On a holiday to the Czech Republic, Annabel Onyango discovers the developing culture of wine from the traditional methods to the countryside vineyards.
Escaping from Kenya in July is the only way to survive our winter. Every year, my husband and I migrate North to sojourn in Central Europe to lose ourselves in eating, drinking and making merry.
The Czech Republic is undeniably beer country. Its long and well-honed tradition of brewing premium and internationally-renowned beers (Pilsner Urquell, Budweiser Budvar) makes it one of the top producers in the world. As such, wine takes a back seat. As much as I enjoy a freshly poured draught beer (pivo) with a frothy head of foam, cultural and geographical limitations do little to curb my endless quest for wine.
At my father-in-law’s country cottage, he serves us a nameless 2015 Riesling from the village of Bavory in the modest wine-making region of South-Eastern Moravia. It’s a dry wine that’s been made there for thousands of years. This particular bottle is from a private wine-maker who sells very cheaply (the equivalent of Ksh 150 per litre) but only to family and friends, dispensed in non-descript bottles with no label. It’s good though. We visit fancy countryside neighbours who unleash pricey-looking bottles of French and Italian wines as early as 11AM, a chaser for their morning coffee. It’s a summer lifestyle I could get used to.
At dinner, a shot glass of whatever bottle is on the table is offered to our 7-year-old niece. She sips it like a pro, asking politely if tomorrow she can sample something red instead.
Sticking with the country theme, we pile into the car to visit Staňa – a greying old man, hunched over, with dirty jeans and weathered hands. He is a small-scale traditional winemaker in the village of Vracov specializing in frankovka, a red Czech wine. Unusually, his wine is stored underground in shared cellars that supply local restaurants and compete in local contests. In his grubby cellar, Staňa conducts an ad hoc wine tasting for us, using traditional methods, recounting stories about his long (but clearly unprofitable) career as a master winesman. The whole scene is so provincial and charming, it’s surreal.
Czech wines, white and red, are dry. The Northern hemisphere doesn’t get the long summers typical of more southern parts of Europe, so the grapes don’t develop the sugar content typical of warmer climates. What you get is a tart wine, fresh and crisp which is perfect for summer.
Then we are in Prague, the stunning and historically-decadent capital of the Czech Republic where wine pairing is becoming mainstream now. But even here, wine can seem a little elusive. Amongst countless world-class bars and restaurants offering food from every corner of the world, servers at the more traditional Czech pubs will scoff in your face for ordering wine instead of their beloved beer. Thus is the way here.
Chasing wine on the road is the best rest and relaxation I could ask for. Travelling only feeds the addiction, opening my palette to new tastes, textures and experiences.