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:

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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:

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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.

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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 tome – 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?

Pálava Hills: Where Are We?

On the Czech/Austrian border, about an hour’s drive north from Vienna, and about 30 minutes south of the Czech city of Brno.

palava

A map of most of the Pálava Hills from Mikulov in the south to Pavlov in the northwest corner.

Below, a view to the northeast towards the Pálava Hills from Ořechová Hora, a fine vineyard for scenery and wines:

The video, taken in late November 2015, highlights some of the major wine towns and vineyards  of the Pálava Hills, starting from the view of Březí, the camera rotates north to find the limestone of the hills and finally looks east towards Mikulov.  (Fun fact: Březí and an unseen town nearby, Dobré Pole, have names that mean “With Calf” and “Good Field”  respectively, indicating what their purposes were in the past).  The video both captures and obscures the Pálava Hills.  It accurately displays their elevation, but not their stature: they only rise about 350m  (approximately 1150 feet) from their lowest to their highest (Děvín).  That’s not sooo much.  But, the hills linked together, like a ship in port, loom well over the surrounding land, more than what can be expressed by the camera.

As one can see, from the west (and the unseen northwest) the Pálava hills rise fairly steeply to their heights.  Heading east from the crest, the land undulates down more gently through UNESCO-protected forest, a few grain fields and even fewer vineyards.

Grapes, particularly in cool regions like Pálava, need southeast- to south-facing vineyards to increase exposure to sunlight and maximize metabolism.  Despite their location on the western side of the Pálava range, most of the vineyards do have good southerly orientation.

However, vineyards on the eastern slopes, some with excellent exposition, nevertheless can suffer from the higher elevation and gradual descent of the land.  Too-cool temperatures in the spring and fall can retard their growth or even threaten with frost.  How much difference can a few hundred feet make?  Townspeople in Mikulov attached an old and impolite moniker to the inhabitants of Klentnice,  the highest village in the area; they called them, “Snow-monkeys.”  Cold can bruise egos as much as fruit.

As one descends very intriguing sites do exist: On some sectors of U Božích muk, southeast of Pavlov, Dense limestone rests only 40-50cm below the surface, in one area even “blooming” to the clayey surface in chunks of dense white rock.  With early morning sunshine, Sauvignon and Pinot Blanc express themselves quite well on this soil.

Are the current locations of vineyards historic?  Could people have previously planted more on the eastern side with it’s hypothetically-better exposition?  Of the maps I’ve seen going back to 1867, the situation of the vines remains very similar to what one sees today, vines planted mostly on the western/ southwestern face, with a slightly smaller acreage on the eastern face, woods and game land farther east/ southeast from the crest.   That’s hardly going back to the Romans, but I don’t read Latin yet.

Czechs call the Pálava Hills the “Provence of the Czech Republic.”  (That’s a little like a book title I once saw, “The Paris of Appalachia:  Pittsburgh in the 21st-century.”  I am a Pittsburgh fan, but yinz ain’t got no Louvre there.  St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t teach there.  One might say both cities have buildings and people and at least two french bakeries.)  The region enjoys more sun and drier days than most of the Czech Republic, both aspects that make grapes happy.  The bright white limestone of Provence finds its pretty little sibling in the cliffs of Pálava, but, please, it’s no Provence.  Thank goodness.

That bare limestone of the Pálava Hills creates the weather there.  The bare cliffs manages to reflect/ emanate enough heat to create an updraft of warm air which then redirects cooler, rainier weather patterns from stopping by.  During the summer, rain can fall heavily in Brno, 50 kilometers north, and Mikulov sees nothing but blue skies.  Low to moderate rainfall ensure healthier grapes.  Healthier grapes make better wine…

Continue to: Pálava Hills: Soil Primer & Specific Vineyards