(The company for whom I work, Pathways and I would be happy to introduce travelers to some of the following places and people and experiences. Feel free to contact us!)
What a pleasant day, some three weeks ago, a Wednesday. Started with my public limousine (tram) ride and its unique views of the Prokopské Udolí volcano to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation with Mass and then it was off to Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. While the bus to this Moravian city was detoured a bit by construction, travel was easy and fairly smooth.
Brno reminded me quickly that, as a resident of Prague, I am not supposed to like it, appreciate it, or condone its existence. This because the bus passed directly by the hockey rink of Kometa Brno, rivals of my team Sparta Praha. After exiting the bus, though, I found the city to be energetic and lively, and began to think of Brno as a beautiful place, only suffering from the pock that is Kometa. Like a Renaissance portrait of a lovely maid, but with a suppurating boil on her cheek, so is Brno with Kometa…
Maybe my opinion of Brno quickly changed because stepping out from the coach, I saw this:
And this one -wow! – this one mixes so many textures with a humorous narrative.
Znojmo, as mentioned first in the 11th century, stood high above the Dyje River as a major fortress of the Přemyslid dynasty…
…Enough history. This visit was food and wine.
I’d come at my friend Eva Skálová’s invitation. She and her boyfriend, Marek Špalek, wanted to serve guests a food/wine pairing as part of a larger project. According to them, Czech wines have not developed the same vinous/gastronomic marriage as have the French or Italians; they want to experiment with the idea.
I arrived hours early to the event, affording time to stroll under the gray, spring sky among the sklepy (wine caves). They stand in various states of repair, a polished, repainted structure next to a crumbling facade.Until recently, the wine trade did not treat Znojmová wines well. Communism diluted any commercial quality that might have existed, and the 1990’s saw the rise of Znovin, by Czech standards a massive wine company that makes standard wines. But resisting Znovin’s pressure, smaller makers have remained to create wines of character and interest. The process is not finished, as one can see, but what a privilege to see the rebirth of a wine region.
Some of the sklepy don’t even have external buildings, but rather the traditional door into the hillside. Behind the many doors like these, dug into sandstone and loess, stretch long shafts, storing secrets, barrels, and bottles. Looking about, you might find air-shafts sticking out from the ground, indicating sklepy with no apparent entrances.
Across the road from the sklepy stood a small chapel to Saint Martin, patron of winemakers. And it stood on GRANITE! Very exciting. Across the street, loess and sandstone were the predominant rocks, made by ancient winds and ancient seas depositing sediment that condensed and hardened with time. But just 100 feet away, granite… igneous rock born of volcanic activity. Where I was standing was the millions-of-years-old boundary between two geologic systems, Carpathian sedimentary rock to the south-east, and Bohemian igneous and metamorphic rock to the north-west. What’s more, the vines grown on one side could produce very different wines than the vines on the other side, since geology can be an important factor in a wine’s flavor.
Yes, flavor and wine. Alright back to the winery…
By this time Eva and Marek were ready to go, and I entered as other guests arrived into the hearth-warmed calm of the Špalek sklep. Marek and his father have been instrumental in the growing reputation of Znojmo’s quality wine, so we seven guests sat down for a treat.
As we settled in for the long, enjoyable evening, Marek poured first his Gryllus Bilý ( “Cricket” White) Its mixture changes from year to year; Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay comprise this 2013 vintage. The food courses started with a bit of beef soup, the meat locally-sourced, the stock prepared days in advance so all the flavors had time to marry. This was served with the Špalek Edelspitz Pinot Gris 2011. The next course was, well, wine.
Marek explained that discovering the various harmonies of the wines and foods (Complimentary/contrasting flavor profiles) meant that we needed a firm understanding of the drink alone. They would then get our opinions on the wine and how the wines interacted with the dishes. Small pours allowed us to gain such understanding without falling off of our benches. (Tasting notes are below)
After fourteen wines and the soup well-digested, we awaited the food. A sliver of goose pate arrived. Really beautiful, rich with a tang of orange glaze, and it worked best with the 2010 port-like Šaler červený, a wine both rich and fresh, like its comestible counterpart.
We returned to the soup again, our minds and taste-buds now armed. To the richness of the beef, the Svatovavřinecké (St, Laurent grape variety) 2002 harmonized best, its earthy mushroom flavors and vegetal note contrasting and cleaning the palate for another bite.
The duo next served a small portion of wild boar with homemade dumplings and red cabbage. The cabbage wasn’t quite sauerkraut, but soft and cooked with just a little acidity. The savory boar pulled apart easily and the dumplings were a rich yellow, not the pale, bready beasts one often finds. Two wines really stood out with this plate, a Gryllus Red from 2001, and surprisingly a Tramíner červený (Gewürtztraminer) 2014. The Gryllus wasn’t the densest of the reds served, but its bottle-developed, earthy characters complimented the boar well. The Traminer had enough body to withstand the game meat and a touch of sweetness that harmonized with the cabbage and dumplings.
Light crepes with homemade apricot marmalade came as a simple and marvelous desert. The star wine of the evening, a 2011 ice wine of Gruner Veltliner, happily overshadowed the dessert. Even with the richness of the pan-cooked crepe, the cleanliness of the ice wine sparkled through. I can only offer it one of my two highest adjectives when describing sweet wines, “glacial.” Great sweet wines somehow evoke drinking ice melt from a mountain stream, and this wine did just that.
The food had all been delicious, but portions had been small. Still, with a little bit of bread, I was fine. I had done my work, and Marek and Eva had done theirs – a food wine pairing.
Then they offered us dinner!
As a larger portion of paté arrived, I raised an eyebrow to my fellow taster across the table; she raised hers… Round 3, here we go. By the end, no one hungered. Eva and Marek’s hospitable service, wine, and food had engendered what those things can do most nobly: conversation, conviviality, pleasure, and thankfulness – a very successful dinner party!
Marek and Eva plan a series of these meals throughout the year to discover the pairings that will work best. Are they writing a new page in the compendium of Czech gastronomy? Stay connected, dear readers…
Tasting Notes, some with musical associations
1) Gryllus blanc, 2013 – No notes on this first wine. Pleasant recollection of it, but no specifics.
2) Veltlínské zelené 2013 suché ( dry Grüner Veltliner) – A nice force in the back of the palate, slight sparkle in mouth.
3) “Kravák” Sauvignon Blanc 2013 suché – Richer than the Veltliner, a better body, crisp with the smallest notes of spices. Fermented by indigenous yeasts (Yeasts occurring naturally in the vineyard. Very refreshing wine.
4) Pinot blanc “sur lie” 2013 suché – “Sur lie” is French for “On the lees,” the sediment of yeast and compounds that precipitate out of fermenting wine. Properly managed, lees add body, and “buttery” or milk flavors; improperly managed they add sti-zank. Properly managed here at Špalek. This wine spent a year in barrels on the lees, and the oak aromatics here actually compliment the pinot blanc (a rare event). However this is a strange wine, best described by the photo here:
I tasted oak first, then the palate went very crazy, and then this beautiful floral element that persisted a good 30 seconds after I swallowed the wine. It wouldn’t be for everyone but, I think it has its aficionados.
5) Ryzlink rýnský 2014 Polosuché (Riesling Semi-dry) – On the nose, a pleasant tight waxiness, very pleasant nose, beautiful roundness in the mouth, very clean, definined, fresh, and pure – one of the more striking Czech rieslings I’ve had. Many Czech rieslings are grown on calcium-rich loess, and can tend toward broad and ill-defined; this one is grown on granite – is that the game changer here? What’s more impressive, this wine came from a very difficult year, cold summer with lots of rain. Seven grams residual acid and 11 grams residual sugar give this wine both richness and liveliness. Nice work, Špalek.
6) Rulandské šedé Polosuché 2013 (Pinot Gris Semi-dry) I actually thought this was the previous riesling. And some of the elements of a typical Czech riesling were there [Psychosomatic tasting to blame?] – A little aspirin, a little pleasant dirt/earthiness, some nice lemon/lime zest – very typical cool-weather wine.
7) Tramín červený 2014 polosuché (Gewürtztraminer) – PROPER. This grape is amazing in the Alsace, and I generally don’t like it anywhere else. This is one of two gewürtztraminers that I like from the CZ, and the other is from Znojmo too. The grape is notorious to balance, either one gets a perfumed nose of fruit salad with an unripe vegetal character in the mouth, or the evaporation and taste of alcohol dominate. This one here… fresh fruit on the nose, not a whiff of alcohol. Refreshing, something I have never said about gewürtz before. If this were the standard for Czech tramín červený, the wine world would be a better place. Like the riesling, grown on granite in a very difficult year, 2014. Very good work and ready to enjoy.
8) Petit Edelspitz Pinot Gris 2011 polosladké (Semi-sweet) – Edelspitz was the 19th-century German name for one of Marek’s vineyards. Marek, his brother and father make their Edelspitz gamme with a nod toward this era, fermenting on indigenous yeasts, aging in 400-liter oak barrels and the white wines see some extra time on skins. Three days of maceration on the pinkish pinot gris skins give this wine a deeper color. It has a great nose; but in the mouth this cloys, and its impressive concentration – admirable in itself – highlights an unripe greenness on the palate.
9) Petit Edelspitz Pinot Blanc 2009 polosladké – Wow, color is just starting to become deeper yellow, looks like a much younger wine. Like the previous wine, the taste isn’t for me, the sugar and and concentration of unripe elements are too much.
10) Zweigeltrebe 2011 suché (Zweigelt) – A sawdust-y red fruit on the nose and a bit of… rose in this red wine? I think that is the flower I smelled. Very fresh. A touch of alcohol in the mouth but a pleasant glass.
11) André 1999 suché – Color is dense, impressive for a Czech wine of 15 years. The nose combines blackberry fruit and truffles – nice! Big, yet sparse tannins prick the tongue a little, but I like this wine. Good work.
12) Gryllus červený suché 2001 – An earthy nose, a bit lighter in the mouth than the first two reds, not quite as sensuous, still very enjoyable.
13) Svatovavřinecké 2002 (St. Laurent) Well-developed color, aromas of freshly-tilled dirt and freshly-cut mushrooms – I like. In the mouth a heavy, savory spice compliments the tannins which are almost a given in a svato. This wine is ready to drink.
Veltlínské zelené 2011 ledové, sladké ( Grüner Veltliner ice wine, sweet) This wine was harvested the first of February when the grapes froze and it rests at 6-7 percent alcohol – with 300+ grams of residual sugar! The nose is truffled, waxy, but the mouth is beautiful fruit! Really lovely, bright and invigorating. As I wrote above, this gets one of my two highest adjectives for sweet wines: “Glacial.” Raises my opinions of the ice-wine genre as a whole.
Šaler červený 2010 likérové, sladké (“liquored” red wine) This product is similar to port, where the grape distillate is added to still- fermenting grape must, stopping the fermentation and leaving quite a bit of sugar, around 80g/l. I like the idea of this wine – Czech reds are fresh, less rich than the deep sun-baked varieties that comprise port; a different flavor profile should result. And the freshness wins with a great sweet nose! Beyond the fruit, a pleasant mint comes through that invites one to sip. In the mouth, its harmony falters slightly, but it’s very interesting. This went so well with the paté. Cool stuff!