Czech Wine 101 | Wine Enthusiast
Beer has long been associated with the Czech Republic. But wine is also a focus here, with an industry whose history dates back centuries. Why isn’t it better known?
In short, the years that the country formerly known as Czechoslovakia spent behind the Iron Curtain were devastating to its wine industry. Things have changed since the early 1990s, though, and ever since, the nation’s wine output has grown increasingly impressive—in both quality and quantity.
Here’s a beginner’s dive into the Czech wine landscape and why it deserves your attention.
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The Czech Republic is a hilly landlocked country, classified as a humid continental climate zone, relatively similar to New York’s Finger Lakes region. Typically, Czech summers are warm and somewhat rainy, while winters are cold and usually involve some snow. Though it has no seas or oceans, the country does have a number of lakes and rivers, most notably the Vltava.
Mojmír Baroň, a viticulture professor at Mendel University in Brno, explains that “soil conditions on Czech territory are very diverse—from volcanic in Bohemia in the west to Moravia in the east with tuff and sandstone.” Traditional limestone can also be found, as well as loess loam with clay, especially in Moravia.
Limestone deposits can also be found in the Palava region, a protected landscape area in the South Moravia region on the Austrian border. The limestone lends many wines from this zone a special “salty and mineral” essence that delivers a distinctive flavor, says winemaker Dominika Černohorská, owner of the vineyard Plener in Pavlov.
As with many wine regions around the world, climate change has weighed heavily on Czech viticulture and winemaking in recent years. The increasing incidence of drought presents challenges to winemakers, especially those working with young vines. But even older vines are affected, often leading to smaller harvests.
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Also problematic are increasing average temperatures over the past decade, which have resulted in higher levels of sugar in grapes used for wine. The warming climate “poses new challenges for the field of viticulture and wine-growing that must be faced,” reads a 2021 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Sustainability. This is especially true for the cold-climate white grapes that have long been grown in the country’s main wine-growing regions.
However, these changes may have a silver lining: Another study, published last summer in Heliyon, concludes that this is “likely to lead to an increase in growing areas, especially in [favor] of vine varieties suitable for the production of red or rosé wines.”
Andrea Kotašková, a Czech wine expert and operator of Wine Tours in Czech, points out that for centuries, Prague “was actually famed for being a wine city throughout Europe—and to this day, it is one of the rare capital cities on the continent that can boast its own vineyards.”
In fact, the whole of what’s now the Czech Republic had a well-renowned, vibrant wine industry. Historically known as Bohemia, it became part of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1001. Charles IV, the famed 14th-century emperor, was so passionate about the beverage that he built numerous vineyards in and around Prague. Noblemen and monasteries planted grapes throughout Bohemia and Moravia and made their own vintages.
But several factors plunged the region’s wine culture into despair. The first event was the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648 and caused extensive vineyard destruction, though many were replanted. Next was a phylloxera blight that lasted from 1890 to 1902, which decimated grapevines. Pest-resistant grapes were replanted, but much of the damage to the industry had been done. Just a few decades later, World War II brought further destruction.
But perhaps the worst blow to Czech wine came after the war, when communism swept the region. Traditional wine lands and vineyards were seized from their original owners, and much wine-growing knowledge was lost. Vineyards were often relegated to operate in the style of communal farms with poor-quality production. Wine itself was positioned as a bourgeois drink, with beer given preferred proletarian status, given that it was cheaper and easier to produce.
Mercifully, things have changed since the Communist state of Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1992 and gave rise to the democratic Czech Republic. Largely due to government subsidies, the nation has experienced a renewed interest in viticulture and the return of vineyards to historic wine lands. Altogether, the Czech wine industry has been slowly reclaiming some of its heritage and renown.
Unique Czech Wine Traditions
A young sweet wine made from freshly-pressed, yeast-fermented grape juice, known as Federweisser, is popular throughout continental Europe. In the Czech Republic, it’s known as burčák and is especially light on the alcohol at just 4% abv. The wine is generally available once a year, usually in mid-autumn.
Unfortunately for burčák lovers outside the country, one must travel to the Czech Republic to enjoy it. Exportation is strictly prohibited because the tops of burčák bottles have holes that allow gas to escape, which can result in spillage or even explosions when transported over long distances.
Another notable Czech tradition is Svatomartinské víno, which translates to “St. Martin’s wine.” As the name suggests, the wine honors St. Martin’s Day in late autumn, which is roughly when, historically, the agricultural year ended and grapes were fermented. Traditionally, bottles of St. Martin’s wine were opened at 11 A.M. on November 11.
The wine, which can be either red or white, must pass strict inspections and be made from Czech-grown grapes of the Müller Thurgau, Veltlínské, Muscat Moravský, Modrý Portugal, Svatovavřinecké or Zweigeltrebe varieties. In addition, bottles must bear the image of Saint Martin on a white horse and the vintage date on its neck.
The Czech Republic is a small country with two main wine regions, Moravia and Bohemia. Moravia grows the majority of Czech wines (96%) and has 18,189 hectares of vineyards in total. Within Moravia, the largest sub-region is Mikulovská, and within Bohemia, Mělník.
Grapes to Know
Two-thirds of the wines produced in the Czech Republic are white wines. The peppery, dry Veltlínske zelene (Grüner Veltliner) has the greatest amount of hectares in the country. Other major white grapes include the floral and lightweight Müller-Thurgau; complex and toasty Ryzlink (Riesling); and the honey-citrus Ryzlink vlašský (Welschriesling).
When it comes to the reds, which are grown nearly exclusively in Moravia, berry-forward Frankovka (Blaufränkisch) and aromatic, silky Svatovavřinecké (St. Laurent) lead the way.
Unique to Czech wines is Cabernet Moravia, a hybrid grape created from Zweigelt and Cabernet Franc featuring blackcurrant notes.
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The Current State of the Industry
Today, tourism plays a definitive role in the growth and popularity of the Czech wine industry. It’s evident especially in the behaviors of visitors from Germany, with which the Czech Republic shares a border.
Michael Krüger is the owner of Weinsegler, which imports Czech, Slovak and Hungarian wines to Germany. He notes that in part due to inflation and higher cost of living, German tourists are opting more frequently to cross the border in the Czech Republic, which in turn has boosted demand for Czech wine.
“They want to order wines that they enjoyed there,” Krüger says.
Additionally, the Czech wine industry receives government subsidies from the European Union and the Czech government, which has helped wine production grow over the past decades. This increased level of support has resulted in a much higher rate of younger Czechs involved in the wine trade, which further helps ensure its future. It’s also helped fuel innovation like the Vivid Vineyards project, which encourages biodiversity and polyculture among small wineries.
Altogether, it’s clear that wine drinking has grown in popularity within the country since the days of communism. The industry is estimated to rake in the equivalent of $584.1 million in 2024 and grow 3.5% through 2028. In fact, in terms of liters produced per capita, the Czech Republic is ahead of Germany and Croatia.
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Locals can’t get enough: “Its average annual production of 0.6 million hectolitres is not enough to satisfy domestic consumption of around 23 hl per adult per year—marginally higher than that of the U.K.,” writes master of wine Julia Harding on Jancisrobinson.com.
It’s conceivable this is, at least in part, due to the boosted quality of Czech wine. Professor Mojmír Baroň concurs that the field of viticulture and winemaking “has improved incredibly over the past 30 years in the Czech Republic.”
However, external forces in recent years, like Covid and the war in Ukraine, have resulted in the reduction of government subsidies. Despite these issues, the future of Czech wine holds much promise. For one, wine tourism is burgeoning—a good thing since, as Harding writes, “so little Czech wine is exported.”
Indeed, the fact that many Czechs in the wine industry are young and enthusiastic bodes well for innovation and creativity. Fingers crossed, in years to come, it will translate to the wider availability of Czech wine around the globe—including, hopefully, your local wine shop.
Published: January 9, 2024