Well, yes, the Czech Republic is a beer country, boasting the largest consumption of it in the world. Approximately 150 litres per year for every man woman and child (or about 423 US longneck bottles of beer). Some Czechs are worried, because that per capita consumption is dropping.
Maybe the Czechs are becoming health-conscious. But the amount of smoked meats and sausages in this country make me question that statement happily. Another cause might be that the Czechs are drinking a little more wine. Interest in wine has increased this past decade as Shengen Zone deals facilitate trade between participating countries.
More importantly, Czechs are reclaiming and recreating their own wine culture from the communist practices of the mid-20th-century. Simply put, communist wine-making rewarded quantity, not quality. More fruit meant more money for the grape grower; but to produce optimal grapes, a vine’s production needs to be limited. But even if a farmer restricted yields to concentrate available nutrients into a few bunches, his or her grapes would end up in the same vat with fruit from neighbors who had no such concerns for quality – and those neighbors would earn more money. However, farmers were allowed to have a small amount of vines by which to produce wines for private consumption [around 4 rows, 8 for a couple, if I remember correctly]. This is all part of a vinous tradition dating back to the Romans.
What that tradition will become 25 or 50 years from now is waaay too much speculation for this blog post. Suffice to say, nowadays a lot of good and bad wine-making philosophies are fighting for a large piece of the small Czech market: Dear reader, I aim to expose you only to those philosophies that are of good quality and healthy for mind, body, and maybe even spirit.
On to the wines! Links are to music that relates to the wines in my mind.
– Kolby Winery 2009 Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling) Pozdní sběr
Pronunciation aside, those last two words are “Late harvest,” meaning that the Ryzlink Vlašský grapes were harvested with 24-29 kilograms of naturally-occurring sugar within 100 litres of its pre-fermented juice. During fermentation, yeast transforms the sugar into carbon dioxide and ethanol, the type of alcohol we can safely ingest. Late harvest sugar levels provide yeast with a lot of food, so a resulting wine can have a fairly high alcohol level, around 13%, or less alcohol with some residual sugar. The wine pictured holds about 5 grams of residual sugar, but you wouldn’t know it. It tastes dry because it also has 6 grams of naturally-occurring malic and tartric acids. The acids create an electric sourness that hides the sweetness of the sugar; the sugar provides roundness and prevents the acids from electrocuting your taste buds – a beautiful harmony.
Ryzlink Vlašský has nothing to do with classic German riesling; but it is a treasure of Central European grapes, able to create impressive and varied examples from hot Dalmatian islands to cool Czech hillsides. Warm region versions are floral, refreshing, and breezy, but this Kolby shows a little green pepper and grass to go with some blossomy aromatics. There’s probably some peach or apricot but my aromatic memory is awful. Just trust me, it’s a well-made cool-weather wine.
Kolby is an interesting, quality-minded, medium-sized producer that owns one block of enviably-located vines in southern Moravian Mikulovská sub-region. They use conventional practices, meaning some herbicides and occasional pesticides, but like most quality-conscious producers they limit the usage of these products. There are a few wineries of similar size with bigger reputations, but I prefer Kolby right now; they make their wines to age, targeting a complexity of harmonious aromatics instead of overt intensity.
Salabka Winery, 2013 Chardonnay “Polosuché”
Chardonnay and the Czech Republic, like looking at a couple and thinking, “Will this last?”
Despite a high award in France this year at a Chardonnay competition, I don’t think the grape fits here. The worst examples are green pepper and ceviche-ready acidity with a strong dash of bland. The best examples are pleasant and zippy and…
Salabka Winery makes the latter type of Chardonnay. The version here is a “half-dry,” basically meaning one can taste some sweetness, but here acidity prevents the wine from being cloying. It’s a great aperitif wine, and some of those who tasted it with me marked it as their favorite.
It is obvious from the balance and mouth-feel of the wine (and their delicious Pinot Noir) that the Salabka vintners aim to make excellent bottles, but this one… it’s the wrong grape for the CZ. However, I believe this is the first vintage from young vines, so they haven’t had much time to root down into the schistous subsoil that pervades this vineyard above the Prague zoo. Another 5-10 years might see the vines making some very interesting wines. But right now the wine is just made very, very well; hopefully, the grapes will catch up with the skill of the vintner.
Salabka’s vineyard has a history reaching back to the 1200s, but it recently renovated its cellars and opened an elegant gastronomic restaurant so the feel is quite modern. The winery desires to make great wines, a challenge in the cool weather of Prague, but I won’t be surprised if it succeeds.
Farming is conventional like Kolby, and the makers use yeast cultured from the indigenous strains from the vineyard to start fermentation.
Kolby Winery, Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Pozdní sber
Unlike Chardonnay, I believe Sauvignon Blanc has a special place within the Czech Republic – the grassiness of a New Zealand Sauvignon, sometimes mixed with a fulsome roundness like a Loire Valley example. In addition, in the best Czech examples, I find honey – warm, crystallized honey. There was a little of that in this Kolby, with more than a few other aromatics I can’t name. The wine pleasantly filled my mouth, great texture. A very nice wine with some elegance to it, it needed about 30 minutes to really open and elaborate itself.
Jakub Novák Ryzlink Rýnský (Riesling) 2012
This is where things get weird, like a Steve Reich piece in the middle of a Mozart concert.
The wine is light gold. The smell is a lot of warm honey and bright and fresh, and you KNOW it is going to be sweet.
Which it isn’t. There is a tang in the mouth, a bone-dry nuttiness, and a broad minerality to match a rich mouth-feel. This wine has so much character. At the same time, its idiosyncrasies aren’t domineering. It expects to be noticed, but doesn’t scream, “look at me!”
The maker is 26-year-old Jakub Novák from the Znojmská sub-region. He biodynamically [Correction: He works traditionally, without herbicides or pesticides in the vineyard – JW 2/4/15] works a few hectares of vines, on sandy loam soils over a granite base for the Ryzlink here. I can write that Novák doesn’t use any artificial sprays in the vineyard ( well, maybe a little copper sulfate?), and chemical products in the wine are limited to a little SO2 (Sulphur-dioxide, a chemical used since antiquity).
While the grapes for the previous whites were pressed and then only their juice fermented, the Ryzlink’s juice saw 30 hours on skins, giving the resulting wine a little more color as well as tannins. And while the above whites were raised and stored in stainless steel tanks before bottling, this one saw 16 months in acacia-wood barrels, further developing aromas and deepening the color.
I don’t have enough experience with Novák’s vintages to know if these wines will endure in the bottle. I just don’t know, but can equally imagine the wine breaking down, or opening a bottle and watching a unicorn jump out.
Salabka Winery, Pinot Noir 2011, suché
Pinot Noir has a place in the Czech Republic. The Pinots here don’t get as much body or elegance as in Burgundy, nor quite the same complexity – because of the northerliness of the vineyards, there is often a bit of methoxypyrazine, that green flavor.
What you get in return is an earthy spiceness to go along with some berry fruit aromatics. Most importantly, the best examples, like the Salabka above, quickly develop aromatics like old Burgundies – YUM. For example, the Salabka above has notes of leather and autumn’s forest floor to go with the earth and spice. Good Burgundies take around a decade or more to develop these aromatics; this Salabka has it after 3 years. Altogether it’s about 85 to 90 % of a good, old Burgundy, at about a fifth of the price. While waiting for your Cote d’Or Premiers Crus to age, stoke your imagination with this Salabka, Or drink it while you reminisce; it’s a very pleasurable bottle.
Petr Kočařík, Pinot Noir 2011
Another Pinot. This one from Southern Moravia from a town called Čejkovice. A few degrees warmer, a little more sun, calcium-rich loess under the vines – one can taste the difference. You have more fruit in Kočařík’s example, a denser body. You can also taste that he uses some oak barrique-aging (19 months in one of each of two-, three-, and four-year-old barrels). It’s a wine that evolves as you drink it, provoking discussion.
Petr Kočařík was one of the first vinař to go biodynamic in the Czech Republic, a godfather of the movement in this country. He doesn’t preach when one meets him, he just opens bottles and watches one’s reaction. He grows 7 varieties on 1.8 hectares of vines, about 4 acres, doing so in the same town as one of the big volume makers. While they are spraying, adding yeasts and enzymes, he adds nothing to the wines, no SO2, no chemical sprays on the vines, nothing.
In my experience all his wines are well above average. Occasionally his wines are superlative: his Hibernal is a revelation, as well as his Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé. I feel some of his wines are a bit “hot,” meaning the alcohol shows a little bit. There was a tiny bit of heat on this Pinot Noir, but on a complex and living wine like this I won’t complain.
Milan Nestarec Antika Frankovka (Blaufrankish) 2011
The final wine. When I poured it, the people I was with said, “Wow!” We had been drinking ruby Pinots, and then this purple-red beast hit their glass.
Nestarec’s Frankova is a funky wine, a mixture of haute-couture vine yields, a “live-and-let-ferment” philosophy, and extreme grape skin contact. He reduced yields to .3 to .5 kilograms per vine, about 1/3 to 1/4 of what many other Czech quality makers use. He then allowed the must (grape skins and liquid) to sit on the skins and seeds for 6 months before resting 24 months in oak barrels (50% new, 25% each 2nd and 3rd year). Most wines get at most a month of skin contact. No SO2 is used in this wine.
That’s a fair share of risky practices there, and the result? So much fun. This is Czech red with the dial turned well to the right. Lots of red fruits, some savory notes, very full in the mouth. But it’s no Rhone Clone or California Creeper, this proper Central European wine from a proper Central European grape, Frankovka, retains a wonderful freshness to compliment the richness. There is a little ethyl acetate, this aromatic of nail polish remover, that comes when ethanol combines with acetic acid. It’s a sign of a lot of oxygen contact post-fermentation. One may call this a fault, but it’s a fault like a boxer’s broken nose, or an idiosyncratic laugh: It adds character.
Phew! I hope you find this post interesting and informative. I do apologize for the blurriness of some of these photos. If you have any questions about the wines mentioned here, feel free to comment and ask me, I will answer the best that I can. And if you are interested in visiting the vineyards and makers, I’d be happy to help. You can contact the company I work for, Pathways.
Cheers! Or as they say in Czech, “Na Zdraví!”