It’s Mikulov Time
To be honest, I had no idea what to do with myself when we first landed in Brno. Sure, I had some ideas of how to occupy my time but making this transition to our new lifestyle took introspection and soul searching. I figured the best way to delve into the wine culture was complete and total immersion. It’s daunting to be an extrovert: to put yourself out there, to make the introductions and connect with strangers, but I have made it a point to attend as many wine tastings as possible. Despite the fact that the tastings are in Czech, I gather up my courage and introduce myself in an attempt to absorb as much information as I can about the vineyards, the terroir, the viticulture techniques and the wines, to understand more about the region surrounding us. I have been quite lucky to find my wine community here in Brno and have been welcomed by them with open arms.
While attending these local wine events and tastings, the curious question always surfaces, “Have you been to the vineyards in Moravia?” After shyly shaking my head that we hadn’t yet made the trip south, the response is always the same, “Oh! You have to go! It is so close and so wonderful! You’ll love it!” I couldn’t tell them this, but there was a fear in me: a fear of taking the wrong bus, of not having the right bus ticket or getting lost somewhere between home and the vineyards. This apprehension had honestly held me back from making the trip. In hindsight, I’m unsure as to why I was afraid. After all, I’ve traveled throughout Europe in the pre smartphone era, I have hitchhiked across southern France, I have even worked in Times Square. Yet something about getting lost in Moravia, facing the looks from a stern bus driver, where I speak so little of their language, intimidated me from buying that bus ticket.
Yet I felt this compulsion to go, to taste these wines and see the vines in person, despite these unfounded fears. After all, Moravian wine country is a simple one hour drive from Brno’s city center. It did take us some time to learn the basics of the language, to get acclimated to the city transport and to wait for the warmer weather but we knew that the time had come. We had no more excuses. After having settled into our new home, we decided it was finally time to face our travel fear and visit the city of Mikulov, a popular wine tourism region in Moravia.
I consulted a few Czech natives and expats who had recently made the journey. They were extremely helpful and reassuring, letting me know that it is indeed a simple, inexpensive bus trip. I downloaded the iDOS app on my phone, to aid in both timetables and navigation, bought our bus tickets and made our plans. Although my levels of anxiety and panic were rearing their ugly head, I quickly quieted them, reasoning with myself that everything would turn out to be fine. At the end of the day, it was only a bus trip and it couldn’t be all that bad. After all, there would be a glass of Moravian wine to calm my nerves, waiting for me in Mikulov.
Moravian Wine Country
The Czech Republic is a part of the wine world that is vastly underrepresented in most global markets, as the larger portion of their production remains proudly in their country. I had never sampled a Moravian wine before landing in Brno, and had absolutely no knowledge of the years of tradition and viticulture that are so intertwined with Czech culture. There are a few US based importers currently working with Czech wineries in smaller markets, yet widespread exposure to Czech wine in the US is limited. I consider myself privileged to have the opportunity over the next two years to immerse myself in the Moravian wine culture: to taste their wine, converse with the shop owners, meet the winemakers and visit their vineyards. Although my knowledge of the Czech language is limited, I speak the language of wine.
The Czech Republic is rich in wine history. The Moravian wine region lies in the center of Europe, just over the border from Austria and is one of the warmer regions in the country. The Romans introduced vitis vinifera vines to the region around 200 AD, initially planting Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling. Wine was hugely popular, as it was in most of Europe, as wine was historically a safer drink than water. Additionally, by the 14th Century, the city of Mikulov became one of the key wine centers in the region as its central location offered a convenience in terms of transport, commerce and larger scale production. Wine production has since dominated the economy, leading to today’s 19,000 hectares planted under vine, a staggering amount considering the respectively small size of the region.
Moravia has ideal growing conditions for white wine varietals: Limestone and loamy clay soils, southern exposure on rolling hills, and mild, warm summers all help to keep the vines healthy and the wines vibrant. Although high sun exposure and extreme heat are limited, preventing winemakers from planting heartier red wine varietals, the Czechs enjoy the plethora of white wine varietals that flourish in the region. Today, the wine culture is more popular than ever, with roughly 75% of the population consuming wine at an average of 20 liters per year. The Czech Wine Tourism website gives statistics dating from 2011, yet from speaking with winemakers here, the numbers of producers and vineyards have been increasing year after year. New wine regions are popping up and young, experimental winemakers are creating fascinating new styles of wine. Wines with extended skin contact, barrel aging, lees aging and biodynamic, natural winemaking are becoming more and more popular. International recognition is being awarded to these adventurous vintners, driving sales and increasing the production. It is obvious that wine will remain popular, as the younger generation is keen on forging their way out of the communist led era and into globalism: developing a more modern, innovative approach to vineyard management, the vinotéka and online commerce.
The Moravian wineries produce truly delicious, aromatic wines in a range of styles, from bone dry to lusciously sweet. In addition, the wines are considerably cheaper than their European and American counterparts currently being sold in the Czech wine market, making them accessible and highly desired. For roughly 10 euros, you can purchase a hand harvested, biodynamic, small production Moravian wine, hailing from a small family-run vineyard.
In the tastings I have attended so far, I have found that slightly off dry wines with a residual sugar content of 7-14 g/L seem to be all the rage amongst the Czech consumer. Certain key varietals like Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat are massively popular and can be produced in a range of styles that are able to attain that slightly juicy, almost off-dry style. Additionally, in the mid 1970s, new varietal crossings like Hibernal, Pálava and Solaris were developed to withstand fungal rot, spring frosts and other unfortunate climatic influences that plague the region. These grapes can also be left on the vine a bit longer, creating a higher sugar content in the grape, leading to a juicier, bright style of wine. For me, the Moravian wine region is unexplored territory, uncharted land and a whole wine world at my fingertips.
Ready to Taste
In planning our first excursion to the vineyards, we figured that April had not yet hit peak tourist season and the chilly, rainy weather would deflect the throngs of tour buses. Forty five minutes into our bus ride, I began to see the limestone hills of Palava that I had previously seen only in pictures. The rows of vineyards surrounded me, with gnarled old vines, peaking out of the ground. The buds had just begin to break on certain vines and the rolling hills were a welcoming sight. As we approached the city of Mikulov my anxiety quickly turned to anticipation, my heartbeat rising in its tempo as the bus pulled in to the village.
We had arranged to start our day at the Boutique Hotel Tanzberg, once a provincial rabbinate turned modern day hotel, restaurant and wine cellar located in the Jewish quarter in Mikulov. The hotel had advertised a degustation of over 60 wines in their cellar, featuring some of the best producers in the Mikulov region. We arrived at the hotel and were struck by its charm. Rows of ivy had encroached the building, creeping like cobwebs over the stone facade.
The building size was deceiving and was much larger on the inside than it had appeared on the outside, with a labyrinth of hallways leading to separate dining areas and terraces. The bustling patrons of the restaurant were jovial and boisterous, obviously enjoying their late lunch in the plush surroundings. We met with a woman at the reception and after paying our tickets for a 90 minute tasting, we were ushered into the wine cellar. Slowly shutting the door behind her, my husband and I were left alone in the cellar, to delve right into the 60 wines before us, tasting glasses clutched in our hands.
Our tasting quickly switched to high gear. We had 90 minutes to taste and evaluate 60 wines of varying varietals and producers. My husband was a bit intimidated by this challenge, yet I found myself completely ready for this endeavor. We tasted through each one, swirling, sipping and spitting, identifying the aromatic and flavor characteristics that separated them. I felt completely back in my element, comfortable and at ease.
We settled on our top wines of the tasting: An Orange Riesling, and two Welsch Rieslings.
We found them to be incredibly unique, showing ripe fruit, minerality and integrated textures and acidity. Although our palates were quite shot after this incredible tasting experience, we were ready to venture on.
Slightly inebriated but still up for more tasting, we made our way to Vinařství Volařík, a modern winery located just ten minutes down the road from Hotel Tanzberg. The Volařík family has been growing grapes since the mid 1950s but established their winery in 2007. They have since won many prestigious awards, including Moravia’s 2018 winemaker of the year. The winery produces primarily white wines, focusing on quality and purity of fruit, using organic practices in their vineyards. The wines of Vinařství Volařík were fruit forward and elegant, showing a refinement and complexity that were reflective of both the terroir and their passion for winemaking. The standout for us was Solaris, a crossed grape varietal that was originally bred in 1975 to be resistant to both fungal rot and spring frost, two highly impactful threats to the vineyards.
Volařík’s expression of Solaris exuded a bouquet of honey, walnuts and tropical fruit. The wine was delicate and clean on the palate with a prolonged finish. An absolute delight to finish our day of wine tasting in Mikulov.
I am thrilled to be able to share these wine adventures with you, the reader, and to guide you through the secret world of Moravian wine.