Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Wine country

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
25 October 2013

Much like going to the forest on a sunny autumn weekend to gather mushrooms, paying a visit to the vineyards of southern Moravian each autumn is a rite of passage; Czech wine-making tradition at its finest. Admittedly the Czech Republic is not an international exporter of truly excellent wines, but nonetheless, Czech wine-making tradition is still held in high-esteem within the country. For the most part, Czech wineries are family operations with vineyards and wine-making techniques passed down through generations. The modern comedy Bobule (2008) highlights the do-it-yourself tradition of Moravian wine making. Most of the wine produced in the Czech Republic doesn't leave the country, and I'm willing to bet that most of it doesn't even make it out of Moravia.

The side streets of Moravian villages showcase row after row of personal wine cellars. These are typically stone buildings tucked into a hillside. The large, wooden doors are opened wide on the weekends, and it's common to stop by a friend's wine cellar for a taste of a new variety or a personal favorite. Small benches are set outside the cellars so that bikers or hikers can pop in for a quick sampling and larger cellars have covered outdoor seating and open fire pits for prolonged visits. Still, tourism in the region is mostly local, with visitors often coming from other parts of the country to enjoy particular regional celebrations, like the burčák (young partially fermented wine) harvested in early September or the festival of St. Martin's Day (November 9) where roast goose and a glass of St. Martin's wine (a strictly regulated wine made from certain varieties of Czech grapes) are prerequisites.

Although in recent years, Czech wine makers have brought home gold and silver medals in international competitions, as a long-time resident of the Czech Republic and an avid wine-taster, I can't say that I've ever had a truly excellent Czech wine. I prefer fuller-bodied whites and reds to the lighter, often sour taste of local Czech wines. But, if given the chance to take a weekend getaway to Czech wine country, I'll gladly say yes. Experiencing local traditions while sampling regional wines has made me at once more conscious of the kind of wine that I do like to taste, as well as the atmosphere necessary for me to enjoy the experience.

As Radek and I made plans for celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary this recent September, I suggested a biking trip to Moravian wine country. Although we enjoy traveling around the Czech Republic, I realized that the wine country was one region Radek and I had never experienced on our own. We've taken many trips to the famous wine-making villages of Valtice, Lednice and Mikulov over the years, including a recent weekend visit with my mother and aunt this past spring. We’d been biking there with Anna Lee when she was still small enough to ride on the back of Radek's bike. For his 40th birthday, Radek was given a sommelier's course at the Wine Academy of Valtice, the country's oldest wine school. Still, we'd never gone as a couple.

Since the Czech wine region is rather compact, we took our bikes so that we could enjoy riding on the neighboring wooded paths and between the villages on narrow roads with vineyards on both sides. The region is much flatter than northern Bohemia, where we do most of our biking. Thus, we ambitiously planned to bike as many as 70 kilometers on the first day. Although Moravia is reputed to be both warmer and sunnier than other parts of the Czech Republic, we awakened Saturday morning to a dreary drizzle. Determined to make the most of the weekend without children and to earn our right to indulge – with wine and a nice dinner – we opted to bike, despite the rain.

Shortly into our loop, we found ourselves riding head on against a kolo pro život (bike for life) bike race. As we waited on edge of the path, hundreds of wet, muddy bikers pedaled past us, which made ducking into a wine cellar look all the more tempting. But, we persevered. In order to avoid the muddier, wooded paths, we rode along the Czech/Austrian border. Although Radek was familiar with trail, I was seeing it for the first time. He pointed out the billboard-sized signs along the path that retold stories of Czechs who'd attempted to escape the Communist regime.

There was one man who'd flown a glider over the border, with his young son strapped to his back while his wife and older son escaped to the West at the same time by train through a neighboring Communist country. Then, there were the four teenagers who'd tunneled a hole into Austria. Their picture was captured in a local Austrian paper. There were also the unsuccessful cases, such as the two men who'd been shot by the Communist police while boating on a nearby lake. They had been out fishing or were perhaps trying to escape; their story remains unresolved and their bodies only found years after their deaths.

We stopped every kilometer or so, at each new sign, so that I could read it. I noticed other bikers passing us by. There were grandmothers biking together, families with young children interspersed with more serious-bikers, like the ones we'd encountered in the race. I didn't notice anyone else stopping, but then again I didn't see anyone else who looked as much like tourists as we did.

We finally finished our ride, showered and headed back to Valtice, just as the bike race was finishing. In addition to the seasonal burčák offering, the local vendors were celebrating a weekend of dýnobraní (pumkin harvest) with pumpkin specialties, regional music and pumpkin-themed games and festivities. Although the mood was lively, after sampling a glass of white burčák, we purchased a bottle of local wine for later and headed on to dinner.

The Moravian region is a well-known destination for Czechs, yet upon finishing dinner, Radek and I were surprised to discover no signs of a vibrant cultural, evening life. As we walked through the quiet streets of Lednice near our hotel, we stumbled on to a hand-lettered sign not far from the town square that pointed to a "wine cellar" to the left. We ducked into the stone cellar and found a young man washing out wine glasses. When we asked him if we could buy a glass of wine, he directed us to the back of the cellar and down a flight of stairs where an older gentleman was conducting a wine-tasting for four enthusiastic and slightly tipsy Czechs.
The older man poured more than an ample tasting into our glasses, grinned, and began to tell us about each wine. His passion was fierce, and although none of the wines we tasted really struck my fancy, I couldn't help being captivated by his enthusiasm. He explained that the young man washing the glasses had partnered with another 20 year-old friend to make the wines we were sampling. They were in the first year of operation but the older gentlemen felt sure they were on the verge of entering the Czech wine market on a larger scale.

Later in the evening, the wine maker stopped by our table to chat with us. He asked us which wine we'd liked best and he shared a bit of his frustration with the challenges of getting enough customers into his wine cellar to make the money needed to keep going, especially on weeks when there wasn't a regional festival to draw crowds. His wine wasn't the best I'd ever tasted, but I wish for him lots of future success. Although I doubt I'll ever choose a Czech wine when I want to taste fine wine, I can't think of a better way to celebrate ten years of marriage to a Czech, than to experience a romantic, getaway weekend in Czech wine country.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.