Upon What Do We Stand?
That lava lamp picture above displays the majority of the Pálava Hills geology. Mikulov is at the bottom center of the map, the ridge heads north and turns a little east towards Pavlov in the upper right corner. Each color/pattern/number represents a different geologic combination. So, for example, the yellow section bordering Březí near the bottom left is #9. On a reference chart this refers to, “deluvial to deluvian/aeolian sediment.”
Don’t worry! I’m not going to get that sciencetifical in the descriptions. To do so would test you, dear reader, and make me sound like a fool. I’ll keep it simpler: Sediment deposited by flooding and wind make up #9. When did those natural forces do that? When you weren’t looking.
As a summary of the grape geology of the region: The blues on the map above correspond with the limestone or calcium-rich marlstone heights of the Pálava Hills. Soils made of these degraded stones appear below that, followed by sand, silt, and clay deposited by wind and rain. Moving towards the green areas located at the base, one can find sediment left from the ancient sea and more recent glacial eras, as well as sedimentary rock from those eras.
The grapes grow on a mixture of limestone, loess, loam, clay, gravel, and sand soils – that’s the short answer. And one must find the optimal grape for a given soil. One grape grown on dry, limestone soils might have attractive aromatics and flavors, but that same grape on damp loess and loam might make a diffuse, bulky wine (I’m writing about you ryzlink rýnský!) That said, one might list the general characteristics that a given soil type contributes.
Limestone: Limestone soils provide aromatic and gustatory complexity, elegance, and medium to medium-high structure to many wines. Generally, limestone in a vineyard is a positive, and many of the worlds great reds and whites have limestone to thank.
Sand: Good drainage is healthy for most vines varieties, but sandy vineyards tend to make lighter, more delicate wines.
Loess: A soft rock of very fine sediment deposited by wind and compressed, Loess often has a high amount of eroded, pulverized limestone in it. It tends to provide fullness and plenitude in a wine at best – a Veltlínské zelené (Grüner Veltliner) grape thrives on this soil and creates great wines for instance – but bulky, unfocused, dull wines at worst.
Loam: Loam is great for growing grains and other plants but its higher organic content demands a correct vine. Vines generally produce better grapes (and therefore wine) when growing on poor soils; put an average vine in good soil and it concentrates on leaf growth instead of attractive fruit. Loam can easily create bland wines. Grapes that need higher nutrient content, like the Veltlínské zelené, might make more respectable wines.
Clay: Generally speaking, clay doesn’t provide structure in wines, but some complexity and a lot of, sometimes almost surly, power. Drainage can be a problem with too much clay, as it doesn’t always pass on water easily.
Gravel and Stones: What these two sediments will bring to a wine depend very much on their origin. Is the gravel broken down limestone? Are the stones in the vineyard quartz or basalt? In any case, they help provide good drainage in large enough quantities and can reflect heat and light onto the fruit, depending on characteristics. Generally gravel and stones are positives in a vineyard.
Well over 50 titled vineyards exist in the Pálava Hills region, with names like, Kraví hora, Slunný vrch, or, U Boží muky. The names give clues to the characteristics of the vineyard, or at least former characteristics. In the past, one would expect to see cattle on Kraví hora (Cow Hill), and a crucifix or chapel at U Boží muky (At God’s Anguish). On a clear morning, we should still be able to ascertain whether Slunný vrch is a sunny height or not.
While profiles will expand in number and detail with time, below are three quick ones to illustrate some of the top vineyards in the area, combined with any experience I’ve recorded tasting them.
Near the bottom left of the previous map rests the village, Březí. In the sea of green above it are two little islands of orange/red (Soil #23) – Ořechová Hora (Nut Hill).
Ancient flooding of the Quartenary period (2.6 million years ago to the present) deposited a medley of loamy clay, rounded stones, and gravel to create this hillside now covered in vines. Descending through the vines, one observes easily how quickly the size and distribution of rounded gravel change. A fair dispersion of quail-egg-sized stones at the crown of the hill quickly turn into sparser pebbles about 30 meters away. The base of the hill holds few if any stones; and instead of light brown soil like at the top, one finds a deep dark loam.
The wines that I’ve tried from this site, I like quite a bit. While not holding the complexity or intensity of some of the vineyards on the Pálava limestone proper, I find the Ořechová Hora wines to have a certain confidence and pleasantly round body. As a fairly rare geology for the area, it provides an interesting contrast to the wines made from more calcareous soils closer to the Pálava Hills.
(This entry is currently being revised.)
Ryzlink vlašský has some of its best expressions from this vineyard, probably the most revered in the Czech Republic. Lying below the cliffs of the Obora Hill, the vineyard benefits from a limestone base covered with a complex mix of gravel, loam, loess, clays, and sand.
With a slope that creates natural drainage and with suitable exposition towards the sun, Železná pushes the best of the Hills into the Ryzlink vlašský grape, a variety quite married to this type of soil. That’s not to say that the wines from Železná are immediately approachable. They have so much material in them that they need a few years to harmonize the intense citrus and stone fruits, honey, and floral characteristics with a staunch and firm minerality.
I like this vineyard. Years ago, it was one of the first names I could pronounce; it reminds me of Thor, and the wines are good.
Ryzlink vlašský expresses itself well here. Lying below the Železná vineyard, it shares many of the same soil types: Loess, loam, clay, and a little less sand. Where it differs might be in sheer number and size of broken limestone gravel and rocks (It has less) and in the depth of the soils before the roots reach the bedrock. If weather patterns continue to heat up drastically as they are, vines in Goldhamer might find its deeper soils more advantageous than higher vineyards with drought-susceptible thinner top soil. We shall see (and taste).
The Goldhamer wines hold just a little less steeliness and minerality than the Železná vineyards and are just a bit more round, but contain many of the same aromatic components, A common aromatic thread through the two vineyards for me has been a bracing pineapple/pineapple skin.