New Prague festival aims to boost Czech wine’s image

Degustación

Prague is renowned for its beer halls and pubs, but not so famous for its wine-bars. All this week, however, a brand new festival is taking place to try and get Czechs and tourists alike off the beer, and onto the wine. Prague Wine Week started on Monday and will culminate in a tasting session of more than 300 wines on Friday evening. Šárka Dušková is the festival’s organizer:

“We love wine, and we think that such a festival is a good thing for Prague, because we would like to increase wine consumption here, and think this is a good way of doing so.”

The Czech Republic is traditionally famed for its beer, and its beer consumption, but would you say that Czechs are becoming more discerning when it comes to drinking wine?

“Czechs are the biggest beer drinkers in the world – we drink 160 litres of beer per capita per year, which is amazing. And the consumption of wine is quite low in comparison with that of beer, still. We drink only 18-20 litres of wine per year. And we think there is no reason why the Czechs shouldn’t consume wine in, say, a more Scandinavian fashion. Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians drink about twice as much wine as us per capita per year.”

The guest of honour at this year’s festival is John Salvi – an English wine expert whose professional credentials include evaluating a certain Soviet leader’s drinks cabinet…

“I was asked to have a look at this cellar which was put together by a czar and which was later taken over by Stalin. And you know, he was quite keen on his wine and he put together a cellar of thousands and thousands of bottles of Georgian wine, but at the same time, a number of bottles of the great wines of Bordeaux – the Lafites, the Latours, the Moutons, the D’Yquems – and there these wines are, sitting in a sort of damp and horrible concrete cellar in the middle of Tbilisi.”

Mr Salvi is no stranger, then, to traveling the world in the pursuit of fine wine, but what exactly was it that brought him to Prague?

“I’m here entirely and completely because of Šárka Dušková, who has adopted me as her mascot, and who has asked me if I will take patronage of the gala tasting and festival Prague Wine Week, which I am honoured and delighted to do.”

How would you compare Czech wines, very generally speaking of course, to wines from around the rest of the world? Can they compare? Are they, do you think, any good?

“Well, of course, that is the 64 dollar question, isn’t it? That is what this week is fundamentally all about. There are lots of dynamics going on here – and because I spent a whole week in Moravia last year, visiting a lot of wineries. And I was excited to see what was going on. On the other hand, unfortunately it is true to say that a lot of the wines produced are still of very basic quality indeed. But those that are making fine wine; I just wish that they would take more interest in the export market. But at the moment they don’t seem to feel that they need the export market, they have a very good market here in Prague and they can sell most of what they produce without a great deal of effort – but I think that that is a pity.”

John Salvi, photo: CTK
Could you give our listeners, should they come across some Czech wine in a shop near them, a kind of beginner’s guide to what to go for and what to avoid? Are there rules of thumb when it comes to dealing with Czech wine?

“Well, I think we will try and avoid ‘what to avoid’. But there are some smallish, extremely fine wine producers. There are some very fine winemakers, absolutely, and their wine is distributed all over the place. But what I also find very exciting personally is the number of new cross-breeds, in other words, new grape varieties that have been produced by crossing other grape varieties. You’ve got this Laurot, you’ve got this Malverina, you have Pálava, you have Cabernet Moravia, and then there is this wonderful one which is a cross between Alibernet and Revolta and André. You know, these are something utterly new, unknown, and which would be very exciting on the export market, because there is no competition at all.”

Do you think that Czech wine gets a bit of a bad name unnecessarily abroad? Do you think that is slightly unfair?

“Yes, I do think that is slightly unfair. I don’t actually think it does have a bad name, sadly – I don’t think it has a name at all. You say to people in most countries in Europe a certain distance away from the Czech Republic ‘what do you know about Czech wines?’ and they’ll answer ‘I didn’t know they made wine in the Czech Republic’. So the result is that no, it doesn’t have a bad name at all – it has no name, and therefore it stands in a perfectly good position to create a name for itself.”

Marek Špalek
So, an upbeat note to end things on there from John Salvi. But what of Czech wine producers themselves? Do they share Mr Salvi’s measured optimism? Marek Špalek is the head of Nové Vinářství – one of the biggest Czech wineries to take part in this year’s Prague Wine Week:

“I think in the future we will be able to sell our wines in Europe and around the world. But the problem is this: nobody knows Czech wine. Everybody knows Czech beer, and Becherovka, but nobody knows Czech wine. And when we present our wine somewhere, everybody thinks it should be cheap, and that this wine is cheap. But to produce wine in the Czech Republic, because we are at the northernmost reaches of wine-producing, it is more difficult than in Italy or France. And nobody is ready to pay such a high price for wine which is not so well known.”

So what can be done? Things like this wine festival or what can be done?

“Yes. I think this is the best way to start getting our wines onto foreign markets – to do marketing and publicity like this. And we need to say to people that our wines are just as good quality as German wines and Austrian wines.”

Mr Špalek will be in Prague, alongside nearly 100 other wine producers, on Friday to bring the wine festival to a suitably Dionysian close. Details on the mammoth wine tasting, and the Czech vintners to have taken part in the Prague Wine Week can all be found on www.praguewine.cz.