A curious smile graced my lips Monday afternoon, as I stopped to snap some photos of the vineyards in Dolní Kounice. Clutching my Canon camera in one hand and spiral notebook in another, I managed to carefully pluck Saint Laurent grapes from their tightly bound clusters off the vine.
Realizing full well that these exceptional moments are rare, I couldn’t help but admire the scenic vistas of the village from atop the sloped hillsides. In that brief moment, I felt a close connection between the vineyards and the village’s historic past. This is my purpose in creating Civil Wines, to establish a collected narrative for those who may never have a chance to explore the Czech Republic.
For centuries, South Moravia has produced wine. Since arriving in Brno nine months ago, I have tasted close to a thousand bottles, participated in wine competitions and have met with pioneer winemakers. Yet here I was, bearing witness to a current vintage, days away from harvest, sampling the grapes and feeling the trodden earth beneath my feet. This connection was both palpable and unforgettable, and is certainly one of the most memorable moments I’ve had thus far in Brno. Located just 20 km southwest of the city and with a population of 2,400 people, Dolní Kounice was a surprising stop on my journey through Czech wine country.
Since I will be featuring a wine from this area in an upcoming wine class, I made plans to visit the region. I always find it appropriate to visit the place where the wine came from, to gain a better understanding of its history and terroir. Without any expectations, I reached out to the winemaker, Jiři Šebela, as simply receiving a tech sheet or perhaps having a small meeting was all that I had anticipated. Yet as he pulled up to my apartment in Brno, ready to drive me back to Dva Duby Vinařství for a cellar tour and wine tasting, I immediately knew that this visit would be special.
An ancient wine village in the heart of Moravia
Dolní Kounice is a Moravian village located in the valley of the Jihlava river. Mid 20th century excavations by Czech paleontologists revealed evidence of human presence dating back over 400,000 years. Remnants of ancient primitive tools, spikes, wedges and mammoth bones were uncovered in the region, noting a remarkably historic past. This is an area that has seen years of political upheaval, turmoil, battles, and religious unrest. For thousands of years, this small settlement, along with Ivanciče, Olomouc and Znojmo, were the major economic and commercial hubs of Moravia. Yet despite years of evolution, change and modernization, wine was the constant in the region. It offered the one, reliable product that was a source of economic growth and regional pride.
As we entered the town, our first stop was a small Jewish cemetery, where dozens of gravestones lay practically tipping over, buried in this small plot of land. Before World War II, the Czech Republic was home to over 100,000 Jews, and their communities thrived in villages like Dolní Kounice.
Dating back to 1652, the synagogue and the Jewish ghetto were the heartbeat of the city. Even today, the buildings remain standing in the neighborhood. During the mid 19th century, there were approximately 650 individuals of the Jewish faith living, practicing and worshiping in this tiny village.
Yet after the tragedies of World War II, there was only one Jewish woman from Dolní Kounice, Mrs. Ruth Morgenstern, who survived the war. When I heard this staggering detail, my heart sank into my stomach. This unexpected visit to the Jewish ghetto and cemetery was both devastating and surreal, and I couldn’t help but think about those millions of Jews who suffered and died during the war. It reminded me of the centuries of struggle of the Jewish people, those whose mere survival relied on tremendous strength and perseverance. To say I was speechless is an understatement. It is nearly impossible to find the words that described my grief upon hearing that there was only one Dolní Kounice Jewish native who survived this horrific war. Nevertheless, this story is meant to be shared, to reflect upon the horror of the past and to gain a better understanding of its importance in Moravia’s history.
As we slowly pulled away from the cemetery, we headed over to the convent of Rosa Coeli, a monastery dating back to 1162 A.D. Take a peek at the video and admire the incredible stonework and architectural marvel of this building, hidden away in the Czech Republic. Originally built by Vilém z Pulína for the sisters of the Premonstrate Order, it was reconstructed in the Gothic style in the 14th century. Although the foundation and exterior walls are the last remaining remnants of the building, it is a prominent reminder of the village’s tumultuous past. The monastery is used today for small gatherings, concerts and public events. Visitors are invited to spend the night in simple lodging rooms, enjoying a once in a lifetime opportunity to sleep within of the oldest buildings in Moravia.
By far, the most essential element to Dolní Kounice’s wine community lies far beneath the earth’s surface. Granodiorite, an ancient bedrock found only in this particular wine region in Moravia, is a magmatic, igneous stone, somewhat similar to granite. It is highly revered as one of the most sought after soil types for vineyards, as it facilitates a special, complex expression of savory, smoky elements of the grapes that grow on the soil. Predating the flinty Kimmeridgian soils of the Loire Valley and Champagne, this particular bedrock dates back 600-700 million years.
As I approached the massive stone quarry, I was immediately taken aback by its expansive and impressive depth. This was the same rock used to create the Rosetta Stone, the ancient Egyptian decree that in 193 B.C., established the divine cult of the new ruler. I knew that what I was witnessing was unlike any other area in the world, and I am grateful to have had an opportunity to witness it for myself, and to share it here on my blog.
With regards to wine making, it is no easy task to unite this region’s expansive history and rich tradition into a simple wine bottle. Luckily, there are individuals who are up for this daunting challenge, whose visionary tactics and faith in the elements defy the odds. I was lucky enough to meet one such winemaker, whose understanding of nature and history are integral to his wine production. His duty is simply to represent his land, his history and his region in his wine. For him, the most important place in winemaking belongs in the vineyards, where minimal intervention and reliance on nature remain his most valuable assets. This winemaker’s name is Jiři Šebela, and he is the founder and winemaker at Dva Duby Vinařství.
The man behind Dva Duby Vinařství
Since 2007, Jiři Šebela has been the owner and winemaker of Dva Duby (Two Oaks) Vinařství.
This was the first time after interviewing a winemaker where I felt it necessary to ask his permission if I could write about him. Not because I felt that he did not want his name out there, nor was he embarrassed to have someone like me share his story. Certainly, he is running a business and wants to sell his product. But there was a mutual respect in our conversation, as I acknowledged his humbleness as a winemaker and overwhelming pride of his vineyards.
Originally from an IT background, he founded Dva Duby to promote his passion for winemaking, his close connection with his village, and his inherent understanding of nature. He is both conventional and unconventional, choosing to ignore the societal pressures that come with natural winemaking by following his inherent understanding of the soil and the vine.
Dva Duby is one of the only natural winemakers in this particular region. He understands the delicate balance between minimal intervention and necessary participation, emphasizing a sincere trust in nature to produce healthy fruit. By eliminating the use of any synthetic herbicides or pesticides, and by limiting the sprayings in his vineyards to 1-2 times per year, his wines are certified organic and produce high quality, expressive grapes. Jiři believes that by encouraging the truest expression of the grape, his natural winemaking style is a reflection of Dolní Kounice’s unique microclimate.
Jiři sets himself apart from the crowd, as I witnessed first hand, while walking with him in his vineyards. His neighbors’ vines were often times planted adjacent to his own plots, as is common in many wine regions. He works in harmony with nature, not against it.
Firstly, he allows the vine canopies to grow tall, safely assuming that photosynthesis will do its job. In his view, as the sun hits the top of the canopy, it encourages growth there, and only there. Due to the vine’s vigor, the canopy continues to produce leaves at the top, and not at the base. Eliminating the unnecessary task of trimming back the vines to expose the grape clusters to additional sunlight, it is both an ingenious, yet completely logical tactic of vineyard management.
Secondly, Jiři allows for a natural crop cover in between the vineyard rows, cutting the grass only once in early spring. This naturally produced crop cover allows for a harmonious biodiversity in the vineyard.
Dva Duby’s vineyard plots each carry their own significance, planted throughout two areas in Nová Městá and Weinperky. The vines are on average 50 years old, with some younger vines dating back just 25 years, and others as far back as 65 years. Whereas South Moravia is known primarily for their white wines, Dolní Kounice is known for its red grape varieties, specifically Saint Laurent (Svatovavřinecké) and Bläufrankisch (Frankovka.) Due to its particular geographical position, Dolní Kounice gets minimal rainfall, warm and sunny afternoons, and a smaller diurnal temperature variation, allowing for a slow, lengthy ripening of red grape varieties.
As we made our way back to the winery, located just steps from the original Jewish synagogue, Jiři explains to me his thought process with winemaking. Because of the area’s unique soil conditions, his wines have the ability to mature and age, and can be enjoyed 6-8 years from bottling. This important bottle maturation allows both the acidity and tannins to fully integrate into the wine, while slowly revealing an expressive range of tertiary flavors.
A winemaker’s ultimate goal is to express the unique terroir of the region in their wine. For this reason, Jiři uses very small amounts of sulphur, no herbicides or pesticides in the vineyards, and a combination of acacia, oak and stainless steel. Yet he does not consider himself a natural winemaker. Jiři simply believes that the winemaking process should remain true to tradition, avoiding experimental techniques like whole cluster fermentation or cryo maceration.
But certainly, there are ways where he sets himself apart. He relies solely on spontaneous fermentation, using only the indigenous yeasts present in the cellar. Additionally, he rarely samples the wines from the barrel, allowing an uninterrupted maturation on the lees for extended periods of time. By sampling wine only once from the barrel before bottling, he is better able to achieve the truest expressions of the grape. He never racks his wines, and uses a filter similar to what is used during olive oil production, to ensure that the end wine is produced without any aggressive or disturbing tactics.
The factory site was once a potato milling facility, and has changed hands only three times over the past 150 years. He has recently finished reconstruction of his new winery, and will soon be bottling the 2018 vintage. Although he is under tremendous pressure to bottle the wines quickly in order to empty out the barrels for this year’s harvest, Jiři remains cool, calm and collected.
As a winemaker, I found Jiři humble and discreet, while his passionate enthusiasm was displayed by an inherent trust in nature and the vine. As he stated to me, “I don’t consider myself a winemaker. I’m not conventional. I can’t play it safe. I just work all year on the vines to make sure I get the healthiest fruit. But I want to reflect nature in my wine. I don’t want chemicals, I want the customer to taste my wine and know where it came from. I want terroir.”
As I sat down to a table in the tasting room, Jiři ducked into the refrigerator and brought out a lovely meat and cheese plate to accompany the wines. He had carefully selected his 2017 wines for me to sample: Grüner Veltliner, Malvasia, Bläufrankisch (Frankovka) from two vineyard sites, and of course, his most prized grape varietal, Saint Laurent (Svatovavřinecké).
Grüner Veltliner (Sylvanské Zelené) 2017
The striking dark yellow, almost golden color of this wine was remarkable. I was intrigued, as most young Grüner Veltliners in Moravia I had tasted thus far were a pale lemon color, with slight green tints. He explained that a 4 day maceration period allows for this slow extraction of color, but he was careful to preserve the acidity and restrained alcohol levels in the wine. The nose was both savory and spicy, with hints of dried stone fruit, white pepper and a deep mineral core. The bouquet remained delicate and gentle, while the palate was textured and bright. I am delighted to be showcasing this wine in my upcoming tasting, as I feel that it will prove to be an excellent contrast to Austrian Grüner Veltliner.
Malvasia is considered one of the most ancient grape varietals, and has undergone more mutations over the centuries than most other internationally recognized varieties. It’s expression can be staggeringly different, and its end result can vary according to the individual climate and winemaking style. Dva Duby’s Malvasia was perfectly balanced, expressive and nuanced. Reaching just a 12% ABV, the pronounced floral, citrus bouquet and medium dandelion color was lovely and expressive. The wine was well structured, and proved to be fairly textured on the palate with a dry, lingering acidity.
Bläufrankisch (Frankovka) 2017
Vox in Excelso
We sampled two versions of the Bläufrankisch grape during our tasting. The first was produced with purchased grapes from a neighbor, who sells his organic fruit to Jiři for production. The second example, under the name of “Vox in Excelso” came from Jiři’s own vineyard plot in Nová Městá. Both examples were delicious, but I must say that I was quite keen on the second, as immediately it reminded me of an Italian Freisa.
The first offered a nose of fresh violets, raspberry and blackberry fruit, with a slightly sweet, spiced bouquet on the nose. The palate was fresh and lively, with soft tannins and delicate acidity. The second, Vox in Excelso, offered a more brooding, deeper nose, with crushed rose petals, cinnamon, clove and a slightly more intense purple hue. Both wines undergo a 5 week maceration period, allowing for a slow, controlled extraction of color from the grape skins. By blending the end wine from a combination of used and new oak barrels, the wine was structured and refined, effectively maintaining a long ageing potential.
Saint Laurent (Svatovavřinecké) 2017:
Ex Opere Operato II
As a self-professed Saint Laurent fanatic, this wine was absolutely incredible. With notes reminiscent to Gamay from Beaujolais, the nose exploded with dark red fruits, rose petals, graphite and earth. As I delicately swirled the wine in the glass, it practically danced along the inside, revealing its light ruby hue and delicate texture. The wine had bright, mouth puckering acidity with only a slightly tannic grip. There was a pervasive minerality on the palate that extended over a long finish. This was one of the best Saint Laurents I have ever tried, and can only imagine how it will taste in the years to come.
As a foreigner, I am humbled by the gracious welcome and kindness that I have received here in South Moravia. The encouragement from the Czech wine community has been inspiring, and has motivated me to continue my exploration and research. I am truly grateful to have this opportunity to discover new wine regions, and participate in the wine community by sharing my narrative. My admiration belongs to those winemaking pioneers, forging ahead in the industry. I also want to offer a very special thanks to Jiři Šebela, for providing me a moment to stop, reflect and remember that wine is so much more than what is found inside the bottle.