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.
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.