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Tending the grapes

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In the middle ages, the penalty for stealing grapes from a vineyard was hanging. The penalty for killing a vineyard thief was two small coins to be left on the corpse. This is not to imply that the members of the St Wenceslas Wine Co-operative (Vinařské družstvo svatý Václav) would be capable of hanging anyone – even a vineyard thief – but in view of the amount of work they’ve put into their vineyard, they could hardly be blamed for considering it.

Thirteen years ago, this handful of wine-lovers set about restoring the 800-year-old Máchalka vineyard that had once belonged to the Prosek monastery in Prague 9. They convinced Prosek Town Hall to lease them an overgrown apricot orchard next to the bobsleigh track. In their spare time, they chopped down the old trees and unearthed and burned the stumps. Then they ploughed the land and covered the steep hillside with 20 tonnes of manure. “That thinned the ranks,” says founding member Oldřich Pokorný,58. “We started out with 17 members, but that number quickly shrank when they realised this wasn’t just about drinking wine and they’d actually have to work.”

In November 1997, the eight remaining enthusiasts started planting. “We would push the vines along in a wheelbarrow. Each one got a shovelful of soil, half a bucket of water and a good stomping,” says 61-year-old Pavel Slouka. “It was cold, and it was wet. I don’t know how we would have done it if Olda [Pokorný] hadn’t kept up passing around cups of ‘liquid fire’,” adds his wife Hana. They planted 7,000 heads that year, and they have since expanded. Today, some 10,000 vines are deployed in disciplined rows on the hillside.

The first harvest was in 2000, and Máchalka’s Rulandské bílé (Pinot Blanc) won the gold medal in the Virgin Harvest category at the 2001 Wine Show in Most. Today, with several more medals under its belt, the 1.9 hectare (4.7 acre) vineyard produces eight grape varieties and has an output of around 10 tonnes annually. The co-op has 17 core members and 20 tenants who lease the vines for eight crowns per head. “Plus their labour, of course,” adds Helena Sochorová. The 70-year-old retired nurse is the co-op chair, PR woman and disciplinary committee all in one. She is quick to point out that anyone – member or tenant – not willing to pull their weight in the vineyard will be asked to leave. And there’s work aplenty: from pruning in the autumn to culling the leaves just enough so that air circulates through the vine, but the grapes stay nourished and shaded from the summer sun. (See sidebar)

Clearly, this is not work for the uninitiated so Máchalka conducts mandatory workshops on vineyard maintenance under the guidance of Marta Hubáčková, the former head of Karlštejn Wine Research Centre (Výzkumná stanice vinařská, Karlštejn). Everyone also takes turns mowing the grass between the rows and spraying the area with fungicides, which are a fact of life this far north.

Their reward comes in late September at a merry festival where many gallons of that year’s burčák (fermented grape juice) are downed. In October, it’s back to work: all hands and their families take part in the harvest. Members and tenants can take home a third of the grapes they grow in the form of wine. The rest, also in liquid form, is sold in the gazebo at the top of the hill. The co-operative has its wine prepared by expert vintners – and finding a good one is in itself an art. “One made good wine, but his facilities weren’t up to snuff. For us, if a batch of wine goes bad, it hurts,” Pokorný says. “Another one just dumped our grapes into a vat with grapes from other vineyards. The wine was good; it just wasn’t ours.”

Alena Malcová, a board member of the Czech Winemakers’ Guild (Cech českých vinařů) sold Máchalka wines in her wine shop at the Troja chateau in Prague. “It was quite popular with foreigners. They were surprised that grapes could thrive in Prague and even more shocked that the wine from those grapes could be so good,” she said.

According to Pokorný, the superior quality is due to the high sugar content of the grapes. “In 2007, our Rulandské bílé reached 24 points,” he says, referring to the percentage of sugar per 100 millilitres of liquid. “That’s something Moravians can only dream of.” He attributes the quality to Máchalka’s location on a sun-washed, south-facing slope just below the massive wall of Prosek tenements, which shield it from the chilly north winds.

Malcová adds that Máchalka’s wines are good because the co-operative insists on traditional technologies. “There’s no chilling to stop fermentation or adding foreign yeast the way the big, modern wineries do it,” she says. “These wines are fermented in vats and aged in barrels. That’s why, when you drink a Riesling from the Máchalka, you know it’s a Riesling from the Máchalka.”


A vineyard through the seasons

December to February
Nothing happens. The vineyard is dormant.

Spring pruning starts.

As the temperature hits 10C, sap rises and the vines begin to ‘weep’. They are pooling energy for bud-break, when the sleeping buds burst open and eager green shoots emerge. Now the plant is most vulnerable to frost, and the vintner spends chilly nights tending braziers to keep the tender shoots warm.

Tiny flowers bloom on the vine. It’s time to fertilise them and train the shoots on the trellis.

Work’s in full swing. New shoots must be pinched off and the leaves thinned. Some grape clusters are lopped off so the vine sends more sugar to the rest. Plus there’s weeding, mowing and spraying to be done.

It’s high pressure time: workers must guard against fluctuating sugar content, the dicey autumn weather and vineyard thieves of all kinds. In Moravia, vintners take turns watching the crop, and air cannons boom day and night to scare off the sparrows.

A white cross is erected: now no one can enter the vineyard until the vintner gives the nod for harvesting to begin. The cherished grapes are picked by hand, of course.

The vintner prunes the vines, a crucial task requiring great skill. Clumsy pruning can ruin the next harvest. Then the vineyard is put to sleep.

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