The Joys of Czech Wine

Finding quality at the local vinoteka

When I first came to Prague over ten years ago, I came to know it as city of the best beer. No beer lover would dispute the supremacy of a frothy mug of Czech brew. But whenever a Czech friend poured me wine and told me how wonderful the Moravian wines were, I merely smiled politely. This is probably because at the time we were still drinking wine purchased at 30kc a bottle, poorly presented with labels reminiscent of communist marketing.

Over the years, I’ve had to trim off of the beer, as I look out for my waist line. In the process I’ve become more and more interested in wine. My friend, Pavel Kříž, a Czech actor, born in Moravia, is a wine fanatic. It was he who tried to convince me that drinking white wine actually burns calories rather than adding them. Pavel has taught me an appreciation for the Moravian wines. We have visited his friend Otto who has a small family-run winery in Dolní Kounice. With no colorings or preservatives added, Otto’s wines are organic and sumptuous, especially his Frankovka. In fact, the Otův Sklep label is so good that some French vintners tried to buy him out when the Czech Republic entered the EU.

I’ve learned to love drinking wine from the cask, or sudová vína, poured into recycled Dobra Voda bottles. I pick it up at my local vinárna, on a cobblestoned back street in Holešovice. Vino Oko, right across from Kino Oko, is a very simple place. You can do two things there. You can buy wine from the cask, or you can sit there and drink wine from a carafe. They also have a selection of bottled, mostly Czech wines in the back room. One of my favorite things to do is to sit drinking a carafe of Riesling or Cuvee, while shooting the breeze with friends and/or Tomáš, the manager who I have befriended. The casked wine at Vino Oko comes from Rakvice, in the famed Mikulov region of Moravia.

Gradually I’ve learned more about wine by reading wine magazines, attending wine tastings and conducting a massive self study program-- I drink wine at every opportunity. Recently I took an intensive wine tasting course at the London Wine Academy. The class was an arduous and trying process. For six sessions, I was subjected to tasting (some would call it drinking) six different wines, under the guidance of wine expert Nick Dumergue. We learned to evaluate each wine according to appearance, nose, palate, and overall quality.

And what did I learn? Well, when I came back to Prague, after surviving the London bombings and 36 new kinds of wine, I popped back into my dear little Vino Oko and low and behold… Czech wine tastes good! There’s no place like home, Dorothy.

Did I really have to go all the way to London to take a professionally guided wine course to learn that? Well I suppose the difference is that now I feel vaguely qualified to make the judgment. The first wine that I re-tasted at Vino Oko was the Riesling (in Czech Ryzlink.) If our neighboring Germans and Austrians can be acclaimed for their Riesling grapes, why can’t the Czech Reislings be recognized? Bohemia and Moravia have the perfect cool climate to grow a crisp, citrusy Riesling grape.

So I put Tomáš’s Riesling through the tests that I learned in my class. I swirled it around in the glass, to release the smell, stuck my nose to the glass and sniffed out a floral perfume. I then took a quick sip, followed by a slow sip accompanied by a slow whistling intake of air to let the flavors and aromas dance in my mouth. I followed by swishing it around like mouthwash. Tomas at this point looked at me strangely.

What I got from this rigorous process-- a razor sharp acidity, just like a Riesling should possess, light and dry but with enough fruit to balance out the crisp acidity. A young wine, perfect to serve with fish or salad or any light meal.

When Pavel and his wife Bonnie came over for dinner, I prepared the Dobrá Voda bottles of Riesling. My Scottish boyfriend said, “you can’t serve wine from plastic bottles.”

“Watch me,” I said.

In addition to Riesling, Veltínské Zelené, which is a light aromatic grape, is also native to Moravia. According to sommelier Max Munson, it easily competes in quality to its world renowned Austrian counterpart, know as Gruner Veltliner.

Czech wine fans will tell you that you can get a decent white in the Czech lands since the climate suits white grapes, but you can seldom find someone who will stand up for the reds. Although this is accepted as common knowledge, it is not necessarily true. There are some very fine reds as well, and why not? Moravia is latitudinally only a few miles north of France’s great Burgundy wine region, and no one would argue that Burgundy doesn’t make great red wine.

My favorite red at Vino Oko is Cuvee, which is a mix of cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir grape. And speaking of Pinot Noir, it’s called Rulandské Modré in Czech and I tasted a darned good one from Mělník. The Barrique 2000 is superb. You don’t have to go to Napa or Oregon anymore.

But where does Czech wine fit into the wine cannon? In my class we studied both Old World and New World wines. New World wines such as from Australia, South Africa, Chile, or America, have gained notoriety and have in some cases surpassed the Old World market. Old World means French. Old World could also include of course Germany, Spain, Italy and sometimes Austria gets on the list. But what about the vast and developing Eastern European varieties? Hungary is the only country that sometimes gets mentioned, but we all know that Yugoslavia is producing some great wines, as well.

As the Czech Republic continues to enter the EU and Czech vintners push their wines on the world market, hopefully its status as a wine producer will be elevated and accepted on the same level as its neighbors. In the meantime, enjoy the wine at still very reasonable prices, and by all means stop by at your local vinárna if you haven’t already.

"All of the wines we have tried of the Monarch label -- both red & white -- at the Monarch wine bar have been outstanding and, while not cheap, reasonbly priced. Visit their wine bar and enjoy great service, perfectly ripened cheeses and Moravian smoked meats with your glass."
Kelly McCall Branson
June 14th, 2007
"Lovely article! There are still many bad Czech wines, but the good ones don't get anything like the recognition they deserve. Try wines made by Dobra Vinice (white) and Springer, as well as Stapleton-Springer (red). The red blend "Skale" by Springer is the best Czech red wine (sadly only available in restaurants)."
April 11th, 2008

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