No Country for Red Wine
My husband and I met in the Italian wine aisle of my former job at Seaboard Wine. At that time, he drank exclusively red wines from this region, setting the bar rather high for himself as Brunellos and Aglianicos were his everyday swill. He had his comfort zone. His preference for robust, powerful, tannic reds was endearing, yet I knew I could break him, to show him that there could be space in his life both for me and for white wine.
Shortly into the start of our relationship, I brought him over a bottle of Jurançon sec from Clos Guirouilh, a vineyard located in southwest France at the steps of the Pyrenées. This white wine is a blend of Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng, two grapes indigenous to Jurançon and are practically unknown outside of this small region. They produce highly aromatic, concentrated wines, with an elevated alcohol content and high acidity. This particular bottle had aromas of ripe apples at fall harvest. The palate was unctuous and round, finishing with bright acidity and a deeply driven mineral core. My plan worked. Jim realized that he had been missing out, that all white wine wasn’t necessarily the fruity, cloyingly sweet, insipid white wines of his past. Week after week, I brought white wine after white wine, of varying regions and grapes, to expose him to this delightful new world. Little did we know that this was all in preparation of our move to the Czech Republic.
Fast forward to a few weeks before leaving Raleigh in 2018, my husband’s colleague from Brno was in town. We had invited him over for dinner, where we relished in an ‘All Nebbiolo Night.’ We opened three different bottles, comparing their nuances side by side, indulging in the floral, red fruited aromatics and rich tannins. Nebbiolo is our preferred red wine grape varietal, offering a bouquet of wild forest fruit, leather and rose, and a complex palate of tannin, acidity and concentrated fruit. After serving another round of Vietti Nebbiolo, his colleague offered us one piece of advice: “I hope you guys like white wine too, because that is all you will get in Brno.” I chuckled and glanced at my husband, whose jovial expression quickly faded to dismay.
To be honest, the average American wine drinker can identify three typical white wine grapes: Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. Those are what I would consider ‘wedding wines,’ the wines featured at most events, dinners or celebrations. To no fault of their own, it is simply a product of convenience and their popularity has soared. Amongst those particular grapes, there are some wines that fall into the category of ‘bulk wine,’ commercial wineries that harvest their fruit, ferment in massive tanks and quickly bottle, with their main intent on large yields, high production and bottling efficiency. They can lack depth of complexity, character and nuances found in higher quality wine. I hesitate to use the word ‘cheap,’ as these wines at times cost as much as a Portuguese or Spanish bottle of white wine of superior quality. Cheap does not designate quality and can oftentimes be a poor guiding light for the average wine buyer.
In the same way that this marketing scheme is promoted in any modern day franchise, the bulk wine market has shifted their methods to maintain this ideal of consistency and familiarity. The majority of the time and energy put into these wine companies is in marketing, expanding their sales regions and advertising. Unfortunately, this bulk wine market has led many average wine consumers in the United States to believe that all white wines fall into this category.
For example, I would have customers back in the US who absolutely refused to even sample a white wine during our free wine tastings on the preconceived notion of it being “too sweet.” A free sample! Denied! My urging and pleading with the customer, explaining the vinification process and qualities of the wine fell on deaf ears. All due to these misconceptions and unfortunate bad past experiences. Yet here, in Brno, in the heart of South Moravia, white wine has found its home in the sprawling 19,000 hectares of land under vine. I have seen both men and women, without hesitation, enjoying their sips of Riesling and Pinot Gris.
Located on roughly the same latitude as Alsace, France, the weather in Moravia has long, fairly cold winters and short, dry summers. The varied terrain and climate allow for specific white grape varietals to flourish, such as Grüner Veltliner, Müller Thurgau, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. The grapes found in the Moravian region were not planted by accident. They benefit from the terroir : mixed clay, loess and sandy soils, soft rolling hills and a continental climate. The wines express a wide ranging aromatic character, fresh vibrancy, and unobtrusive acidity. Rarely are any vegetal notes detected in the fine wines, as most vintners leave a longer hang time for the grapes, resulting in higher sugar content and more developed flavors. The white wines are easy to drink and fairly light in alcohol, resulting in my previous posts of white wine before 11 AM. They are textured, round, silky and lend themselves toward a medium bodied style. Oak influences are there to stabilize the wines and provide structure. Those winemakers who do use oak, use it judiciously, leaving the fruity, vibrant aromas to be more pronounced.
One grape varietal in particular that has caught my attention here in Brno is Ryzlink Vlašský, also known as Welschriesling. I may have tried this grape in the past, however any specific experience of this highly unusual grape escapes even my foggiest memories. However most vinotékas and restaurants here offer Ryzlink Vlašský and the styles can vary greatly.
This grape is mostly known in central and eastern Europe, as very little is planted in the US, France, Australia and other major wine regions. It has gained quite a following in the Czech Republic, and is considered by some wine experts here to be their national grape.
It has absolutely no relation to Rhine Riesling (pictured above), despite its name, and offers a slightly different experience in aromatics and color. Similar to Rhine Riesling, Welschriesling is also a late ripening grape. This means that, during its lifespan, the grape can yield a high sugar content. The end result can be anything from a dry aromatic white or a late harvest dessert wine. Vlašský, meaning walnut, definitely displays this nutty characteristic. Other aromatics include stone fruit, nectarines, citrus and green apple. Yet after a small dose of oak aging, the wine becomes much more majestic, enhancing that nutty, walnut tone with a highly concentrated texture, reminiscent of Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley.
The result of this plethora of white wine in the Moravian region is, of course, the lack of deeply tannic, robust red wines. There is a small percentage of red varietals planted, including Pinot Noir (Rulandské Modre), Frankovka (Blaufränkisch), Dornfelder, Modrý Portugal (Blauer Portugieser) and Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines tend to be quite light in terms of texture, tannin and body, as the level of sunshine required to fully ripen the fruit are few and far between. Further, some vintners seem to have mastered the fermentation and aging of these grapes, but are challenged by the climate. In my brief experience tasting through red wines here in Brno, unless the vintner has a deft hand in red wine making, they can be almost clunky, disjointed or flabby.
In a country where white wine, generally on the slightly sweet side, remains the most popular wine option, it is no mystery as to why the red wines have taken a backseat. Although the red wines show lovely bright acidity, they definitely leave us pining for the tannin and power of our beloved, warm climate red wines. We are adjusting our palates to the world of Moravian white wine, yet the moment we see a full bodied red on a menu, we have no hesitation in ordering a glass.