V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
The unexpected Czech spirit


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Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers March, 2008.

SOUTH MORAVIA -- The burly Czech vintner dips his index finger into a glass of apricot brandy, pulls it out and lights his hand on fire.

We're looking for a blue flame to tell us the brandy is fit to drink. A yellow or orange flame would mean there's methanol in the liqueur and it would be sadly cast aside from hedonistic enjoyment.

But tonight, the light shines blue and, after holding his flaming finger aloft for the wine tasting group to see, he puts it in his mouth and extinguishes the fire.

It's a highly unorthodox winetasting in this small, dank, cavernous cell, in the Czech Republic's South Moravia region.

Wine connoisseurs who like their tastings quiet and dignified may not be fond of the unconventional experience.

 

Vintner Ladislav Solarik's jokes are dirty, his food rustic, and the glasses of questionable sanitation. His humour is making our poor translator -- a straight-laced, modest woman in her 60s -- guffaw in embarrassment at what she has to translate from the deceivingly charming vintner with the deadpan humour.

While Solarik's jokes are obscene -- even misogynistic -- somehow, under his distinguished salt and pepper brow and the deep creases of his weathered face, they don't seem as offensive.

Also, Solarik is a walking light show.

"This is what happens when my wife gets angry," he says before spitting fire and illuminating the entire cellar.

There's no spitting bucket at this wine tasting. The pourings are generous and by wine number four, many of us are tipsy.

Despite fire-eating and fire-breathing vintners, the Czech people are not known for their wines.

Beer is the national drink, their elixir of life. Czechs hold the bragging rights of consuming more beer per capita than any other country, at more than 160 litres per year.

It's common for restaurants and small towns to have their own breweries, but what's not commonly known is that wine-making has a long history in this part of the country. The legends vary, but one that sticks for locals is that wine was first made in South Moravia in Roman times to quench the thirst of the 40,000 soldiers stationed there, who were each entitled to 2 litres of wine per day.

Today the Czech Republic has 377 wine communes and 20,394 winegrowers. The most popular wines produced in Moravia are Reislings, which reflect the smells and flavours of meadows, and the St. Laurent, a red wine reminiscent of plums and marmalades. Muller Thurgau, Gruner Veltliner and Welschriesling are also widely produced.

While the growing season is shorter in Moravia compared to other south-western European vineyards, hot summers expedite maturation and grapes are also harvested later in the autumn months.

Czechs consume some 17 litres of wine per capita, per year, while domestic wine production is 12 litres per capita.

"We'll always be an importer," Marek Babisz, the head sommelier at the National Wine Centre in Valtice, says.

A visit to a local wine cellar is not only an intimate affair, stripped of pretence, but also a unique chance to experience Czech hospitality and taste authentic local fare.

Our wine tasting is prefaced with a simple platter of chewy rye breads, ham, thick slices of mild cheese and fresh cut peppers. We've been given strict instructions to abide by some simple rules.

"Never pour your own wine," Solarik orders. "Wine is for sharing with each other. The one who pours their own wine is considered an alcoholic."

The etiquette in this cellar is to toast just once, or be prepared to lose the precious juice to the floor and other people's glasses as the night progresses, he warns.

By night's end, Solarik's generous hospitality -- and wine pourings -- have made long lost friends out of a group of strangers, with screaming laughter warming up the cool of the damp wine cellar.

It's a far cry from the sometimes frosty civility of conventional wine tastings.

But, true to Solarik's edict, none of us have poured our own wine.

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BOTTOM LINE

GETTING THERE

Czech Airlines operates flights to Prague from Toronto and Montreal. Visit canada.czechairlines.com for fare information.

MORE INFORMATION

For details on all aspects of travel to Prague, contact the Czech Tourist Authority at czechtourism.com or 416-363-9928.

This story was posted on Thu, May 8, 2008

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