From New York to Oregon, South Africa to Argentina, there are unceasing claims to possessing the “of the moment” wine region. Austrian wines, in particular, are finally having their day with international oenophiles.
But just to the north of Österreich lies a yet little known land of Bacchanalian and visual pleasures. Indeed, our pick for the great undiscovered wine region is the Czech Republic’s ethereal Moravia, something of a Mitteleuropa Tuscany (and just two hours from Prague by rail). Noah Ullman, Founder of Czech Wine Imports, and his wife and partner Cheryl, have made it a mission to bring these surprising wines to American tables—and they can already be indulged at such esteemed eateries as Craft, Print and Park Avenue Autumn in NYC, Park Grill in Chicago, Union League Cafe in New Haven and L’Escale in Greenwich, as well as your local fine wine shop, naturally.
For our part, BlackBook has had the pleasure of sampling many of the Moravian wines the Ullmans’ venture has made available in the US, are we are exuberantly, rhapsodically hooked.
We chatted recently with Noah, whose enthusiasm for the region has us already booking our flight.
What drew you to Moravian wine culture?
Discovery! I had no idea there was such a rich wine heritage in Moravia. When I tried the wines I was blown away and needed to learn more.
What wines has Moravia been most known for?
This is a very special place on earth, geographically north of the Alps, on the northern slope of the Danube, and at the Western edge of the Carpathian Mountains. And like in most cooler climates, white wine grapes seem to thrive. But the red grapes deliver surprisingly complex, light to mid-weight wines. It’s not clear if this is the result of climate change or upgraded winemaking techniques, but the reds are really starting to shine.
What are some of the distinguishing characteristics of the wines from the region?
I know it’s a buzzword in the industry, but I have to say it is minerality. The wines really have a sense of place that is different than wines from other regions. They are often described as a bridge between Austria and Alsace and I think they are much softer and rounder than their Austrian counterparts. There are exceptional undertones of spice and an earthiness in these wines.
Specifically, what are the best wines coming out of the region right now?
The Riesling is exceptional, very distinct and delicious, in the dry style. I’m in good company with that selection—a Moravian Riesling won “Best Of Show” at the 2014 SF International Wine Competition amongst over 1500 other white wines from around the world. I am also partial to the Rivaner—aka Müller-Thurgau—the Pinot Blanc, the Gruner Veltliner, and the Welschriesling…which is not related to Riesling and is a beautiful, flowery wine.
And the reds?
We have a Burgundy style Pinot Noir blend called Rouci that is fabulous. I’ve been told by some experienced palates that it is better than Burgundies that are twice the price. I am currently enjoying St. Laurent, a relative of Pinot Noir, and Blauer Portugieser. Cabernet Moravia, which is a truly indigenous variety, is a cross of Cabernet Franc and Zweigelt first bred in the early 1970’s, and officially a new variety of grape as of 2001. This is a very rare wine grape; we import the only Cabernet Moravia in the country, delicious and a great value at $20 a bottle.
What are some of the best Moravian wines to drink for autumn? And what foods and situations would they go best with?
Because of their minerality and structure, all of these wines are great food wines. Our Rivaner is amazing with smoked gouda, our Sauvignon Blanc makes a pizza with peppers and onions a gourmet experience. Many of the reds go very well with simple grilled meats or fish. Blauer Portugieser is our Thanksgiving wine, a perfect complement to turkey and sweet potatoes.
What is the story behind the design of your Vino z Czech label?
When we realized that Alphonse Mucha, one of the great Art Nouveau artists, was born in the winemaking region of South Moravia, and learned that his father was a winemaker, we knew we had our fit. Cheryl, who was an Art History major, is responsible for the label layout, and for matching Mucha’s beautiful works of art to the type of wine in the bottle.
What are some of the vineyards you would suggest visiting when in Moravia?
There are 18,000 registered wineries in the Czech Republic. Most of them are small family operations producing lovely village wine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit them. Moravians are a warm and friendly people and they have these fabulous wine cellars that all include tasting rooms. But you must begin your tour with Chateau Valtice (pictured below), part of a UNESCO Heritage site, where you will walk through cellars first cut in 1432 under a spectacular 15th century chateau. I also recommend traveling to Znovin Znojmo, which is in a building that was originally designed as a cloister. And Sonberk, “Winery of the Year” in the Czech Republic; it would not be out of place in Napa.
Are there Moravian towns you would most recommend seeing?
This part of the world has beautiful towns and villages, castles and ruins dotting the landscape. Mikulov and Znojmo are especially charming. I recommend renting bicycles and touring the entire region on the greenways of interconnected trails that can take you from vineyard to vineyard.
STAY IN MORAVIA
Brno, the capital of Moravia, is actually considered a Modernist architectural pilgrimage. The newly opened Hotel Grandezza is dazzling with restored details of Art Nouveau and Czech Modernism. The city is a lively base from which to explore the surrounding vineyards and villages.
STAY IN PRAGUE
The Mandarin Oriental (pictured below) is a sleek but ethereal presence in the historic Mala Strana, drawing film and pop stars like John Malkovich and Depeche Mode; its spa is one of the best in the city. Buddha Bar Hotel appeals more to creatures of the night, with its namesake bar and restaurant always a scene; decor throughout is over-the-top baroque Chinoiserie, if you hadn’t already guessed that.