Gala – Un Peu Comme la France

 

Pre and up to Mikulov 088

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.

Pre and up to Mikulov 090

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?

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]