Nation of beer-drinkers slowly discovering the delights of fine wines

In this week's Panorama, Rob Cameron attends the annual Wines and Spirits trade fair in Prague, one of the most important dates on the Czech winemaker's calendar.

I'm standing in front of the Vystaviste trade grounds. Today is the Day of Czech Wines, and to mark the occasion they're holding a huge trade fair called Wines and Spirits. With me is Lenka Mrvova, she's from one of the exhibitors here today, one of the biggest wine producers in the Czech Republic. What does this trade fair mean to a company such as yours?

"Of course this is a very important day for us. I'm from the company Soare sekt, and we are the producers and distributors of sparkling wines and of course of wines."

What goes on at a big trade fair like this? Presumably it's a chance to meet and catch up with other people in the business.

"Exactly. You can check the trade of the Czech wines, also the wines from abroad, you can catch the new customers, you can open new relationships."

Speaking there of new customers - I gather that wine-drinking is on the up in the Czech Republic. More and more people, especially young people, are turning to wine and turning away from beer.

"Exactly. We are famous as a nation that drinks beer, but now the situation is changing. Young people are starting to drink more wine, and the wine market is growing. Each year the percentage is going up and up, but if I can compare the beer and wine markets, there are so many players on the wine market. It's much tougher and there are many more small players. In the Czech Republic you've got four or five big beer brands but so many wine brands. So each customer - young or old - can choose whatever he or she wants."

So there must be very fierce competition among the individual winemakers.

"Exactly. The competition is bigger from abroad. You've got wines from Italy, wines from Australia, wines from Chile. And of course the situation now - after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 - people want to taste something new. So Czech winemakers from Moravia must also compete now in the European Unions with Italian winemakers, Spanish winemakers and winemakers from all over the world."

Now the million dollar question - is Czech wine any good?

"Of course!"

Right, I'm going inside to put that to the test.

"My name is Martin Prokes, and my grandfather, my father and my family have a strong winemaking tradition and now I am the marketing director of Vinium Velke Pavlovice, one of the specialised original Moravian wine producing companies."

So you probably have wine running through your veins, not blood...


Generally, are things looking good for the Czech wine industry?

"I think that our Moravian and Czech wines - 96 percent of them are of Moravian origin - have a very good brand in the consumers' minds and we have a very good position, but after joining the European Union it's becoming very hard to sell our wines, because there are strong distributors, international retail chains."

So EU entry has not necessarily been a good thing for Czech winemakers?

"Trade was opened up, but the problem is that we have very strong competition in the retail chains. They import wines without any other costs, but we have costs with distribution so the conditions aren't equal. So international wines are in the best position for distribution through these chains."

Right - because I know that in my corner shop, it's a tiny shop, doesn't sell much, but I can walk in there and come out with a bottle of Jacob's Creek, South African wines, Chilean wines, whatever, for a couple of dollars.

"I think Moravian wines are very original and very special, the white wines are very fruity and very fresh, I think you cannot find similar wines in the world. The varied wines are very fruity, very fresh. So I think we have a place in the wine world. But in our current situation it's very hard to sell them."

Let's put that claim to the test - you've brought me a wine to try, it's Rulandske bile, a white wine. Can you describe it before we try it?

"It's a Pinot Blanc, in Czech it's Rulandske bile, it's a late harvest in our categories of winery law. It's from our exclusive collection for gastronomy only. It's distributed only through wholesalers to gastronomy companies directly."

To posh restaurants in other words.

"Yes, exactly. This is a young wine with very good maturing grapes and a very nice attractive colour - yellow with green reflexes. It's a very rich colour, and it reflects this very good maturing of grapes in the vineyards. The smell is a very nice fruity, fresh, tropical smell or the smell of typical Moravian fruits - peach, apple and sometimes you can smell honey."

I'm salivating now so we have to try it...that's very good.

"It has a very round taste. It means that it's very harmonious and fruity in taste. It could be a great combination with fruit salads, or vegetable salads, or can be combined with Czech and Moravian cuisine."

Are you finding that Czechs are turning away from their traditional drink - beer - and starting to drink more wine?

"Yes, our marketing statistics show that each year more and more people are drinking wine. This year wine consumption will be 17.7 litres per capita per year. Beer is decreasing, as are distillates. It's a very good situation because people are changing their lifestyles, they're eating more healthily, and I think when you drink wine you automatically eat very healthily."

And judging by the hordes of people queuing up outside the Vystaviste trade grounds, drinking wine is not going out fashion anytime soon.