Done Napa, been to Yarra, overdosed on Bordeaux? The Czech Republic might just surprise you with its unique combination of history and rich wine culture.
A couple of years ago, when I raised my glass in a hearty ‘nazdravi!’ to the wonderful time my mum and I were having in our travels through the Czech Republic, it was with some of their excellent dark lager. Little did I know then that the country was working its way from being to the world’s largest consumer of beer per capita to a wine-appreciating nation!
We did drop by a lovely hilltop vineyard near the charismatic old town called Český Krumlov, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its glorious Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture that seems straight out of a children’s fairy tale for a wine tasting. But it never really struck me then how much of a tradition wine production is in Czechia since the 10th century. And that modern-day Moravian winemakers have continued these ancient traditions.
When it comes to vineyards, the Czech Republic is home to many, such as the one I visited in Bohemia, and even ones located directly in Prague or just outside the city, in the towns of Mělník or Litoměřice. However, the region of South Moravia is where you’ll find the most exciting ones. Traditions and folklore are still very much alive and connected with wine production in a beautiful, old-meets-new way in this wine region, where, they say, the wine is almost poetically ‘sweetened by the sun and seasoned by the night’. It’s actually true, as the sunlight adds sweetness, and the acidity comes from the chilly nights. That’s why the local vintners pull wine straight from the cask using a pipette and everything to do with the wine is done inside the cellars, because it needs stable low temperatures for its proper maturation and storage.
Wheel your way down these wonderful wine trails
For the experience-seeking traveller as well as the serious oenophile, the Czech Republic has a number of wine festivals, autumn harvest celebrations, wine cellar walks, and more, that can be enjoyed by hiking or biking through the countryside. The picturesque vineyard landscape, cellars, wine villages, castles, and historic towns such as Mikulov, Znojmo or Lednice are a treat for any traveller. Popular wine cellars like Nad Sklepy and Kutná Hora welcome visitors. If you’re partial to reds, take the Velkopavlovická route, which passes through the undulating landscape of the Modré Mountains. Try Wine cellar Úvaly, Springer Winery, or the Velké Žernoseky Winery. If you like white wine, you must visit Znojmo to see the giant wine cellars that are located there.
The arterial route of the network of Moravian Wine Trails leads you through a picturesque landscape studded with vineyards, from the ancient city of Znojmo to Uherské Hradiště – the main city of the Slovácko (Moravian Slovakia) region – where you will be welcomed by a charming town of wine-cellar lanes as well as historical and natural wonders. The 280 kilometres of Moravian Wine Trails will be not just a journey of discovery in South Moravia, but also a journey during which you will get to know the wine and people of a region where viticulture is both their destiny and their passion. Cycling connoisseurs say that it is one of the most beautiful bike journeys in the entire Czech Republic. Here are some routes you can plan your tasting trip around.
A full-bodied vintage in Věstonice: Start in the village of Dolní Věstonice, close to where the 29,000-year-old Venus of Věstonice, the buxom female figurine that is the oldest known ceramic artifact in the world, was discovered. Ride through historical towns, churches and ornate crosses in picturesque villages. Winding paths will lead you to stunning vistas of vineyard slopes, wine-cellar lanes and also to the natural treasures of the Podyjí National Park and the Pálava Biosphere Reserve. Today, this landscape, its parks and architectural monuments, together make up one of the largest UNESCO-listed sites. Spend the evenings with some refreshing Grüner Veltliner or Cabernet Moravia, a variety developed in the Czech Republic.
Chateau-hopping in Znojmo: This is 150-kilometre route where villages, vineyards, castles and chateaux all tumble into a view as vibrant as a kaleidoscope. Start at the centre of Znojmo with a moment to admire the obelisk with a statue of Nike, the goddess of victory. Then go through the square and orchards, cross the historical iron bridge, pass through the canyon of the Dyje River, and hit the open countryside. The Havranice Heath will remind you of a bicycle training course, but the reward is a downhill coast to a wine-tasting kiosk directly in a vineyard. And the wine appreciation does not end there. Go past Modré sklepy or the ‘blue cellars’ in Nový Šaldorf, where the sandstone cellar walls are covered in a deep blue mould, a sign that you are standing right at the bottom of an ancient Cenozoic Sea! The best location and subsoil belong to the vineyard tract called Kraví hora, known particularly for the distinctive taste and aroma of its Sauvignon. In the next village, Šatov, you can search for the winemaker who has a cellar 900 metres long or the Painted Cellar, whose corridors are decorated with three-dimensional paintings by a one-handed folk artist. After 15 kilometres eastwards in Slup, you will come upon a Renaissance watermill where flour was once ground, wooden beams were once cut, and today, fairy tales are filmed. Ever east, to Jaroslavice, where you will find a grand chateau with Renaissance arcades that is still searching for a buyer. If only you could…
Blue mountains and golden wine in Mikulov: In the village of Nový Přerov you can park your bike and put some wheels on your feet. And you certainly would not be alone. This newly built segment with a smooth asphalt surface set in beautiful wine country has become a renowned route for small wheels. A few kilometres away, you’re already in Mikulov, a town ennobled by the Renaissance and Baroque periods and graced by history and wine. Just as the good old days are gone forever, the plains of the Znojmo region disappear suddenly and the trail leads you below the crest of the Pálava Hills’ limestone massif to the legendary winemaking village of Pavlov. In the shade of the local wineries’ Baroque gables, you can enjoy a well-deserved rest. The winemakers here keep their cellars open throughout the season, so you never have to leave without a bottle of the golden, honeyed Pálava or the very best Welschriesling (Ryzlink vlašský) that the local limestone soil can produce. And then onward to Modré hory or the ‘blue mountains’.
Muse on the Muscat from a monastery: The dominant feature of the Brno skyline is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, built atop one of the highest hills in the city. On the facing hill, which was planted with vineyards in the Middle Ages, stands a mighty competitor: the massive, fortified Špilberk Castle. You won’t see them at first glance, but definitely worth discovering are Brno’s wine cellars. Historians say that Brno is the only city where every cellar is somehow connected with wine. In the past, wine was produced, stored, archived, or traded in them. It’s a fitting start to your journey along the wine trail. On the way south along the Svratka River, you can visit one of the largest monasteries in Moravia – Rajhrad. And you should not miss the famous site of the Battle of the Three Emperors near Slavkov (Austerlitz), in which Napoleon Bonaparte was victorious. Awaiting wine lovers in this region are some hills with the ideal conditions for growing grapes. On the highest of them, with steep southern slopes, lucrative vineyards were owned by the nobility and the Church as far back as the Middle Ages. Wine from here was transported to the tables of their palaces in Brno and Slavkov and to the Rajhrad Monastery. Monastic winemaking flourished here for centuries. In the second half of the 17th century, local monks operated a truly large-scale wine trade – they provided wine to all the Benedictine monasteries in the Czech lands. In the monastery cellars you can still taste aromatic wines such as Irsai Oliver, Moravian Muscat (Muškát moravský), Pálava, Gewürztraminer (Tramín červený), Müller-Thurgau and Pinot Gris (Rulandské šedé).
More than wine
Not just day drinking and wine tastings, the Czech countryside offers a host of fun festivals that a visitor can participate in. Here’s what to expect in the next few months…
July: Apricot Week in Klentnice marks the ripening of the fruits. Enjoy some apricot dumplings and sweet buns, excellent liqueurs, chocolates and even apricot beer!
August: Every year in early August, Znojmo is awash with cucumbers in every imaginable form. The Cucumber Festival here offers cucumber tastings and a special cucumber menu in the town square and at surrounding restaurants. This local specialty is also a time-tested hangover cure!
September: The Pálava Vintage Festival in Mikulov launches the most wonderful part of vineyard work – picking the grapes, pressing them and producing the lightly fermented grape juice known as burčák. Together with the winemakers, you can rejoice in another rich harvest and enjoy the largest wine celebration in South Moravia. The Znojmo Historical Vintage Festival is a celebration with wine and dancing as a procession of burghers marks the historical arrival of King John of Luxembourg. This epic costume parade takes wine-tasting and culture to every corner of the city.
So much to savour that you might just want to keep going back for more! And instead of beer, I know for sure that the next time I’m in Prague, eating my favourite Svickova (honey cakes and braised beef in a creamy sauce, topped with cranberry confit), I’ll pair it with a punchy Czech red.