Vineyard Work Is Luxurious and Great for Your Skin ( 2021 Vintage Part III) – or – Obsession

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.

Czech/Georgian Gothic – A light moment in the vineyard. We laugh while we work.

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.

No tractor, just shovels.

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.

Withered burdock (lopuch) waiting to be mulched.

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…]

2021, Its Vintage Begins. Training Part II

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.

Bogdan concentrated on his own view.

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.

“Twine, with this ring, I do thee cut.”

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.”

“Jazz, never!”

Purple is the trunk and head. Blue is 2-year-old wood. Green is last year’s canes. This…
… Becomes this, the primary training we want to do this year. The first good cane had sprouted at about 20cm from the two-year wood, and has been pruned to 6-7 buds – and no spurs – that will produce growth this year that becomes a Half-Mosel Arch next year, 2022. The other option…
…Is this. This vine had a cane growing off the head; this has been turned into a spur; otherwise, there was no good cane growing roughly around 20cm. The first appears at about 35cm. Too high, so we leave it as a 10-bud cane. This year, we will do a Half-Mosel Arch but in 2022 we will trim it back like the previous photo. It will become a Half-Mosel again in 2023, after it has matured a little bit.

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.

A boot so big it can’t all be in focus.

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.

2021. Its Vintage Begins. Training, Part I

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…

Št’astný Nový Rok, vinici!

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.

Before: A stake-supported Pendelbogen-trained vine [corr.: a Mosel Arch- trained vine. Pendelbogen training is very similar but the canes are stretched out over trellising.] – “Oooh, it’s a heart that’s so cute.”

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.

Green = Head (covered in snow). Blue = Arms. Growing from the arms is the woody 2-year growth. Yellow = Canes / spurs meant to remain. Red = Cuts. Yellow, upside-down “L” = a coloring mistake I made

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:

After: Broken hearts strewn across the snow-palled frozen ground. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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.

Salome, expedient clipper of vines, as the winter sun alights upon her.

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.

Bogdan approves of the little house’s first hot meal.

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.

It has been a long time…

…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. IMG_20190204_082540_1

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.

The Degustarium

[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:

Pre and up to Mikulov 053

 

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:

balaz

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.Pre and up to Mikulov 058

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.

Calm.

Tasting Notes:

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.

 

 

Uncle Jozef Král – The Root

 

Pre and up to Mikulov 093Where 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.”

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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.

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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. – Moving, Shaking, Selling

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

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.

Kateřína Šilová – A Winemaker Who Happens to be…

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.”

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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.

http://www.vinnysklep.cz/obrazky/p7170197-c145d.jpg

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.

Gala – Un Peu Comme la France

 

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A small tasting in the dining room at Gala Winery.

 

With the elegant writing of its bottles wrought upon the winery’s façade, Gala sticks out in the village of Bavory like a Longchamps store in a factory town. When one arrives here, one has arrived “elsewhere”.

Owner, vine-grower, and vintner, Jaromir Gala’s feet are planted firmly on the soil of Mikulov, but his head is somewhere in the clouds above Burgundy. His renowned bottlings of the three Pinots (Noir, Gris, Blanc), Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc feature as prominently as Welschriesling and Frankovka, with Merlot being a surprising (and delicious) addition in this liminal climate of viticulture.

But grapes alone do not the francophile make. Entering the upper floor of the winery’s small building, one notices a bent towards elegance, gastronomy, and a holistic interaction with the wines. Gala doesn’t simply have to be a bottle, it can be an experience. A very French way of marketing: One sells the way of life as much as the product.

Jaromir Gala’s approach to his winery isn’t fishy, but the room smells of poisson. He had hosted a dinner the previous evening, a wine-pairing meal with some affluent collectors, and the heavy, oily aromas still hang in the air. On a long, bare table I eye some magnums and dusty bottles. I had requested through Petr Očenášek that we try a few older vintages to see how the wines age. Gala has kindly agreed.

Also kindly, he opens the windows and turns on the fan in the adjacent, modern kitchen before we descend to the cellars to try the new wines.

Like many cellars (Czech: sklepy) in the Pàlava Hills, Gala’s are built by burrowing directly into the hillside, and lining the corridor with red brick. Over time, fungus and mold cover the surface due to the high humidity, a sign of a healthy cellar [Really!]. An orange, firm-but-slimy mold covers the bricks in Gala; the scent of cool, damp earth and living yeast swirl around us when we enter. Everything is in place to make great wine…

But that small scattering of brick crumbles on the clean cement floor, those aren’t in place. Gala takes a broom while I compliment him on his cellar. “An old cellar is beautiful, but it is difficult.” He plans to move the wine making facilities to a new location not far away, leaving this cellar for bottle storage.

Dust swept, balance restored, Gala mounts a small ladder to siphon a white wine from the one of the tanks – the first tasting of the 2015 Welschriesling!   “You’re probably the first and probably the last people to taste the new wines,” he’ll tell us a little later. Nice wine! Already full-bodied but still with some good acidity despite the record heat and drought of the year.

Gala makes two different bottlings of most of his grape varieties, a Classic and a Reserve. The classic style focuses on fruit characteristics, and is vinified for early drinking. Reserves will see more time in wooden barrels (oak and/or acacia), creating a more fulsome wine with a greater ability for aging. It’s a philosophy of wine making similar to that in many parts of Austria, and one growing in popularity around the Pàlava Hills.

Not all of his southern neighbors’ ideas are as well received. I ask Gala about his vine-growing and wine-making practices – Biodynamic, organic, conventional? He answers idiomatically, “Natural.” “That which is best for the wine”: the French call this “lutte raisonée”, a “reasoned battle.”

He only fertilizes his vineyards with manure and crop cover, a process he has maintained since he started in 2007. But he isn’t afraid to spray,“ If needed.” Očenášek adds, “[Treating] wine and soil is like a doctor, you only go if you need it.

If needed,” a phrase that the winemaker repeats over and over as we talk. His perception of the wines’ potentials wills his actions, more so than any theory of vinification or tradition. (Of course, in Mikulov, one has the chance to create traditions, considering that communism caused such a large rupture with the past)  Fortunately, Gala’s will and actions seem bent on extracting the best reflections of his terroirs that he can.

Tasting from a vat destined for the classic Chardonnay leads us to the 2015 vintage, as mentioned a year of record heat and drought. However, grapes tend to thrive in those hot and dry conditions, and the 2015 crop might see some exceptional wines from winemakers who know how to handle it. Gala is one of those vintners. He calls 2015 a personal tipping point: The vines he planted have 9 years in the ground; their roots have fingered down through the limestone, loess, loam, and sand – from above and below all has conspired to make healthy grapes and wines.

He picked his Chardonnay early, because he wanted to keep the natural acidities high. A low acidity in a white wine tends to make it flabby. One can always add acid, with proper European Union exceptions and approbations, but this addition generally precipitates out within a few years, so picking at the right moment is preferred and crucial in hot vintages.

He won’t allow a malolactic fermentation to occur in the Chardonnay this year, (a bacterial fermentation process that changes harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid) as the inherent levels of the malic and tartric acids in the grapes were quite balanced. Allowing the malolactic to occur would also make a flabby wine.

The Chardonnay for his reserve fermented in new Burgundy barrels (228) liters from one of the world’s most reputable makers, François Frères. Fermentation in barrels creates a rounder, richer wine, allowing small amounts of oxygen and greater lees contact to affect the fermenting must. François Frères uses top oak and craftsman, but the company is also just really cool. After fermentation the wine will rest for 12 months in used Slovenian oak barrels of 238 litres, undergoing occasional battonage (agitation of the wine while in container) to oxygenate the wine and stir up the lees.

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Jaromir Gala – the long view on quality wine-making.

We walk towards the cellar door, but Gala stops Očenášek and me to make us sample the Sauvignon Blanc, still fermenting.   In his 20+ years of working with wine, he’s never seen a fermentation take so long. He doesn’t know if the heat caused it – this year the Sauvignon vines (sourced from France’s Sancerre region) occasionally shut down and stopped growing- or the strains of yeast coming off the vineyard. In optimal years, like 2015 (water-deficit aside), he uses the indigenous yeast, though sometimes he uses commercial yeasts, if needed. This year fermented with the naturally-occurring yeasts. Once finished, only a small amount of the 3000 litres will see time in oak, about 500 litres. By keeping the Sauvignon Blanc in stainless steel he’ll maintain more of the primary fruit flavors of the grape. The small amount that sees oak will get re- blended with the rest just before bottling to give a little bit of body to the finished product.

Upstairs, the fishy aromas have dissipated and we sit down to try some wines. (Tasting notes are below)

As we taste, our topics of conversation differ than an earlier tasting with Miroslav Volařik. The latter, a businessman and winery owner, enjoys his wines and talks amiably vinous logistics. Jaromir Gala, enjoys his wines and talks intensely about wine. The use of sulfur, for instance, “If needed” is a 9-minute aside while describing one of the wines (2015 reds didn’t get any SO2 this year – didn’t need it).

Well, he does start to meander a bit near the end of our tasting, when he speaks about his latest trip to Burgundy, a trip made by a friend’s prop plane. From Southern Moravia’s city of Brno to Beaune, the heart of Pinot Noir, in three hours? Očenášek and I are left dreaming of the experience.

And then it is time to go, a fruitful two hours have passed. Does Gala have to return to his subterranean abode? Is there a treatise about the aromatic byproducts of low-temperature alcoholic fermentations on Sancerre clones of Sauvignon Blanc that he must read? No. He has a hockey game to play. It helps keep him fit. If the wines are to be balanced, the maker must be balanced too.

Wines:

Gala wines are among the most sought after in the Czech Republic, with good reason. His wines show balance, a sense of place, and avoid the trap that consumes lesser Czech makers – the pitfall of high-aroma-but-no-taste wines. His wines are classical in structure, reserved, and usually elegant. Not every wine wins, the 2012 Welschriesling seemed prematurely dead, and a tasting of one sweet wine left me disappointed. But these are the exceptions, the rule is that Gala is one of the most quality-conscious makers in the Czech Republic, and ambitious to expand the Pàlava Hills’ reputation well beyond the Czech border. (A Belgian distributor has his wines in two Michelin-star restaurants, to start)

2015 Barrel samples: I apologize, my notes for them are very sparse. The Welschriesling was rich and dense. There’s still a fair share of particulate in the wine, being just a few weeks post-fermentation when I tried it; when this settles the density of the wine will decrease a bit. Still, this will be a wonderful example of the local specialty.

Chardonnay: Also a nice body, but despite the warm weather, Gala has avoided making a flabby wine. Should be good.

Bottle samples: (Most were unlabeled and we didn’t see if they were Classic or Reserve)

2013 Sekt (Champagne Method): Really nice, fine bead (bubble size) in this 80/20% Pinot Noir. Elegant, complex. This sees its release in 2016. Sparkling wines have become a (good) “thing” lately, and more and more makers are creating small volumes of excellent sparkling wine. Of the few I’ve had the chance to try, this is at the top.

2014 Cuvée (blend) 70/30% Chardonnay/Pinot Gris. These relatives blend together well, combining to reflect and overachieve the difficult 2014 vintage. The wine slightly reflects the harshness of this wet year, but manages to remain bright and lively. Saw 6 months in oak, ½ used, ½ new. Very nice.

2013 Welschriesling: Classic Pàlava Hills nose, a little honey and floral; in the mouth, lightly stony, and a little herbaceous in a very, very pleasant way. This is a Pàlava wine!

2012 Welschriesling. From a hot year and already dead.   This particular bottle or the vintage, I am unsure.

2013 Sauvignon from Hermesdorf vineyard. This wine is almost completely closed down and needs a lot of time to open, more time than we had. I’d say give it a year to evolve and the results will be very interesting. “Closed down” can be a very good thing for those with patience – it typically denotes a wine with a higher-than-average potential to age!

2011 Chardonnay. A light “petrol” nose (more expected from a Riesling) and floral too, quite stony in the mouth. Drinking quite well!

2011 Merlot –Nice wine – Fresh and a savory level of green here, quite complimentary, cherries and berries on the nose, the color is bright; I’m getting a bit of mint in the mouth with some dusty tannins. Complex but needs to rest another 5 years to really reveal itself.

Pálava Hills: A Bit of Geology and History

People complain that the Czech Republic has few beaches and no seashore.  Maybe they should lament they didn’t evolve more quickly and weren’t born 150,000,000 years ago when the ancient Tethys ocean swelled slow and shallow across parts of Europe, including some of the Czech Republic.  Over the millions of years of the ocean’s occupation, countless calcareous animals  lived and died, their remains settling to the receding oceanic bottom where they were compressed and became limestone.  Limestone is sooo nice for many grape varieties…

Pressure of the African tectonic plate abutting the Eurasian plate  about 100,000,000 years ago started creating a tourist sensation called the Alps,  as well as another range called the Carpathians.  As the Carpathians rose some of that lovely, lovely  white Tethyan ocean limestone slid west over more recently-formed sandstones and mudstones.

Thirteen million years ago, Czech residents again missed their chance for beachfront property, as a sea formed between the mountain ranges and surrounded the Pálava hills on all sides.  Over millions of years, a sandy clay accumulated here.  This mixture is (white) peppered with the boulders of limestone, proving that the aforementioned rock was already high and exposed to erosion.

The sea finished drying up some time ago.  Geologically speaking, we were left with something resembling the Pálava Hills, give or take two ice ages and coinciding frosty weather that degraded some of the limestone and created some of the pillars we can observe now.

The earliest evidence of potential real estate owners appears as a small figurine created between 29,000-25,000 B.C.  This small ceramic figure, one of the oldest in the world, is the voluptuously molded  Venus of  Dolní Věstonice.  This Stone Age ceramic lady was buried in the ground long before our next marker of Western history, the Romans, appeared.

Vestonicka_venuse_edit by che, Peter Novak

The Venus of Dolní Věstonice, one of the oldest ceramic figures in the world.

 

Here on the edge of their empire, the legionnaires gave us the first evidence of viticulture that we have, from the third-century A.D.   [Personally, I believe that viticulture could have appeared much earlier, as neighboring Slovakia has evidence of the vine going back to 6-7th centuries B.C.]  The proof appears to us as a typically-curved knife used to harvest grapes.

Roman pruning blades

Roman pruning blades

Following the Romans, viticulture continued in Moravia, but not until 1249 did I find a mention of grape plantings in Mikulov, these by the Lichtenstein family (the family with a country named after them).  One can safely assume that vines were already planted there, given the history and situation of soil and exposition.

Mikulov and its beautiful architecture thrived under the Dietrichstein family’s rule who gained control of the area in 1575.  The rule started with an immediate planting of grapes.  During this time, Czech wines (and we’ll assume Mikulovian wines were at the top here) stood toe to toe with their Austrian counterparts, which brought about various complaints and threats from the vintners of both countries.

If we continue leaping centuries we’ll skip various contractions and expansions of Mikulov’s vineyards and the ravages of the wine pest phylloxera to land squarely in the 20th century.  Czechoslovakia came into existence after World War I, and not so many people in the country made wine at this point, sugarbeets were more profitable.  In 1937 an initiative to plant 7000 hectares in Moravia (to the paltry 3870ha existing) started just in time for World War II…

And afterwards came Communism, which rewarded quantity of grapes produced, not quality.  Whatever training, tradition, and education had developed ( a wine school opened in Mikulov in 1903) was poisoned, uprooted, and ground under the responsiblelessness of the Communist regime.

Traditions might have been maintained in the small amounts farmers could make (or secretly made) for themselves  – I’ve drank a decent 1989 Rhine Riesling that shows some quality from that time – but the post-communist era has been a learning process, and not everyone has paid attention in class.  Only in the past few years has the idea of quality won out over quality, and the wines of Mikulov have started to show  some consistency in the former category.  These next years will be exciting ones for the wine industry of the Czech Republic, with Mikulov leading the way.  They hope the wine world feels the same way…

Continue on to: Where are we?