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.


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?

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.


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

Pálava Hills: Soil Primer and Specific Vineyards

Upon What Do We Stand?

palava geology

You are standing on something pretty complex.

That lava lamp picture above displays the majority of the Pálava Hills geology.  Mikulov is at the bottom center of the map, the ridge heads north and turns a little east towards Pavlov in the upper right corner.  Each color/pattern/number represents a different geologic combination.  So, for example, the yellow section bordering Březí near the bottom left is #9.  On a reference chart this refers to, “deluvial to deluvian/aeolian sediment.”

Don’t worry!  I’m not going to get that sciencetifical in the descriptions.  To do so would test you, dear reader, and make me sound like a fool.  I’ll keep it simpler: Sediment deposited by flooding and wind make up #9.  When did those natural forces do that?  When you weren’t looking.

As a summary of the grape geology of the region:  The blues on the map above correspond with the limestone or calcium-rich marlstone heights of the Pálava Hills.  Soils made of  these degraded stones appear below that, followed by sand, silt, and clay deposited by wind and rain.  Moving towards the green areas located at the base, one can find sediment left from the ancient sea and more recent glacial eras, as well as sedimentary rock from those eras.

The grapes grow on a mixture of limestone, loess, loam, clay, gravel, and sand soils – that’s the short answer.  And one must find the optimal grape for a given soil.  One grape grown on dry, limestone soils might have attractive aromatics and flavors, but that same grape on damp loess and loam might make a diffuse, bulky wine (I’m writing about you ryzlink rýnský!)  That said, one might list the general characteristics that a given soil type  contributes.

Limestone:  Limestone soils provide aromatic and gustatory complexity, elegance, and  medium to medium-high structure to many wines.  Generally, limestone in a vineyard is a positive, and many of the worlds great reds and whites have limestone to thank.

Sand: Good drainage is healthy for most vines varieties, but sandy vineyards tend to make lighter, more delicate wines.

Loess: A soft rock of very fine sediment deposited by wind and compressed, Loess often has a high amount of eroded, pulverized limestone in it.  It tends to provide fullness and plenitude in a wine at best – a Veltlínské zelené (Grüner Veltliner) grape thrives on this soil and creates great wines for instance – but bulky, unfocused, dull wines at worst.

Loam:  Loam is great for growing grains and other plants but its higher organic content demands a correct vine.  Vines generally produce better grapes (and therefore wine) when growing on poor soils; put an average vine in good soil and it concentrates on leaf growth instead of attractive fruit.  Loam can easily create bland wines.  Grapes that need higher nutrient content, like the Veltlínské zelené, might make more respectable wines.

Clay: Generally speaking, clay doesn’t provide structure in wines, but some complexity and a lot of, sometimes almost surly, power.  Drainage can be a problem with too much clay, as it doesn’t always pass on water easily.

Gravel and Stones:  What these two sediments will bring to a wine depend very much on their origin.  Is the gravel broken down limestone?  Are the stones in the vineyard quartz or basalt?  In any case, they help provide good drainage in large enough quantities and can reflect heat and light onto the fruit, depending on characteristics.   Generally gravel and stones are positives in a vineyard.

Specific Vineyards

Well over 50 titled vineyards exist in the Pálava Hills region, with names like, Kraví hora, Slunný vrch, or, U Boží muky.  The names give clues to the characteristics of the vineyard, or at least former characteristics.  In the past, one would expect to see cattle on Kraví hora (Cow Hill), and a crucifix or chapel at U Boží muky (At God’s Anguish).  On a clear morning, we should still be able to ascertain whether Slunný vrch is a sunny height or not.

While profiles will expand in number and detail with time, below are three quick ones to illustrate some of the top vineyards in the area, combined with any experience I’ve recorded tasting them.

Ořechová Hora

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Glacially-rounded rocks in the soil there.


Near the bottom left of the previous map rests the village, Březí.  In the sea of green above it are two little islands of orange/red (Soil #23) – Ořechová Hora (Nut Hill).

Ancient flooding of the Quartenary period (2.6 million years ago to the present) deposited a medley of loamy clay, rounded stones, and gravel to create this hillside now covered in vines. Descending through the vines, one observes easily how quickly the size and distribution of rounded gravel change.  A fair dispersion of quail-egg-sized stones at the crown of the hill quickly turn into sparser pebbles about 30 meters away.  The base of the hill holds few if any stones; and instead of light brown soil like at the top, one finds a deep dark loam.

The wines that I’ve tried from this site, I like quite a bit.  While not holding the complexity or intensity of some of the vineyards on the Pálava limestone proper, I find the Ořechová Hora wines to have a certain confidence and pleasantly round body.  As a fairly rare geology for the  area, it provides an interesting contrast to the wines made from more calcareous soils closer to the Pálava Hills.


(This entry is currently being revised.)

Ryzlink vlašský  has some of its best expressions from this vineyard, probably the most revered in the Czech Republic.  Lying below the cliffs of the Obora Hill, the vineyard benefits from a limestone base covered with a complex mix of gravel, loam, loess, clays, and sand.

With a slope that creates natural drainage and with suitable exposition towards the sun, Železná pushes the best of the Hills into the Ryzlink vlašský grape, a variety quite married to this type of soil.  That’s not to say that the wines from Železná are immediately approachable.  They have so much material in them that they need a few years to harmonize the intense citrus and stone fruits, honey, and floral characteristics with a staunch and firm minerality.



I like this vineyard.  Years ago, it was one of the first names I could pronounce; it reminds me of Thor, and the wines are good.

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Ryzlink vlašský expresses itself well here.  Lying below the Železná vineyard, it shares many of the same soil types: Loess, loam, clay, and a little less sand.  Where it differs might be in sheer number and size of broken limestone gravel and rocks (It has less) and in the depth of the soils before the roots reach the bedrock.  If weather patterns continue to heat up drastically as they are, vines in Goldhamer might find its deeper soils more advantageous than higher vineyards with drought-susceptible thinner top soil.  We shall see (and taste).

The Goldhamer wines hold just a little less steeliness and minerality than the Železná vineyards and are just a bit more round, but contain many of the same aromatic components, A common aromatic thread through the two vineyards for me has been a bracing pineapple/pineapple skin.

Volařik – A Great Product is Great Business


Saturday morning and dew still beads on the November grass. Petr Očenašek and I stand outside a façade of rectangular white stones, waiting briefly until Miroslav Volařik appears, opens the sliding glass doors and we ascend to the main office.

His eponymous winery, Volařik, has garnered many awards and the facility is cluttered with success; trophies, documents, bottles, plus equipment that has just finished processing a very healthy 2015 harvest – they all crowd our path and personal space. A good problem to have, so Volařik is building a larger winery.

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Miroslav Volařik and Petr Očenašek: Some bottles, some awards, some small talk.


He, Očenašek, and I stand for the interview, circled around a bar table crowded with bottles. His movements and demeanor are natural, easy; as he begins to speak of wine he takes a step back, his hands remain in front of his torso but glide to the left and right to punctuate a sentence; he steps forward again. His voice is easy and pleasant, and for my sake he switches to admirable English. Volařik made his money in printing, but I don’t think he speaks with the same pleasure about toner.

“It is the dream of each village boy from here [Mikulov] to make wine; but then it depends on the conditions, it depends on your power, if you are lucky, if you have money…” So Volařik started his current winery in 2007. The accolades came swiftly, and with them a growing reflection on the winery’s product.

In some cases, this has led to Volařik breaking with standard Czech practices. Case in point, the owner has many ideas of what should be grown on the Pálava Hills.

“Of course it’s [about] quality. The style in Moravia is to have 20-25 varieties. In the future we have to be focused on 4-5 varieties and maybe some smaller amount of others. In the future we want to have only Welschriesling, [Rhine] Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Pálava, and then some others.”

Volařik started with a similar model of at least 20 varieties, making over 40 types of wine. However, such a philosophy makes caring for the vines, fruit, and wines more complicated and laborious. By reducing the number of varieties, Volařik can concentrate on the quality of each grape’s unique aspects.

The winery doesn’t make red wines anymore, another break with standing philosophy; most makers tend to dabble in one of the regional specialties like Frankovka (Blaufrankish) or an international variety like Pinot Noir.  In a telling statement: “We produced red wine in 2008 2009, but decided we wanted only high-quality wine.” At the Volařik winery, that means white. (At other wineries that doesn’t have to be the case) People advised him not to give up on red wines; they told him that he would never survive. Two Czech Winemaker of the Year Awards later (2011, 2014), his decision seems justified, even if success has brought its own problems.

Good problems: “After 2 or 3 months we are out of one wine.” To the casual wine-drinker, 7000 bottles of one wine might sound like a lot, but they very quickly disappear.   Even with a production between 220,000 to 250,000 bottles, one of the largest quality wine productions in the country, the company has trouble keeping up with demand.

In the difficult 2014 vintage, the winery used 100 hectares to get 220,000 bottles; this year they used 82 hectares, which should have a higher production. Ideally, at optimal production, in 40 years Volařik aims for 300,000 bottles all from his own 70hectares.

Our conversation proceeds leisurely. Statistics and numbers might be boring, dribbling from some speakers’ mouths, but Miroslav Volařik handles them clearly; logistics become entertaining. He clearly interests himself in all aspects of the winery – he can elucidate on oak barrels’ benefits to Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, and detriments to Welschriesling and Riesling – but those logistics keep creeping back into his speech. A discussion on the top terroirs of Pálava Hills isn’t poetry but a summary of attributes that quickly turns into the details of protecting against grape theft and metamorphoses into a discussion of illegal wine entering from Hungary and Romania.

In the end though, his ability to handle logistics and build a proper team is his contribution to the winery (along with his money): “It was important to find good people. My education is not in this field [winemaking]; my education was in water technology. But the [employees] already have experience in that field. If you are the position to have so many hectares, you have to create a team. The goal, of how to do it [to make good wine] I have to give it to these people; but they are producing this good quality of wine, not me; they are responsible for this production. I have only name, that’s all.”

Those bottles with his name on it, the ones he and his employees have made so successful, how do they taste?


Volařik wines are always correct, without errors or awkward flaws, reflecting the characteristics of the grape variety as well as the region or vineyard. They are exemplary representatives of the Pálava Hills. If I had to critique the wines, I could say that they lack “mystery;” that is, they lack a romance and profundity that more renowned regions’ wines seem to have. But that is hardly valid; like criticizing a well-made, hand-designed, hand-crafted, well-furnished house because it is not hobbit-home or a crystal palace.   As Volařik winery gains more experience, as their vines’ roots wend down farther through the soil, one might begin to speak of the mystery of their Pálava vineyards.

[If interested, please click on the links in the tasting notes to hear what the wines, “sound like.”]

2014 Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling) from the village Klentnice: A good effort and wine from a very difficult year, this flows gently through the mouth. A kind wine, it tickles my cheeks with the acidity, but does leave a little bitterness in the back of the throat, a sure sign of the unripe character of the vintage. It tastes like this.

2014 Železná vineyard – Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling): Železná is considered by many to be the top vineyard of the region, benefiting from a blend of loess, clay, and sandy soils over the white Pálava limestone. This wine has hazelnut on the nose, a little toast or yeasty note. In the mouth it’s both floral and mineral. A bit bitter – that’s the vintage – but also a bit hard. That’s Železná . (The wine tastes like the introduction to this song) Volařik tells me 2 or 3 years will soften it up. I expected that this wine saw some time in oak – it didn’t! – but it did see 6 months of resting on the lees (the dead yeast) that continues to add body, and probably those toasty/yeasty notes to the wine.

2014 Kotelná vineyard – Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling): Another top vineyard near the Železná vineyard, with a similar soil but less prone to water deficits, Kotelná provides a different expression of Welschriesling. In the glass, the wine is more gold than its counterpart. Aromas passing from white chocolate to stone, in the mouth it feels richer. Isn’t this the better wine, then? It’s certainly more accessible and charming now, and a better “restaurant wine,” as Volařik explains, one that provides a good level of elegance and flavors for diners without needing to age and take up precious storage space in a restaurant. A pleasure, but without the intensity of the previous wine.

2014 Ryzlink Rynzký (Rhine Riesling) from Klentnice: I don’t have many notes on this one, just, “Needs 1-2 years.” No commentary on my audio recording either; we had started talking politics.  So it tastes like.

Disclousure: Miroslav Volařik gave me two bottles of wine as a gift following the interview.

Mikulov, the Pálava Hills Region, and Their Wines.

Wine.  Wine, wine, wine.

Wine.  I like…


Wine grapes from which wine is made.


What’s the big deal?

One could ask that about anything really.  What makes wine different than “Hello Kitty” products or fine jewels or Oreos or beer or football or American football, or fashion?  Any fanatic can certainly list their compelling reasons, a list that will ultimately confine the person to a small cadre of con-celebrants and concerned friends.

But wine is different.  Why?  Because wine.


If I MUST explain a bit more, wine is a combination of nourishment,  an addictive compound, geology, meteorology, economics, anthropology, occasional skulduggery, advertising, philosophy, chemistry, lyricism, religion, history, anthropology, microbiology, dendrology, environmentalism, geography and occasional heroism…

…Mixed with art.

Wine, like a picture, reflects its source and creator.  A bulk wine, like Australia’s famous Yellow Tail, reflects as much about the goals of its producer as the painting, “Gazebo of Prayer” tells a person about the goals of artist Thomas Kinkade.


Thomas Kinkade’s”Gazebo of Prayer”, second in popularity only to his ” Contemplative Garden-Yurt,” painting.

Well, maybe Yellow Tail isn’t that bad.

On the other hand, tasting a Château Margaux corresponds to something a bit more refined…


Botticelli’s Berliner Venus

Most wines rest somewhere between these two extremes.  My favorites lean towards something like a good Bruegel…


Rustic, but done excellently.

The Pálava Hills in Southern Moravia make these wines.

What follows is a summary of this region and its main town Mikulov.  A brief historical section will summarize 150,000,000 years and highlight some of the events that give context to the Pálava Hills wine.  In interest of brevity, this introduction does not mention the vital Jewish history of Mikulov, nor its role in the Iron Curtain, nor its growing culinary and art scenes, nor much of its architecture, nor the Pálava Hills importance as an UNESCO-supported nature reserve. (If you are interested in visiting, though, contact the good people of Pathways).  Afterwards one can read about a few of the different producers and their libations.  As time goes by I will expand the information, but this initial posting should give you an inkling of an idea of a taste of this beautiful – wine – region.

Continue on to: Pálava Hills: A Bit of Geology and History

Continue on to: Pálava Hills: Where Are We?

Continue on to: Pálava Hills: Soil Primer and Specific Vineyards

Producer: Volařik – A Great Product is Great Business

[Thanks all who helped on this (expanding) project, particularly the Degustarium team of Vladimir & Kateřina Štekl and Petr Očenášek for their help and hospitality during research]

Leonard Cohen Visits a Moravian Village


The After Mass

Working on a small writing project here in the Czech Republic, a little introduction to wine in this beautiful country.  Nothing grandiose, but with a goal that it be helpful, interesting, and accessible.  This post, though, has little to do with that subject.

Doing research for the project this weekend, I stopped for Mass in a village this weekend.  I am Catholic, which has a lot of definitions to different people.  One might describe my faith as: Stumbling and tripping, hopefully towards God, even in the Communion line.

The Catholic Church in the Czech Republic seems to be a relatively small, but healthy organism.  Churches are by no means full, but the population consists of more than just canes and walkers.  (And respect to those people on canes and walkers, many of them practiced their faith throughout the anti-religious Communist years).

As you can see in the picture above, this church was  spacious, voluminous – a simple harmony of red, blue, and off-white.  On the periphery of the interior, parishioners had set up a display of all the vestments of the priests, from joyous blues and pinks to sobering black, and some  Latin prayer and choral books.  The collection of an ancient script and historic clothing, combined with the sun-lit space of this old structure, put me in an  bucolic, if imperial mood.  Finished in 1788, the church served winemakers and grain farmers, who then paid taxes to the Hapsburg Emperor residing in Vienna a day’s ride from here.  An image of imperfect harmony, but harmonious

The liturgy came simply, without flourish, concordant enough with the liturgy’s setting, guided by a younger priest with two teenage boys as altar servers.  I understood little, but at least I understood a little.  The prayers of Consecration were quick, devout, and as people lined up for Communion, the choir struck a familiar “Chord, that David played and pleased the Lord.”  Suddenly, from my already stilted attempts of  distracted contemplation and devotion, I could only think of kitchen chairs and haircuts.

It’s a tune I respect immensely; and by dint of its popularity, I distrust the “cult” around it.  I do hope the lyrics were changed for the service.

Some people might be aghast that such a tune ring out in a church.  Well, it ain’t the first time.  Lots of hallowed songs have rowdy, raucous, and romantic beginnings.  The music of the respectable Star-Spangled Banner comes from a drinking song, and I think some of the old Welsh tunes were appropriated to create some of the greatest hymns of Protestant Christendom.

Of course, some people might be aghast that such a tune ring out in a church.  Because religion is stolid and dry and restrictive and heavy-handed and evil and it’s appropriating something real and sensual and codifying it.  Religion also happens to supply much of the imagery in the lyrics of the aforementioned song.  There is a sensuality in faith, hidden at times, seemingly dry at other times, and sometimes dry, that can spring forth healing clear and clean.

What does the experience teach me?  I don’t respond well to Leonard Cohen’s hit song in church.  Also I can choose to be easily offended or easily amused.  I’ll try the latter.

A Post About Czech Buildings With Thick Walls (!)

[The following is educational, informational – hopefully fun to read.  It is also a shameless plug to get you interested in visiting the Czech Republic using the services of Pathways sr.o., a small, family-run tourism company that creates personalized tours for personable people.  But regardless of your… er, travelability or interest, read on and enjoy the article.]

All sorts of great photos! 010

Troja Chateau, Prague.  It faces some of the vineyards of Prague.

Words are fun.  Fun, I tell you! We can string them together to create and explain ideas; we can use their sounds and syllables to create a rhythm. Certain words bubble with imagery, others maybe not so much. (The word “beige” might link both ideas – a word pregnant with non-imagery)

Experience beige!


But three words that engage the imagination? “Fort,” “Castle,” and “Palace.”

We might accuse Czechs of lacking an imagination: They don’t have to pretend at all. Seemingly, there’s a fort on every hillside; from one you can spy a castle; the castle is abandoned because its owners moved into a nearby palace. But of course, the Czechs have their fantasy world, except they can conjure up the battles, princesses, hearth-cooked feasts, and courtly intrigue while standing where such events really happened!

If you are perusing this article, you’re probably not standing in a fortified Czech building (The thick wall aren’t good for Wi-Fi signals); hopefully the following words and pictures will give you a tiny idea of the country’s architectural riches.

Fort: Terezín


A fort (or fortification) is any military structure built for protection against attacks. Forts can be used as a base of warfare, or to “solidify rule” in times of peace (Wikipedia, 2015).

Given the convoluted and sad history of the Terezín fortress, that definition doesn’t quite stick. A fortress that became a town that became a concentration camp that became a town… I find it one of the oddest places in the country.

Covering nearly 4 square kilometers (2.49miles) of space, Terezín, or Theresienstadt as it was called at the time of construction in 1790, was designed for up to 11,000 soldiers during wartime (Wikipedie, 2015). Wartime for the fort’s purpose was Prussian aggression coming from the north and northwest. But those attacks never arrived: The Hlavní Pevnost (Main Fortress) garrison became a town  witha a small barrack for soldiers by the mid-19th century while the attached Malé Pevnost (Little Fortress) remained a military base and prison.

During the German occupation of World War II, Terezín became a concentration camp, the town’s inhabitants expelled in 1941 to make room for the flood of Jews. The population expanded well beyond the tolerable limits of the fortified town, bloating to approximately 40,000 at worst. But within these confines some struggled heroically, and their stories reveal the quiet victories of kindness and love. Meanwhile, the Male Pevnost became a political jail. Not only Jews were imprisoned here, but anyone deemed dangerous to the Nazi occupation… all to solidify rule in a time of “peace.”

Directly following the end of the war, the Male Pevnost was used as a prison to house Czech Germans before they were expelled from the country. But by 1950, the Velké Pevnost had over 3000 inhabitants, and who knows how many ghosts. Today, about 2000 people in Terezín live in a conundrum. Understandably, they make attempts to beautify the place in which they live, but each coat of paint and newly-paved road diffuses the impact of the events that occurred there. Those that forget the past are condemned to repeat it, but those that live in the past might hardly feel alive…

Visiting Terezín is nearly a “must-see” if one visits the Czech Republic. Not because of the impressive structures (Flood gates, brick tunnels, heavy walls and the like) or the gruesome details (One can watch a horror movie to be grossed out), but in remembrance to what people can do to each other. In this fortress one discovers not only the depths of human cruelty, but the strength of human charity.

Castle: Trosky


Ok. Trosky’s a ruin. I admit that. One could visit Karlštejn, or even just Hradčany in Prague to find immaculately restored structures oozing nobility. One will not be disappointed. But easily slipping out to a different realm, one can escape casual tourism and delve into Czech history and verdant nature at the same time.

Trosky isn’t just a ruin. It’s a ruin of a castle, “A large strong building, built in the past by a ruler or important person to protect the people inside from attack,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary (Cambridge Dictionaries Online). Usually, if not always, these were the homes of the local nobility or leader, and became prevalent with the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th and 10th centuries (Wikipedia, 2015). Indeed that was Trosky’s role, a defensible home that displayed its owner, Čeněk z Vartemberka’s, power.

This narrow fortress stretches out between and upon two basalt columns, the remnants of prehistoric volcanic activity, elevated high above the surrounding sandstone hills. A system of cisterns and paths to underground pools supplying fresh water made this castle particularly defensible – in its long history, only time has successfully sieged Trosky’s walls. Not that Lord Čeněk got to enjoy that security. He most likely paced the keep’s floor, unable to enjoy the beautiful view as an aide announced his debts. Trosky was his ruination and z Vartemberka had to sell it and other properties to King Vaclav IV in 1394 (Historie Hradu Trosky, 2015).

What a beautiful view he missed. People call the region Český Raj (Czech Paradise) for good reason. Rolling, wooded hills, pure water, and sandstone pillars make this a tranquil environment for locals and visitors alike. Some of Europe’s most dramatic rock climbing is located in the cool valleys of Český Raj, and stories of medieval brigands and vodníky ( supernatural watermen) abound.

Palace: Český Krumlov

Croatia to Charles Bridge 003

Look to the right…

Croatia to Charles Bridge 002

Look to the left… It’s the Palace of Český Krumlov

This world-famous palace might look like a castle, it has been a castle, but don’t be fooled! What’s the difference?  A palace isn’t built for defense; it just announces the wealth and power of its inhabitant(s). Český Krumlov certainly announces the glory of its best years under the Family Rožmberk. The lord of that golden age, Wilhelm von Rožmberk, was an intelligent man influenced by Italian culture; he spent no small sum remodeling his family seat in a more southerly style. His colorful Renaissance tower looks out over the eponymous town and the courtyards blend Christian and Classical thought. These embellishments imply a realization that stone walls would not hold long against the cannons of the 16th century.   Wilhelm had turned the castle into a palace.

Further stately ossification occurred almost a century later, when the following rulers, the Eggenbergs, turned the wooden drawbridge into a permanent, covered corridor connecting the castle to the hillside and the delightful Baroque gardens upon it. Elaborate gardens and ornate bridges are not marks of a structure focused on defense.

Today, only tourists attack the castle, ogling the bears that have been a tradition since Wilhelm’s era. They hike up the tower (the tourists, not the bears); they take a one hour tour of the main rooms, they rarely explore the geometric hedges that slowly disorganize into a proper English garden. The castle deserves more time than just an hour, and the city more than just a half-day.


If you’ve read this far – congratulations. Wipe the sweat from your brow, and be proud that you did more than I usually do – simply skim an article. I do hope that by taking some minutes of your day, you’ve been able to learn some fun facts about the history of the Czech Republic. And if you’re interested in visiting, don’t hesitate – there are plenty of wonderful surprises in store.

That’s Better… Preparing for Change

The heat has broken, thank God, the brightness of summer turning to the milky white light of early fall.  School has started, this ritual that thus far in my adult life I have observed from afar.

My apartment faces bridges two worlds.  Often, the morning traffic, starting about 5:30 is what wakes me.  The first time.  I am trying to rise at 6:30, at this point the cars and buses and trams create a din if my window is open.  Often I can withstand the noise until 7:30, at which point I often rise.

I categorically refuse to stay in bed past 1pm…

The view from my room, beyond the motorized vehicles, is gray and rectilinear from the panalak apartments similar to the one in which I live.  A dull, supermarket building with a BRIGHT yellow name provides convenience if I need milk for coffee.

Coffee leads to the other view.  My broad kitchen windows open up onto the woods and the fantastic nature reserve 5 minutes from my back door.  The view right now is mostly green, flush from current rains, though a premature hue of autumn has appeared from this summer’s drought.  All the same, beautiful.

And the sounds!  Wind in the leaves, birdsong; as the day progresses the shrill, happy cries of children playing at school.

So two sides, two views to see, a rich existence even before I leave the apartment.

The heat has broken, which seemed to annoy many Czechs as much as I did.  And so we will gain some normalcy, some patience.  I think for a brief time.  The press of Syrian and Afghani refugees in Hungary will eventually move this way.  The Czech government hasn’t exactly been welcoming, and the Czech culture itself is cloistered (in a secular sense) by the ranges of low mountains that surround much of the country.

What will be the response?  It will be tough!  There will be some good and some bad.  It can be a chance for firsthand interactions with cultures often portrayed as violent and prepared for jihad.  It will be a chance to welcome some new traditions. It will be an interaction with tired, frightened, and ambitious people.  Czechs will meet many people who don’t drink beer!  (That could be very profound!)  It will be growing pains.  And hopefully for the better.

We shall see… but any weary traveler needs a glass of cool water and a welcome.  And if they want a beer, I expect it will be given.

Hot, Horridly Hot, Summer

Only one photo today, kids, mostly lines of symbols combined in various ways in an attempt to communicate!

“Oppressive” could describe the Czech Republic’s summer this year.  Let all political associations of the past century be forgotten, it is nature’s heat which weighs upon us even as it pulls more water from the land and rivers.  The ground is dry, dry to the point of dust clouds, and some rivers are low and hot, starting a dangerous growth of suffocating algae.  This unwelcome green contrasts with the tan, dead blades of grass that break away to expose even more earth.  While we  have not attained a record-high temperature (Apparently that was made last year)  we have had nearly a month of days hovering around 32C (90F) when an average Prague summer lounges at about 23C (73F).  And in this time, little rain has fallen in the fair city – she is showing more than a few wrinkles and cracks.

Tram and bus drivers brake more sharply, people dawdle under the drooping leaves of trees waiting for the relative cool of evening.  I doubt I’m the only one muttering curses.   Czechs go to Croatia for heat, for a self-basting in the Dalmatian sun.  And I moved from Provence, in part to escape its hot, celebrated glare… er, light.  I think the majority of us here in Prague look towards Saturday and Sunday when rain is finally supposed to fall.  At first gently, I hope, so the dusty ground does not roll and peel like burnt skin tearing away from itself.

And in my imagination, the soil justly humectified, a torrent then falls that final breeches the forest canopy and jostles wilted leaves back to health.   Outside the pubs and cafes,  round-bellied men and laughing women do not move as the drops descend, refilling their glasses with something much more refreshing.

One of the greenest pieces of ground right now.

One of the greenest pieces of ground right now.