At my near-wrecking of the bike as I smiled and waved, the little group gathered around the spit waived me down and beckoned us over.
We just smiled ourselves into something special.
We were riding west into Mikulov, a small town in the center of Moravian wine country. I was bored … the Greenways trail we had been following had spent too many miles on the barren trail through the border no-man’s land. The communist government had cleared everything along this strip so they could patrol and shoot whatever moved without obstruction. And they had done such a thorough job I had lost interest in the ride beyond marveling at the difference between the cultural desert we traveled and the rest of this rich country that had amazed. So I led us off the trail onto a little detour into a small town seeking something a little more interesting.
Seek and you shall find. As we rode past a little wine cellar road outside of the village my nose let me to roast pig and a wine-making party.
Crates of white reisling and purple cabernet grapes picked that morning waited in a trailer across the road. The cellar buzzed with a family busily shoveling grapes and juice that had just been crushed into a barrel with a screw lid to squish out the last of the juice.
A young boy used a strainer to take out debris. A man with a garden hose syphoned the juice into a larger bucket into the lower level of the brick cellar. The walls of the lower cellar are gunky with white mildew and mold. The wine lines the edge, from the new crush juice to 5 year old barrels. This is a small operation, purely for family and friends. Like wine has been produced here since the Romans.
An energetic little man named Josef buzzed around supervising. It was his cellar and his wine. He hands us tastes … here is the fresh pressed juice. Next is the juice, slightly fermented. And then, we are honored with the special barrel … a liquor that burned the throat … in the good way good liquor has a little burn going down. He syphons the out of the barrel by sucking it through a large glass tube with a glass bubble, and then holds the end with his finger. The liquor is served into glasses right from the barrel.
And, like the hundreds of other cellars in Moravia that have been producing wine in these cellars for hundreds of years – maybe even millennia – this is strictly a family operation. The volunteers here cooking pig and helping make the wine and pick the grapes had come from the north part of Moravia and were living in an RV to help with the crush. They are having a blast. Now we are, too.
After thank yous and goodbyes we headed on into Mikulov, a special town with a long Jewish heritage and a massive castle towering over the center ringed by white chalk hills. And, luckily for us, it was cheese festival weekend. And of course with cheese, there must be wine.
Petr had lived six years in the US and had visited Seattle and Olympic National Park. And Petr loves the local wines. He loves the Moravian culture and the town of Mikulov. And best, he loves sharing what he knows to two strangers who show up and ask.
So he tells us about the wine he knows and loves. The most common and unique wine here is a Riesling called Welch Reisling. It’s a different grape than the German Reisling, but makes a very common dry table wine. I’ve been drinking it – and it’s very quaffable. The Austrian version of this wine is Veltlinske Zelena … a little more acidic and this is Austria’s principle white wine. “A noble variety … meaning it can make common table wine or also produce fine wines.”
Petr says the description of the wines from here are correctly described as “typical high acidity from the cold growing climate, light to medium bodied white aromatic wines.” I take careful notes.
We taste both the Welch Reisling and the Veltlinske Zelena … both very good. And also a Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon which I liked, and what he calls “swimming pool” wine … meaning they can only sell it in the summer and on Valentine’s Day.
Did I mention how much I loved talking to Petr?
He tells us the history of wine in the region … Started from Romans who had their nearest outpost in Vienna, but needed to give their soldiers 2 liters of wine rations a day during peace, 4 liters during wartime. And how production here is very small, and they need to import much of their wine to satisfy demand.
He tells us that during communism wine production was discouraged … wine was too individual and communism was about the masses. The masses should drink beer. So this meant that much of the Czech wine was exported to … Russia. And after independence the Russians owed the Czech Republic so much money for the wine they imported they tried to repay the debt by giving the Czech Republic their old Cold War tanks as repayment after the revolution. The Czech Republic said no thanks.
And Petr not only taught us about the wine … we learned that we shouldn’t say the Czech Republic is Eastern Europe … it’s Central Europe. “You Americans always say Eastern Europe. But it’s a little insulting. Plus now with the Russians in Ukraine … we don’t want to be lumped in with them.” (Woops. That’s the second blunder I’ve made on this blog that I know about so far. The first was accidently calling Bohemia … Bavaria. That was like saying the the US south was full of Yankees. Apologies! Thanks to a friend with the Greenways for pointing that out. )
Petr helps us line up this complicated history … This borderland – including Mikulov – was included as part of the Sudetenland that was annexed by Germany under Hitler – a give-away by four Western countries in the Munich Agreement without anyone from the Czech Republic at the table to protest. Local townspeople abandoned their homes and fled after the annexation, leaving empty properties available for anyone who asked.
And, since Mikulov was so close to the border, many tried to escape to the Austrian side of the iron curtain … including several attempts to hang-glide from the top of the mountain over the wall. The Soviets were so worried about this area close to the border they stationed two tanks in the middle of the town square after their 1968 invasion. There is a memorial to those who died in the attempt placed along the bike route at the area where many of the escape attempts occurred.
Now I write this sitting in a comfortable Vinoteca, sipping a glass of Welch Reisling and listening to American Oldies through the music system. Much more informed about the wine I’m drinking. And the communities I’m visiting.
And much more humbled … yet again … at the kindness shown to visitors who don’t speak the language … but care enough about the place they are visiting to stop, smile, ask questions and try to understand.