Winemaking in the Czech Republic

A profusion of irises and spirea spills over the roadsides as we race down the Czech Republic’s E50 on a sparkling May morning. The countryside undulates with rolling hills of brilliant green, typical of spring, except for an occasional carpet of lemony rapeseed. It could be anywhere in Canada at this time of year except for the red-tiled roofs of villages in the distance, the spires of an ancient castle and ruby poppies growing in the ditches, more typical of European landscapes than Canadian.

We’re on our way to the Moravian region of the Czech Republic to participate in one of the annual folk festivals, the Ride of Kings in Vlcnov, and visit some of the wineries dotting this southern region snug on the border of Austria.

The Czech Republic is still an inexpensive destination, even though the economy is beginning to reap the benefits of joining the European Union in 2004. Food, transportation and accommodation are good deals in this country of 10.5 million. A main dish in the wine cellar U Lisu in Uherske Hradiste costs $4 Cdn, a side dish was $1. Even a bottle of a 25-year-old wine was only $46 (a regular bottle of wine was muchcheaper, starting at about $4). A double room in nearby Stare Mesto cost $92 for two people and included breakfast.

History buffs visiting the Czech Republic will find entire cities intact from the 10th and 11th centuries with several different architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and baroque, often all in the same town square of the more than 40 protected historical towns. The Republic boasts 12 historical monuments on the UNESCO Heritage list and more than 200 castles, chateaux and monuments.

Our first stop is Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic, where even though there is a McDonald’s on the main square and everyone is talking on a cellphone, there is an eerie silence in the cobbled streets where no traffic is allowed. We follow a narrow street, come across a set of wide stone steps and find ourselves in a charming wine cellar for a traditional Czech dinner followed by a serenade of classical folk music.

From Brno, we head to Straznice, where one of the largest and oldest folk festivals in Europe has been held every June for more than 60 years. We stop on a hilltop east of Brno to relive the famous Battle of Three Emperors in 1805. Mock battles take place here every December to commemorate this 1805 Battle of Austerlitz.

When we arrive in Vlcnov for the famous Ride of the Kings, the town is buzzing with preparations and high spirits as residents in full folk costume decorate their patient horses in brightly coloured crepe flowers, leis, ribbons and streamers. As visitors, we are welcomed as if we have lived in the village for hundreds of years. I poise my camera, and a young father holds his three-year-old daughter up and says, “Show Canada how beautiful little girls in Moravia are.”

The “king” is a 10-year-old boy chosen for his age to symbolize pureness and is dressed traditionally as a girl to disguise himself from medieval witches. He is guided through the streets in a formal procession, flanked by escorts with drawn sabers.

The homes in Vlcnov are meticulously manicured. Until the revolution of 1989, people did not take pride in their homes, afraid that if they added anything new, the secret police would come and take it away. Today, the mood is festive as the villagers dance, sing, tell stories and celebrate with gusto – and lots of wine and robust foods prepared by villagers. We are offered roasted meats, dumplings and povidla (pastries filled with ricotta cheese and plum jam) along with our morning glass of wine.

The royal town of Uherske Hradiste was founded in 1257 and was one of the most important towns during the Middle Ages, particularly in protecting the Czech kingdom against the Hungarians. Winemaking in this region dates back to the Roman Empire of AD 4 and grew along with the spread of Christianity and the role of monasteries in planting and maintaining vineyards. There are eight vine-growing areas in Moravian Slovakia, Uherske Hradiste being one of them. The hilly vineyards, wineries and the rows of brightly painted blue and white wine cellar houses create a unique character to the Moravian Slovak landscape where various soil types, altitude and specific microclimatic conditions form the character of Moravian wines.

Wine growers in the Southern Moravia grow about 35 traditional and lesser known varieties of vines. In Uherske Hradiste, we visited one of the oldest vineyards and restaurants at U Lisu, dating back to the 1700s. In Moravian Slovakia, good wine is important to a well-laid table and the pride of the host. Accompanying the offering of food and wine is a joyful mood, merry dancing and songs, which are an integral part of a visit to a wine cellar. A cellar owner will rarely turn down a visitor and will offer a glass of wine, a discussion about its merits and a little food.

One of the most relaxing ways of arriving in Petrov is by sailing up the Bata Canal. It may not be the Rhine or the Mosel, but the Bata Canal, a 65-kilometre waterway running through Straznice, with its 14 locks, is a lot more peaceful, especially with a speed limit of five kilometres an hour protecting the banks from erosion. (You’ll be fined 5,000 Czech crowns for exceeding the limit.) It wasn’t always this peaceful. The bridges were bombed in the Second World War. But today, flanked by the original meadows, the canal is home to 30 rare and protected species, including black and white storks, kingfishers, European beavers, moorhens, great reed warblers and six kinds of shellfish.

Another idyllic way of seeing the wine region in Moravia is by cycling the wine routes. A project initiated by the wine-growing villages of southern Moravia, the wine routes are all marked and zigzag through fields and ancient forests.