trundled back into town; we sat at a cafe and ordered bloody steaks. I had rib-eye for the first time in my life, with a porter beer. My body said, “Yes, I need this.”
Eating this grilled Mangalica, so hot that I had to chew a few times with my mouth open to express the heat, my body said, “Yes, I need this.” But I didn’t need it, I had only done my normal work of the day, not traipsed for 5 days at high-altitude. The meat was that good. A gold crust of fire and salt and caramelized flesh contained the juiciest meat I have ever eaten. There had been some confusion about arrival, and the family, all 16 of them, were late. Bogdan, Salome and I looked at each other and wondered if there would be any meat left for them. Salome threw her heritage under a Czech bus driven by an Hungarian pig, “I’m Georgian,” said she, “We do shashlik all the time… I’ve never eaten one as good as this.” I’m drooling now as I type this, keeping my mouth away from the keyboard lest I short out the machine. It was that good.
The family, a range of Osičkas, were lucky enough the we regained some control. They arrived and we all ate well, to satiety. They were equally complementary of the meat, and the view, and the golden sunlight that shone on the Bohemian vineyards of Velkě Žernoseky. They even complimented the Bohemian wines we served, Bogdan’s rieslings of the past two years. It was a major breakthrough in oenological Bohemian-Moravian relations, a level of accord rarely found. We will learn our lessons from this meal, and see if we can apply them to EU-Hungary relations.
My last update, I apologize, I got a little crazy about burdock. The past month has seen me successfully attend a 12-step program, Foragers Anonymous, and when I feel any urges to interact with the plant, I repeat my mantra, ” People, not weeds.” Communication with my friends who I alienated during this obsession has improved, and many thanks to my employer and especially my girlfriend who stuck with me through this dark-green, leafy episode.
That said, onto my utterly healthy obsession with wine and the vineyard…
We had bud break! The picture above shows the blooming of grape flowers. Honestly, many of my friends and I, beset by adoration, chatter compulsively about the most intricate details of wine; we sing paeans to aspects many would find completely inane; honestly, the underwhelming appearance of the vine blossoms I find strangely comforting. I know no ode to the looks of květy hroznů. Could you imagine if, on top of the attractive synergy of man and plant in the vineyard, the sweaty, sticky and sweet labor of the harvest, the beguiling burble of fermentation, the flirtatious scents of a young wine and the meditative aromas of one well-aged, could you imagine if the flowers were beautiful too? There would be this whole cult of beauty for those damned, imagined things. Thousands of poems for thousands of years – “[insert body part here], like a vine bloom” – recipes for ancient celebrations that fetishized the petals, Western Classical art flipped on its head, Dionysus as both nurturer and debaucheur, biblical metaphors changed, strange medieval texts of the medicinal and spiritual worth of different varieties’ blossoms, on and on and on until now, when thousands of tourists would traipse throughout the world’s vineyards every spring, taking selfies and posing half-drunk on the trellising.
Instead we have some of the most visually uninteresting flowers in the world, doing their work in near anonymity. The physical appearance does not inspire; however, their aroma…
…The aroma of the vineyard in bloom is lemon curd and linden, such a sweet attar that laboring among the vines, a person leaves the toil more refreshed than when they started.
A winemaker probably doesn’t notice the aroma too often, he or she is too busy looking at the sky, scrolling 10-day forecasts, frowning at a single buboe or pock on a leaf. Bud break is one of the most nervous points of the year for vintners. If rain falls steadily during the flowering, the pollen is unable to drift from hermaphroditic flower to hermaphroditic flower (The term here referring to the majority of grape varieties that can self-pollinate), and the potential berries, if they exist at all, are undersized due to inadequate pollination.
Bogdan’s eyes were on the forecast. Our flowering came under very dry and very hot (30-38°C) conditions, but rain threatened in the forecasts. And after five or six days, the sky dropped! You readers might have heard of the tornado that struck southern Moravia (Southeastern Czech Republic); while we had no such tragedies, we were not spared heavy rains and winds that turned our rock hard clay soils to slick mud, and threatened to inundate the spindly grape blooms.
As I write this a week-and-a-half later, we continue to experience these abnormally strong storms, with temperatures now undulating between 19°C and 29°C. Fortunately, the grapes seemed to have made the best of the dry, hot weather, and I estimate the fertilization was 90% complete when the first bouře dropped its rain. I have not taken any shots of the nascent berries, but the riesling vines are yielding as much as last year (even with less sprouting canes) and maybe 40% of the pinot noir is finally producing. Pinot has had a rough time, as the soil in which it is planted is much more inhospitable, with a hard pan of clay clunked 40cm below the surface limiting the penetration of both rainwater and roots which would dearly like to access deeper reserves of H2O. Still, that 40% fruitfulness is a marked increase from last year; it gives us hope that we will one day taste the fruits of these vines.
Of course, rain and its subsequent humidity raise the specters of two banes of natural winemakers (and really, all winemakers,) odium and peronospora, in the US known as powdery mildew and downy mildew. In the picture above, I feared that the Riesling was getting attacked by the latter fungus. Bogdan was confident that it was not. Rather, it was the work of aphids taking sips on the bounty of leaves that the vines have produced. He said that the yellow on the leaves lacked an oily appearance that would indicate peronospora in a reproductive phase.
Despite his confidence, Bogdan and I did spray, using the only acceptable chemical combination available to natural winemakers – copper sulfate. Unlike most other mineral-derived chemicals, copper sulfate has no counterpart in the biodynamic / natural realm, its prophylactic effects against the fungi are superior, and even biodynamic regulators like Demeter allow its dispersal in the vineyard (albeit at significantly lesser amounts than in conventional vineyards).
Copper sulfate is not without its detractors whether conventional or natural. Some conventional winemakers (Conventional meaning someone who uses the full panoply of chemical products available for the vines and for the cellar, no matter how noisome) accurately point out that copper sulfate is a topical remedy to vine maladies, and washes off within a few rainfalls. Equally correct, they observe that copper is a heavy metal, it does not easily leave the soil, over the year it can potentially build-up and become noxious to the microbial life in the soil, which changes the terroir’s health. They might vaunt that some of the petro-chemicals they use actually break down more quickly. And they’d be right.
However, what that other chemical might do before it breaks down, the jury is still ( figuratively and probably literally) out. In our particular vineyard, for Bogdan, like the majority of natural winemaker’s with whom I have spoken, copper sulfate is a necessary evil whose necessity is constantly questioned. As such, this comparatively “milquetoast” fungicide gets sprayed here once or twice a year, compared to 7 applications in a less devoted vineyard.
Once is enough. While a face-mask has been à la mode for almost two years, this was the first time I felt truly thankful having to wear one; pants in the summer are hot, but I did not complain (The airtight rain-jacket I wore did keep in the sweat; that got pretty nasty with my cotton t-shirt). Overall, the dispersal of this mixture (150g sulfur to 350g copper to 50l of water) by a Stihl fumigator was quick, and even kind of fun, when I forgot about what I was spraying. But I am so accustomed to walking unmasked, sandaled, bare-legged and short-sleeved through the vines, that the chemical aroma and dusty, palest-blue circles left on the plants felt nigh-on tragic. I don’t know if it was the emotions or the application that made me slightly queasy.
In any case, the spraying is done, and hopefully we won’t reapply again this year. Now we strain our backs and knees, bending low again and again to choose which branches on each vine will survive and which will be thrown to the ground and return quickly to the earth. It is repetitive but highly interesting work.
It has been a busy few months between viticulture, Czech paperwork, changing homes and various but pleasant personal issues; an update has languished as vineyard work has continued. This post will continue to cover some of the practices that Bogdan Trojak, my employer, incorporates into the vineyard as we try to make a very direct line from the terroir and vines to the qvevri, to the bottle and to our palates.
Much of March and all of April was dedicated to tilling around the vines and along the vine rows, breaking up the root systems of other plants that could compete for water, nitrogen and other nutrients. Tilling also allows air to reach down into compacted soils, especially sections with heavy clay. The air is helpful for plant and microbial growth.
As the caption implies, we do not own a tractor for the vineyard, and all the work is done by hand. This allows for an intimate study of the soil which occasionally changes drastically from vine to vine. Briefly, this is what I discovered in my foray into the Riesling section of the vineyard:
1) The vineyard alternates between bands of dense clay, loose sand, and their mixture(s). While I did not systematically document every vine’s footing, I did notice that immediately below the densest clay sections, came the loosest sand. I do mean immediately below; abrupt and opposite changes often occurred in the roughly 50cm between each vine. On occasion, this change happened from one side of the vine to the other, the shovel struggling mightily just above the vine, and slipping easily into the sand just below it.
2) Both pedological extremes and their mixtures in the Riesling section did not seem to affect growth in the vines. Healthy trunks appeared in all variations of the soil, and the budding has been successful and even throughout the vineyard.
3) The soil seems healthy. Lots of worms, centipedes and other critters came up with the soil, generally around the roots I was extracting (sorry guys). Also, plenteous patches of nitrogen-fixing plants, like clover and vetch [Jetel a vikev] grow throughout the vineyard. Mostly, we have left these undisturbed, so they can share their production with the vines.
4) Different plants thrive in the different soils. In the most clayey areas, various grasses and especially crab-grass dominate. The fight to limit the crab-grass will be a long, physical, and chemical-less one. Hardier plants rose from the sandy soils, though in the sandiest there was little coverage at all.
5) The largest weed is probably the crab grass which wants to choke out the vine. My second largest concern is something called lopuch, burdock in English, because it has the potential [You know, I don’t want to interrupt the documentary flow of this post too much, but I have to unburden myself: Lopuch is a nasty, nasty weed. You might know it best for its second year, when it produces spindly hook-ended seed pods that stick to your clothes and then one inevitable works its way down to your socks, rubbing directly against the taunt skin protecting your Achilles’s tendon, gnawing at it until you think the cartilage will tear or your mind will, and you are left with no choice but to sit yourself down in the dust, among the creeping creatures of early spring, tear off your shoe and futilely hunt for the offensive husk. To your fingers it is so pliable and soft, and inevitably it hides itself in even the sheerest of sock fabrics; you think to yourself, “I must have gotten it out;” you tie your shoe, stand, and again the burning; the edge of its hook lacerates microscope tears into your skin. Will the pain never cease?] to overtake a vineyard, and severely diminish the quality of the vineyard in two ways.
The first begins from its germination. Lopuch likes nitrogen-rich soils, upturned by a hoof or other disturbances, OR in our vineyard, upturned by plow and fertilized by manure. [Sorry to rant again, but because our focus in the past years was elsewhere, lopuch had a good chance to take a substantial hold in the plot; hundreds of them are still sedulously thrusting their roots into the soil. MY GOAL FOR THE PAST MONTH AND A HALF HAS BEEN TO RID THE PLOT OF THIS WEED, AND THE LABOUR IS AWFUL. As I toil now in the Pinot Noir section of the vineyard, they lie, mocking me, their broad, turgid leaves still low to the ground. A lopuch does not survive by camouflage – no, they are much too overbearing and stupid for subterfuge – the only way a lopuch survives is by the ignorance, laziness, or the sheer lack of guts of the gardener to extract them. I have the tripes! Do you know how deep the roots grow? Almost 1 meter, more than 3 feet. I dig down into the soil (Which soil, the more perceptive among you ask? Neither those of the heaviest clay, nor those of the pure sand, they feast on the gentle milk of the most balanced soils, often insinuating themselves among the vetch and clover, taking all the nitrogen those plants so freely yield. Tearing out the villain, harms the other plants, but if innocents must die that the lopuch be eradicated… so be it), the spade head sinks down to its top. Leveraging the shovel handle against the plant’s long radix I tug and tug, wondering if now is the time that it finally cracks against the weed’s deep resistance. So far, the handle and I have bourne victory. Satisfaction come when a deep pop resonates from the soil; again I have broken the weed’s spine. With a heave I bring the mortally wounded to the surface; it still, vainly, greedily, grasps the earth, worms, and other roots to siphon more life from the vineyard. The clamour announcing the breaking of the interloper is satisfaction indeed, but still more I take pleasure when, with great struggle, the root is drawn to the surface without sound; this means I have wrested the near totality of the root from the earth; here in this place, I am assured it shall not rise again.] I guess one positive of seeing the lopuch is that it indicates a satisfactory level of nitrogen [ HA! Like saying, “I guess one positive of seeing thieves in a bank is that their presence indicates the bank has money.” They are marauders! And what do I do with the thieves in my garden? Is there forgiveness? A warning? Do we practice a weak allowance that might provide the lopuch a return to this fair vineyard? No, we destroy. Do we practice an “eye for an eye? No. We practice “eye for a breath” – It exists and we will eradicate it. What the lopuch has taken, I will return to the vines! I grab the root – sometimes the root is as broad as a chair leg – shake off the innocent dirt, misguided worms, and confused flora – Did these call the villain, friend? – I place it at the base of a trembling Pinot vine -they are weaker than the Riesling; I will expound upon that another time – and I thrash the beast, rending leaves from base, and base from root. It is torn and buried in a few efficient motions, buried at the base of its victims, the Pinot Noir vines who immediately begin to feast on the nitrogen-rich juices of their vanquished oppressor, growing strong that they may rule as kind and just lords of the vineyard, harmonious with all except those weeds which would dare take from their royal stature!]. Extracting the lopuch, mulching it, and placing the remains at the base of the vines allow us to return some of the nitrogen to the grapes.
When allowed to monopolize a vineyard and grow to full stature, the specific plant we have, lopuch větší, (greater burdock) can reach over 3m (9’10”), with enough broad leaves to shadow low-hanging grapes and impede the ripeness of grapes already lacking the potential nitrogen of the terroir – all another reason to keep this weed in check. Even if one does not intend to uproot the pest, one must keep it low so that it does not grow tall, and certainly not let it produced fertilized seeds [ …and the burrs that carry them to all unsuspecting soils! I have read it, certainly scribbled by fools, that lopuch can be a good for hard soils, that it breaks up hard soils with its profound and nefarious tap. Like bringing a fox into a hen-house to control mice! Would someone ever be idiotic enough to try this? And yet, even more there are those who swear that it is a kind and beneficial flower, that its sun-choking leaves are useful and practical, that its root is salubrious and kind to the stomach as medicine and victual – Blind guides!]
The third worst weed in the vineyard is the blackberry, or ostružiník. The spiky shoots of the blackberry can travel long distances from the mother root, and to ensure survival, young, low-lying branches produce roots to ensure a second footing in the ground for nutrients. They are very vigorous plants that left to their own devices can suffocate the vines, and their long-travelling, deep-coursing roots make them a bear to eradicate. Of course, blackberries also can draw blood. [And yet why do I hate the lopuch more? I cannot say. Is it the name, burdock, containing within it the shortened word of burr, its seed pod? But why do I use the Czech word, lopuch more? Because it reminds me of Loup? Lupine? All from the latin for “wolf”, “lupus“? Because, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it hides itself under a soft and welcoming coat, the betraying softness of its leaves? Maybe I hate it more because it reproduces efficiently and with alacrity; if 12 seeds fall to exposed ground, 11 spawn will rise. I do not totally understand my hatred for the plant. But to understand this, I think I have found a way. Lopuch větší is a virile plant, fecund and powerful; dabblers and naturopaths and hoodwinked mystics have called it edible, healthy, and even delicious. And though I find them stupid wonderers, I too, after much internal wrestling, have ingested the root. I shredded the peeled radix to a near paste, sauteed it long with oil and butter, then added more coarsely shredded carrots. In the last two minutes I added vinegar, dark soy sauce and some brown sugar. The taste: Earthy, with a touch of peanut and BBQ. The texture: crunchy.
It is excellent for the skin I have heard, and I believe it. It is good for the macrobiotics of the gut I have heard, and I believe it. It is a powerful cleanser of the lymphatic system – I believe it! But LO, it has sent a strange and tenacious strength coursing through my limbs. I am just beginning to grasp its power.
I have told all my friends and they do not believe me. My girlfriend avoids the subject. No one has spoken to me in days – why are they so stiff-necked? None of them will dine upon its flesh with me. The lopuch speaks to me more with each root I tear out and bring it to breast. I ingest its power, just like the vines take its noblesse. Does it speak to the Pinot like it speaks to me in my room? I hear its whisper from the refrigerator…
…In its sauté sizzle it sings concealed truths. I begin to understand. It is not obsession if the object of your love contains all wisdom, and no wisdom exists outside the object of your love… Just one more root…]
Really I could write, “What a difference two days make,” but it has been more like two weeks since we resumed pruning. Weather, children, travel and training all made for delays. When Bogdan, Salome, and I arrived last Friday, the space looked very different from the wintry landscape of softly falling snow.
Our previous excursions had been cancelled by severe temperatures falling to a daytime of only -14 C°, single digits in Fahrenheit realms, painful on both vine and vinedresser. As temperatures lept, a week of childcare due to CoVid school-closings precluded any work. Salome and Bogdan then visited Moravia (the south-eastern Czech Republic) and Slovakia to practice a different pruning style called the Simonit and Sirch method. Bogdan hopes the technique, coupled with a different training style, will reinforce the health of his vines.
Conceptually, there was a broad difference between the temperatures of two weeks ago, and those that greeted us on a grey, misty Friday. One looks at numbers for the forecast, predictions of sun or rain, and one dresses accordingly. Some degrees above freezing seems to beg for less clothing. But practically speaking, there was little difference between winter’s depth and winter’s end; while I did wear enough clothes, I still worn the same leather shoes that had caused so much dolor last time, but with fewer socks. In essence, I was still cold.
Not that it dampened my spirits. My return even came with a little gift, a finger knife with which to cut the twine holding cane to vine and vine to stake. Happily betrothed to manual labor in foggy conditions, I followed Bogdan and Salome into the vines.
Bogdan explained the new approach. In order to encourage more vegetative growth and a greater trunk, we were going to switch styles of training, moving from the Mosel Arch training (Which I erroneously called Pendelbogen) to two different systems. For many of these 5-year-old vines, the first system for this year will be a bit like repeating a grade. According to the first system, if there is a healthy cane (the branches of last year’s growth) approximately 20cm from the ground, all other growth is to be eliminated and only this cane should be left with 6 or 7 buds. This cane will continue to lignify – that is, to become woody and rigid – while sprouting new canes that will bear this year’s crop. When we do this training again next year, we will cut back this year’s 6-7 bud cane and all its new growth to one 10-12-bud cane, and one 1-to-2-bud spur (a cane cut to one or two buds) below it, as close to 20cms above the ground as possible. I’m calling this a Half-Mosel Arch for the purposes of this blog. Twenty centimeters is the desired height for trunks in this vineyard. Right now, most of the trunks are 10 to 12 cm above the ground and – I would have to confirm with Bogdan on this – that the extra centimeters allow for a little bit more airflow, a little bit more trunk in which carbohydrate reserves can be stored and a little bit less distance we will have to bend. However, like all obsessions, one’s body is sacrificed so that the object of one’s passion itself might survive, and comfortably so. The fatigue of our backs is of the least import regarding vine height – if twisted and torn erector spinae and external oblique muscles would inevitably lead to a note of forest honey in the final wine, we’d keep the trunks short.
The vines in the second system probably feel pretty smug. THEY get to have one cane with 10-12 buds and one spur THIS year; THEY get that cane bent into an arch; it’s like they’re going Vineyard High-School and producing killer’ fruit, dude!
… They will be held back next year.
Why? Because they haven’t learned how to grow new shoots in the right place. ” Chad Vinetrunk, we wanted approximately 20cm trunks, not 30 or 40cm. And because you can’t do your math, you will be held back. You can be an arch again in 2023.”
“Will I still produce rockin’ fruit?”
“Chad, you are a young vine; you don’t even truly know what ‘rockin’ fruit is. Some of your fruit might be more like smooth jazz for a while.”
Friday, I did my vines wrong. I was not rockin’ the pruning. Every vine I pruned like the second system. Thankful, if I had to make a mistake, this was the mistake to make; I can always go back and correct my work by pruning more off; I wouldn’t be able to glue the wood back on. It was one in a series of errors the whole day. My Czech clogged my tongue; I took wrong trams in the morning; I was supposed to meet Bogdan at one pub to buy take-out (CoVid protocol) but went to another instead. And, AND, I didn’t wear warm shoes. By the end of the day I was happy and busy but moving like a old sloth. My legs were so stiff.
Saturday started better. I remembered to bring these farm-fresh eggs to Bogdan. Ok, I remembered them when I was half-way up a hill, and missed my tram and was 5 minutes late but I got them, and carried their carton in the factors that changed my whole day- my snow boots.
No, there was no snow on the ground , but the temperature in the vineyard wasn’t so much above freezing and the lambswool inside these adultified moon-boots from Demar kept my feet toasty. They must have improved my efficiency by 20%, despite their gargantuan volume, just because my legs were warm, All my energy went to trimming and not towards survival. I was especially fast once Bogdan and I convoked on my error. I think he had explained it all the day before, but I had missed a couple phrases in Czech; my proficiency in this language is able to draw compliments from the natives the first time they meet me, and eye-rolls and sighs the next. We went over it again in English and Czech. The trimming grew even easier, I could have gone until sundown but responsibilities were carrying us back to Prague.
I can’t wait to get out again. Besides the fresh air, a first-row seat (kneel) at spring’s entrance is just the thing to renew the spirits of anybody worn down by winter and lockdowns. Insects and arachnids, even at these near freezing temperatures seem as anxious for the vines and sun as we are. Spiders crept and lept from trunks, a fly buzzed in the domeček of Bogdan and Salome. Insect eggs were sleeping on the vine trunks, for ill or gain I do not yet know. New green life has already started to push through the disintegrating leaves of 2020. And waiting out the cold with us, and enduring it much more was this little one:
Be well. The living is cold right now but we can still make some great good of it.
Around the Northern Hemisphere, roughly between the latitudes of 30° and 50°, vineyard owners and workers are bundling themselves against the chill and cold. Calculations tick out in mind and in discussions. “Is the temperature too low? How much do we cut? What do we retain? If we do A, and the probable X happens, the season is a disaster and the children have to make lunch money sloping hogs; but if we do A, and the equally-probable Y happens, the mud on our boots leads to red-carpet galas.” Estimations, hopes, fears and facts are all weighed, reweighed, rejected, revisited – finally, a decision comes to rest heavily on the vineyard’s chief. That person outlines the objectives, gives guidance and the workers begin: Will our labors blessed be, and fructify but merrily, or have we started our path towards desolation?
A little bit dramatic, but just a little: Training grapevines is one of the most important steps a grower takes during the season; the first step that affects the fecundity of the present year, and even the following.
A polar cold has fallen over Europe this year, ending a mild winter with negative temperatures (Celsius) well and far into double digits. In the Czech Republic, where I live, some of the mountains are seeing temperatures down to -30°C (-22°F). No one I know has yet tried to raise vines on the tops of mountains, but even on the hillsides and plains where grape and laughter grow, we’ve gritted our teeth over the past week in -9°C (15°F). There’s more gritting when you don’t have the proper footwear…
Well, now that we talked about the weather and we know each other a bit: “Hi, my name’s Justin. I work in tourism for Pathways, and in this second CoVID year, I’m working a lot in a vineyard. Vineyard work’s lovely if you like sore muscles, repetitious motions, and seasonally relevant maladies like chilblains and sunburns – they all seem to suit me well.”
Anyway, Bogdan Trojak, owner of the Prague natural wine bars, Veltlin and Autentista, with his partner and Georgian natural wine importer, Salome Khardzeishvili, took me with them to start the 2021 vintage in the dramatic setting you see above, some of the northernmost vineyards in Europe.
That start, as mentioned, was training the vines for spring’s new vegetation. Training involves a lot of pruning first, the cutting away of the past two years’ growth. Text books claim that up to 90% of the weight of the vine is removed during training; to my eyes that seems accurate enough.
Training takes a fair share of observation, as each cut advances or recedes the grower’s goal of optimal fruit quality at optimal fruit quantity. Leave too many canes ( one-year-old wood, the smoother brown branches with little or no bark in the picture above) and one might get a lot of fruit. Yupee, except the quantity won’t be of quality because the vine will disperse its limited nutrients among a lot of grapes. Alternatively, the vine might think that the living is easy, keeping its luxuriating branches and all, and it decides to produce fewer grapes, not expending much energy on them. Alright, then the obvious answer then is to prune, and prune severely. Well, yes, buuuuttt, prune too much and the vine will also not produce fruit, using all its resources to keep itself alive by creating those marvelous, green, solar-energy collectors we call leaves. In the Pendelbogen Mosel Arch method we are using, each vine has a head; this is the top of the trunk. The majority of the vines have two arms ( small, woody, more-or-less permanent branches – these are very small in this vineyard and ideally should remain so.) growing from the head. Out of these arms come the growths that perdure for one, two years at tops. We aim to keep all growth as close to the head as possible (If I remember correctly from the book Wine Science, Principles and Applications, this is to maximize nutrient and energy delivery to the fruit and not to the maintenance of the vine structure), but we have to leave buds to produce leaves and fruit. So, starting from the head, we look for a total of four strong canes that will make this year’s and next year’s hearts. Strong, healthy canes are about the thickness of a pencil or so. Some of the vines on this plot have canes sticking directly out of their heads, some do not. We then look for strong canes growing on the arms and their two-year growth (one side at a time), looking for the first two strong canes growing out of it. The lower cane, closest, if not attached, to the head should be clipped to one or two buds; it is called a spur and will become half the heart for next year, but now it can grow on its own and prove itself fecund.
On the vine above, there were no canes growing directly out of the head or the arms. On the two-year growth on each side, the healthy canes closest to the head got cut way back ( becoming “spurs”, marked by a gold dot). The next healthy canes, marked by gold stars, become the two halves of this year’s heart. These were left untouched momentarily, but the rest of the two-year growth above it was cut off, taking with it all the other canes of last year. Finally, the canes were also trimmed, down to about 12-10 buds per cane. Ten is an ideal number, but we had to leave enough length that the canes are pliant when we bend them into their heart shape. The result looks something like this:
Generally, two long canes for this year’s heart have been left; harder to see are the spurs (On the foremost vine on the left, there is one spur near the base of the cane).
You might say, “Gee, you don’t have a close up of a trimmed vine?” I write you, “No, I don’t; and you know why? Because I was cold and the only thing that kept me warm was movement.” I was there to dress vines, not expose my fingers to freezing temperatures as to use my phone at every teachable moment. Okay, my core was fine, but I would wiggle my toes every few minutes to remind them that they were alive and I liked them. Was it the baseball player Yogi Berra who said, “The great thing about going numb is that you can’t feel anything”? No, it wasn’t, I just wrote that, but he would have said it, standing in the snow with simple leather shoes, hoping three pairs of socks would keep his digits uniced.
Watching Salome and Bogdan, I grew a little envious as they moved quickly from plant to plant. It makes sense; they’ve done this all before; I have less practical experience. But something else slowed me down, wool gloves. Wool is one of the most blessed insulators on earth, able to retain heat when wet; it did just this job for me. But as it gets wet, it collects more and more snow; then the gloves become floppy, unable to grasp twine, cable or vine. I was reduced to the dexterity of the Cookie Monster, grasping greedily at twigs and making some of the ravenous puppet’s noises, albeit out of frustration.
Fortunately, the vineyard work came with food and shelter, and after 4 hours or so of bent back and benumbed toes, a lunch of hot Georgian soup and the balmy (Read: above-freezing) temperatures of Bogdan and Salome’s unfinished domeček provided a welcomed pause to the day’s labor.
The rest of our week saw a deepening of the cold, air hollowing as temperatures plunged. Trimming the vines became a risky act that could damage a varietal even as hardy as Bogdan’s Riesling. While we wait for temperatures to climb a little higher, I can share this wonderful experience of working in the vineyard. I’ll share some new pictures, but only when I have my snow boots.
…and yet much is the same. Or much is slightly different. Or all different. I have more grey hair in the beard; I have developed a slight paunch. I walk now more than I run. I was in a monastery for 5 months and it did me well. My Czech is slightly better. Czech wine is much better. But the winter are still occasionally cold in Prague and give rise to views like this in the dear, dear Prokopském Udolí.
My heavens, this is in a city!
I hope to write more soon. Something less breezy and off the cuff, and more informative. Until then, be good, dear readers, and be dear, good readers.
[For a full profile about the Degustarium, please click on the article link to my friends at Pathways. This piece is a bit more “glass-of-life.”]
The door opens to a little girl tottering around a long table of blond, broad, raw wood, a group of 3 or four people sitting on similarly-styled benches, a couple working behind a simple bar, all the scene illuminated by low lamps hanging from an arched brick ceiling.
Outside darkness, drizzle, and wind. Inside, a warmth emanating from one of my favorite stoves in the Czech Republic. The warmth makes a cool white wine acceptable, many examples of which rest on the table.
The little one caroms around the bar towards her parents, owners Vladimir and Denisa Štekl; a sip of juice, maybe a snack and out she comes -! – into this wonderful space of murmuring adults, aromas of a hot fire baking a savory dish, and soft light lapping dim corners.
Behind the restful hum of this place, the Degustarium, part bed & breakfast, part wine cave, part codifier of Pálava wines, is ambition after ambition… But ambition rarely seems so relaxed.
“Calm,” Štekl mentioned a year ago, a goal achieved this evening.
His daughter climbs up on the bench:
Behind her, Ondřej Prusák, Degustarium’s web designer, opens a bottle of wine to start a small tasting for some guests. Prusák has created for Degustarium, but has not yet released, one of the most attractive wine maps I have ever seen (a distant image can be viewed here). Wine maps should both inform the neophyte and intrigue the connoisseur. A newbie might ask, “Where is the vintner village of Pavlov from Mikulov?” A zealous oenophile might ask, “What is the, location, pedology, and approximate gradient of the Slunný vrch vineyard?” Prusák’s Degustarium map answers those question in a sleek, powerful fashion. While the map isn’t currently on-line, its look echos the feel of this label he designed for the Balaž winery:
Prusák’s design for the Baláž winery. Looks good, tastes good.
We taste through a selection of mostly Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling) wines from the Pálava Hills vineyards, including a few from the most celebrated vineyard, Železná.
Many of the wines are 2014s. An abominable vintage by most standards, and quality makers struggled to find the silver lining of the cumulonimbus that doused rain and rot on the vineyards. Drinkable wine was considered a success in this vintage, and our tasting reflected some of these small victories. (Tasting notes are below).
Most of the remaining wines come from the 2013 vintage, a more favorable year. The wines reflected this beneficence – fuller body, greater complexity, a little more “stuffing” as one says.
My favorite wine of the evening comes from 2013, a Vinařstvi Popela Ryzlink Rýnský. Warm honey and floral elements mixed with Mandarin orange and tobacco come on the nose. In the mouth the taste is complex too. A bit short at the end, but the nose is nothing s.hort of sexy. Nice job.
Amidst all the wines , the Štekls place a type of Czech tartiflette on the table. The aggressive, steely, and electric wines of 2014 compliment well the cheese and potato dish, cutting the sizzling dairy fat.
After dinner, Prusák’s sister and friends arrive from a long drive, and we escort these lovely women through the wines. Vladimir, Denisa, and their sleepy daughter disappear with smiles. Discussions roll back and forth over the broad wood table, but eventually I leave them, the soft light, and a quieting stove to Prusák, kith, and kin. A quiet bed kindly waits.
A gift of an evening.
Vinarství Popela 2014 Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling) from the Železna vineyard: A lot of fresh pineapple rind on the nose and a tang in the mouth.
To compare:the same vineyard, cultivar, and year, but from the Tanzberg winery: Again, pineapple stands out on the nose, a little fainter than Popela’s. In the mouth a touch of bitterness rests at the back. Both wines liken a bit to this, without the Margaritas.
Vinarstvi Šilinek 2014 Ryzlink Vlašský, from the Božích Muk vineyard: Lighter than the previous two wines it was more vyvažené, balanced. A subdued quality trembled through. The wine did not try to push beyond the vintage but gracefully went along with it.
Tanzberg, 2010 Ryzlink Rýnský from the Slunečna (Sunny) vineyard: This wine was drinking very well, with aromas and tastes of limestone and a slight “petrol” note – the latter a hallmark of the Riesling grape. Tastes a bit like this sounds, a little light, a little hard.
Sexy! There I wrote it, to keep your eyes from wandering. An accurate description, though, of Popelá’s 2014 Rýnský from the Bergus vineyard. Warm honey, white flowers, Mandarin orange and green tabacco. Smells like a fantasy, and like most fantasies, it has some shortcomings, the taste being truncated in the mouth. But that nose, just beautiful.
Riesten 2013 Pinot Blanc from the Božích Muk vineyard: Full nose, body lotion and a little cold stone. Also a fulsome mouth. Nice wine.
Chateau Valtice 2013 Pinot blanc from the Sluncé Vrch (Sunny Hill) vineyard: A fresh, very fresh nose, with beautiful warm honey. In mouth, a bit cloying, but nice.
Šilinek 2014 Pálava cultivar from the Stará Hora vineyard: Oh Pálava grape. You’re like a Brazilian Carnival dancer who wants to join the ballet. Everybody tells you, “No,” but you just keep trying. “Just keep being luscious and sweet and grape-y and not so serious and easy to drink and show us your tropical fruit,” they leer; and you dream of the ethereal, the perfect pivot upon a faint note of minerality, and your tropical fruit isn’t a sun-baked evocation but the subtler freshness of a fruit proudly itself after rain. Face it, you will always have something sub-23rd parallel about you, but who said ballet can’t be sensuous, and who said fine wine must lack exuberance?
You could convince people yet, Pálava grape, and the wine world will be a better place once you achieve your dream. This Šilinek example moves you in the right direction. Tropical, but not fruit salad, a fine freshness despite the year. Very nice.
Volařik 2013 Pálava from the Purmice vineyard. – A good Carnival dancer that is happy with her craft. Not my thing, but there is an art to heavily aromatic wines and some people enjoy that art.
Where do top Pálava Hills makers like Volařík, Gala, and Nepraš & Co. find their base? Certainly not in the Communist cooperative of yesteryear. Yes, they look towards France or Germany, but they don’t bring in soil from those places. No, they root down and find themselves in Pálava’s soil and some of the personal traditions of winemakers who created a little bit of their product for “home use.” Many of these winemakers still practice their craft to varying degrees of success.
From these tiny makers, shambling through their underground sklepy and above ground boudy, one can hear and see the distant past, a dusty past of song and sunshine. But what one can taste… I hope that wasn’t the past! In my experience, for every decent wine, there’s a bland one, and for every really good wine there are 3 bad wines. Regardless, the Pálava Hills would not be the same without these “old hands,” men who made wine with the limited resources of the Communist years, and who now “make enough for themselves and friends.” A simplicity and purity remains with these vintners; and regardless of the greater quality of the next generation’s winemakers, nothing quite beats knocking on a door and being invited into a maker’s home.
A digression – Not in the Pálava Hills, but in the nearby region of Slovacko, a friend once took me to a bouda – an above ground wine cottage on a dark November evening. The maker welcomed us into a cold space with enough room to hold four or five people – an old, old wooden wine press took up most of the space. On the press was a date from 1948, the day a Moravia politician died after imprisonment by the Communists. The previous owner wrote it there as a memorial for his friend, and the current winemaker re-chalks the mark every few years.
The man was unassuming, quiet. He spoke of the history of his bouda, and the region. Sitting in his presence as he served us wine, it seemed he and we were the ephemeral ones, nearly intangible shades compared with the history and the wines he served.
The wines! They were unique. I’ve never experienced wines quite like them since. Simple, lots of white flowers. Nothing too complex but the taste after I swallowed went on for minutes. Three, four minutes and more – an epoch compared with most wines. This lingering softness of tree blossoms – a quietness, just like their maker, I’ll never forget them…
I won’t forget the wine impresario Petr Očenášek’s uncle either. Admittedly, more for his character than the strength of his wines. The wines aren’t all world class, but they are truly his. And Josef Král is a good man, with a great wit. So I’ll enjoy his drinks too!
Visiting “Uncle Jožka” in the town of Březí, near the base of the Ořechová Hora, Očenášek and I meet him as he cleans a homemade fermenting vat. It’s well-constructed, a nice, even bead on the weld. We descend from the tiled main room to his long arched space covered in blackening red brick. Good moisture for wine storage makes mold grow, and this not unhealthy in itself. Blacker still are the outside of the barrels, dark and smooth. I ask him if they are painted. No, they naturally become that way – after all they’ve been there since World War II! But he cleans them out every year and deep cleans them every five or ten years.
Král (The name means “King”), at 70-years-old, has had skirmishes with the wine authorities. They have told him that if he made his wine more like his neighbor he could have it ranked under the appellation system of Mikulov. But he doesn’t want that, he likes his wines as they are.
His broad hand grabs a wine-thief, a bulbous, glass container with a long straw at one end to siphon off wine; he sticks it into a white and inhales. Yellow liquid bubbles up into the bulb; he puts his thumb on one end of the thief, raises the device above our outstretched glasses, releases his thumb and out burbles the drink.
We can smell sulfur, among the fruit and floral notes, probably some chemical processes occurred without enough oxygen. Očenášek tells him. Uncle shrugs.
I ask him if Petr is a good nephew. “He talks a lot.” “I told Petr once he got into the wine business he wouldn’t drink our wines… and look he’s here. He tells me about every of my wine [sic]; there’s nothing wrong with my wine.”
Jozef Král – Hail to the King.
Očenášek, the former bodybuilder, is smaller here, the curious boy still thrilled to enter the wine cellar. The boy’s very smart now, knows too much for his own good, but his adoration for his uncle is obvious and probably hasn’t changed a bit.
We get to the red wines, and a small demijohn holds some from the variety André – he has a few vines behind the house.
We try a Svatovavřincké ( St. Laurent). True to form it is fruity and tannic, carrying a rustic charm; I ask what he thought of the Svato this year. “This question is sporný, [controversial]. The wine was clear on St. Martin’s day November (11). That’s my answer.” I think this means it fermented normally and finished normally by mid-November.
A Cab Sav is from grapes that he would usually let hang a month longer, but this year, “Starlings had specialized in my vineyards.” So a little less ripe.
There is a refreshing, matter-of-factness in our conversation. Uncle Jožka isn’t going to change – who must he impress? At most, his friends. He didn’t have a particular wine, his Zweigeltrebe (Zweigelt) last year, so he bought some from his neighbor (the appellation-approved neighbor) to sell to his friends so they wouldn’t be sad. They came, tried it, told him, “This isn’t yours. We want your Zweigeltrebe.” Friends who help him pick his Zweigeltrebe grapes get the wine for 30 koroun (a litre) instead of 35. His vines are at the base of a hill, and pickers have to carry the full baskets up to a vehicle waiting on the access road. This is the economy one deals with here. The wine is cheap, but the friendships are priceless.
The uncle has a few vines from the Ořechová Hora vineyard. Petr enjoys it: “Super!”
“Finally he says something nice…”
He asks me if I want to return to any of the wines – they’re all 2015 vintage, by the way – new and done and just enough to last the year.. I return to the Svatovavřincké – fresh red berries and coarse – a proper country wine.
I am being polite about the wines, but delighted, and enjoying every moment of this experience. Uncle seems to sense this. He goes over to the shelves at the far end of the cave and picks out a dusty bottle covered in hairs of mold, his last bottle of Zweigeltrebe from 2006. “For later, so you’ll have something good.” I couldn’t not share it with him, and we come to an agreement: We’ll open it now so he can experience it too, and then Očenášek and I will drink it with dinner. The cork pops and a rush of blackberries and raspberries and strawberries and fruit and fruit and fruit pour into our glasses. A happy wine, happy like old crooked voices singing a favorite song until they become young again.
I’m warm, even in this chilly cave. It’s not from the alcohol; I’m driving and have spit every single sample. The hospitality and familial atmosphere has inured me from the cold. As Petr and I leave, Uncle Jožka offers me an apple from his neighbors’ tree. We step out into the late-fall air, get into the car and drive away leaving the grand figure waving behind us. A little frost has appeared on the windshield, and I feel the rush of time roll in again.
Petr Očenášek sells wine. More than that, he sells Pálava Hills wine, as much the idea of it as by the bottle. Yes, he managed a shop for a while. Yes, he still maintains a stand during Mikulov’s Harvest Festival. He explains to the drunken Diabetes B candidates that he doesn’t sell that yeasty, sweet, half-fermented juice called burčák but finished, characterful wines with a sense of place made from healthy vines trained and strained to make the best possible grapes that will be obsessively observed during fermentation and their liquids careful aged in vats of oak, concrete or stainless steel according to the attributes desired by the vinifying team and then it is placed in a glass bottle with a cork, glass, plastic or screw-cap closure and that has been opened at precisely the right time before the festival so that the wine can just at this very moment express its full panapoly of aromas and –what?- fine, vole, go drink your burčak somewhere else…
Očenašek can speak at length about wine.
Petr Očenášek does not serve burčak.
When he’s not speaking of it, his broad frame is often hunched over his smartphone, replying to emails concerning any of his several (hundred?) projects. Whether it be guiding Czechs to Bordeaux, enticing people to stop at the Degustarium, or drumming up sales of the book he co-authored, Wine Words: English for Wine Professionals & Wine Lovers, Očenašek is constantly hustling, in the best sense of the word.
Očenašek likes to point out that he’s from one of 7 or so families in Mikulov whose roots go back before 1945 (Families were either pushed out by the post-war Czechoslovak government or by the succeeding Communist government). By digestion and osmosis, the wine and soil of Pálava are in his blood. His earliest memory of wine is shuffling with his cousins in the vineyards as their parents worked. He was not allowed to enter the cellar as the men brought the grapes in for harvest – he would have to help prepare dinner with his aunts and mother – until his 12th year, and then, they took him inside, and one might say he never left!
…Except maybe to visit other cellars of other regions. Očenašek could have stayed within the world of the Pálava Hills, enjoying the wines as they had been made; instead, curiosity led him across Europe to explore some of Europe’s greatest wine regions. Such discoveries in Burgundy and the Mosel have given him a perspective of his birthplace’s potential. His opinions have made him international and local friends, and probably a few local “foes,” people who aren’t interested in creating quality wine.
With his roots in the region and access to international vendors and oenophiles, Očenašek has clout like few others to challenge the vintners to grow healthier grapes and make better wines. His goal? Mikulov, “can actually tell people here in the Czech [sic] what a real wine region is. [Mikulov] is a great and mainly unique terroir that can, with a relative ease, but with tons of hard work and [the] right winemakers’ attitude, put us on the world wine map (yet again).”
Continually teaching people about quality wine and destroying some of the perceptions lingering from the communist era remains one of his greatest achievements, he says, along with co-authoring Wine Words and playing interpreter for flying winemaker Mike Mazey (A “flying winemaker” is a wine consultant who helps companies around the world make wine) in 2004. Mazey decide to live in Brno, and eventually became the main author of Wine Words.
Another highlight that Očenašek states reveals something else: “ Reinstating and successfully maintaining [a particular producer’s] wine sales in a team of 3 sale people and being one of the reasons co-employees did not have to wait for their wages for 3 months, and being great friends with some of them up to now.”
He cares. Some relationships in villages are always “internecine struggles,” but in the end this international vendor cares for his region. With a “gift of gab,” in multiple languages and a great nose for wines, he could have left for more prestigious appellations long ago. Instead, he’s stayed nearby and his success is now shared with his neighbors.
One of his great long-term goals is a codex of the Pálava Hills vineyards. Starting last year in conjunction with the pension and wine-cave, Degustarium, he led a group of 8 professional tasters through 182 Pálava Hills wines, a first step in affirming and confirming which vineyards actually produce the best wine year after year. “Maybe after 10, 15 years we’ll start to have an idea.” Creating a classification of the vineyards will probably be one great achievement among many for Očenašek , and one that would keep his name in the Czech wine-world, and beyond, for a long, long time.
Their store/café/winery doesn’t even have a sign! An immaculate white façade of a classic 19th-century bourgeois home sitting on Videnska street doesn’t really yell to the tourists walking by. Maybe some peer through the windows and think, “That’s a big bar; these winemakers really like to drink.”
Baroque Minimalism at Vinařství Mikulov
A few enter, and enter a very clever architectural piece, a building within a building. A modern, open, white room with massive plain wooden tables and bar [Can one write baroque minimalism? …I just did], bottles elegantly labelled stacked against a glass wall, a glass ceiling revealing the older structure above it. Sliding glass doors admit views to a large courtyard of brick and stone, a barn housing wine facilities towards the back.
A surprise to those who enter, modern in the heart of classical, ambition housed in tradition…
But this isn’t an analogy for Kateřína Šilová (SHEE-lo-vaa). She might be the Czech Republic’s only professional solitary female winemaker. She might be as innovative as the bar she runs with her husband František Šila. Yes! There is a glass ceiling. They decided to put it in to highlight the modern/ historical play of their property – cool, rustic but sleek, all without breaking the historical architectural code of the town. Don’t call her revolutionary. Just call her the winemaker.
During the Communist era, Šilová’s father became director of Vino Mikulov, the government wine cooperative. “Wine in the blood” goes back much further, though; like Petr Očenašek, Šilová’s family existed in Mikulov before World War II. Wine has been coursing through her veins since Day One.
While her husband František has owned and managed a vinoteka for many years in Mikulov, it wasn’t until 3 years ago that she started making wine, under the tutelage of a fellow vinař, but Šilová did everything herself in 2015. She’s made no formal training, just the trial and error that makes one a quick learner.
She’s gone through more trials than she has made errors. The Vinarstvi Mikulov wines, in my limited experience of them, are clean, correct, and hyper fresh. Without sacrificing character for friendliness, the wines “drink” easily while remaining satisfying.
A lot of burdensome labor goes into making “easy” but elegant wine, a heavy experience that has surprised Šilová the most. The winemakers in town, “Always think Frank does it.” But it’s her. She’s the one responsible for 30,000 bottles a year.
Most of those bottles are sold “at the door,” of the winery. That’s the plan. The people experience the wine and the architectural space; they sit out in the courtyard and associate an urbane moment with a bottle they can take home. A few weeks later, that bottle is gone, and the people start to think they should head to Mikulov again for another bottle in that really cool atmosphere.
What will they drink, while relaxing in the calm, serene space? A Veltlinské zelené (Grüner Veltliner), a Ryzlink vlašský, (Welschriesling)? Or Šilová’s pride, Neuberské (Neuburger) an often-derided variety that makes bland wines – unless you put it in the hands of a skilled wine grower / winemaker like herself. Then you get a smooth, nutty wine that maintains a cool Moravian acidity against its Austrian peers.
If husband Šila is the smooth and nutty part, talking with clients and promoting Vinarstvi Mikulov, Kateřína Šilová has maintained her cool Moravian acidity, preferring to be in the cellar rolling barrels and perfecting the expressions of her vineyards. Together they make one balanced glass of vino.