Sampling Handmade Wines in the Czech Countryside

By Holly Ellis December 4, 2018

Set in the epicenter of Czechia's Moravian wine country, the village of Valtice rests among rolling hills and UNESCO-preserved landscapes. Filled with verdant walking paths lined with vineyards, the area offers a bucolic respite between the bustling metropolis of Budapest and the picturesque architecture of Prague.

Some draws are obvious, featured in the guidebooks and in local tourist information stops. But the crown jewels of the area may be the dusty, seldom-visited cellars rife with local history.

The big tourist stops in Valtice includes sipping one's way through the Wine Salon, an expansive cellar and tasting room beneath the gilded Valtice Chateau, where oenophiles can take a self-guided (and self-poured) tour of the 100 best Czech wines for a nominal fee. Adventurous travellers can seek communal immersion at the large oaken tables within the 600-year-old, labyrinthine Castle Cellar.

But the true lure of Valtice requires wandering the town's side streets, carefully scanning the two-story stone cottages and tiny gardens for signs reading “Vinnysklep" (wine cellar). Far from the well-known tourist sites, locals know these in-home cellars are where Moravia's true charm lies.

Vinnyskleps are scattered throughout town, rewarding thirsty travelers with handcrafted wines in singular settings, complimented by Slavic pride and hospitality.

On one recent underground excursion, two American wine lovers found themselves in a cramped cave, lined with centuries-old brick and extending 50 feet into the earth. Built into the brick archways were wooden shelves sagging under the weight of hundreds of green bottles with hand-written labels. Everything — the walls, the shelves, the bottles, the ceiling — was coated with a sticky, yellow film.

The pair were guided there by the winemaker, a weather-worn, 50-something man who spoke no English. Thankfully, a visiting neighbor did. He explained that the cellar had belonged to the winemaker's father-in-law, whose family had owned it for 300 years. He insisted they try each of the dozen wines housed there, and the winemaker procured some clean glasses from his wife.

The tasting began with burcak, a sweet, unfiltered, young wine — similar to beaujolais nouveau — that celebrates the beginning of the harvest and crushing process. If one visits in September, the beginning of burcak season, one can be guaranteed a pour – or many – of this cloudy nectar.

As the tasting continued, the party was joined by a professor from one of Prague's chef-training schools, one of the winemaker's biggest fans, who made the three-hour-drive from the capital in order to replenish his personal stash. Above each glass, the professor made huge circles with his hand, wafting the wine's aroma into his nose and describing the notes in Czech. While Czech wines are only just beginning to gain world-wide notoriety, even amateur palates can detect a soft minerality in the whites – especially the Pálava, a purely Czech grape, created in 1953 by Moravia's own Josef Veverka – and the robust terroir of the merlot.

In the dizzying haze of the musty cellar, it's tempting to declare these wines the best yet, but it's hard to tell if it's the taste, or the atmosphere. The vintages may be incredible, but even more so the atmosphere—the dank cellar, the clinking of glasses and cheers of “na zdravi!," the comraderie of strangers becoming friends.

Affixed to the ceiling, from end to end, were hundreds of coins from various currencies left by past visitors, who "wanted to have something to return for," visitors are told. Add a Czech koruna of your own and leave with as many bottles as you can fit in your suitcase. At about $2 USD each, they're a steal.

But most importantly, you'll have a dinner party story for years, bound to entertain a crowd as much as — or even more so — than the wine you brought home.

Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CIBC or their partners.

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