Having left Paris in the early autumn, we embarked on a bucolic tour of Eastern Europe, where we planned to crisscross the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria on board of our faithful camper van, the “house-mobile-office” of the Wine Explorers.
After a journey of 1,280 kilometers over two days, we arrived in Moravia, the main Czech wine-growing region (18,500 hectares and 96% of the country’s production(1)), named after the Morava River, a tributary of the left bank of the Danube watering the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria.
We were awaited by three estates with profiles as atypical as friendly.
Located at the same latitude as the south of Germany (50th parallel north), the Czech vineyards are among the northernmost vineyards. The summers are warm and dry, the winters long and cold, offering wines with very varied profiles.
But before sharing the magnificent discoveries that we made, it is important to refer back to three key dates in Czech history, in order to better understand the wine history of the country. Although the viticulture dates back to the 2nd century (under the Roman era), it was at the beginning of the 20th century that it reached its peak.
1948 : The appearance of the post-war communist movement. Radical changes were taking place in the country, the vineyards were under the exclusive control of the State, giving priority to yield and productivity, and regarding culture and heritage – great thinkers and talents were excluded from power or imprisoned ;
1990 : The end of state cooperatives, the opening of borders and the beginning of private investments, giving access to new technologies and an increase in the quality of Czech wines ;
2004 : The entry of the Czech Republic into the EU, with a wine legislation in line with European standards, but also the cessation of the extension of its production areas of 19,200 hectares planted(2) (0.2% of the world’s vineyards).
Welcome to the south of the Czech Republic, 25 kilometers from the Slovakian border, to one of the prettiest estates of the country. Sonberk, with its 45 hectares of vines majestically plunging on Lake Thaya, is the first Czech estate to have established its winery in 2003 in the middle of the vineyard.
An initiative unthinkable a few years back, when all the vineyards were under state control.
Mainly planted with Riesling (13,5ha), Chardonnay, Pálava and Moravian Muscat on loess and limestone soils, Sonberk has literally amazed us by the quality of its white wines. Admiring the sunset from the terrace, we enjoyed their Riesling wines, fresh and very precise.
A success for this new vineyard with a production of 150,000 bottles, who has made the choice to hand harvest and operate their winery by gravity. The 30-year-old vineyard, with a distance of 3 meters between the rows (a requirement of the old communist system to let the agricultural machines pass) were replanted to 1.9 meters and cut into single guyot with 7 to 8 branches.
Here and there, a few hives dress the landscape. Fruit trees are legion. Pumpkins grow by tens. Sonberk is a proud example of the Czech wine revival.
On the way to our next destination, on the other side of the lake, we admired the beauty of Moravia and its many castles, enthroned on the tops of the surrounding hills.
Having arrived in Pavlov, we faced Reisten, a 30-hectares winery planted in 1999 (3), at the foot of the ruins of the castle of Divci Hrady, a 13th century building erected on the highest point of the region, 438 meters above sea level.
Here, the calcareous soils, very rich in calcium, oblige the root system of the vines to establish itself in the rock, and seem to give a particular characteristic to the white wines. This famous flavor of “rifle stone”, whose existence has never been proven from a scientific point of view, was undeniably present in each of the wines we tasted.
This was the end of the harvest for the day. After a morning of filming with the workers, we took a walk along the steep paths that lead to the ruins of the castle. The wind literally nailed me to the wall. It blows like that for more than 300 days a year.
After a delicious (and very copious) local lunch, based on soup with meatballs and a stew of doe in sauce, we began our visit of the Stapleton & Springer estate, only 30km from Austria.
Here we met with Jaroslav Springer, an emblematic figure of Czech Pinot Noir. His family has been making wine for 300 years. When he was 6, during a winter where he was forced to do some work in the vineyard, it was so cold that his fingertips almost froze. That day he swore never to make wine. Then again… you can always change your mind.
A Burgundy lover, he swears only by Pinot Noir, a grape variety long perceived as “bourgeoise” in the country during communism. His three sons work with him on the 23 hectares of vines.
He is a passionate and hard worker, who converted his vineyard organically since 2007. Do not talk to him about filtration, he hates it. And the man has his ideas: “I think exporting wines is stupid. In an ideal world, everybody should sell their production only 200 km around its winery”.
It is a point of view and I respect it. Ending the visit, Jaroslav decided to take a goose in the enclosure that adjoins the vineyard for the evening meal. After a few minutes’ stalking, he ended up catching the beast and bleeding it on the spot in the grass. Back in the winery, and to recover from this quite stressful moment, Jaroslav took his electric guitar and started a piece of Iron Maiden. The Pinot Noir had a rock’n roll look.
Unlike most wine roads in the world, the Moravian wine route is an extensive network of bike paths and trails, winding through vineyards between villages and other scenic spots over more than 1,200 kilometers. An invitation to travel, and probably the best way to take the time to admire the beauty of the Czech Republic, is by walking from cellar to cellar.
A notice to fans, it may be that you have found your next travel destination.
Thanks to Sonberk, Reisten and Stapleton & Springer estates for their warm welcome.
(1) The second region of production is Bohemia, to the west, with 730 hectares.
(2) Wine of Czech Republic, 2016
(3) The 1st vintage of Domaine Reisten is from 2012