© Gary Crallé
Eat, drink and be in Moravia
Bike through the Czech Republic’s wine country and escape the crowds of Prague
A history of castles and kings has led to wine and wonderful things in Moravia. Here, history, architecture, gastronomy and fantasy are inextricably entwined. Czech wine glasses would be more than nine-tenths empty if not for this chunk of terrain bordering the southern neighbours of Austria and Hungary. It’s the oenological epicenter of the Czech Republic.
History flows from every glass of Moravian wine and has deep roots stretching from early third-century plantings of the 10th Roman Legion to the Czech National Wine Centre and Salon in Valtice Castle. Cyclists on wine tours now crisscross a region of prehistoric human beginnings dating back some 600,000 years. This is the same region where a 1925 discovery unearthed the oldest ceramic statue ever found: a 25- to 29,000-year-old, small, nude female known as Venus of Dolní Věstonice.
With beauty and taste in the eye of the beholder, Moravia unabashedly holds appeal for mind, body and spirit. Perhaps best of all, compared to crowded Prague, it’s undiscovered.
Few nations can trace a modern wine industry to a magnificent high gothic castle. Founded in 1348, Castle Karlštejn (172 Karlštejn, Karlštejn; hradkarlstejn.cz; guided tours adults $8, kids 6 and up $5) was both residence and storehouse for the royal treasures of King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, often called the father of Czech wine for his early promotion of viticulture. Only 28 kilometres from Prague, the castle lies on the touristic Castle Road stretching 1200 kilometres from the Czech capital to Mannheim, Germany.
Karlštejn is actually two villages on both sides of the Berounka River, with the castle looming above the Crop Research Institute (507/73 Drnovská, Prague; www.vurv.cz) on the north side. Both castle and institute can be visited, though the institute is basically a research station studying cold-hardy grape varieties. It produces wines bearing the emblem of the castle which is, after all, the major tourist draw.
In ruins by the 19th century, the once mighty fortress required extensive renovations to its floors and roof, which, ironically, have excluded it from being listed as a UNESCO site. However, a genuine medieval atmosphere remains, especially on a misty day.
Restaurants and gift shops form a gauntlet up the hill to the castle, which receives 300,000 visitors annually, but not so many the rainy day I visited. U Adama Restaurant (61 Karlštejn, Karlštejn; restauraceuadama.cz; some websites that follow are in Czech only) provides fine cuisine at its main street address just a five-minute walk from the castle — unless you stop for photos.
Two wheel it to the wineries
A 2.5-hour drive southward from Prague along highway D1/E50/E65 to Brno, then E451 to Mikulov (mikulov.cz) brings visitors to a part of Moravia very near the Austrian border. Here, fabled King Wenceslas tended his vineyards. The bond between these precious liquids and religion is still nominally strong, with vineyards traditionally anchored by a statue of the Madonna or a saint at the end of a row of grapes.
The medieval village of Mikulov is a good place to begin a local tour. Bikes can be rented to traverse the paved paths linking several villages. It’s an easy ride over flat terrain and well signposted as part of the EuroVelo network ([eurovelo.org])(http://www.eurovelo.org)) of European cycle trails.
Within Mikulov, Romanesque and Baroque architecture rubs shoulders with unpretentious dwellings and wine cellars that look like garages open to visitors. In a flourish, the entire region has awakened from boring, communist- era dormancy and is rapidly modernizing.
During the grape harvest, partially fermented young wine a mere few days old called Burčák is offered for sale at farm stalls, including the central square of Mikulov. The sweet-sour, yellow-orange (sometimes pink) beverage has an alcohol content of 5 to 8 percent, so beware: if you treat it lightly, it will return the favour.
Historically, the quality of Czech wines was a personal decision made by the winemakers. That’s the way it was and largely remains in South Moravia — and the standard is high. European Union regulations are continuing that guarantee.
Three kilometers along the bike trail from Mikulov brings us to the modest, but well-stocked cellar of Kern Winery (546 Sklepní, Březí; vinarstvikern.cz); daily tastings, but reservations required on weekends). It’s a family enterprise with David Kern and his son Peter plus a small staff producing mostly whites with “care and love” on 20 hectares of vineyards. Chardonnay, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Sauvignon and Traminer are some of the plantings. David grows several types of grapes due to varying soil conditions even within the same vineyard. And the locals want variety. Vintners are free to plant whatever they wish, but almost no Czech wine is exported; instead, it’s absorbed, so to speak, by the local markets.
Pension Jáňův Dvůr (43 Nový Přerov, Březí; januvdvur.cz) sits conveniently at kilometre seven, where one can enjoy a lunch of dumplings and beer, fresh-pressed cider or local wines in the open courtyard. Horseback-riding tours of the vineyard start at $13 per person (reservations by email required). The pension is a BIOfarm that offers restored and tidy farmhouse accommodations from $27 per person a night beside the restaurant.
Kovacs Winery (293 Novosedly; vinarstvi-kovacs.cz) is at kilometre 11 in the village of Novosedly with its large area of vineyards and many small wineries. As at Kern, the sheer variety of wines is surprising: 26 whites and 20 reds — more balanced than the national production ratio of 70/30 white to red. Tastings at Kovacs might include Muscat, Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Zweigeltrebe rosé and Regentské cuvée red. Rieslings are typical of the region, exhibiting flavours of apricot with a slightly salty after taste. When asked why Czech wines were so subtle and delicate in contrast to Czech politics, the gentleman serving the wines replied without hesitation: “It‘s a good climate for wines, but not politics.”
Our final stop that day was at Mikrosvin Winery (29 Nádražní, Mikulov; mikrosvin.cz) with its grand views of the limestone Pálava Hills, which imparts a chalky minerality characteristic to all the wines of this region. Young winemaker Vojtěch Vít applies modern techniques to a century of family tradition for premium wines. His ambition is to produce the finest wines in the world, concentrating specifically on Italian Riesling as the best fit for local soil and climate. The result is wines with a delicate, distinct and sophisticated structure.
As we left the cellars, a full moon rising over vineyards and villages couldn’t have been more perfect to complete this Moravian fairytale scene.
The top 100
Without doubt, the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic (1 Zámek; salonvin.cz; closed in February) in Valtice (valtice.eu) is the single best place to sample the nation’s wines. Each year the top 100 selections from Moravia and Bohemia to the north are chosen for display, tasting and purchase at this prestigious Baroque palace. For less than $30 visitors can taste as many wines as they want within a 90-minute time period, but they must remain standing. Our sommelier guide, a retired policeman, informed us that both driving and cycling while inebriated is illegal. Cyclists are generally not targeted by police, however, unless involved in an accident. A sobering thought.
The closest hotel to the salon is literally steps away — at the end of the palace steps, actually. Hotel Salety (239 Zámecká, Valtice; hotelsalety.cz; from $72 a night, double occupancy) is modern, clean and convenient. For those who time their visit with Valtices’ annual wine festival at the end of September, the hotel is a few minutes from the historic labyrinth of Valtické Underground wine cellars. A public walk through the vineyards also takes place at that time of year. Na zdraví!
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.