Will the harvest be good this year? Only Mother Nature knows

Wine lovers in the Czech Republic take heart! For the fourth year in a row, Moravian wine growers are looking forward to a fine harvest – if the warm weather holds out; if rain or, God forbid, hail doesn’t hit; and if the sparrows don’t find the grapes.

But this is par for the course for winemakers in the heart of Europe.

“Moravia used to be rather inconsistent in terms of ripening,” says Radomil Baloun, the founder of the Vinařství Baloun in Velké Pavlovice. “You’d have two good years and then a poor one, due to cold weather or rain. The grapes would start to rot or wouldn’t even begin to ripen.”

The last four years, however, have been excellent, he says, allowing wine growers to leave grapes on the vine until they reach optimal sugar levels. Red wines have fared especially well.

“Hot summers are good for red wines,” Baloun says. “I have found that Merlot especially fares well in our climate. Every year it attains high sugar levels. Our classic varieties, Frankovka and Vavřinec, don’t achieve such high sugar contents as Merlot or Portugal or Dornfelder, which makes beautiful, powerful red wines. We have quite a lot of that.”

Baloun, who learned to make wine from his grandfather, started producing wine for the market in 1991. His company now tends some 120 hectares of vineyards in the region of Velké Pavlovice and Pálava, near Mikulov.

His historic wine cellar in Velké Pavlovice, built by Empress Marie Theresa in 1750, holds some 150,000 bottles of wine, plus more aging in classic barriques (barrels). His red, white, and rosé wines regularly win prizes both in Czech and foreign competitions, such as the Czech Salon Vín, the European Vinoforum, and the Vinalies Internationalis in Paris.

The company has a branch in Prague’s Nusle, but Baloun claims he does not want to force his custom on anyone. His sales philosophy stands on something else.

“You need to train your taste buds,” he says. “Then you can even drink low-quality wine, for a few months, but suddenly something says: ‘Enough!’ You can get used to poor wine, but your taste buds will nonetheless go on craving a pleasant taste. Good wine is addictive.”

Jakub Šamšula, the sommelier for the Templářské Sklepy winery in Čejkovice, agrees that the last ten years, with the exception of 2001 and 1998, have been very good for Moravian wine growers. He says, noncommittally, that 2008 could be a good year.

“You can’t tell until the grapes are under the roof. The weather is all-powerful. No matter how beautiful the grapes are, if September brings rain, or, God forbid, hail, we can lose them,” he says. “If August is warm and the forecasts of rain prove wrong, then we can start the harvest in September – that month decides. If we have a nice Indian summer, we usually can expect some interesting wines.”

The warm autumns of the past decade have been good to wine growers. But the warm weather also has its downsides. One is disease. Spores, parasites, and microbes, which generally die when the thermometer hits twenty degrees below zero Celsius, have been surviving the warm winters.

This year oidium, a fungus that causes a powdery mildew on the grapes, has been sweeping Moravian vineyards. Originating in North America, it infects leaves and young berries, and can cause large damage if untreated.

“Our wine producers have confirmed that it’s rampant this year,” Šamšula said. “Oidium is a living organism that needs certain levels of humidity and warm weather to grow. The last two non-existent winters have contributed to its spread, although I would not say that it has reached epidemic proportions.”

Oidium can be treated with sulphur or organic sprays, climate change cannot. The recent warm winters have had a disastrous effect on another Moravian specialty: ice wine.

“The southern producers just don’t have the ability to produce ice wine – it’s our specialty,” Šamšula says. “These wines were good enough to export to Germany and Austria, and made us interesting on the international wine market. But the quantity produced has dropped drastically.”

Usually the harvest for ice wine is late in December, following a frost of at least minus seven degrees Celsius, when grapes that have been left on the vine specifically for the purpose still have some juice left in them. This year, however, the first frost came in January,which lowered the amount of juice in the grapes.

“Ice wine is always a gamble,” Šamšula said. “This is why most wine makers have started making straw wine, which is not so dependent on the weather.”

The production of straw wine, wherein grapes are left to dry on mats of straw, dates back to Roman times. The resulting wine is heavy and sweet, and ages well.

The Templářské Sklepy winery has been making wine since the order of the Knights Templar first settled in Moravia in the 13th century. It is famous for their Modrý Portugal – Šamšula claims that the 2006 vintage was especially successful – and for their ice and straw wines. Recently, they have added the Saint Croix and Sang Real sparkling wines to their repertoire.

wine in cellar
Jan Horešovský and Klára Kollárová
The fame of Moravian wine has spread far and wide,
but many people don’t realize that Prague lies at the center
of a tiny wine region with a big wine-making tradition.
Some of the 750 hectares of vineyards date back to the
14th century and the reign of The Good King Charles IV.
In fact, a few which he founded still thrive in the center
of the city today.The Prague vineyards are the northern-most winegrowing
region in Europe. The climate is good for crisp,
fresh white wines, but also, surprisingly for excellent
Pinot Noir grapes.Due to their higher acidity, wines from the Prague
region are also good for aging in bottles. With luck, and
global warming, this region has great potential for both
red and white wines.The second, much bigger wine region is in Moravia.
Situated in the south of the country, along the border with
Slovakia and Austria, it covers more than 18,500 hectares
and encompasses a great variety of wines, depending on
the location and type of soil.

Red wines from the region around Velké Pavlovice can
age quite well. The rule of thumb is: drink Modrý Portugal
now and save good André or Svatý Vavřinec for later.
You should drink Moravian white wines within a year
or two, due to their crisp and lively character so welcome
on hot summer days. Still, premium white wines can
age nicely thanks to their higher acidity. Enjoy a nice
Sauvignon Blanc or Grüner Veltliner young and wait for
the Riesling or the domestic variety Vlašský Ryzlink or
Pinots to come to term.

The regional specialties, sweet wines, straw wines,
and ice wines, are also worth waiting for.

The authors organize tastings and seminars on Moravian and Bohemian wines in
English, French, and Czech in their wine cellar “Lustermann” on Míšeňská Street near
Prague’s Charles Bridge.

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