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

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.

Železná

(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.

 

Goldhamer

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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Goldhamer

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.

Mikulov, the Pálava Hills Region, and Their Wines.

Wine.  Wine, wine, wine.

Wine.  I like…

P1040671

Wine grapes from which wine is made.

Wine.

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.

Understand?

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.

bleech!

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…

bottecelli

Botticelli’s Berliner Venus

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

harvesters

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]

Moravian Grafitti, Znojmo, Czech Wine and Cuisine Pairing

(The company for whom I work, Pathways and I would be happy to introduce travelers to some of the following places and people and experiences.  Feel free to contact us!)

What a pleasant day, some three weeks ago, a Wednesday.  Started with my public limousine (tram) ride and its unique views of the Prokopské Udolí volcano to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation with Mass and then it was off to Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic.  While the bus to this Moravian city was detoured a bit by construction, travel was easy and fairly smooth.

Brno reminded me quickly that, as a resident of Prague, I am not supposed to like it, appreciate it, or condone its existence.  This because the bus passed directly by the hockey rink of Kometa Brno, rivals of my team Sparta Praha.  After exiting the bus, though, I found the city to be energetic and lively, and began to think of Brno as a beautiful place, only suffering from the pock that is Kometa.  Like a Renaissance portrait of a lovely maid, but with a suppurating boil on her cheek, so is Brno with Kometa…

Maybe my opinion of Brno quickly changed because stepping out from the coach, I saw this:

Znojmo spalek tasting 001Jack Kirby-esque Thing graffiti!  It’s obvious that the superhero has just punched a metal robot, because there is a whiff of smoke coming from his flinty knuckles.  Great piece.

And this one -wow! – this one mixes so many textures with a humorous narrative.

Znojmo spalek tasting 002I remained in Brno only an hour, commuting by the efficient Czech public transport to my vinous destination, Znojmo.

Znojmo spalek tasting 055

A view from the Znojmo’s hilltop

Znojmo, as mentioned first in the 11th century, stood high above the Dyje River as a major fortress of the Přemyslid dynasty…

…Enough history.  This visit was food and wine.

I’d come at my friend Eva Skálová’s invitation.  She and her boyfriend, Marek Špalek, wanted to serve guests a food/wine pairing as part of a larger project.  According to them, Czech wines have not developed the same vinous/gastronomic marriage as have the French or Italians; they want to experiment with the idea.

I arrived hours early to the event, affording time to stroll under the gray, spring sky among the sklepy (wine caves).  They stand in various states of repair, a polished, repainted structure next to a crumbling facade.Znojmo spalek tasting 027Until recently, the wine trade did not treat Znojmová wines well.  Communism diluted any commercial quality that might have existed, and the 1990’s saw the rise of Znovin, by Czech standards a massive wine company that makes standard wines.  But resisting Znovin’s pressure, smaller makers have remained to create wines of character and interest.  The process is not finished, as one can see, but what a privilege to see the rebirth of a wine region.

Znojmo spalek tasting 007Some of the sklepy don’t even have external buildings, but rather the traditional door into the hillside.  Behind the many doors like these, dug into sandstone and loess, stretch long shafts, storing secrets, barrels, and bottles.  Looking about, you might find air-shafts sticking out from the ground, indicating sklepy with no apparent entrances.

Three shafts for fresh air into the sklepy.

Three shafts for fresh air into the sklepy.

Znojmo spalek tasting 010

It ain’t pretty, but if the wine is good…

It's not just rock, it's the shore of an ancient sea!

It’s not just rock, it’s the delicious shore of an ancient sea!

Across the road from the sklepy stood a small chapel to Saint Martin, patron of winemakers.  And it stood on GRANITE!  Very exciting.  Across the street, loess and sandstone were the predominant rocks, made by ancient winds and ancient seas depositing sediment that condensed and hardened with time.  But just 100 feet away, granite… igneous rock born of volcanic activity.  Where I was standing was the millions-of-years-old boundary between two geologic systems, Carpathian sedimentary rock to the south-east, and Bohemian igneous and metamorphic rock to the north-west.  What’s more, the vines grown on one side could produce very different wines than the vines on the other side, since geology can be an important factor in a wine’s flavor.

Yes, flavor and wine.  Alright back to the winery…

By this time Eva and Marek were ready to go, and I entered as other guests arrived into the hearth-warmed calm of the Špalek sklep.  Marek and his father have been instrumental in the growing reputation of Znojmo’s quality wine, so we seven guests sat down for a treat.

Eva and Marek serving the first course.

Eva and Marek with the first course, serving faster than the speed of my camera!

As we settled in for the long, enjoyable evening, Marek poured first his Gryllus Bilý (  “Cricket” White)  Its mixture changes from year to year; Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay comprise this 2013 vintage.  The food courses started with a bit of beef soup, the meat locally-sourced, the stock prepared days in advance so all the flavors had time to marry.  This was served with the Špalek Edelspitz Pinot Gris 2011.  The next course was, well, wine.

Marek explained that discovering the various harmonies of the wines and foods (Complimentary/contrasting flavor profiles) meant that we needed a firm understanding of the drink alone.  They would then get our opinions on the wine and how the wines interacted with the dishes. Small pours allowed us to gain such understanding without falling off of our benches.  (Tasting notes are below)

After fourteen wines and the soup well-digested, we awaited the food.  A sliver of goose pate arrived.  Really beautiful, rich with a tang of orange glaze, and it worked best with  the 2010 port-like Šaler červený, a wine both rich and fresh, like its comestible counterpart.

We returned to the soup again, our minds and taste-buds now armed.  To the richness of the beef, the Svatovavřinecké (St, Laurent grape variety) 2002 harmonized best, its earthy mushroom flavors and vegetal note contrasting and cleaning the palate for another bite.

The duo next served a small portion of wild boar with homemade dumplings and red cabbage.  The cabbage wasn’t quite sauerkraut, but soft and cooked with just a little acidity.  The savory boar pulled apart easily and the dumplings were a rich yellow, not the pale, bready beasts one often finds.  Two wines really stood out with this plate, a Gryllus Red from 2001, and surprisingly a Tramíner červený (Gewürtztraminer) 2014.  The Gryllus wasn’t the densest of the reds served, but its bottle-developed, earthy characters complimented the boar well.  The Traminer had enough body to withstand the game meat and a touch of sweetness that harmonized with the cabbage and dumplings.

Light crepes with homemade apricot marmalade came as a simple and marvelous desert.  The star wine of the evening, a 2011 ice wine of Gruner Veltliner, happily overshadowed the dessert.  Even with the richness of the pan-cooked crepe, the cleanliness of the ice wine sparkled through.  I can only offer it one of my two highest adjectives when describing sweet wines, “glacial.”  Great sweet wines somehow evoke drinking ice melt from a mountain stream, and this wine did just that.

The food had all been delicious, but portions had been small.  Still, with a little bit of bread, I was fine. I had done my work, and Marek and Eva had done theirs – a food wine pairing.

Then they offered us dinner!

As a larger portion of paté arrived, I raised an eyebrow to my fellow taster across the table; she raised hers… Round 3, here we go.  By the end, no one hungered.  Eva and Marek’s hospitable service, wine, and food had engendered what those things can do most nobly: conversation, conviviality, pleasure, and thankfulness – a very successful dinner party!

Marek and Eva plan a series of these meals throughout the year to discover the pairings that will work best.  Are they writing a new page in the compendium of Czech gastronomy?  Stay connected, dear readers…

Tasting Notes, some with musical associations

WHITES

1) Gryllus blanc, 2013 – No notes on this first wine.  Pleasant recollection of it, but no specifics.

2) Veltlínské zelené 2013 suché ( dry Grüner Veltliner) – A nice force in the back of the palate, slight sparkle in mouth.

3) “Kravák” Sauvignon Blanc 2013 suché – Richer than the Veltliner, a better body, crisp with the smallest notes of spices.  Fermented by indigenous yeasts (Yeasts occurring naturally in the vineyard.  Very refreshing wine.

4) Pinot blanc “sur lie” 2013 suché – “Sur lie” is French for “On the lees,” the sediment of yeast and compounds that precipitate out of fermenting wine.  Properly managed, lees add body, and “buttery” or milk flavors; improperly managed they add sti-zank.  Properly managed here at Špalek.  This wine spent a year in barrels on the lees, and the oak aromatics here actually compliment the pinot blanc (a rare event).  However this is a strange wine, best described by the photo here:

Wood -ljljljljljljljljljlj- that fruit and flower

Wood -ljljljljljljljljljlj- that fruit and flower

I tasted oak first, then the palate went very crazy, and then this beautiful floral element that persisted a good 30 seconds after I swallowed the wine.  It wouldn’t be for everyone but, I think it has its aficionados.

5) Ryzlink rýnský 2014 Polosuché (Riesling Semi-dry) – On the nose, a pleasant tight waxiness, very pleasant nose, beautiful roundness in the mouth, very clean, definined, fresh, and pure – one of the more striking Czech rieslings I’ve had.  Many Czech rieslings are grown on calcium-rich loess, and can tend toward broad and ill-defined;  this one is grown on granite – is that the game changer here? What’s more impressive, this wine came from a very difficult year, cold summer with lots of rain.  Seven grams residual acid and 11 grams residual sugar give this wine both richness and liveliness.  Nice work, Špalek.

6) Rulandské šedé Polosuché 2013 (Pinot Gris Semi-dry)  I actually thought this was the previous riesling.  And some of the elements of a typical Czech riesling were there [Psychosomatic tasting to blame?] – A little aspirin, a little pleasant dirt/earthiness, some nice lemon/lime zest – very typical cool-weather wine.

7) Tramín červený 2014 polosuché (Gewürtztraminer) –  PROPER.  This grape is amazing in the Alsace, and I generally don’t like it anywhere else.  This is one of two gewürtztraminers that I like from the CZ, and the other is from Znojmo too.  The grape is notorious to balance, either one gets a perfumed nose of fruit salad with an unripe vegetal character in the mouth, or the evaporation and taste of alcohol dominate.  This one here…  fresh fruit on the nose, not a whiff of alcohol.  Refreshing, something I have never said about gewürtz before.  If this were the standard for Czech tramín červený, the wine world would be a better place.  Like the riesling, grown on granite in a very difficult year, 2014.  Very good work and ready to enjoy.

8) Petit Edelspitz Pinot Gris 2011 polosladké (Semi-sweet) – Edelspitz was the 19th-century German name for one of Marek’s vineyards.  Marek, his brother and father make their Edelspitz gamme with a nod toward this era, fermenting on indigenous yeasts, aging in 400-liter oak barrels and the white wines see some extra time on skins.  Three days of maceration on the pinkish pinot gris skins give this wine a deeper color.  It has a great nose; but in the mouth this cloys, and its impressive concentration – admirable in itself – highlights an unripe greenness on the palate.

9) Petit Edelspitz Pinot Blanc 2009 polosladké – Wow, color is just starting to become deeper yellow, looks like a much younger wine.  Like the previous wine, the taste isn’t for me, the sugar and and concentration of unripe elements are too much.

REDS

10) Zweigeltrebe 2011 suché (Zweigelt) – A sawdust-y red fruit on the nose and a bit of… rose in this red wine?  I think that is the flower I smelled.  Very fresh.  A touch of alcohol in the mouth but a pleasant glass.

11) André 1999  suché – Color is dense, impressive for a Czech wine of 15 years. The nose combines blackberry fruit and truffles – nice!  Big, yet sparse tannins prick the tongue a little, but I like this wine. Good work.

12)  Gryllus červený suché 2001 – An earthy nose, a bit lighter in the mouth than the first two reds, not quite as sensuous, still very enjoyable.

13) Svatovavřinecké 2002 (St. Laurent) Well-developed color, aromas of freshly-tilled dirt and freshly-cut mushrooms – I like.  In the mouth a heavy, savory spice compliments the tannins which are almost a given in a svato.  This wine is ready to drink.

SWEET WINES

Veltlínské zelené 2011 ledové, sladké ( Grüner Veltliner ice wine, sweet)  This wine was harvested the first of February when the grapes froze and it rests at 6-7 percent alcohol – with 300+ grams of residual sugar!  The nose is truffled, waxy, but the mouth is beautiful fruit!  Really lovely, bright and invigorating.  As I wrote above, this gets one of my two highest adjectives for sweet wines: “Glacial.”  Raises my opinions of the ice-wine genre as a whole.

Šaler červený 2010 likérové, sladké (“liquored” red wine)  This product is similar to port, where the grape distillate is added to still- fermenting grape must, stopping the fermentation and leaving quite a bit of sugar, around 80g/l.  I like the idea of this wine – Czech reds are fresh, less rich than the deep sun-baked varieties that comprise port; a different flavor profile should result.  And the freshness wins with a great sweet nose! Beyond the fruit, a pleasant mint comes through that invites one to sip.  In the mouth, its harmony falters slightly, but it’s very interesting.  This went so well with the paté.  Cool stuff!