When it comes to alcohol, the Czech Republic is most famous for its beer, right? Well, in years gone by that may well have been the case, but the country has another tipple it is quite rightly very proud of — and that is wine.
To the Czech people, this isn’t breaking news; they have been growing grapes and producing wine in the Moravia region for hundreds of years, and viticulture is ingrained in their culture and lifestyle. But unlike France, Italy and California, wine tourism is a relatively recent development — so I’m hoping to wet my whistle and find out what all the fuss is about.
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Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city (after the capital, Prague), is known as the gateway to the wine region of Moravia and is an excellent place to start when exploring the area and its many vineyards, cellars and wineries.
Brno is a beautiful, historic city that not only celebrates the region’s wine-making history, but is also worth a visit simply to marvel at the combination of functionalist, Baroque and Gothic architecture, and the many galleries, theatres and museums that showcase the city’s love of the arts.
Having checked into the Hotel International, I am given my introduction to the area’s wine industry with a guided tour around Brno’s many bars, and have my first chance to sample some authentic Moravian wine.
My guide, Martin Hoffman, explains that more than 95% of all vineyards in the Czech Republic are to be found in South Moravia, making this the heart of the country’s wine-making industry. The vast majority of wines from this area are white, due to the climate and landscape of the South Moravian vineyards — sunshine and proximity to river water provide the perfect conditions for white grapes to flourish. Sipping my way around the city, I have to admit these fruity, fresh whites are a delight.
As the sun rises the next day, and with only a slightly sore head, I head off to the town of Znojmo. It is here that the tourism game has really picked up, with activities teaching visitors about the region’s wine-making history, along with visits to cellars and wineries.
One such activity is a guided cycle ride along Moravia’s many (mostly flat) cycle paths. These excursions are run by Cyklo Klub Znojmo (cykloklubznojmo.cz/) and take in a number of ancient cellars — some of which have been modernised, and others that are still producing wine using traditional methods and equipment. Some even retain the mould-covered walls and damp, cold tunnels to prove it. Prices vary depending on the length of cycle ride, routes taken and wineries visited.
One especially impressive example is Roman Polák’s winery, Romans 1667 (romans1667.cz). Roman is a born showman, with a deeply instilled passion for the wine-making industry, making him the perfect person to bring to life South Moravia’s history. His sparkling wine (sekt) is delicious, and made all the more tasty by the flamboyant manner in which he uncorks it — with a sword. It’s as fine (if not better) than Prosecco, and even at 10am, one glass just isn’t enough. Booking ahead is recommended if you require a table, but walk-ins are encouraged for a quick sample and look around.
Sekt and sword at Roman Polák’s winery (Rachel Howard/PA)
If a cycle ride feels like too much effort, there’s always the option of taking the Vinobus (vinobus.cz/en), which transports visitors between the wineries, allowing them to sample as much as they like.
Taking in up to 20 vineyards with seven tasting-stops, passengers are accompanied by a guide who paints a picture of not only the history of the region’s wine-making, but also the current manufacturing processes, and a few knowledgeable insights into the wines themselves. Prices from 150CZK/£5 per person.
The vast majority of Czech wines are white, and there are many varieties on offer; alongside international favourites Riesling and pinot gris, local grapes such as Pálava are used by many wineries to create aromatic, golden-coloured wines with a gentle sweetness. Being a fan of dry white wines, I am very pleasantly surprised by the Pálava varieties I sample. In fact, they turn out to be my favourites.
A must-see stop on the Vinobus is Louka Abbey, a former monastery that now houses the visitor centre for one of the area’s biggest wineries, Znovín Znojmo, plus a labyrinth of cellars (znovin.cz; 90-minute tour with tasting 100CZK/£4). It is here that I sample my favourite rosé wine of the trip. Made from pinot noir grapes, it’s dry, light, fruity — a joy to drink as the sun goes down.
After a blissful night’s sleep at the stunningly located Hotel Katerina in Znojmo — think hilltop views, epic sunsets and huge rooms — I set off to beautiful Mikulov.
Located on the border with Austria, the town was founded at the beginning of the 12th century; places of interest include Mikulov Castle, Holy Hill and the Jewish Quarter.
Situated on the edge of the Pálava mountains, it boasts a near-perfect climate for grape growing, and is surrounded by vineyards and wineries, one of the most impressive being Sonberk (sonberk.cz/en/).
Overlooking the Pálava hills, Sonberk dates back to the 13th century, and even received royal approval when Louis II of Hungary requested wine from its vineyards be supplied to Prague Castle.
These days, Sonberk is a much more modern affair which wouldn’t look out of place in California’s Napa Valley. The main building was designed by Josef Pleskot and combines wood, glass and concrete to create a luxurious interior.
The vineyards produce 150,000 bottles of wine per year, made from hand-picked grapes, with varieties including Riesling and Pálava. Guests are encouraged to take a walk out to the vineyards while sampling Sonberk’s wares, and I must admit, there’s something quite magical about sipping a glass of wine while watching the sun shine down on the bountiful vines. Guided tours should be booked at least two days in advance — 454CZK/£15 per person; wine samples are extra.
My day draws to a close at Vinařský Pension André, a hotel surrounded by 50 hectares of vineyards, producing 19 grape varieties. The hotel is a modern, luxurious space, serving delicious local dishes to be enjoyed, of course, alongside a glass of wine. If you want to up the ante, you can head out into the vineyards and take a climb up the timber viewing tower, for a wonderful view of the vineyards.
I predict big things for wine tourism in the Czech Republic, but with national consumption higher than production, their wines may still be a rarity in supermarkets anywhere else. But, what better excuse to make the trip over to Moravia for a first-hand experience of not only the history behind the industry, but also a taste of the real thing?
How to plan your trip
Ryanair (Ryanair.com) flies to Brno from London from £30 return.
Rooms at Hotel International in Brno (hotelinternational.cz), Hotel Kateřina in Znojmo (hotelkaterina.cz) and Penzion André in Velké Pavlovice (slechtitelka.cz) all start from £60-80 per night with breakfast.