I wrote about Basket Press Wines first back in February 2018. I remember that cold winters night, at Plateau in Brighton, and being warmed inside by my first full tasting of Czech wines. Eighteen months later and I’m back in the same room, listening to Jiri take us through another selection of the wines he imports, in this case four Czech wines and one from Slovakia.
When I was growing up what was then Czechoslovakia was firmly under Soviet Russian rule, and the country’s wine industry was geared up for mass production through high yields, to supply Russian workers. The great traditions of winemaking which had been encouraged by the Romans, and had grown under Bohemian dominance under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had been crushed in favour of industrial methods of wine production.
After the Soviet Empire broke up vineyards began to be returned into private ownership, and some of those traditional wine regions started to re-establish themselves. Whilst Bohemia, the province of Prague, is best known for beer, there is some wine worth seeking out. But the major areas for viticulture are in the south of what is now two separate countries. Czech wine has its real focus in Moravia, south of the provincial capital, Brno. The vines are concentrated from there towards Austria (the wine region they border is Austria’s Weinviertel).
The Slovenská Republika’s viticultural heart sits adjacent to Moravia, to the southeast, around the national capital, Bratislava (which, should you wish, you can visit from Vienna on a day trip, by boat on the Danube). Although Slovakia possibly had a greater wine tradition before communism, Moravia has developed faster in the past three decades. This may in part be down to the more affluent market around Prague (it’s only very recently that export markets have come to realise how good some of these wines are).
Another undoubted reason for the success of Moravian wine is the influence of winemaking education in Moravia. In particular, we are talking about the influence of one man, Jaroslav Osička. We shall taste one of his wines later, but as a teacher at the local wine school, he introduced dozens of young winemakers to the theory and practice of low intervention, traditional, winemaking. He’s known to many as the “godfather of Moravian natural wine”.
Of course, being Plateau we know that we are in the territory of natural wine, wine made without the addition of synthetic vine treatments, and without chemical interventions in the winery. I won’t explain natural wines here, assuming most readers actually read this blog because I write mostly about natural wines. But I will mention that reading Wink Lorch’s Wines of the French Alps (a review of it is my previous article), yet again we read there about several vignerons who turned away from agro-chemicals after suffering illnesses which they put down to their use of chemical sprays as disease treatments.
The wines imported by Basket Press are some of the most interesting I’ve been introduced to over the past few years, and I do put my money where my mouth is by purchasing them. Remember that, as with my monthly roundups of wines drunk at home, I’m way beyond pretending to assess quality per se. I prefer to judge each wine as I drink it. How much am I enjoying it? Tasting something new and different, so long as it’s enjoyable, is way more exciting than tasting something I’ve drunk dozens of times before…usually. If you follow my philosophy, then trying these wines should be exciting. If you prefer big, oaky, wines made more conventionally, then perhaps less so!
CRÈME DE PARC NATIONAL 2017, DOBRÁ VÍNICE (CZECH MORAVIA)
This first wine is a petnat, bottle fermented without the yeast sediment being removed by disgorging. The park in question is the Podyji National Park, near Znojmo. The winemaker is Petr Nejedlik, using some biodynamic methods on his 15 ha of vineyards. The domaine’s name translates simply as “the good vineyard”. Petr is noted for introducing Georgian qvevri to Moravia for some of his other wines.
This petnat is made from a blend of 60% Müller-Thurgau, 30% Welschriesling and 10% Rhine Riesling. It’s fresh, dry, with a fine bead of gentle bubbles, and a cloudy haze, and comes in at 12% abv. It probably wasn’t universally appreciated on my table, and petnats can seem a little unusual to those not used to them, and with this wine, its savoury nature might not at first appeal to anyone used to a little residual sugar. For me, as a great lover of this style (I probably buy more petnat than I need every year), it was a great thirst quencher. Simple, not complex, but a nice palate cleanser with which to begin the evening. Delicious.
PINOT BLANC 2017, PETR KORÁB (CZECH MORAVIA)
Our first still wine of the evening was smooth and quite rich, richer than its 12.5% alcohol suggested, yet with a streak of lemon acidity to balance. The Koráb wines always have a hallmark of balance, and Petr is an established top producer despite his relatively small operation. He began making wines in 2006 and currently farms around 4 hectares (biodynamically). In addition he has sheep and goats, and keeps bees, all part of a desire to work at one with the environment.
Petr is a member of the Authentiste group of growers, a key movement in Moravian natural wine, and one which many of Jiri’s portfolio belong to. Fermentation is generally in open-topped wooden tanks and the wines have plenty of contact with their lees whilst resting after fermentation. Minimal sulphur is added, in compliance with the group charter.
This Pinot Blanc saw a year on lees in acacia barrels before bottling. Petr believes that the acacia gives less spice, vanilla sweetness and buttery flavours, than oak. Although this has a summery side to it, I think it is well able to be paired with creamy and richer dishes. It’s a versatile white wine, as I’m increasingly finding with good, well made, Pinot Blanc from all over Europe. A neglected variety in the past, I think.
Jiri told us about the wine festival which he’s just come back from. It takes place in early August in Petr Koráb’s village, Boleradice. It’s called Autentikfest (self explanatory, given the wine styles we are talking about), and the village square is full of stalls for tasting. It does sound like a fantastic event, perhaps I’ll make it one day. In the meantime, at least we can enjoy the Koráb wines in the UK now.
RIZLING VLAŠSKÝ 2016, VINO MAGULA (SLOVAKIA)
Here we move southeast to the Little Carpathian Mountains in Slovakia, and to a producer whose wines are very quickly gaining a cult following. The family farms ten hectares of vines on deep loess soils around their village, Soucha Nad Parnou. It’s an area of relatively low rainfall and the striking and easily recognisable label, a cut-out of a vine delving deeply towards the bedrock to seek out moisture and nutrients, is pretty apt.
The grape is our old friend Welschriesling, and it’s a genuine terroir wine that it makes here. The stony soils are reflected in the mouthfeel, although six month on lees does, if truth be known, create texture too. There’s nothing added here, except a tiny bit of sulphur at bottling, after the wine has spent a year ageing in old oak. The first thing you feel, aside from the texture, is the real vibrancy of the liquid in your mouth. Zip and zing sums it up. Its low (11%) alcohol makes it a refreshing summer white, yet it would be versatile with food, especially more substantial salads.
This producer is the first time Basket Press Wines has dipped into Slovakia, and much as I love the Czech wines they import, I can strongly recommend Vino Magula. They are probably going to become as cult as Strekov 1075.
FRANKOVKA 2017, TOMÁŠ ČAČÍK (CZECH MORAVIA)
As one of the first wines from the Czech Republic I tried, it was genuinely awful to hear that Tomáš passed away on New Years Eve 2018. Jiri has confirmed that his wife, Zdena Cačikova, will continue to make the wine here. When you taste this lovely Frankovka you will be pleased to hear that.
Tomáš began making wine in the Moravian village of Kobyli, in Eastern Moravia, by using modern methods, but he wasn’t at all happy with the results. On turning to more traditional farming and winemaking he started to feel his wines were more “authentic”. This Frankovka (aka Blaufränkisch) certainly illustrates what he meant by authentic. It’s palish, light, very juicy, not as heavy or serious as some Austrian Blaufränkisch can be. I think the two words which sum it up are fruity and fragrant.
The variety is very expressive of terroir, much as Pinot Noir is. It is sometimes called the “Pinot Noir of Central Europe”, but it’s only when tasting wines in this style that such a statement has any meaning. It comes off a mix of clay and limestone. It’s almost not worth mentioning vinification because you will surely guess: organic grapes fermented with indigenous yeasts, neutral oak, and as little preserving sulphur added as he could get away with. Chill it ever so slightly and enjoy this 2017 vintage this summer or next.
MODRÝ PORTUGAL 2016, JAROSLAV OSIČKA (CZECH MORAVIA)
Modry Portugal is none other than the grape variety more commonly (sic) known as Blauer Portugieser in translation, but you knew that, didn’t you (if not, then you do at least now know one colour in Czech). It’s a variety which often gives deeply coloured wines, yet also gives good acids. It originated, it is thought, in Slovenia, where it migrated through Austria and Hungary (it was sometimes part of the “Bull’s Blood” blend) and into Germany. It fell out of favour in Germany, where it was planted mainly in Rheinhessen and Pfalz, because the high yields it was cropped at generally produced less interesting wines.
Jaroslav Osička is known as the godfather of Czech natural wine, and we met him in the introduction to this article. His influence can’t be under estimated. Jaroslav’s region is Velké Bílovice, where there are nine hundred farmers, generally with small holdings of vines, making wine. He tends just 3 hectares himself, claiming he’s merely a shepherd trying to balance man and nature, both in the vineyard and in the glass. He’s a big fan of the wines of The Jura, which naturally earns him points from me, and he is a big believer that if wines see oxygen during the winemaking process they are “strengthened” and are less likely to oxidise later. It’s a philosophy or methodology now fairly common among the natural wine making fraternity.
Here, he’s made a red wine full of fragrant cherries on the nose (very fresh, not oxidative at all, I should emphasise), mirrored on the palate, which is a bit more crunchy. The colour is indeed darker than the previous wine, but the alcohol is only 12%. The fruit being destemmed before fermentation and seeing old oak for just eight months, followed by three-to-four months in fibreglass before bottling, the wine does indeed retain a “lightness of being” that is far from unbearable. In fact it’s yet another delicious example of what the Czech Republic is putting out today.
Plateau in Brighton lists a decent selection of wines from the portfolio of Basket Press, though as quantities are small, not necessarily exactly the wines tasted here. It’s a wonderful natural wine bar and restaurant, and hardly a hardship to reach from London of an evening. But remember to book as it’s pretty popular. Don’t forget to peruse the takeaway wine list. The prices are generous.
If you want to buy a mixed case or more, contact Basket Press Wines via firstname.lastname@example.org , or visit their web site here.
Jiri of Basket Press Wines.