Did you think of France, Italy, Spain, California, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, Washington?
Did anyone think of Bohemia and Moravia? Probably not.
As we had the opportunity to be in the Czech Republic for two weeks, the wines of this area became intriguing to me. I found that most of the wines offered in restaurants were from Italy. Something was missing. I started searching.
A Long History Of Wines
Prague has been making wines since the tenth century, when Duke Wenceslas (that we know from the Christmas song as "Good King Wenceslas")* planted vines in the Prague Castle. The vineyards from that time are still there. They have undergone a restoration that took several years and opened again to the public in 2008 on the 1100th anniversary of the birth of Saint Wenceslas. Today it is called The Saint Wenceslas' Vineyard, but legend calls this the "divine vineyard" or the "Lord's vineyard" and it is said to be the oldest vineyard in Bohemia. The history of the "divine vineyard" is inseparable from the Czech statehood and the adoption of Christianity.
If wine is the drink of kings, it was especially true in the Czech Republic and Prague in the fourteenth century. The spread of wine in this area was promoted by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (also known as King Charles IV). The king was a wine lover and during his reign the number of vineyards drastically increased. Charles grew up in France and was exposed to the growing and drinking of wines at an early age. He cared about the quality of the wines as well as the quantity. In his time, Bohemia experienced the cultivation of high quality vines.
In 1358 King Charles IV mandated that if you grew a vineyard in the city of Prague, you would be exempt from taxes and levies for twelve years. The size of the plots were 100 yards by fifty yards: a football field. Prague and the surrounding countryside became full of vineyards. By the end of his reign there were over 1,700 acres of vineyards in and around Prague.
Until the time of Charles IV, the grapes grown in the region were white and acidic. The new grapes that were planted came from France (primarily Burgundy and Champagne), Austria, Hungary, Italy and even Croatia. A new grape was introduced called "rout" - probably from the French word "rouge" or red. This was the beginning of red wines being grown in what is now the Czech Republic.
Until the 1960s, the vines in the Czech Republic had been grown in the traditional or "bush style" for centuries. This style of growing grapes refers to vines that are allowed to grow free standing with no attachment to a trellising structure. The quality of the wines was not up to par with other regions of the world and no one was buying Czech wines. The winemakers began looking for the reasons they weren't producing good wines.
After visiting other cold weather wine regions, the Czech vineyard managers started using the "high training" of vines similar to other cold climate European growing regions such as the Rhine and Mosel and Alsace, This type of vine training refers to wrapping the vines around the horizontal wires stretched from poles at the end of each row. Training the vines to grow horizontally, exposes the vines, the leaves and the grapes to more sunshine. This method of vine training was founded in the South Tyrol in Northern Italy, and Austria - both very cold regions. Both state farms (which were owned by the communist government) and agriculture cooperatives (also owned by the government) in the Czech Republic made these changes which gave higher yields and ushered in the ability to use machines rather than manpower.
1948 - 1989 The Communist Era
For 41 years after the end of WWII, Czechoslovakia was under Soviet rule. During this time, the government nationalized farms, vineyards and any other viable enterprise and transferred private assets into public assets. The wine industry faltered.
Forests were destroyed, boundaries between family farms and vineyards were removed, and the vineyards became government property.
This NY Times article brilliantly describes what happened to Czech wine under Communism and how they came out from under this era to shine again.
To read NYT article, click or copy below link:
In 1989, The Velvet Revolution brought an end to Communism. Once again, the ancient tradition of cultivating vines and making wines was revived.
In 1996 European wine laws were translated into the Czech language, and the industry became more regulated which is a great thing for modern wine making. Once the new laws were implemented standards of wine making started to improve.
In 2004 when Czech became a member of the European union, they had to abide by the European wine laws. These wine laws are a combination of the French, Italian and German wine laws. One of the outcomes of this was that now they were restricted from increasing the sizes of vineyards. It also stopped the expansion of new vineyards. New lands could not be purchased and turned into vineyards. A vineyard could be planted only in areas that had been vineyards before.
This is Part One of my Blog on Czech wines. Part Two will cover our recent trip to the vineyard in the Bohemia region outside of Prague.
And Finally - Dining Out in Prague
We like food. We couldn't end a blog without sharing some experiences while in Prague. We ate out every couple of days, and have been very pleased with the restaurants in Prague. Two restaurants stand out for us. Marina Ristorante and Restaurace Stoleti have become our favorites for very different reasons.
Marina Ristorante was recommended by our exchange partner, and we have eaten there four times. It is a high quality riverside restaurant, with a mixture of Italian pastas and seafood. Every meal was good. The fish is fresh, the pasta is homemade, and the wine selection is superior, but mostly Italian wines. We ordered Champagne for my birthday lunch and it was from the Champagne area in Northern France, not to be confused with Prosecco which many restaurants try to pass off as Champagne. Remember - if it doesn't' come from the Champagne region - it is not Champagne!
Restaurace Stoleti is one of those hidden gems we love when we stumble across them. On our second or third day here, we were walking around Old Prague and trying to find a restaurant that wasn't a tourist trap. We walked further and further, until we stopped so Karen could check Google Maps and see where we were. As we stopped and leaned against a wall, the most wonderful smells came out of the restaurant next to us. We looked at each other and said, "let's do it"! Stoleti is old school, old country food. They have a beautiful salad with beet root that we shared and the Venison Goulash was one of our favorites. The last time we ate there we had a delicious fish called "Butterfish". The simple roast chicken was also wonderful. The Sauvignon Blanc we ordered with our first meal in Stoleti was from Italy and quite good. It was fresh, fruity and had a slight earthy taste that is found in European wines.
P.S. - Tipping
When Karen and I first started to visit Europe five years ago, many travel experts, including Rick Steves, suggested you do not leave a gratuity as it was already factored in. That is certainly not the case in Prague. The first question is "are you paying cash or credit?" The second question is, "will the tip be going on the card or cash?"
Prague is very European with regards to eating and drinking. One could say very Italian.
Cash is king here.
*Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title" and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a "king". Source: "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Wenceslaus". Newadvent.org. 1912-10-01. Retrieved 2015-11-18. From Wikipedia