Albania, one of the oldest vineyards in Europe

Before arriving in Albania, I asked myself a thousand questions about this country. What does it look like? How will we be welcomed? Are the roads in good condition for our motorhome? What about the quality of the wines? So many questions fueled my desire to explore this enigmatic wine destination of the Balkans, wedged between Montenegro and Kosovo in the north, Macedonia in the east, and Greece in the south.

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With its beautiful rugged mountains with snow-capped peaks, lush green countryside, picturesque beaches and vibrant cities, Albania is an open postcard to discover urgently. For wine lovers, its many autochthonous grape varieties, its vineyard of 10,000 hectares(1) and its multi-millennial wine tradition will delight the most curious.

2800 years of viticulture

Arriving in Albania from the north at nightfall, after a border check of more than two hours, we started to feel the fatigue in the camper. We decided to drive a few more kilometers and to stop after Shkodër, the main city of the region.

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Suddenly, right in the city center, as we drove unhindered twice on two lanes separated by a median strip, a white horse rose out of nowhere, trotting against the direction of the road. By good reflex, we barely avoided the animal. The moment was surreal!

After all these emotions, we stopped for dinner and took the opportunity to learn more about the wine history of the country from the locals. Surprising. Viticulture developed in the 8th century BC on the basis of autochthonous grape varieties that had survived the ice age, making Albania one of the oldest wine producing countries in Europe. During the 17th century, wine production slowed down under the Islam influence, due to the decline in the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

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It was not until 1972, during Communist rule, that Albanian wine production reached its peak with 20,000 hectares(1). In the early 1990s, a research institute was set up and a privatization program for viticultural land was set up to modernize wine production, promote local grape varieties and establish a market economy. The beginning of a new era for the Albanian vineyard and the promise of beautiful discoveries.

Kantina Arbëri, a symbol of the revival of Albanian viticulture

Having just arrived in Mirditë, a village of 40,000 inhabitants in the north of the country, we were warmly welcomed by the locals, with great smiles and hand signals. The motorhome was such an attraction here. Some people were approaching us. Others kept their distance. All seemed curious.

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Welcome to Arbëri estate. With 25 hectares located between 396 and 640m above sea level, this family vineyard has seen 3 generations of winemakers succeed one another. The microclimate of the region, between the warmth of the Mediterranean sun and the freshness of mountain nights, makes it possible to work with precision on two autochthonous grape varieties: Kallmet (red) and Shesh i Bardhë (white).

“My grandfather, who started planting in the 1920s, was forced to stop during Albanian communism (1941-1991), because of the collectivization of the vineyards by the government”, Rigers, his grandson, explained. In 1991, after the country regained its independence, Fran Kaçorri, his father, had the courage to reopen the Arbëri estate and started from scratch… A beautiful story, in which Rigers is now involved, as oenologist.

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For the record, Mirditë – which is certainly the most Catholic district of Albania – was visited by Pope Francis I, who came to visit Kantina Arbëri and tasted some wines in 2014. The Holy Grail for the estate.

Kantina Bardha, the incredible (American) success story

Definitely, the Albanian vineyard continued to surprise us. In the center-west of the country, overlooking the village of Marikaj, lies the Bardha estate. A superb house with Italian architecture, rising to 400m above sea level, where Mavrud and Shesh i Zi indigenous grapes are grown in red and Shesh i Bardhe in white.

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This estate was the dream of Mr Ekrem Bardha. After having to emigrate to the United States because of the communist regime in the 1950s, then a barber by trade, he embarked on the McDonald adventure with his first franchise. With an extraordinary sense of business, this indefatigable self-taught man is today at the head of a small empire (18 franchises!). His most cherished dream at the time was to return to Albania, as soon as the newfound country gained independence, in order to create a vineyard on the land of his childhood.

Thus Kantina Bardha was born, a vineyard of charm, planted on hillsides, where the hens walk quietly between the rows of vines.

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With no less than 300 days of sunshine a year and mineral soils, the unique climate of the region gives the wines a very good balance between acidity (freshness) and anthocyanes (superb natural antioxidants!). We really liked it.

Donkey ride in the vineyard

Welcome to Kokomani estate, a lovely vineyard created in 2008. Halfway between Tirana (the capital, to the east) and Durres (to the west), it overlooks the surrounding mountains, offering a breathtaking panoramic view. In good weather, you can even see the sea.

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The ideal place for tourists who seek to discover the charms of this country, while enjoying beautiful local wines.

We met with Blerim Kokomani, the owner and winemaker, who has worked in Italy for 13 years alongside the famous winemaker Andrea Franchetti, before returning to Albania and creating the Kokomani estate. This “lover of nature”, as his wife and daughter like to point out, cultivates his vines biologically. Irrigation and pesticides are not allowed here.

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After having tasted the delicious traditional food of the estate’s restaurant, we ended our visit with an epic tour of the 20-hectares estate riding the donkey of the estate during which we took the time to admire the wild nature around us. Because it is on mineral soils and old marine alluvium, that two emblematic grapevines of Albania: Shesh i Bardhe (white) and Shesh i Zi (red), coming from the village of Shesh (5km from here) are grown.

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To be visited urgently.

A viticulture that has managed to recover from communism

Let’s not forget that the Albanian vineyard is a survivor. In the last century, at the end of the communist regime, it had to be rebuild from scratch. As evidenced by Çobo winery, in Ura Vajgurore, in the south of the country, that we had the pleasure to visit.

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“Despite a long winemaking tradition dating back to the early 1900s, my family – just like many other estates across Albania – was forced to stop production when the communist regime took power in 1945. Private companies were not allowed”, Muharrem Çobo said. During this difficult period, wine traditions disappeared. And it is thanks to the memories and stories passed down by the family members, that the Çobo winery was reborn after the advent of Albanian democracy in 1991(2).

“We have revived the tradition and we are proud to make Çobo exist again, through our vineyards, the winery and the wines we produce”.

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Today, the Çobo vineyards, planted in terraces on the surrounding hills, are probably some of the most beautiful wine-growing sites in the country. And the light which played cross it in the late summer afternoon of our visit, sublimated it even more.

 

On the way out, I already knew that I will have to come back. This trip touched me and I must say that I came back grown up after this visit. The humility and kindness of the people were breathtaking.

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The smile of the Albanians, their welcome and their simplicity – in the noble sense of the term – make Albania an even more beautiful country. And the cherry on the cake, we drunk delicious wines.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thanks to Arbëri, Bardha, Kokomani and Çobo estates for their warm welcome. Thanks also to Mr Dashamir Elezi, President of the Association of Sommeliers of Albania, for having accompanied us during our visit to the Bardha estate. A huge thank you to Arjeta Frroku, professor of mathematics and Arbëri neighbor, for having spontaneously accompanied us during our visit of the domain, to help us to translate some technical terms. Finally, thank you to my young intern Dimitri Bourdon, who joined the adventure in Albania, for his daily good mood.

 

(1) The country has grown to 20,000 hectares (of which 14,000 hectares were devoted to wine grape varieties) during the half-century of Soviet rule.
(2) The People’s Republic of Albania was officially proclaimed on January 11, 1946. Albania was then isolated from the rest of the world until the collapse of the communist regime in 1991 and was subject to one of the most severe regimes of the history of modern Europe, with more than 8,000 people on death row and thousands of people imprisoned in camps (compared to a post-war population of 1 million).

Montenegro, the European wine Tom Thumb

As small as it is charming, as wild as it is welcoming and as mountainous as it is verdant, Montenegro deserves the detour on your next summer vacation.

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Bordering five other wine-producing countries (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania), the country has barely 680,000 inhabitants (less than Marseille, for example). And with 4300 hectares planted(1), this little European Tom Thumb progressively tries to make its way in the wine landscape… but has not finished to surprise us. Overview.

Viticulture concentrated around Podgorica, the capital

From the south of Croatia, it took us a little more than 3 hours by motorhome to cover the 150 km that separate the coast, to the west, from the Podgorica region, to the east, where the Montenegrin vineyard is located. To go inland, we had to follow winding roads, with innumerable turns.

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The mountains of Montenegro are among the most hilly roads in Europe… and I can assure you that it was climbing. But the beauty of the scenery overcame the fatigue of the road. Here, nature is beautiful and preserved. Everything is green during spring. Along the majestic Skadar Lake, we finally reached the Petrovac valley, which adjoins Podgorica.

It is here that we discovered Zenta, a family vineyard of 4 hectares, where Drasko Vučinić, aided by his aunt Dragica, produces superb red wines from Vranac, an indigenous grape variety, among others.

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“We have a very interesting microclimate for the cultivation of vines, since we are in the most southern part of the Adriatic coast. The result is a temperate climate with mild nights and sunny days in summer, and regular rainfall, concentrated in winter and spring”. Be careful where you step though, some horned vipers hang out here in summer! Fortunately, the cats in the field stand guard. And the place remains idyllic.

When painting, wine and music go hand in hand

An invitation can’t be refused. Especially when it hides a beautiful surprise.

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Welcome to the Ćetković winery, in the village of Beri (15 minutes from Podgorica), a vineyard of 3,200 vines (barely one hectare), planted with Vranac and Marselan, producing 4,000 bottles per year.

A peaceful place, founded by Vucic Ćetković (painter) and his cousin Vuk Ćetković (oenologist) less than five years ago. Why such a project? “We wanted to continue the wine tradition of our grandfather who was already making wine on this land”, the two men said unanimously.

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We discovered with great pleasure their concept, around “Art and Wine”. A formula that is not new, some people will say. Perhaps. Except that here, everything fits wonderfully.

The tasting cellar is none other than the painting workshop of Vucic. The place is full of good vibrations and positive energy. A little paradise… Especially when tasting some good Montenegrin red wines, with music beautifully played by the duo formed by Vucic’s girlfriend, Milena Vukovic (violin) and her friend Milica Vujovic (cello).

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A pure moment of sharing and joy!

Plantaže, the European giant

Curious as we are, we could not visit Montenegro without stopping at the estate Plantaže, which alone accounts for more than 80% of the country’s wine production(2).

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With 2,310 hectares – and 11.5 million vines planted – Plantaže is today the largest single vineyard in Europe.

Rather impressive, even paradoxical, to find such a large estate in such a small country. “The most significant phase in the development of Plantaže was the realization of the project called “The Plains of Ćemovsko“ in 1970, when 2,000 hectares of vines and orchards were planted, in addition to the existing vineyard. At the time, it was the biggest project in Europe”, we were told.

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For the anecdote, part of the current vineyard was planted on the former military airport of the country, which moved its activities to the Independence of Montenegro in 2006.

And it is on the old aerial track of 2178 m – from which the planes took off – that we went through the vineyard by car, vines passing on each side of the cockpit, as far as the eye can see. In the neighboring mountain, the underground military hangar which was built to protect and maintain the equipment, has now been converted into a cellar by Plantaže for aging its wines. A striking and magical place.

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On the wine side, some very nice surprises. The vineyard is bordered by a chain of limestone hills, benefiting from very beautiful poor soils with a sandy tendency, on which mainly Vranac (70% of the production) are grown, alongside a multitude of international varieties.

Making house-wine in Montenegro, a thousand-year-old tradition

“Every household here makes wine and distills for its own consumption.

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It’s a millennial tradition since Roman times”, according to Miloš Rajković, the third generation of winegrowers on the BUK estate, who welcomed us with a glass of Rakija, a national brandy made from grapes!

It is in the peaceful village of Bukovic that this young enthusiast produces 11,000 bottles of wine a year, from Vranac, Marselan (he was the first to introduce this grape variety in the country in 2005), Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Muscat Ottonel. His favorite pastime: being in the cellar to make the blends. At the forefront of equipment technology (wine press, vats, fudges…), its red wines are delicious and full of freshness.

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A very nice winegrower and a family that welcomes one with huge smiles. Even their dog looks like a huge plush! We loved it.

Seven kilometers away, after taking a few narrow paths in the forest, where our camper van was just passing through, we finally found the charming village of Utrg, 10km from the Adriatic (to the east) and the Skadar Lake (to the west). An appointment was taken with the Vukmanović estate, as the last visit of our journey.

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A micro vineyard of 1 hectare, perched at 380m above sea level, mainly producing red wines from the Vranac, Kratosija(3) and Lisičina native varieties. Another little corner of paradise, where the water of the mountains is drunk directly at the source!

Aleksandar Vukmanović, 13th generation of winemakers on the estate, shares his week between his job as an electrical engineer and his passion for wine. “I like to perpetuate the tradition. Working in the vineyard three days a week, as well as on weekends and during my holidays”, said this non-standard and very sympathetic winegrower, back from a walk in the mountains.

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The tasting was done under the trees, to the sound of the bees that foraged around us. The moment was out of time.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Zenta, Ćetković, Vukmanović, Buk and Plantaže estates for their warm welcome. And special thanks to Vucic Ćetković, founder of the Art & Wine House Montenegro concept and his family for giving us such a nice overview of their country and making us feel at home during our stay.

 

(1) Latest official figures, according to the Ministry of Agriculture of Montenegro: about 4300 hectares of vines planted.
(2) 2/3 of the country’s vineyard is used for commercial production; the rest has been planted by private individuals for personal production/consumption.
(3) the kratosija variety is also known as Primitivo and Zinfandel.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, the sleepy beauty of the Balkans

Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a wine country with crazy charm, which, if I believe my little finger, should soon become a talking point ?

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Known as one of the last European refuges of the vine after the Ice Age, the vineyard of Bosnia and Herzegovina developed on the basis of indigenous grape varieties that had survived this glacial period(1). Hardly touched by the war of 1992-1995, the vineyard shrunk from 6000 hectares before the war, to 3570 hectares today ; concentrated mainly in the region of Mostar, along the Neretva valley.

When weddings rhyme with wine

Vilinka Winery is the story of an adorable family who embarked on the wine adventure in 2008 with 3 hectares of vines planted in the Vilinka region of southern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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The Eres family initially specialized in the organization of weddings – with a company creating wedding dresses and a reception building built at the foot of the mountains – their idea to create a vineyard capable of supplying wine during the weddings was brilliant. Because people do not joke around when it comes to wedding parties in this country: count between 500 and 700 guests on average for dinner! “If you forget to invite someone to your wedding, close to you or not, family or simple co-worker, this person will come to your house within a year to bring you a gift. It is better to invite everyone in one go! “, Velimir enjoyed to share with us.

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Velimir, who is self-taught, learned all about viticulture and oenology from books. He planted his vineyard on a plateau at 400m above sea level, on white pebble soils. An exceptional terroir for the local grape varieties Žilavka, in white (pronounced “Jilavka”) and Blatina, in red; beautifully maintained by Velimir. Production is almost exclusively sold on the spot. A wedding was planned when I arrived. Everyone was busy preparing.

About fifteen pigs were being roasted on the spit and the delicious smell of grilled pork spread quickly throughout the village.

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At nightfall, the guests were there and the music was in full swing. Everyone danced, feasted… and drunk Vilinka wines. The party was a huge success.

The vineyard of broken rocks

The region of Mostar is an extraordinary terroir for the cultivation of vines, with its temperate Mediterranean climate and its white soils, composed of poor fossil rocks, favorable for the production of great wines, in both white and red.

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The result is a deep, mineral and stretched signature in all the good wines of the country – especially on Trnjak (red) and Žilavka (white) grape varieties. The only problem is that the stones are so compact on the surface of the soils that it is impossible to plant vines with traditional machines: they can not penetrate the soil… Nuić estate, created in 2004 in the village of Crnopod, in southern Herzegovina, found the solution, inventing a machine capable of smaching stone!

The work of a Titan, because it is necessary to break the innumerable rocks present in the soil into pieces before being able to plant any vines.

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“The wine-growing history of Bosnia and Herzegovina dates back to BC and was then already predominantly in this region. It was up to us to reconnect with the tradition by taming its magnificent soils of “unique white crushed stones, which make the richness of our wines “, Ivan Planinic from Nuić estate, explained. Fascinating, after so many countries explored, to discover new planting techniques, as well as new indigenous grape varieties – showing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s identity in terms of wine and cultural wealth.

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The world of wine is definitely full of surprises. An infinite playground and my garden of predilection ; for which I thank nature every day.

Brkić, a model of success

Between a micro-production of top quality wines (15,000 bottles produced per year), an organic philosophy – even biodynamic on certain wines – and an exclusive focus on two indigenous grape varieties, Žilavka (white) and Blatina (red), the Brkić estate is a must see in Bosnia Herzegovina.

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Located 20km south of Mostar, in the town of Čitluk, the estate has been in existence since 1979 and has been handed down from father to son for three generations.

After the death of his father Pasko, who had planted the vineyard between 300 and 400 meters above sea level, Josip Brkić took over the estate in search of the right balance between acidity, tannins and texture. Fifteen years ago, he converted the vineyards and the cellar to biodynamic practices. “I later discovered that wine is more than a product: it is a living organism”. It was with his three boys that we discovered the vineyard and tasted the wines.

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The succession ? Too early to say. Josip was pleased to open one of their rare 30 bottles of sparkling wine in traditional method, 100% Žilavka. A “trial” done in 2014 (a rainy and capricious vintage), and I must confess… very conclusive.

The Monastery of Tvrdoš

We concluded our trip by visiting the Monastery of Tvrdoš, an Orthodox monastery founded in the 15th century and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

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It is located on the right bank of the Trebišnjica River, four kilometers west of Trebinje, in the extreme south of Bosnia and Herzegovina, only a few kilometers from Croatia (Dubrovnik) and Montenegro. Nowadays, with 150 hectares of vines spread over 3 sites and an annual production of 350,000 bottles, the Monastery of Tvrdoš is one of the major players in the country and exports its wines to more than 20 countries. Its particularity: the wine is made by the monks of the domain. Open to the public, its long underground cellars, where the barrels are stored, are open all year round.

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The cuvée “Tvrdoš 2013” (100% Vranac) – which represents 60% of the estate’s production – is a pleasant wine with notes of intense black fruit, licorice and garrigue. On the palate, a taste of cherry, plum and coffee. A nice surprise.

The Bosnian vineyards have undeniable potential. It is really encouraging. Moreover, as Professor Marko Ivanković, Director of the Federal Agro-Mediterranean Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, rightly pointed out during our meeting, “the quality of wines has evolved considerably over the last fifteen years, after the privatization of the vineyards”.

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They even target a plantation of 10,000 hectares in total within fifteen to twenty years, if the country joins the European Union.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Vilinka Vinery, Vinogradi Nuić, Brkić and the Monastery of Tvrdoš for their warm welcome. Thank you to Marko Ivanković, Professor Marko Ivanković, Director of the Federal Agro-Mediterranean Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Mostar for his time. Thank you to Ivica Glamuzina, from Vinogradi Nuić, for organizing this meeting with Professor Ivanković. Finally, thank you to Ante Bacic, from Les Robes de l’Est, for his valuable winery recommendations.

 

(1) The three emblematic grape varieties of Bosnia and Herzegovina being Žilavka in white; Trnjak and Blatina in red.

The Croatian viticulture, in the pantheon of the great ones

One could sum up the richness of the Croatian vineyards with these two sentences: “its vine cultivation goes back as far as the first inhabitants who settled here”. Adding that “the list of indigenous grape varieties is as long as the Croatian coast”. It sets the scenary.

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However, it was not until the early 1990s – and Croatia’s independence – that many individuals could reclaim land previously requisitioned by the state(1). Over the past two decades, Croatia has regained its reputation, producing both extraordinary and varied wines.
From Continental Croatia (north), to Dalmatia (south), via Slavonia (along the Hungarian, Serbian and Bosnian borders) and Istria (west), each of the four Croatian wine regions deserves a stop. Story of a journey full of unforgettable discoveries.

Continental Croatia, land of great white and sparkling wines

Welcome to the coolest region of Croatia, with its scenery of steep hills with rounded summits, rural villages and carefully maintained vineyards, producing excellent white, sparkling… and even ice wines!

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Visiting Cmrečnjak estate, in the village of Štrigova. A unique terroir with a maximum altitude of 340m and clay soils, ideal for the cultivation of grape varieties such as Posipel (Furmint), Silvanac zeleni (Sylvaner) or Grasevina (Welschriesling). Marko Cmrečnjak, 4th generation of winegrowers, is proud to follow in his father’s footsteps and “could not imagine another job in life”. His cuvée “Ledena Vino 2012“, a 100% Grasevina ice wine, is fantastic!

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Not far from Zagreb, in the village of Jastrebarsko (Plešivica region), we discovered the Sember family, a great producer of sparkling wines in traditional methods.

“Thanks to a cooler continental climate, limestone soils and a 6-hectare well-exposed vineyard on hillsides, we have the optimum conditions for the production of fine bubbles”, Nikola, the eldest son, explained. A project of sparkling wine made in amphorae is currently being tested.

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We tried the “orange” wine in fermentation, in the amphorae buried in the garden. Promising.

Coups de cœur for the Teran and the Malvazija istarska

Istria. Such a beauty… In the north-west of Croatia, discover this wild region with crazy charm, still preserved, where we had the happiness to discover the grape varieties Teran and Malvazija istarska.

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Here, the typical “terra rossa” red soils of the region (loaded with iron), combined with a unique micro climate and strict green harvests (maximum yields of 1.5kg per vine for the best estates), offer wines as greedy as they are deep.

It was at Coronica estate, in the extreme northwest of the Istrian peninsula, where we fell under the spell of the Teran. A red grape variety with fine skin and bulky berries, difficult to work with.

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“It is important to harvest teran with 20% resinous grapes to add complexity to the wine”, Moreno Coronica, a winemaker as charming as he is talented, explained. Result : deep and straight wines, with superb tannins and insolent freshness. Made for aging.

A few kilometers away, in the coastal village of Višnjan, the Radovan family, with 9 hectares of vines, showcases Malvazija istarska, a white grape with aromas of almond kernel, apricot, ripe white fruits and wild flowers.

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“Here, nature is beautiful: the sea wind blows on the vineyard in the morning, refreshing the air, and the land wind blows in the evening, softening the atmosphere”, Franko, the father, enthused. Their cuvée “Malvazija Istarska 2015” is a pure delight!

Léo Gracin, the rock star of the Babič

It is in Primošten, at the grandmother’s house of our friend (and formidable guide) Barbara Bacic, that we met Léo Gracin, one of the great figures of Croatian viticulture.

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Winemaker of talent, Léo is also a Doctor of oenology, a professor at the University of Zagreb and a consultant for the finest Croatian estates. His casual look and his permanent smile make him a character as friendly as he is charismatic. Léo owns one hectare of vineyard in the Bucavac Primošten appellation, in Dalmatia, which is going to become the first Croatian wine-growing region classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The fragmented topography of the site, the hard rock soils, the obligation to work by hand, the plots all being isolated from each other, the ban on irrigation and the incredible difficulty of working in this vineyard (44°C in summer, forcing the workers to start their days at 4am and ending them at 11am…), probably make it one of the most atypical vineyards that we have ever discovered.

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Discovering the babič, a Croatian red grape originally from Primošten and wonderfully vinified by Leo. Its sweetened version, called Prošek(3), a Dalmatian specialty, is of great complexity and pairs fantastically with local cheeses.

Stina Vino, an extreme vineyard

Croatia has 1185 islands and islets. Some of them are home to some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world. Welcome to the island of Brač, 50 minutes by ferry south of Split, famous for its white stone (Stina). A small multi-century wine-growing paradise, which has seen the apparition of very interesting indigenous grape varieties, such as Plavac mali, in red.

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Visit of Stina Vino, a gorgeous estate, with 70 hectares of vines spread over two sites. One of them is undoubtedly one of the most extreme vineyards visited during the project. Literally carved into the rock, this parcel is culminated at 650 meters above sea level and dives into the sea, with slopes having 65% of inclination! In other words, to work there requires above all the art of the tightrope walker… Risking to (slightly) descend in a row of vines myself, I failed not falling…

The second plot – 45 hectares in one piece – is located between 420 and 520m above sea level. The brightness of the sun reflecting on these very special white stone soils, gave the vineyard a lunar aspect.

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A real postcard. The result: magnificent wines, concentrated and of great freshness ; like the red cuvée “Plavac mali remek djelo 2011“.

The island of Korčula and its treasures of indigenous grape varieties

Once upon a time there was the Grk, a white grape variety from the village of Lumbarda, on the island of Korčula – and the specialty of Frano Bire.

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“Grk”, in Croatian, means “bitter”. In reality, the wine is dry, with beautiful tension. Cultivated on the sandy soils of Lumbarda, where it ripens best, it develops beautiful aromas, like notes of pine.

“The Grk grape has only female flowers. To ensure its pollination, it must be co-planted with another grape variety with male flowers, usually the Plavac mali”, Frano Bire, a very sympathetic vine grower, owner and winemaker of Bire Winery, explained. Great wines, full of emotion, to discover on the spot… micro-production obliges.

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On the other side of the island, we met with Luka Krajančić, a native of Korčula. “I am only a small part of a local history of 2,500 years”.

Painter, poet, philosopher, winegrower… Luka has always been a Pošip lover, another white grape from Korčula Island – and just as interesting.

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Appearing 100 years ago on the island (spontaneous crossing of two other local varieties: Bratkovina x Zlatarice), this highly aromatic variety (mainly with an exotic fruit profile), with a great acidity level that balances a relatively high alcohol content, encounters great success. With no less than 6 different Pošip styles – from the stainless steel tank, to the barrel, to an ageing on the lees, a sweet wine version or one with 100 days maceration on the skins – Luka is definitely the “King of Pošip”.

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The great Croatian estates – as well as the native grape varieties – are legion. I already look forward to coming back, to continue exploring this incomparable wine (and cultural) heritage.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to CMREČNJAK, Sember, Radovan, Coronica, Stina, Krajančić, Bire estates and to Léo Gracin, for their warm welcome. Thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable recommendations of wineries, and especially Barbara for having accompanied and guided us on the ground. Finally, thanks to Mr Željko Suhadolnik (Editor-in-Chief of Svijet u čaši) and to Mr Ivan Dropuljić (Director of Zagreb fair VINOcom), for having join us during our visit to Sember.

(1) At the end of the Second World War, Tito’s communism took place, the country then focused more on quantity than on quality.
(2) Teran – originally from Slovenia and also produced in Italy – is also known as Cagnina, Refosk, Refosca of Istria, Refosco del carso, Refosco dal peduncolo rosso, Rabiosa nera, Crodarina or Magnacan.
(3) Prošek is a traditional sweet wine produced exclusively in Dalmatia from grapes dried in the sun. This method, often called “passerillage”, makes it possible to dehydrate the bunches, giving a maximum concentration of sugar. The Prošek usually bears between 15 and 17 degrees of alc.

Slovenia… the (little) European nugget

This was our first departure on board of the Wine Explorers’ new house-office-mobile, a brand new G700GJ campervan offered by Pilote, the French market leader.

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I looked forward to test this vehicle, fully equipped for the project : two offices, four beds, a kitchen, a huge fridge and a bathroom… what else could one want ?!
En route for 1200 km, heading south-east of Europe. After two days of driving, as a reward for the journey, a wonderful spectacle awaited us. The Monte Forno, the last rampart between the northern tip of Italy, Austria to our back and Slovenia proudly standing in front of us.

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With only 85km left before arriving in Slovenia, we couldn’t wait!

One of the most interesting vineyards in the world

Coup de cœur for the Slovenian vineyards, the preserved green treasure of Europe, where German, Slavic and Roman cultures have been intermingled for millennia. Only a drop of water in the world’s wine-growing ocean with 22,300 hectares planted (0.5% of the European vineyard), the country produces some of the best wines in the world. Its 2,400-year-old wine tradition, its unique climate (protection by the Alps from the north and the oceanic influence in the west), its complex soils (opoka, schist, granite…) and its multitude of seductive autochthonous grape varieties, made Slovenia one of the most interesting wine cultures that we have discovered so far.

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“The Slovenian wine market is growing very rapidly. With the help of some of the biggest names of Slovenian winegrowers, such as Marjan Simšič, our country is increasingly recognized as a wine country”, Saso Papp, CEO and co-founder of vinoo.co explained. “We are the only country with the word LOVE in its name – sLOVEnija”, he proudly added. A whole symbol.

The country has three main wine regions: Primorska, in the west (along the Mediterranean) and the Drava (Podravje) and Save (Posavje) valleys in the west. We chose to start with the wine-growing sub-region of Goriška Brda, in the west (1000 hectares of vineyards), nicknamed “Tuscany of Slovenia” for its undulating landscape.

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A small corner of paradise and a must stop for any wine lover. Its very particular location, 50 km from the Alps and 20 km from the sea, which makes it a fantastic region for the cultivation of vines.

Bjana Estate, the effervescent story of Miran Sirk

Miran Sirk and his wife, Petra, are the proud owners of Bjana Estate, a small 6.5-hectare estate in the Brda wine region, specializing in sparkling wines produced in traditional method. Their story is as beautiful as it is touching.
Until the early 1950s, Miran’s father owned a hundred hectares of vines. But after the Second World War, the vineyard and the house were requisitioned by the State and divided, as in most areas, under the regime of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.

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The family then only had a small piece of their own house, and little land. In 1976, it was the coup de grace. An earthquake destroyed the whole house, as well as other surrounding dwellings. The vineyard project was buried and along with it, the young Miran’s winemaking dreams.

In 1991, after the creation of Slovenia and the independence celebrated, Miran only had one dream in mind : to rebuild the house and the family estate, in order to produce great sparkling wines. He had to start from scratch. He replanted the vineyard in the same year, but couldn’t rebuild the house and the cellar before 2007, lacking money… A crazy bet and the work of a titan, during which, from 1991 to 2009, Miran worked as trade inspector in the casinos, traveling a lot and accumulating days of 16h, to earn enough money to pay for the construction.

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Today, thanks to his idea of planting a vineyard exposed to the north – in order to reduce the effect of the sun in this warm Mediterranean region – Miran produces, without a shadow of a doubt, world-class sparkling wines. And his “Cuvée Prestige” (70% Chardonnay, 30% Rebula), aged 56 months on the lees in bottles (!), has literally blown us away… Respect.

Marjan Simčič – Mr. Opoka

Another fantastic winemaker from Goriška Brda, and a great favorite of Wine Explorers, the emblematic Marjan Simčič, whom I like to call “Mr. Opoka”, or “the rock star of Rebula“.

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Every time I think about this visit and this encounter, I get goosebumps. Rarely have I had the opportunity to taste white wines with such intensity and depth. Wines of meditation, combining power and elegance, density and lightness, length and precision. Memorable.

Marjan and his family own 18 hectares of vineyard – some vines more than 55 years old – with parcels on both the Slovenian and Italian borders ; historical-geographic-political conflicts oblige. Marjan discovered different types of soils, one of them having obtained world-wide reputation for its unique character as a “terroir”: opoka.

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“The soils of Brda, deposited by ancient oceans on the surface of the hills, are fascinating. Wind, rain and sun have crushed, washed and heated them for thousands of years. The result: opoka, a soil rich in minerals which makes it possible to produce unique wines with a recognizable terroir“, Marjan, the 5th generation of winegrowers on the estate since 1860, explained.

Here, the dominant and most famous variety is the white Rebula(1), which accounts for about 25% of the wines produced in the region ; offering generous and inimitable wines. But that’s not all. This winemaker, who has magic in his fingers, also produces among the most beautiful cuvées of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that we have never tasted… (yes!).

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We finished the visit by admiring a beautiful sunset in one of its vineyards, right next to the Italian border. A moment out of time.

Vinakoper, land of Refosk

Next followed a change of region with Istria, in the south-east of Slovenia. And a change of scenery with Vinakoper, a 570-hectare estate created in 1947. A very successful example of a “fairly massive” producer, who has managed to concentrate exclusively on quality and who deserves to be visited.

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The key to success : a vineyard spread over 10 micro-locations around the town of Koper, one more beautiful than the next, from ground level up to 320 meters above sea level. Preserved and virgin sites of any dwelling, along the Gulf of Trieste, offering a microclimate unique to the region. We admired one of the vineyards, a plot of 64 hectares on the Debeli Rtič peninsula, literally plunging into the sea. Wild asparagus grow here on the edge of the forest. We improvised a picking and ate some green asparagus on the spot. A delight.

Overall, the wine range positively surprised us, with iconic wines around the red grape varieties Refosk (the most popular red varietal in Slovenia) and Cipro (an Istrian early ripening indigenous grape variety with only 6.6 hectares of vines in the whole world!).

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“Slovenia still lacks gratitude, even though wine has been produced here since the Roman era. Thanks to indigenous grape varieties such as Refosk, a variety with incredible potential and in which we firmly believe, it seems possible to make a difference and to assert Slovenia as a wine country with its own identity”, Gregor Bandel, the sales and marketing Director, explained.

Suklje, the revival of traditional viticulture

We finished our Slovenian stay at the Suklje estate, only a few kilometers from the Croatian border.

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A small and charming 7-hectare vineyard in the south-west of the country, in the mountainous region of Metlika. Here, there are no less than five generations of passionate winegrowers who have succeeded one another to make this estate one of the jewels of the region.

In 1994, a great turning point was initiated by Joze, the father, with the first bottling and an undeniable qualitative turn. Until then, the wine was sold in bulk, a common practice under the Yugoslav air. Matija, the 5th generation of vine growers, took over the reins of the vineyard, planted partly with Blaufränkisch (Modra frankinja), Laški rizling, Kerner and Sauvignon blanc ; under the watchful eye of his father. Katja, her sister, and her husband Guillaume Antalick, both doctors in oenology, also consult the vineyard.

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The Suklje family is actually turning the vineyard towards local and responsible oenotourism, offering exclusively fresh local products at the vineyard table (where you eat wonderfully well). A wine bar project has also been set up in Ljubljana, the capital(2). It is an initiative of Matija, Katja & Guillaume. We wish them all the best in this great adventure!

Let’s conclude this most rewarding journey with a humorous touch. We discovered an ingenious and original way of “re-filling” bottles of wine for the weekend! Practical and economical, the wine pump seems to be a success. Well done Vinakoper for this great initiative.

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Slovenia, we will be back soon. I promise. Your vineyard is a treasure.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

 

 

Thank you to Bajna, Marjan Simčič, Vinakoper and Suklje estates for their warm welcome. And a huge thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable help and winery recommendations.


(1)
The Rebula, aka ‘Ribolla or Ribuela is a white grape variety originating in Greece but which has been cultivated in Slovenia for at least 750 years.
(2) For more information on the Suklje wine bar in Ljubljana: https://www.facebook.com/winebarsuklje/

Austria, a vineyard of character with great charm

Coup de cœur for the Austrian vineyards, whose origin date back to the earliest Antiquity. A vineyard area both modest for its size – 44,000 hectares and thus about 0.6% of the world’s vineyard(1) – and great for its wines. Especially with regard to the grape varieties Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. A good excuse for us to stop at Domäne Wachau, along the Danube, to gain a better understanding of these two varieties.

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But also for the great red wines of Burgenland. We met with two exceptional winegrowers, in love with nature, with certain talent, a well-tempered character and an unparalleled kindness. Together with 9 other Austrian winegrowers, they created the “11 women & their wine” movement to further highlight women in the world of wine.
Discovery…

Domäne Wachau, at the top of the appellation

A high-ranking cooperative with around 250 winegrowers involved in nearly 400 hectares – each of them having shares in the company – Domäne Wachau has seduced us with its great white wine terroirs.

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The steepest plots of this estate located on the 48th northern parallel, proudly standing on the Danube heights at an altitude of 200 to 500 meters, have poor soils of gneiss, schist and quartz, giving the Riesling and Grüner Veltliner wines remarkable tension and minerality. “Everything is harvested by hand to be as precise as possible”, Roman Horvath MW, the director of the estate, explained.

We visited the vineyard with Heinz Frischengruber, the oenologist of the estate. These two men form a very sympathetic duo. “The Wachau is the coolest region in the country”, Heinz commented. That is why its great whites are also famous.

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He added, “welcome to one of the oldest cultural landscapes in Europe ; a gorge of only 33 km in length with unique landscapes and rare flora and fauna that made the Wachau a UNESCO World Heritage Site”.

Walking along the paths that border Singerriedel, one of the top vineyards of the valley(2), one realizes the difficulty of working certain plots. Preventing erosion is important and terrace work is often indispensable. Here, the main task during winter is to rebuild parts of collapsed walls. An eternal recommencement, year after year, that forces admiration.

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“Although most vineyards are planted on the right side of the Danube (southern exposure), more and more vine growers are planting on the other side ; looking for more finesse in their wines”, Heins added. Maybe a new turn for the region? To be followed closely.

Judith Beck, a biodynamic lesson

Welcome to Burgenland, the flattest state in the country, but also the hottest and therefore the earliest for the maturity of the grapes. Recognized for the quality of its red wines, it goes from the Slovakian border to the north, down to the Slovenian border to the south, and borders Hungary to the east.

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Here we met with Judith Beck. Smiling, she welcomed us during a tasting session and invited us to join the table. The tone and atmosphere were warm. Judith began her first vinification in 2001 alongside her father. She converted the entire vineyard to biodynamics in 2007 with the help of her husband, Uli.

For her, “Sankt Laurent and Blaufränkisch are two very interesting grape varieties, both are complex to vinify and complicated to work with, but of fabulous potential”. Her cuvée St Laurent Schafleiten 2013 is a fine example : a gourmet wine, juicy, full of black fruit and spices.

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For Judith and Uli, biodynamics is their foremost aim to produce authentic wines with individual aroma profiles while maintaining healthy soils and vines.

“We encourage the formation of humus, by regularly applying manure that we prepare ourselves and by cultivating grass between the rows. Herbal infusions (nettles, camomile, horsetail…) and biodynamic sprays such as horn manure and horn silica, used in accordance with the moon’s rhythms, naturally strengthen the resistance and physiological maturation of the grapes”, Judith added during the visit of the vineyard with some chickens frolicking freely around us.

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They are also part of the Pannobile association, a group of 9 wineries favoring the production of local grape varieties, respecting traditions and partaking in the collegial tasting of wines from the various estates. A great initiative.

Silvia Heinrich estate, the Blaufränkisch in all its splendor

Silvia Heirinch is for me, THE great lady of Blaufränkisch in Austria. In 2010, she took over the reins of J. Heinrich, the family estate of 36 hectares.

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Her first decision was to pull out all the white vines. She has always believed in the potential of the reds here and her production is a real success. The wines are pure, generous and built for ageing for the finest cuvées. With a vineyard consisting of 75% Blaufränkisch – alongside Zweigelt, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah – Sylvia is a jubilant winegrower. “We have a unique job : we can both imagine our product, shape it with our hands and at the same time taste it. Every year is a chance to be able to do something new”, she enthused.

We visited the Goldberg, a vineyard nicknamed “the Grand Cru of Reds”, perched at 210m altitude and less than a kilometer from the Hungarian border. Here, on this terroir of exception, some of the great wines of the estate are produced.

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And it is not without reason that this woman with multiple caps – mom in the evening, winemaker and oenologist during the day, but also on the road part of the year to promote her wines – was elected winemaker of the year in 2014. “Being a vintner is not working eight hours a day, it’s a way of life. Working with nature requires patience, serenity and much humility”.
Adding,”my parents did not want me to become a winegrower. It was not a woman’s job for them. My father was a good winegrower but didn’t have the passion. He eventually retired and that’s how I got my chance”.

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Last year, Silvia even built a cabin on her plot of the Golberg, a small haven of peace, where she comes to recharge her batteries during the sunny days.

Some very nice Austrian wines tasted during our journey:
Bambule! 2014, from Judith Beck (a natural wine, 100% Neuburger)
Riesling Smaragd Kellerberg 2014, from Domäne Wachau
Alte Reben 2011, from J.Heinrich (100% Blaufränkisch – “Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
St Laurent Schafleiten 2013, from Judith Beck
Elegy 2011, from J.Heinrich (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot)

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

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Thank you to Silvia Heinrich, Judith Beck and Domäne Wachau for their warm welcome. And a big thank you to Barbara Handl from Austrian Wine for having allowed these beautiful encounters.

 

(1) Source : OIV, 2016
(2) Domäne Wachau is the only producer in the whole Wachau wine-growing region to produce wine on all the famous Wachau vineyards, such as Loibenberg, Achleiten, Tausend-Eimer-Berg, Singerriedel or Kellerberg.

Hungary, far more than world class sweet wines

“There is no Hungarian village without a cellar”.
This is a good summary of the wine culture in Hungary, anchored in history since ancient times and the conquest of the southern bank of the Danube by the Romans.

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Having suffered under Communism until the end of the 1990s – like many eastern European countries – the Hungarian vineyards are gradually restructuring, with a progressive return to quality wines. The country now has some 150,000 hectares of vines(1), spread over 22 wine regions.
From east to west, we focus on two of them : Tokaj and Etyek-Buda.

Tokaj, land of aszú and puttonyos

Arriving from Budapest, the road is a succession of green fields. Then, suddenly, small mountains in the form of domes, emerge on the horizon like mushrooms from the ground. On these hills, vines are planted on the hillsides.

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Welcome to Tokaj, the 3rd largest Hungarian appellation with 5,500 hectares planted(2). An ancient volcanic area on the foothills of the Carpathians, which has been classified as a World Heritage Site since 2002, where there were once more than 400 active volcanoes.

Here people speak “aszú“ and “puttonyos“. Stuck between the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, the Tokaj vineyard enjoys ideal conditions for the development of the famous Botrytis cinerea. The grapes touched by noble rot are harvested berry by berry (!), it is these units of measurement that determine the level of sugar and the concentration of the wines(3). These wines are aged at least three years in traditional stone cellars, where a black fungus, Cladosporium Cellare, develops on the walls, helping the wine to age.

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We visited with admiration the natural 1km tunnels that form the cellar of Château Dereszla, where no less than 1,000 barrels lovingly look after a part of Tokaj’s liquid gold, at a constant humidity of 90%.

Some great Hungarian sweet wines from the Furmint variety tasted during our journey:
Tokaji Muskotaly Réserve 2003, from Château Dereszla (“Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
Tokaji Aszú 2006, from Samuel Tinon
Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008, from Demeter Zoltán
Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008, from Grof Degenfeld
Tokaji Aszuescencia 2003, from Erzsébet Pince

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A vineyard in full mutation turned towards dry white wines

The Tokaj region is not only a great region of sweet wines. On the contrary, the production of high quality dry white wines is booming. “The production of the last Aszu wines goes back to 2010 in the region. Since then, climatic conditions have impeded the production of sweet wines ; or sometimes only a production of extremely small quantities were possible. And small estates that only make sweet wines are currently in danger”, László Kalocsai, director of Château Dereszla explained, during an exciting tasting of dry white took from different tanks (for the assemblages).

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Moreover, the region remains the poorest in Hungary(4) with 4/5 of the vineyard managed by farmers who have less than one hectare of vines and can’t make a living from it. A government program has been put in place to develop tourism in the Tokaj region. With a budget of € 300 million, which extends from 2013 to 2020, it is assumed that priority will be given to small family estates(5).

Some very nice Hungarian dry wines tasted :
Ré:serve 2012, from Abraham Pince (100% Furmint)
Tokaj Szamorodni 2007, from Samuel Tinon (“Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
Tokaji Kabar 2013, from Château Dereszla (100% Kabar – a unique grape variety from Tokaj, with only 11 hectares)
Cabernet Franc 2012, from Demeter Zoltán
Kékfrankos 2013, from Etyeki Kúria (100% Kékfrankos, also known as Austrian Blaufränkisch)

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A production of sparkling wines has also been developing in Hungary for about 8 years. Grof Degenfeld, an organic winery since 2008 and producing a delicious cuvée “Furmint Sparkling Brut 2011“, is a good example.

Samuel Tinon, the discreet genius of Tokaj

Samuel Tinon was born in the vineyards of Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, another beautiful region of sweet wines(7). He was 21 years old when he arrived in Hungary in 1991. Samuel learned Hungarian on the spot and quickly became the director of the Royal Tokaj Wine Company, the first joint venture between East and West, created in 1989. He already had gold in his fingers. In 1999, he created his vineyard of 5 hectares in the Tokaj appellation.

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With his wife Mathilde Hulot – a correspondent for numerous wine-producing magazines and co-author of reference wine books(6) – they settled in the town of Olaszliszka in 1998, in the center of the Hatari grand cru.

Samuel cultivates two varieties: Furmint and Harslevelu, planted on clay and loess soils on the Zemplén hillsides (slope between 30 and 40% facing south). Among his wines – which, I must admit, are all delicious – one was my Hungarian favorite wine : his Dry Szamorodni. A wine – or rather a base method by name – which means “as it comes” in Polish, at a time when workers picked up whole botrytised clusters (not individual berries).

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Samuel makes a dry version from it with fermentation in open tank sous voile (under the veil). A unique wine in the world and which to this day is part of the great Wine Explorers’ discoveries, both for its complexity and for the emotion it has given us. A pure moment of meditation.

Etyek Buda, the other (promising) face of the Hungarian vineyard

The region of Etyek has been known for wine for 200 years; especially for its chalk soils and its production of sparkling wines. However, it is not always a favorite when talking about Hungarian wines. Wrongly…

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The Etyeki Kúria estate is a great example of its success. Started in 1996, it has made a name for itself thanks to its production of red wines; making great Pinot Noir and Kékfrankos wines. In 2009 Sára Matolcsy, the owner, enrolled Sándor Mérész – one of the country’s best oenologists – to manage the 26 hectares estate (plus 17 hectares in the Sopron region).

Together, this sympathetic binomial makes Etyeki Kúria one of the jewels of the region.

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Conclusion (unavoidable) on the Eszencia, a very rare nectar that we had the pleasure of discovering at Château Dereszla and which is a must to taste at least once in one’s life, as this sweet wine is an explosion of perfumes and flavors. Why? Imagine a grape syrup in reality, made from the best botrytis grapes harvested berry by berry, sometimes fermenting more than twenty years in small oak barrels, with more than 600g/L of sugar, less than 3 degrees of alcohol and 17g/L of acidity… There, all is said.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Château Dereszla, Grof Degenfeld, Erzsébet Pince, Demeter Zoltán, Samuel Tinon, Abraham Pince, Tokaj-Hétszőlő and Etyeki Kúria for their warm welcome.
Thanks to Gergely Somogyi, publisher at Tokaj Today, for having guided us so well in our wine wanderings in Tokaj. For more information on tours of vineyards organized by Tokaj Today : www.tokajtoday.com.
 

(1) Source : Sommeliers International
(2) Of the 11 000 hectares of Tokaj appellation in Hungary, only 5,500 hectares are planted.

(3) A unit of aszú is equivalent to 25 kg. After maceration, the wine is filtered and again put in oak barrel to age for at least two years. Then it is bottled and remains in the cellar for at least three years, two of which are in oak barrels. The wine thus obtained, called “Tokaji Aszú”, is marketed in bottles of 50 cl. Thus, 4 puttonyos means a minimum of 90 g/L, 5 Puttonyos minimum 120 g/L, 6 Puttonyos minimum 150 g/L and Aszú Eszencia minimum 180 g/L.
(4) Before the Second World War, more than 25% of the population were Jewish. Many of them have been deported and the region has become industrialized and mechanized, resulting in unemployment and poverty.
(5) According to a government calculation, an average of 10 hectares is required for a producer to make a living from his production. => A person who would come to settle in the region would receive 10 hectares, free over 30 years (already planted) + 30K€ + 60K€ for a loan with interest at 1.9% over 20 years + wine marketing programs for the promotion of Tokaj.
(6) Some reference wine books co-written by Mathilde Hulot : Le petit Larousse des Vins : Connaître, choisir, déguster, 1900-2000 : Un siècle de millésimes, Visages de Vignerons-Figures du Vin, Voyage au-dessus des vignobles de France or Les 100 vins cultes. For more information on Mathilde Hulot : http://mathildehulot.com.
(7) The sainte-croix-du-mont, or sainte-croix-du-mont appellation, refers to a French wine with a registered designation of origin produced in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont. Together with the appellations Cadillac and Loupiac, they form a small region producing sweet wines in the vineyard of Entre-deux-Mers, in the Bordeaux region. The AOC sainte-croix-du-mont is extending over 500 hectares planted with the varieties Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

Slovakia, vineyards in reconstruction to be discovered

One can only marvel at the beauty of the Slovakian vineyards.
3000 years old, it is concentrated in the south of the country, along the Carpathians(1).

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After being marked by more than 40 years of real socialism(2) and the collectivization of vineyards by the State, the Slovakian wine sector is now booming and is full of wineries one more interesting than the next. Some have opted to focus only on production, exclusively purchasing their grapes from vine growers. Others, more recently, have invested in the vineyard and have created their own estates. We met with three of them.

Modern viticulture that has suffered from “real socialism”

From 30,000 hectares in 1990 to less than 17,000 hectares today(3), Slovakian vineyards are slowly being rebuild.

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After the velvet Revolution of 1989, state wine companies began to collapse. The vine growers, who were previously obliged to sell their grapes to these big farms, now found themselves in a difficult situation. They had two options : they could either continue to sell their grapes to other new establishments, or they could establish their own estates.

Slovakia – after gaining its independence in 1993 – took the decision to apply a protectionist policy on imported wines, thus encouraging a qualitative progression of local production for almost 10 years(4). This allowed winegrowers to sell all of their production in Slovakia at low prices without foreign competition.

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Divided into six regions – Small Carpathians and Eastern Slovakia to the west, Nitra and Central Slovakia to the south, Southern Slovakia and Tokaj to the east – a more qualitative approach is now being adhered to. As proof, a system of controlled appellations was set up in 2009.

Mrva & Stanko, a successful example of controlled grape purchases

Established in 1997, Mrva & Stanko was born from the meeting of two men. Mr Mrva, a talented winegrower who has made his mark in many European countries, and Mr Stanko, a Slovakian businessman. They began with 12,000 bottles and immediately made the choice to buy grapes from producers, in order to concentrate exclusively on investing in equipment (winery, cellar, barrels…).

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“In Slovakia, it is normal to separate the vineyard part from the production part. One hectare is very expensive”, according to Mr Mrva, who admitted that he preferred leaving to Austria during the communist period. Understandable when you are passionate and want to produce nice wines.
Now producing 400,000 bottles, the Mrva & Stanko estate has grown extensively but still remains qualitative, only buying grapes within 2.5-hours driving distance maximum from the production site, for better control of the quality. Thus the winegrowers under contract with whom they work are all located at the 48th parallel north (equivalent to Vienna in Austria, Munich in Germany, or Brest in France).

We met with a winegrower working for Mrva & Stanko. “We work hand in hand and grow the vines according to Mr Mrva’s recommendations. Everyone is happy like that and it is very pleasant”, he explained.

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We ended the visit by discovering the cellars of the estate. There are private lockers, rented to wealthy clients for storage of the great wines of the estate (a system we had seen in China). This approach seems to please a clientele long deprived of premium bottles. Count 600 €/year for a locker of a hundred bottles.

Tajna, the renewal of independent viticulture

Tajna estate is a new and very promising project and is a great example of the Slovakian wine-growing revival. Starting from zero, Rastislav Demes and his father planted 16 hectares in 2011, in the commune of the same name. “We have total freedom of action, both in the choice of grape varieties and in the management of the vines and the equipment used”, Rastislav enthusiastically explained..

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With its high-tech wine cellar, Tajna is well equipped to produce great wines. “It’s in the details that we are making the difference”.
During the wine tasting, Rastislav kindly proposed to us to choose the music of our choice. Delicate attention. We opted for a jazzy and convivial atmosphere. The wines of the estate, although made from young vines, are already very promising : mineral, generous, with nice tension and great freshness.
“The geological substratum of the Slovakian wine-growing regions is very varied : from limestone to granite, via volcanic rocks and river sediments, the typicity of the Slovak « terroir » is indisputable”, according to Rastislav.

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We finished the day with a delicious Perkelt cooked by his dad, a traditional meal made from marinated meat and potatoes. A delight.

Some nice Slovak wines discovered during our journey :
Rizling Vlassky Tramin 2014, from Tajná (80% Rizling Vlassky, 20% Tramin)
Vinolovca Exclusive 2013, from HR Winery (70% Rizling Vlassky, 30% Pinot Gris)
Cuvée 2012, from MRVA & Stanko (Hron, Vah, Rimava, Rudava)
Pinot Noir 2013, from Tajná
Cabernet Sauvignon Barrique 2012, from HR Winery

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HR Winery, a women’s story above all

Created in 2012, HR Winery is the story of a hunter and wine enthusiast, who succeeded in acquiring a vineyard of 230 hectares with 30-year old vines. Often traveling to satisfy his first passion, he entrusted the reins of the vineyard to two women. Beata Saskova, oenologist. And Mila Kissová, the sales manager. A duo full of joy and energy.

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While visiting the vineyard with Beata, we were amused by the radio, which suddenly began to sing on the village loudspeakers, alternating two pieces of traditional music and flash-info for five minutes. It was 3pm and time for advertising!

We discovered no less than 26 different grape varieties on the estate. Alongside the international varieties, there are others emblematic of the country, such as Rulandské Biele (Pinot Blanc), Devín, Pálava and Rizling Rýnsky (Riesling Rhénan) for the white and Frankovka Modrá, Svätovavrinecké (Saint-Laurent) and Rulandské Modré (Pinot Noir) for the red.

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After the visit, we improvised a tasting and a photo session in a room filled with stuffed animals. The “trophies” of the domain. Rather special but fun.

To conclude, it is impossible not to mention the famous Tokaj wines.
Known as the “wine of kings, king of wines“ in Hungary, it has been the subject of many dilemmas between the two countries since the Second World War. Although Slovakia has a legitimate right to the Tokaj designation and can produce it, only Hungary has the right to market it within the European Union. A big and understandable frustration for the Slovaks.
In any case, the country’s viticultural future is indeed there and its positive growth is encouraging. A country to discover urgently.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to MRVA & STANKO, HR Winery and Vino Tajná for their warm welcome. Thank you also to Miklós Jobbágy and Guyard Paul for their nice winery recommendations.

 

(1) Source : Slovak National Statistical Office
(2) Socialist parties throughout the world experienced splits in the 1920s (or “real socialism”) applied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the latter being proclaimed the “homeland of socialism”.
(3) Source: Slovak National Statistical Office
(4) It was at the time of Slovakia’s accession to the EU on 1 May 2004 that the producers had to face rapidly a major international competition.

Poland, a country where wine has a taste for victory

What a beautiful country… I’m moved every time I think about our stay in Poland and the kindness of its inhabitants.
Strongly touched in the last century by incessant wars, struck by a terrible genocide, and with a communist regime that is just beginning to soften, the country is still in the midst of a search for identity and is gradually rebuilding itself, like a phoenix rising from its ashes.

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The production of wine is still confidential. Yet, a real craze for wine seems to take over Poland.

An emerging wine scene

Imagine : it wasn’t until 2009 that it became legal to buy Polish wine in the country… Finally it became possible for local winegrowers to market their production and thus to formalize their activity.
A new era opened for Polish viticulture. In just a few years, a very lively amateur wine-growing scene developed in the country, with groups of small producers, mainly in the regions of Zielona Góra in the west, Wrocław in the south-west and Podkarpacie in the south-east.

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“Productivity is moving in the right direction”, Roman Myśliwiec, the president of the Polish Institute of Vine and Wine(1) explained.
Today, there are about 400 amateur vineyards, covering a total of 400 hectares(1). However, only ten estates are actually officially registered(2). We met with three of them.

Adoria Vineyards, an American in the vineyard

Born in the middle of the Californian vineyards, Mike Whitney has lived in Poland since 1995. A former CEO for big corporations, he wanted to settle permanently in this country after meeting his wife. At the same time, he wished to start producing wine.

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But Mike had to start from scratch. Both on the technical side, and for the purchase of equipment. This huge and exciting challenge has lead him all over Europe to meet with suppliers for the construction and equipment of his winery.
After a year and a half of research on more than 300 sites, Mike settled in Zachowice in the south in 2005. He planted 3 hectares of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Bacchus on clay-sandy soils in this former German region which had become Polish after World War II, after Poland’s borders were redefined by the Allies.

“We didn’t built all of it on our own”, Mike humbly said. “We had the chance to work with a large team of professionals from around the world on this project, including consultants from Oregon and Tuscany.

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In the end, Mike is a busy man. “Being a vintner is a good job for a dad : I can modulate my working time as it suits me”, he said during the dinner where we enjoyed delicious home made pasta with pesto. It was an ideal dish to warm us during this late autumn. The harvest was barely finished and it was already -3°C at night. The gas heating ran at full speed in the campervan.

Winnice Jaworek, from metallurgy to wine

“This year is a good vintage,” according to Lech Jaworek, owner of Winnice Jaworek. The priest came to bless the grapes before the harvest. This is an important Catholic tradition.
Lech Jaworek is an engineer in the metal industry. And it was slightly coincidental that he planted his first vines in 2000, right next to his company.

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In 1995, after the change of government, he was told that he had to either purchase the 120 hectares of property next to his company – including all the buildings and the land – or abandon his business. In order not to lose his factory, he had no choice but to buy everything. But what to do with all this land? It was there that he had the idea of creating a 15-hectare vineyard on this ancient 14th-century wine land (when the monks imported vines to make the mass wine). A very nice idea!

For now, the equipment is still a bit precarious and the labeling of the bottles is done by hand. While waiting for stainless steel tanks, a cold room has been improvised with a lot of malice. Bubble wrap is covering large tanks during fermentation.

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Nevertheless, the buildings are gorgeous and seem made to become a real winery. No doubt that this old farm from the eighteenth century, with its typical and charming red bricks, will rapidly become a recognized tasting place.

Interspecific grape varieties – in this case Solaris and Regent – seem to produce better results than Riesling and Pinot Noir because they are more resistant to humidity and diseases. And the honey wine of the house, made with brandy distilled in a simple column, heats up the soul and regales the taste buds.

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Some Polish wines tasted during our journey:
Chardonnay 2014, from Adoria Vineyards
Metoda Tradycyjna NV, from Adoria Vineyards (65% Riesling, 35% Bacchus)
Moscato 2013, from Jaworek (100% Muscat)
Marszalek 2014, from Krokoszówka Górska (100% Maréchal Foch)
-and a curiosity : Miodowe, a honey wine from Jaworek

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Krokoszówka Górska, the natural wine

Thousands of young Poles emigrate every year to find work in England or Germany. The profession of farmer is disappearing. Here is the sad but realistic report done by Marek Górscy. Going against a current where costumes and ties are more fashionable than boots and pruning shears, Marek decided to leave his office to become a winemaker in 2005.

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“Today I no longer look at my computer at work, I get up and contemplate nature”. Marek now takes his time and reconnects with his roots. Neither fining nor filtration nor sulphite in his wines. Marek wants to make “clean” wine. With one hectare of vines and an annual production of 6,500 bottles, he just manages to generate an income. Whatever. This freedom has no price.

The fact that Poland joined the EU gave him the opportunity to receive training in viticulture and oenology, as did other young winemakers in conversion in the country.

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Outside the rain was pouring down. Marek served us a delicious Polish coffee to warm us up. It reminded me one of the Turkish coffee I had a few year ago. Strong but so tasty. “Temperatures can go down to -20°C in winter!”, he concluded.
Making wine in Poland definitely remains a major challenge.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Adoria Vineyards, Jaworek and Krokoszówka Górska for their warm welcome. Thank you to my friend Marc-Antoine Brekiesz for his valuable contact with a Polish translator. And finally, a very big thank you to Rafał Kisielewski, for having accompanied us in our research and for having put us in good hands during our trip to Poland.


(1)
Source : Polskiego Instytutu Winorośli i Wina

(2)Among the ten officially registered estates in the country are : Adoria Vineyards, Winnica Jaworek, Krokoszówka Górska, Winnica Maria Anna, Winnica Płochockich, Winnica Stara Winna Góra, Winnica Miłosz, Winnica Jura, Winnicy Golesz ou encore Winnica Wzgórza Trzebnickie
(3) Source : http://www.krakowpost.com/

The Czech vineyard & its Moravian treasures

Having left Paris in the early autumn, we embarked on a bucolic tour of Eastern Europe, where we planned to crisscross the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria on board of our faithful camper van, the “house-mobile-office” of the Wine Explorers.

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After a journey of 1,280 kilometers over two days, we arrived in Moravia, the main Czech wine-growing region (18,500 hectares and 96% of the country’s production(1)), named after the Morava River, a tributary of the left bank of the Danube watering the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria.

We were awaited by three estates with profiles as atypical as friendly.

Viticulture that is just recovering from communism

Located at the same latitude as the south of Germany (50th parallel north), the Czech vineyards are among the northernmost vineyards. The summers are warm and dry, the winters long and cold, offering wines with very varied profiles.
But before sharing the magnificent discoveries that we made, it is important to refer back to three key dates in Czech history, in order to better understand the wine history of the country. Although the viticulture dates back to the 2nd century (under the Roman era), it was at the beginning of the 20th century that it reached its peak.

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1948 : The appearance of the post-war communist movement. Radical changes were taking place in the country, the vineyards were under the exclusive control of the State, giving priority to yield and productivity, and regarding culture and heritage – great thinkers and talents were excluded from power or imprisoned ;
1990 : The end of state cooperatives, the opening of borders and the beginning of private investments, giving access to new technologies and an increase in the quality of Czech wines ;
2004 : The entry of the Czech Republic into the EU, with a wine legislation in line with European standards, but also the cessation of the extension of its production areas of 19,200 hectares planted(2) (0.2% of the world’s vineyards).

Sonberk, the revival of Czech viticulture

Welcome to the south of the Czech Republic, 25 kilometers from the Slovakian border, to one of the prettiest estates of the country. Sonberk, with its 45 hectares of vines majestically plunging on Lake Thaya, is the first Czech estate to have established its winery in 2003 in the middle of the vineyard.

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An initiative unthinkable a few years back, when all the vineyards were under state control.

Mainly planted with Riesling (13,5ha), Chardonnay, Palava and Moravian Muscat on loess and limestone soils, Sonberk has literally amazed us by the quality of its white wines. Admiring the sunset from the terrace, we enjoyed their Riesling wines, fresh and very precise. 
A success for this new vineyard with a production of 150,000 bottles, who has made the choice to hand harvest and operate their winery by gravity. The 30-year-old vineyard, with a distance of 3 meters between the rows (a requirement of the old communist system to let the agricultural machines pass) were replanted to 1.9 meters and cut into single guyot with 7 to 8 branches.

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Here and there, a few hives dress the landscape. Fruit trees are legion. Pumpkins grow by tens. Sonberk is a proud example of the Czech wine revival.

Reisten, at the top of Moravia 

On the way to our next destination, on the other side of the lake, we admired the beauty of Moravia and its many castles, enthroned on the tops of the surrounding hills.
Having arrived in Pavlov, we faced Reisten, a 30-hectares winery planted in 1999, at the foot of the ruins of the castle of Divci Hrady, a 13th century building erected on the highest point of the region, 438 meters above sea level. 

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Here, the calcareous soils, very rich in calcium, oblige the root system of the vines to establish itself in the rock, and seem to give a particular characteristic to the white wines. This famous flavor of “rifle stone”, whose existence has never been proven from a scientific point of view, was undeniably present in each of the wines we tasted.

This was the end of the harvest for the day. After a morning of filming with the workers, we took a walk along the steep paths that lead to the ruins of the castle. The wind literally nailed me to the wall. It blows like that for more than 300 days a year.

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Some beautiful Czech bottles tasted during our journey:
Riesling V.O.C 2013, from Sonberk
Maidenburg Palava 2013, from Reisten (100% Palava)
Blanc de Pinot Noir 2014, from Stapleton & Springer
Ryzlink rynsky 2011, from Sonberk
CTVRTE Pinot Noir 2013, from Stapleton & Springer 

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Stapleton & Springer, rock’n roll Pinot Noir

After a delicious (and very copious) local lunch, based on soup with meatballs and a stew of doe in sauce, we began our visit of the Stapleton & Springer estate, only 30km from Austria.
Here we met with Jaroslav Springer, an emblematic figure of Czech Pinot Noir. His family has been making wine for 300 years. When he was 6, during a winter where he was forced to do some work in the vineyard, it was so cold that his fingertips almost froze. That day he swore never to make wine. Then again… you can always change your mind.

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A Burgundy lover, he swears only by Pinot Noir, a grape variety long perceived as “bourgeoise” in the country during communism. His three sons work with him on the 23 hectares of vines. 

He is a passionate and hard worker, who converted his vineyard organically since 2007. Do not talk to him about filtration, he hates it. And the man has his ideas: “I think exporting wines is stupid. In an ideal world, everybody should sell their production only 200 km around its winery”. 

It is a point of view and I respect it. Ending the visit, Jaroslav decided to take a goose in the enclosure that adjoins the vineyard for the evening meal. After a few minutes’ stalking, he ended up catching the beast and bleeding it on the spot in the grass. Back in the winery, and to recover from this quite stressful moment, Jaroslav took his electric guitar and started a piece of Iron Maiden. The Pinot Noir had a rock’n roll look.

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Unlike most wine roads in the world, the Moravian wine route is an extensive network of bike paths and trails, winding through vineyards between villages and other scenic spots over more than 1,200 kilometers. An invitation to travel, and probably the best way to take the time to admire the beauty of the Czech Republic, is by walking from cellar to cellar.
A notice to fans, it may be that you have found your next travel destination.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thanks to SonberkReisten and Stapleton & Springer estates for their warm welcome.

 

(1) The second region of production is Bohemia, to the west, with 730 hectares.
(2) Wine of Czech Republic, 2016
(3) The 1st vintage of Domaine Reisten is from 2012