Helena Baker - expert with a nose for fine wine

Helena Baker

Rob Cameron's guest on this week's One on One is Helena Baker, one of the Czech Republic's leading experts on wine. Helena has visited a range of wine regions across Europe and also the United States and South Africa. She's taken part in a number of international wine tasting competitions and in 2001 she co-founded a female circle of wine lovers called "Ladies of Wine". She's also the author of several guides to wine, available in Czech and English, most recently the New Guide to Wine and Wine-making in the Czech Republic 2006.

When did you first become interested in wine?

"I think there came a time when I realised that wine was also for pleasure, not for drinking, and I decided I was going to learn something about the contents of a bottle rather than just emptying it."

Wine and wine tasting is traditionally something of a man's world. What's it like being a woman in the male world of wine?

"I don't think it's only for women. There are increasingly more women now amongst the tasters, because I taste at wine competitions around the world. Also it is said that women have better noses than men."

Wine tasting has been described by some as a rather pretentious way to spend one's time. Can you really tell the difference beyond red or white, dry or sweet, good or bad?

"Yes of course. I can just show you here two samples which are quite characteristic."

We have some wines in front of us. What do we have here?

"The first sample is a grape variety called Sauvignon Blanc. In the Czech Republic they just call it Sauvignon. It's a white grape variety, originally from Bordeaux. Its characteristic is that when the wine is young, it's reminiscent of nettles, freshly mown grass, gooseberries - even cat's pee on a gooseberry bush, some say. When it's mature it might remind us of ripe peaches."

So talk me through the actual tasting. What do you first when you taste a wine?

"Well, first of all you look at the wine. You judge its appearance. So you have the clarity, and the colour, and any other things you can see in the glass, in English it's called legs, in French they call it cuisse. You can see little bubbles. In white wine which is young it will be a straw colour maybe with greenish tinges. If the white wine is mature it could be deeper and darker, it can be amber, even brown, tawny, or sometimes black, like a Spanish fortified wine made from the Pedro Ximenez grape variety."

So how would you describe this wine we have in front of us?

"Well, I would say it's pale straw in appearance. The second characteristic we examine is its smell, or nose [Helena takes deep sniff of wine]...as I said in this variety it is gooseberryish, a little grassy, but also some sort of yellow fruit. I was told this was vintage 2004, so there is a certain maturity on it, so we can detect the white or yellow fruit aroma on it."

The Czechs of course are a nation of beer drinkers. Do you think that's beginning to change now?

"I think so, because you can't drink beer with everything, certainly in those quantities how they used to here, so I think wine is now becoming the drink to enjoy yourself with."

And not seen as too elitist?

"No, I don't think so. In this country there are areas which have traditionally been wine regions. Though if you go to Moravia and you end up in a Moravian wine cellar, when the tasting is finished the majority of wine makers end up in the local pub having a pint!"

Something of an irony there!

"Not really. They say because the wine, and especially local wines, are quite refreshing and have crisp acidity, to have a pint of Pilsner balances it out because Pilsner Urquell is not acidic and balances the PH."

What about Czech wines? My French friends usually turn their noses up at a glass of Czech Muller Thurgau. Are they being snobbish or does Czech wine really belong to the second division of the world wine league?

"I have a friend in London who came to Prague and everybody told her - don't drink wine, drink beer. But she was pleasantly surprised when she came and I took her to places where she could drink decent wine."

You're here to promote your latest book the New Guide to Wine and Wine-making in the Czech Republic 2006. Where should people go for the best wine in the Czech Republic?

"I think they should go to wine bars or places called vinotekas, definitely, because they have the best selection of wines. Ordinary pubs or restaurants will probably have litre bottles with a plastic cork in it, and this is a sign you should drink beer and not wine."

And within the Czech Republic, where are the best areas for wines?

"There are altogether around 500 hectares of vines around Prague, and the rest - I think at the 2005 count there were 18,000 hectares - on the Slovak-Austrian borders. In Moravia obviously the climate is generally warmer, and the grape varieties are similar to those grown in neighbouring Austria, like Gruner Veltliner, Welschriesling which can ripen to magnificent levels of grape sugar and can produce wines of high attributes, maybe the equivalent of the German Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese. Recently the Moravian wine makers started making straw wine and ice wine, which is quite popular and is becoming quite known even outside the borders of the Czech Republic."

What's your all-time absolute favourite Czech wine?

"I have two favourites at the moment. It's a winery called Springer or his brother Stapleton Springer. And another is called Dobra Vinice, where the wine makers make wine in the style of his friend from Slovenia who is quite famous even abroad. The Springer brothers make wines reminiscent of the wines of Burgundy, whites and reds, and their father actually looks after the vineyards. He tends to it every day. The vineyard is actually his baby and when you the grapes and how healthy and ripe they are they have to make very good wine. There is a saying - you can't make good wine from poor grapes."