Wine Column: Moravian wines catch up with history

When Moravian wines took top gold medals this year at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition, most people had to run to a map to locate Moravia, at the far southeastern corner of the Czech Republic, on the border with Austria. But wine has a long history in Moravia. The 10th Roman Legion made wine here around 89 A.D. Pruning knives left here by fourth-century Roman settlers, echoed by two pruning knives on the 17th-century crest of the noble Moravian Dietrichsteins, also attest to the vine’s importance here.

The Lichtenstein family, under the fiefdom of the Hapsburgs, also cultivated vines in Moravia’s gently rolling hills, around spectacular gardens, fish ponds, follies and castles (later mimicked by Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom).
Wine has thus been central to the culture and economy of this part of Europe except during such times of extreme political disruption as the Thirty Years War (1618–48). Occupation by Hitler’s army during World War II, and the subsequent domination of the region from 1948 to 1989 by Soviet communists, reoriented Moravian vintners away from quality toward quantity, and it is only since the Czech “velvet revolution” of 1989 that Moravians have been able to reclaim their heritage of fine wines.

The difficulties inherent in changing from the communist centralized system to individual and corporate capitalist control are more complex than simply handing the property deeds back to whoever owned the land before the communists claimed it. The Moravians detested their Soviet-dominated government, and did their best to subvert it. Although known in the 1930s for their dynamic, industrious creativity, under a communist system that massed all their properties into huge, government-owned and managed collectives, Moravians learned to feign work, cripple productivity and disable equipment. They also leaned how to frown, avoid eye contact and say “No” with a satisfied smirk.

Under communism, Moravians could produce wine for family use, but they couldn’t sell it. The rural roads around the vineyards of Mikulov and Valtice are lined with odd, bunker- or mausoleum-like stucco buildings that are still family-owned wine cellars, with ancient brick caves containing old barrels and little hand-operated presses. These roads are also lined with fruit and nut trees, numbered and rented to families that can still be seen picnicking under the boughs while harvesting the apples, pears, walnuts or plums for their own use.

It has taken time for the Czechs here to open up, smile and gather the resources, both economic and psychological, to recreate their once-great wine region of Moravia. But a popular biking and hiking Prague-Vienna Greenway; a new National Wine Center and Wine Salon located in the Lichtenstein’s family seat, Valtice Castle; the restoration of hundreds of gorgeous castles and gardens; and the revitalization of many village wine festivals have opened the region to new visitors whose expectations have raised the standards and the mood of viticultural Moravia.
The adoption of European Union winemaking standards and the designation of several UNESCO Biosphere reserves have helped growers and winemakers here make the transition from a communist to a free-market economy. While there are still some extremely large, production-oriented wineries, the best wines are being made by a handful of producers who are aware of international winemaking trends and have invested in new technology while also limiting crop size, picking and sorting by hand and fermenting in small batches. They respect their traditional grapes like Veltlínské zelené  (Gruner Vetliner) while understanding that the international market wants pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc (which, incidentally, they have grown for over 40 years).

I recently visited several Moravian wineries. Most impressive were Sonberk, a new 150,000-bottle winery in one of the most stunning winery buildings I’ve ever seen, with stylish wines to go with the modern image; the larger, cutting-edge Nové Vinarství, whose delicious unoaked chardonnay could set the standard for the variety; and the widely applauded Reisten, whose vineyards benefit from a rare form of Palava chalk soil (biomorphic metamorphic calcium).

Reisten is owned by Radek Nepras, a leading Czech architect and visionary who has played a formative role in revitalizing Moravia’s wine and tourist industries. His wines are made in a traditional, ancient cellar, but Radek’s viewpoint is truly contemporary. His pinot blanc has extraordinary depth and texture; his pinot noir, while deceptively frail, yields all the velvety dimension pinot lovers seek. The day I visited, he and his son broke ground for a new winery.

Wine judges love these wines and, soon, the rest of the world will, too.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.