It’s been nearly 20 years since we last visited Prague and, frankly, I cannot recall having had wine back then. The Czech Republic is famous for its beer*, especially Pilsner Urquell, and we drank plenty of it. So on our return, we expected that we would again have to spend our time drinking beer. Our biggest surprise has been the proliferation of wine bars in Prague and the quality of the wines we’ve tried. We arrived in Prague with no experience with Czech wines, since they are difficult to find outside of the Czech Republic, and we’ve been having so much fun tasting and learning about these interesting wines.
The Czech Republic has a 2000 year history of winemaking, but quality winemaking was nearly destroyed by Communism. After World War II, winemakers businesses were turned over to the state, vineyards were nationalized and vines of most varietals were ripped out in favor of varietals that worked well for mass production of cheap wines. Most wines were produced by state run cooperatives, although grape growers were allowed to keep a small amount for their own personal use. After the fall of Communism in 1989, the cooperatives were broken up and vineyards returned to the winemakers. Since then, Czech winemakers have been busy recovering what was lost.
Wine is becoming more popular in the Czech Republic and wine tourism is increasingly promoted. Several of the sommeliers that we spoke with were very excited about natural wines, which use only natural fermentation and no chemicals. Great emphasis is put on the wine makers, who are trying new and interesting styles. Most of Czech wine is still sold within the country with very little exported, but hopefully that will change.
A quick primer on winemaking in the Czech Republic:
There are two wine regions in the Czech Republic which are then divided into sub-regions. The Bohemian wine region in the northern part of the country is made up of two sub-regions: Mělnická and Litoměřická. These small vineyards make up only 4% of the vineyards in Czech Republic. You might also see the Bohemian region called Cechy.
The larger Moravian wine region grows the other 96% of Czech vineyards. Located in the southern part of the country, Moravia (Morava) is divided into 4 sub-regions: Znojmo, Mikulov, Velké Pavlovice, and Slovácko. Moravia borders Austria and lies along the same latitude as southern Germany and Alsace, France and so has similar climatic conditions to those great wine regions.
In the Czech Republic, 67% of the grapes grown are white varietals. The most widely grown include Müller-Thurgau, Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. Given the cooler temperatures and shorter growing season, acidity can run high in their wines. Often the acidity in white wines will be balanced by allowing a small amount of grape sugars to be left in the wine. If you want a white that is dry, be sure to ask for it. The good wineries are able to produce very fine dry whites. We found that the wine makers were trying new styles of whites that included allowing the wines to spend time on the skins, on the lees, barrel aging, and some new oak aging. It was fun trying all these new styles.
The most common red varieties are Saint Laurent and Blaufrankisch. At present they are not producing as many reds due to climate limitations; however, the ones we did try where very good. The Pinot Noirs were particularly note worthy. There seemed to be two styles being produced: a heavier style offering quite peppery spices and earthy notes, and a lighter but complex style with nuanced red fruit flavors in the realm of Pinots from Oregon.
Where to taste Czech wines in Prague:
There are many places in Prague that call themselves wine bars and we visited a lot of them. We found that most are actually either wine shops that let you buy a glass of wine or restaurants with a nice wine list. There were only a select few that we considered to be true wine bars. Each of these listed below had professional sommeliers on staff, so I’d recommend being adventurous and allowing the wine experts on site to pick out Czech wines for you to try. They know what is best in their collection.
The first great thing about Veltlin is that they brought us out to the Karlin district of Prague. We just love the vibe of this up and coming neighborhood. The second great thing was that our experience at Veltlin turned out to be much more than we expected. They specialize in authentic wines from the former Austrian Empire during the Habsburg Monarchy, which also includes Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, and Italy. By authentic, they mean wines that are not only natural but also reflect their place of origin and culture. The proprieter, Bogdan Trojak, is a natural winemaker himself and founder of Autentisté, a group of authentic winemakers in Moravia.
We arrived just as they opened and had the place to ourselves. That allowed us plenty of time with the sommelier, Kristyna, who has a clear passion for natural wines. She started us with a sparkling wine and then worked through a comprehensive tasting of natural white and red wines from Czech wine makers. Thanks to Kristyna, we now have a much better understanding of and appreciation for natural wines. Without added chemical stabilizers, these wines are alive, constantly changing and evolving in the bottle.
There is no wine list at Veltlin. Every night they open about 50 bottles, so the selection by the glass changes. Just ask the sommelier for recommendations. If you would like some food to go with your wine, there are cheeses, meats, pates and other small items available. The pates come from Melememaso, a small local producer in Prague, and we can say that the venison pate is quite delicious.
Veltlin Wine Bar
Křižíkova 488/115, 186 00 Praha 8-Karlín
Located in Old Town (Staré Mesto) just east of the Jewish Quarter, this unique wine bar is hidden in a small courtyard off Dlouha Street. Opened in 2006 by a group of friends, the name was inspired by the movie “Sideways” which was titled “Bokovka” in Czech. The original location closed in 2014 and moved a year later to this intimate cave-like space with tables outside in the courtyard.
The wine by the glass selection changes every day and includes Czech wines plus wines from around the world. You can look through the bottles displayed on the counter to see what is being poured but I recommend asking for advice, as the wines are not likely to be familiar. They have a wonderful selection of cheeses and will put together a really delicious cheese plate for 248 CZK (about $11 USD). This was also our first taste of the traditional style Czech bread and we’ve been hooked since.
Dlouhá 729/37, 110 00 Staré Město
Vinograf has two locations, but we’re listing them separately because they are in different parts of the city and each has its own individual feel. Vinograf has a team of professional sommeliers to help with wine selection.
Vinograf Senovážné Sq.
This Vinograf is located in New Town (Nove Mesto) near the Hlavni Nadrazi train station. The decor here is open and modern. This is the larger of the two locations, serving wines from around the world and a full food menu.
They offer up to 50 wines by the glass and 700 in bottles. The wine list is given to you on a tablet, where you can browse through the selection and read a description of each of the wines. It’s nice to have that information at your fingertips. On our first visit, Jan (Honza) was our Sommelier and we asked him to guide us through a tasting flight of Czech whites. All of the sommeliers we’ve interacted with have been very knowledgeable and helpful.
The food menu is full of good looking things – duck ravioli, risotto with porcini mushrooms, veal rib-eye steaks – we love this place as a wine bar but also keep going back for more of the food! For smaller plates, the house-made goose rillette and the duck pate were both delicious and just what we wanted to go with our wines.
Vinograf Senovážné Sq.
Senovážné nám. 978/23, 110 00 Nové Město
Vinograf Míšeňská St.
This Vinograf is located in Lesser Town (Malá Strana) near the Charles Bridge on the west side of the river. It is a much smaller, more intimate space. They exclusively serve Czech wines, focusing on small wineries with small production.
Tomas is the sommelier in charge of this location. He picked up on our interest in trying new wines and introduced us to some very unique whites, like a chardonnay from Vinařství Piálek & Jäger that had been allowed to sit on the grape skins to develop a rich amber color and interesting oxidized notes. This style is sometimes called “orange” wine because of its color and is a rare find. The food menu here is limited to cheeses, meats, and pates. But that’s really all we need when wine tasting. Tomas put together a very nice cheese plate to pair with our wine.
Vinograf Míšeňská St.
Míšeňská 68/8, 118 00 Malá Strana
*Looking for beer? Prague is full of great places to drink traditional Czech beer and craft beers are also increasingly popular. We decided not to write about them, since they have been covered extensively elsewhere. PragueBeerGarden.com is a great resource with for pubs, beer gardens, and craft beers.