Beyond the Mental Iron Curtain
On the frontiers of Moravian & Bohemian natural wine in the Czech Republic. Here's Issue 10.
Last month, I asked a sommelière friend in Vienna if she ever visited estates in Moravia, ninety-minutes’ drive north. I posed similar questions to vignerons on either side of the border between Austria and the Czech Republic, and got similar replies. All invoked the same phrase: the “mental Iron Curtain”1 separating the Czech Republic from its neighbor to the south.
The same phenomenon separates most of us wine geeks in what is generally referred to as “the West” from a comprehensive understanding of post-Communist wine cultures. The horrors of Communist-era agricultural collectivization and intensive production are invoked continuously in our media, to the extent of becoming, essentially, articles of faith. So I was intrigued to discern, throughout two trips through the Czech Republic this year, that - much like in the Republic of Georgia - these aspects of Communist-era wine production comprise only part of the story.
“On the one hand, quantity was the first priority. But on the other hand, the government gave a lot of money for research,” notes Moravian vigneron Milan Nestarec, who is profiled in this issue. “And in that era, there was a lot of time for research, because there was no business. People had a lot of time for details.”
Nestarec notes that many of his vineyards planted in 1970s by the local cooperative are in better condition today than other vineyards of his that were planted in the 1990s, after the Velvet Revolution.
Without wishing, by any means, to defend Communist-era agricultural policy, it bears pointing out that the same tendencies towards land agglomeration and intensive production occurred within free capitalist societies, at a roughly similar historical rate. (As a society, it is hard to accuse Communist viticulture of a race to the bottom while we eulogize the likes of Fred Franzia.) Meanwhile, archetypal descriptions of Communist-era wine production read conspicuously like descriptions of conventional supermarket wine production in the USA, France, and beyond:
The… desire to produce wine in bulk necessitated machine harvesting, rather than picking the grape clusters by hand. It is impossible to use a machine to harvest very steep slopes, so…. where the best vines are also in the steepest areas, they were simply ripped up.2
Vineyards were … turned into huge farms designed for easier and more automated harvests. The system favored quantity over quality, with grape varieties that promised bumper harvests pushing aside those needing more attention.3
Unless you knew a home winemaker… your wine was generally made in large volumes from high-harvest vineyards and offered average quality at best. Cleanliness of cellars was questionable. Sometimes, water was added to dilute the wines.4
(That such condemnations often occur within the pages of magazines awarding high scores to - and deriving advertising revenue from - Western wineries conducting the same or worse practices is weirdly projectional, almost Trumpian.)
“I think it was very similar to the West at that time,” says Bohemia vigneron (and Czech Republic natural wine wine pioneer) Bogdan Trojak, noting that herbicides and volume-driven training systems were adopted in the 1970s on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Yeast addition, he says, only became routine in Czech Republic wine production in the late 1990s. (A decade or two later than in France, by comparison.)
A manifest capitalist himself, who pilots restaurant and distribution businesses in Prague, Trojak nonetheless regrets the progressive disappearance, since his youth, of a culture of non-commercial familial wine production in the Czech Republic.
“It was part of folk culture: everybody had a small vineyard,5 everybody made wine, every family had a small cellar. Now everything is getting bigger and bigger. There are bigger farms, and fewer winemakers,” he says. “The old generation is gone. And young people prefer to work in other fields.”
In the Czech Republic, like in the Republic of Georgia, to devote oneself to small-scale, handmade natural wine in the shadow of Communism is to risk appearing reactionary. The majority of one’s countrymen are eager to deploy all manner of artifice and innovation to embrace the relatively newfound possibility of reaping handsome profit from the industrial rationalization of wine production.
So it’s all the more commendable to find sophisticated and distinctive natural winemakers emerging in Bohemia and Moravia today. From Bohemia, you’ll find echos of Auvergne in the ashen, ultra-light reds, and whites with the aerial personality of Calder mobiles; from Moravia, the best frankovka (blaufrankisch), pinot noir, and grüner veltliner6 wines evoke clay-soil masterpieces from Bugey and the Jura, but with a far-northerly finesse all their own.
These wines and the vignerons behind them are the subject of ISSUE 10: BEYOND THE MENTAL IRON CURTAIN.
A TOUR of BOHEMIAN VOLCANIC TERROIR with Czech Republic natural wine pioneer BOGDAN TROJAK and his Georgian partner SALOME KHARDZEISHVILI, who are nowadays producing GORGEOUS QVEVRI RIESLING.
An overdue CATCH-UP with EVER-EVOLVING Moravian maven MILAN NESTAREC, at the helm of the LARGEST natural wine estate in the CZECH REPUBLIC. (No paywall.)
A profile of VIRTUOSIC Znojmo vigneron MARTIN VAJCNER, who is creating world-class ZERO-ZERO masterpieces, many involving MORAVIAN AMPHORAE.
A STROLL below the VOLCANIC HILL of Radobýl with pathbreaking BOHEMIAN vigneron (and scientist) ALES SVATOS of PORTA BOHEMICA.
An INTERVIEW with RICHARD STAVEK, the proud torchbearer of HANDMADE NATURAL WINE in MORAVIA.
An INTERVIEW with IVO LAURIN of UTOPIA CIDERS, an AD-MAN turned ZERO-ZERO CIDER MAESTRO. (No paywall.)
A profile of PACEL TOMANEK a.k.a. L’HOMME PERDU, producing true OUTSIDER ART of NATURAL WINE in the north Bohemian city of USTI.
A TASTING REPORT on the 3rd edition of NATURAL WINE FEST, the premier natural wine salon of the MORAVIAN capital of BRNO. (No paywall.)
A LONG NIGHT OF DRINKING with various Central European vignerons at BRNO wine bar JUSTWINE. (No paywall.)
A HISTORICAL FEATURE on the LEGEND of Czech-born Ardèche vigneron ANDREA CALEK’S “LA GRANDE ARNAQUE,” which is the inspiration for a new FOUNDING MEMBER GIFT. (No paywall.)
Mnohokrát děkuji to Phil Sareil and Nick Gorevic of Jenny & François Selections, for introducing me to Czech Republic natural wine back in 2015; to Jan Čulik, for being a wonderful ambassador for Tábor and the country’s natural wine at large; and to my fellow writer Lucie Kohoutovà, for her invaluable help in deciphering Czech Republic natural wine politics.
Lastly, here are some upcoming book promotional appearances, where I’ll be hanging out and drinking excessively and signing copies of The World of Natural Wine:
Many thanks for reading, as always! Raise a glass to small-scale non-commercialized familial natural wine production!
ISSUE 9.5: Five Scenes From Vienna
ISSUE 9: The Languedoc of the Mind
ISSUE 8.5: A Putin Voodoo Doll
ISSUE 8: Local Heroes of the Côte d’Or
ISSUE 7: Unknown Legends of Bourgogne
ISSUE 6: What is Natural Champagne?
ISSUE 5.5: Volcanic Occitanie
ISSUE 5: Tales from Faugères
ISSUE 4.5: From Arles to Uzès
ISSUE 4: The Avant Gard
ISSUE 3.5: Reasons to Be Cheerful in the Jura
ISSUE 3: Lorraine to the Mosel
ISSUE 2.5: Postcards from Ardèche
ISSUE 2: Anjou Milestones
ISSUE 1: Unknown Beaujolais
I was to learn this is a slight simplification of the scenario. Following WWII, in a grimly ironic historical reversal, then-Czechoslovakia violently expelled its significant German community, redistributing its assets, events which for many years discouraged cultural rapprochement with Germany and Austria (as did the ensuing four decades of Communism).
Pepitone, Sara. "How the Fall of the Soviet Union Changed Wine Forever." Wine Enthusiast, August 2022.
In the Communist era, families were permitted to maintain a viticultural surface of 10ares for personal production.
Sauvignon also really shines around Znojmo.