Present day winemaking in Moravia is evolving at a rapid pace.
Confronting the inevitable threats of climate change, economic instability, and growing consumer demand, Moravian winemakers are taking major risks in experimenting with grape choices, viticulture and winemaking techniques. They are no longer able to exclusively plant the traditionally recognized grapes and hope for the best. That time has passed.
By engaging with local oenologists and scientists, some vintners are aiming to perfect their craft using non-traditional, albeit obscure, grape varieties. They realize that their livelihood, reputation and business depend on the survival of their fruit, no matter how disastrous the growing season. Their decision to plant hybrids and crossings offer a viticultural reprieve for the unpredictable weather, as the grapes and vines are scientifically proven to be heartier and more vigorous.
There is a reason the Moravian winemakers are opting for these varietals. Their pronounced, exotic fruit and floral aromas, natural climatic resistances, and distinctive character are ideal for the Moravian terroir. Although the grape names remain relatively unknown outside of this wine region, they are extremely popular in restaurants, wine bars and shops.
Unfortunately, not all of these grapes are acknowledged or revered in the wine world. In fact, many reputable wine experts dismiss some of these hybrid grapes, as their genetic makeup lacks a clear pedigree to the European vines. The French Appellation d’Origine Controllee does not consider these grapes for regional (AOC) protection, as they do not contain a complete Vitis Vinifera identity.
Yet it is no accident that these hybrids and crossings were created. It is only in coming here to Brno where I discovered their diversity. As I scour the shelves of the cellars, shops and wine bars, I am eager to sample these “under the radar” bottles. Oftentimes, the names are as foreign to me as the Czech language itself, and understanding both has proven to be quite a challenge.
I am determined to understand the diverse selections of Czech hybrids and crossings, as a way to further immerse myself in the Moravian wine culture. There is no better way to explore these wines than to visit the cellars and speak with the producers who make them.
Join me on my journey to Moravia Obscura.
Simply put, wine is fermented grape juice. Approximately 90% of all globally cultivated wine grapes originate from the grapevine species Vitis Vinifera. Dating back over 8,000 years, Vitis Vinifera traces its ancient roots back to Iran. It is the parent vine of all European wine growing grapes, presently comprising over 10,000 known grape varietals.
Some typical Vitis Vinifera grapes that have garnered worldwide notoriety include Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Certainly, these prestigious grapes have earned an esteemed reputation by producing exceptional, world class wine. Some of these grapes are even quite successful in the Moravian vineyards.
Excellent examples of Merlot and Pinot Noir from Vinařství Krásná Hora, a winery in Moravia
Essentially, all Vitis Vinifera wine growing grapes are the result of cross pollination. As the grapes are hermaphroditic, a new creation, or “crossing” is common both in the vineyard and in the laboratory. The newly engineered grape, either created by science or by nature, manifests a distinctive identity that maintains a direct, genetic relation to its Vitis Vinifera parents.
The most popular result of a natural crossing is Cabernet Sauvignon, now known throughout the world for its extraordinary flavor, powerful fruit component, high tannin content and ageability. This grape was first documented in the 17th century, after a spontaneous cross pollination of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. The grape grows easily in most climates and vineyard sites, taking easily to oak barrel maturation. It is currently one of the most popular styles of wine, with some bottles fetching quite a hefty price tag in places like Bordeaux and California.
Although generally occurring in the vineyard, a crossing can also be a deliberate result of science and genetic engineering. Pinotage, for example, is a grape now heralded in South Africa for its unique flavors of smoke, chocolate and black currant. Yet it began as a scientific endeavor. As the terroir and vineyards of South Africa were unsuitable for the temperamental Pinot Noir grape, scientists decided to cross Pinot Noir with Cinsault. By engineering this crossing, the grape became more resistant to the maritime climate and diverse soil of the southern Cape. Once considered to be an insignificant component of South African blends, it has presently taken the international wine world by storm.
Despite its new identity, there are certain viticultural and climatic risks that can pose complications to a crossing. Here in Moravia, frosts and mildews are common in the vineyards. The seasons can be unpredictable, and thus the Vitis Vinifera grapes in a Moravian vineyard may not consistently produce healthy fruit.
The vines and grapes have a naturally lower resistance to the mold, winter frosts, pests and mildew that unfortunately proliferate in this small wine region. As wine is essential to Czech culture, it was up to the oenologists and scientists in the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria to create a scientific solution to counter the nationwide demand for wine.
The World of Hybrids and Crossings
Hybrids are rarely discussed at length in wine reference books. Yet, for me, their existence in the wine world is vitally important. Following 19th and 20th century advancements in hybrid viticulture and vine training, scientists have created a “grape revolution.”
The Czech Republic now boasts dozens of these obscure hybrid and crossed grape varietals, most of which are officially recognized in their national grape register. Unlike crossings, which derive from two Vitis Vinifera parents, hybrids are the result of a deliberate mutation in a laboratory. The grapes are created by crossing a Vitis Vinifera grape to that of another Vitis species.
A hybrid can offer many desirable attributes, both in the vineyard and in the glass. Hybrids have proven to be heartier grape varietals, engineered to withstand vineyard pests and potential viticultural hazards. They are oftentimes aromatic, late ripening, and are fairly resistant to unforeseen weather fluctuations. Their natural resistance to pests, mold and mildew helps to reduce the overall need for pesticides and chemicals used in the vineyards.
Unlike the traditionally crossed Vitis Vinifera varietals, the resulting grape and grapevine can withstand the most unpredictable effects of climate change. A complete listing of these grapes can be found via the website VIVC (Vitis International Variety Catalogue).
Certainly, there is some contention with the quality and reputation of hybrid grape varietals. Many wine experts do not find them a suitable winemaking grape, as it does not reflect the genetic lineage of Vitis Vinifera. Some can produce overly sweet or foxy wines, like the Muscadine grape native to the southeast US. To some, a hybrid is simply a man made adaptation, one that is deliberate and scientific, yet one that is unable to garner the appeal of a reputed European grape.
In this post, I have included just a few of the hybrids and crossings that I’ve discovered thus far. There are countless others, made in various styles throughout Moravia. Along with their unique histories, these wines are pleasant and fruity, and pair incredibly well with the cuisine of the region. I can only imagine the limitless future for these revolutionary varietals in the evolving wine world.
The name of this white grape varietal pays homage to a cherished emperor in ancient Rome. In 280 B.C., Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus lifted a ban that had previously prevented the planting of any vineyards in the northern Roman colonies. In doing so, Probus became the first Emperor to introduce grapevines to the Czech wine region.
Winemaking played a massive role in boosting the economy of the Roman cities. By lifting this legislative ban, the region prospered immensely. Today, Emperor Probus continues to be heralded as a savior to the modern Czech wine world for his valiant efforts and forward thinking legislation. Presently, the grape Aurelius is widely planted in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In 1953, the Aurelius grape was created by Josef Veverka and František Zatloukal in the Vine Research Centre in Perná, about 40 km south of Brno. It is the result of an engineered crossing of Neuburger (Roter Veltliner x Sylvaner) and Riesling. Thirty years after its creation, Aurelius finally obtained status in the national Czech wine register.
Aurelius has a yellow/green color in the glass, with a bouquet reminiscent of stone fruit and honey. The grape is late ripening and can be harvested later in the season, thus having an ability to obtain high sugar levels while retaining balanced acidity. It is often used to produce semi-sweet to sweet dessert wines, with intense floral and fruit aromas, reminiscent of tropical fruit sherbet or ripe peaches and cream. I also enjoy the dry versions, yet I feel like they need an accompanying piece of grilled trout to make them shine.
No, Dĕvín is not that Irish girl you met in high school. It is a crossed grape variety indigenous to Slovakia. Created in 1958 by Dorota Pospíšilová and Ondrej Korpás at the Vine Research Institute in Bratislava, the Dĕvín grape is a crossing of Gewürztraminer and Red Malvasia.
At 89 years old, Dorota Pospíšilová participates in wine events, winning achievement awards for her work in genetic grape crossings. She is a native of Bratislava and former student of agriculture. Dorota has successfully crossed over 24 grape varieties in her career. She is a female pioneer in the laboratory, and has earned countless awards and recognition for her contributions to science, winemaking and oenology.
The grape itself takes the best traits of both its parent plants, as it is a low acid wine with a spicy bouquet of intense orange blossom, apricot and tropical fruit. The grape is susceptible to botrytis, so the winemaker must be quite attentive in the vineyards during the latter part of the season. The Dĕvín wines that I have tried thus far have been dry, but I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to taste a Sauternes-like Dĕvín.
Although the name sounds more like a 90’s grunge band out of Seattle, Solaris is a grape varietal that was bred by crossing Merzling (Seyval Blanc x Riesling x Pinot Gris) with Gm 6493 (Zarya Severa x Muscat Ottonel). Zarya Severa (the parent of Gm 6493), hails from Vitis Amurensis, a grapevine indigenous to Asia, which has a naturally high resistance to winter frost.
Since its initial creation at a German laboratory in 1975 by Professor and Biologist Norbert Becker, the grape has soared in popularity here in Moravia. Due to the fact that only one of its parent plants is of the Vitis Vinifera species, the wine was initially considered a hybrid. However in 2001, Solaris received recognized status as Vitis Vinifera and thus can be accepted into international wine competitions.
Solaris is a late ripening grape that can have pronounced aromas of peaches, honey, apricots and white flowers. It is a hearty, vigorous varietal that is highly resistant to winter frost, mildew and botrytis. This natural defense against the elements often reduces the amount of pesticides and chemicals needed in the vineyards, allowing for a more natural expression of the grape. The Solaris grape can obtain a high sugar content as it is ripening, lending itself to be made into the luscious, sweet dessert wines of the region.
Although quite tasty as a digestif, there are winemakers experimenting with dry versions of Solaris. I particularly enjoy the dry Solaris from Vinařství Volařík. The wine has a harmonious floral bouquet, bright acidity and citrus fruit on the palate.
Developed in 1944 by Heinrich Birk at the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute, Hibernal was bred by crossing Riesling and Seibel 7053 (Chancellor.)
The parent grape, Seibel 7053, is a hybrid grape varietal, engineered specifically for its resistance to frost. It is one of hundreds of experimental varietals created in 1860 that produced phylloxera resistant grapes. They were created in France by Albert Seibel, a French scientist and grape breeder who spent his career crossing European and American grape varietals. In 1944, when Heinrich Birk engineered the crossing of Seibel with Riesling, it resulted in today’s grape varietal known as Hibernal.
Hibernal received plant variety protection in 1977 and official grape status in 1999, and is presently recognized in international wine competitions. Although it does not contain a full Vitis Vinifera pedigree, it can be considered as such and is able to express various aromatic notes that are characteristic of its parent, Riesling. Additionally, the grape lends itself well to dessert wine, exuding a bouquet of honey, nectarines, mangos and spearmint. The grape can produce wines that are lusciously sweet, plump and juicy, yet also retain a high level of acidity that marry harmoniously with fruity flavors.
Hibernal also is perfect for growing on flat parcels of land. If you think about a typical vineyard plot, there are hilled, terraced and flat areas. Typically, when a grapevine is planted on flat land, it is immediately prone to water damage, frost, mildew and mold. The rain runoff from the hills heads towards the ground below, leaving the vines and roots susceptible to flooding.
This explains the popularity of Hibernal in the Moravian vineyards, as it can easily be planted where other grapes are unable to thrive. The hilly slopes are prime real estate for grapes like Riesling and Pinot Gris, as those grapes are vulnerable to dangerous weather. Thus by planting Hibernal on the vacant flat vineyard plots, its natural resistance to these climatic conditions allows the grape to flourish in an otherwise undesirable area.
I had the pleasure of meeting winemaker, Miroslav Kovács, of Jarmila Winery, who produces excellent Hibernal. I was thrilled to be able to speak in depth with Miroslav. He is a top producer in Moravia who has spent over 20 years in the vineyards. We compared his 2018 Hibernal, bottled just a week ago, to his Hibernal from 2017.
Although both wines had the same residual sugar content (22 g/L) the 2018 was fresh, juicy and bright, while the 2017 showed a profoundly different level of complexity and minerality. He explained that Hibernal takes 1-2 years to reveal its distinctive flavors and aromas, and thus, by aging the wine in the bottle, it gains an entirely different personality.
Hibernal, like Solaris and Aurelius, can also be fermented to a dry white wine, with very little residual sugar. The wine certainly retains a diverse array of aromatics, yet the palate can be quite simple and straightforward, with a somewhat short finish. I much prefer the Hibernal with a touch of residual sugar, between 15-25 grams, as it is more appealing both on the nose and on the palate.
I have to admit, when I first saw André on a wine label, I assumed that it had something to do with the André sparkling wine back home. I had no idea that it was actually a red grape varietal. With no prior knowledge of this grape, I was glad that it finally had a name that I could pronounce. André is a crossing of Blaufränkisch (Frankovka) and Saint-Laurent (Svatovavřinecké), two reputable grape varieties indigenous to Austria.
André was initially created in the 1960s by Jaroslav Horák at the Vine Research Centre in Velké Pavlovice, located in southern Moravia.
The grape’s name was dedicated to Christian Carl André, a leading 19th century French naturalist and scientist. André’s pioneering genetic work led to the groundbreaking discoveries of Brno resident, Gregor Mendel, considered to be “The Father of Modern Genetics.” In addition, André was heavily involved with the Moravian Agricultural Society and developing the Vine and Grape Breeding Institute in Moravia.
The grape can be quite fickle in the vineyards and requires an attentive winemaker to ensure healthy fruit. It is typically a late ripening varietal, yet has a tendency to ripen at different stages on the vine. In order to ensure fully ripe fruit, the winemaker must make several passes through the vineyard to harvest in various stages, thus avoiding any green or phenolic notes in the wine.
André produces red wines that are garnet in color, with a medium body and medium intensity. The bouquet is richly fruited and spicy, with aromas that are reminiscent of blackberry, black cherry and crushed black pepper. The wine can easily be paired with heavier Czech meals, like svíčková and dumplings or duck thigh with spätzle.
The first time I saw a bottle of Blauburger at the neighborhood wine shop, I did not purchase it. I was under the assumption that it was Blauburgunder, also known as Pinot Noir in Germany and Austria. The names are strikingly similar, and I had assumed that, like many other grapes in Moravia, it had simply been assigned an alternative name. As I had plenty of experience tasting Pinot Noir, I was much more interested in trying varietals that were unavailable in the US market. Much to my surprise, I was utterly wrong.
After speaking with local winemakers and closely inspecting the bottles, I came to realize that Blauburger is not Blauburgunder. The former is, in fact, a crossed grape varietal. Blauburger belongs to the Vitis Vinifera species, as its parent plants are Blauer Portugieser and Blaufränkisch. This red grape variety is of Austrian origin, engineered in 1923 by Dr. Fritz Zweigelt at the Federal Institute for Viticulture and Pomology.
The grape has scattered plantings in northern Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. It has a natural inclination to produce wines of intense color, and is often used to enrich lighter red regional blends. A typical Blauburger has low tannins and mild acidity, thus producing a fairly ordinary, table wine. Yet by controlling small yields and maturing the wine in used oak barrels, the wine gains complexity and character. A surprisingly high alcohol content can be common in these wines, thus making it an excellent pairing to burgers, grilled meats or creamy cow’s milk cheeses.
Blauburger has a tendency to ripen early and fairly easily, offering an alternative red grape varietal that can flourish in the Moravian vineyards. In Hungary, it is commonly used in their famous red wine, “Bull’s Blood,” also known as Egri Bikavér.
Although this grape was previously off my radar, it has quickly garnered my attention and I am excited to further explore this wildly unfamiliar grape.