Like a virgin: awaiting the bumper crop of new Czech wines

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

The Czech Republic is world famous for its beer: but what about wine? Since the fall of communism in 1989, both new and established winemakers began buying high-quality, select grapes from abroad — in any case, the Czech climate precludes mass production of the cheaper table wines abundant in the Mediterranean — and in the years ahead of accession to the European Union, a mad rush to plant new seedlings saw a veritable bounty of viniculture.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
What will Czech winemakers reap from what they have sown? Could the virgin harvests yield wines as good as the French and Italian vintages? Yes, says the director of the Znovin Znojmo vineyard, Pavel Vajcner, who claims that Czech wines can be more aromatic, and bolder in taste, due to the weather:

"I think it is not too daring a statement. We are in the north, which makes the wine more aromatic, and we get the rain at the right time in the summer, which has a good influence on the taste. In southern countries, there is no rain then. We also have excellent soil here and quality consistency. So I can say that, for white wines, the quality can be even better."

Czech winemakers like Pavel Vajcner are impatiently awaiting the new "virgin wines" from grapes planted in the final seasons ahead of the country's EU accession, in May last year. They anticipate a "higher quality" wine to come of it, and say that the domestic industry — which some had feared would collapse due to intense competition from France, Italy and other traditional wine-exporting countries— has weathered the storm.

So what has changed since EU entry in 2004? According to Jiri Sedlo, chairman of the union of winemakers, almost nothing. The doomsday prophecies that Czech and Moravian wines would wither on the vine, once tariffs on EU wines were removed and prices dropped, simply didn't come to fruition.

Jiri Sedlo
"Everything has gone rather smoothly, without any major fluctuations in the market. In the end, also, the import of wines — about which there was a lot of talk — wasn't problematic. No one went bankrupt because of EU entry. On the other hand, the world opened its doors to our wines; we now have the same options as anybody else, and shouldn't have any fear. "

In 1989, there were some 12,000 hectares of vineyards registered in the Czech Republic. Last year, at the time of EU entry, there were 19,000 hectares. Previously, the country was divided into two viniculture regions, today there are sixteen, with about 550 hectares of Bohemian land incorporated into EU zone A and 17,500 hectares in Moravia, the eastern half of the country, incorporated into EU zone B. About 90 percent of Czech vineyards are located in South Moravia, in the rolling hills near the border with Austria.

The director of the Czech winemaking foundation, Jaroslav Machavec, explains the rush to establish new vineyards.

"In the EU, there are regulations restricting member states' from expanding vineyards. As of the moment of the Czech accession to the EU, we had to stop planting. There were objections, local growers asked for an exemption, to keep expanding even after EU entry, because the local crops could only meet some 35 to 40 percent of domestic demand. We asked for a transition period of about five years."

Illustrative photo: Jana Šustová,  Radio Prague International
But that transitory period wasn't granted, so Czech winemakers planted as many new crops as possible and put off cultivating existing plots. In the last three planting seasons alone, more than 3,000 new hectares were planted. The state and vineyard owners allocated some 2 billion crowns towards expanding and establishing new vineyards.

After EU entry, 80 million litres of wine — mostly cheaper brands from southern Europe — were imported to the Czech Republic, sometimes at less than 20 crowns per litre, wholesale. Czech growers can't compete on such a level and must therefore focus on quality wines, and mainly white wines.

But growers are eagerly awaiting the virgin wines from the new vineyards and have plans to boost what they call 'agro-tourism' — wine tastings and strolls in the Moravian countryside — to introduce the new Czech vintages. In the coming years, virgin wines will make up about one fourth of domestic production.

Czech winemaking foundation director Jaroslav Machavec again:

"You know, this is a kind of phenomenon. Virgin wines come from a vineyard that has planted grapes for the first time; when something happens for the first time, it is highly anticipated, there is an element of surprise. I don't know what it is, but the wine is always somehow special. In the coming years, a lot of vineyards will be producing virgin wines at the same time, which hasn't happened for ages, so there will be a great deal of it on the market."