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

Pre and up to Mikulov 122

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.

Pre and up to Mikulov 129

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.