The first sign that Moravian wine was getting a real reputation outside its homeland might have been the Instagram post from New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, who hailed a bottle from the cult Moravian winemaker Richard Stávek as “delicious,” praising its freshness and herbal notes three years ago.
Then there was the surprise win for a Moravian red as best Merlot and multiple double gold medals for other Moravian bottles at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition the next year. That was followed by a virtual masterclass with winemakers from Moravia during VinExpo New York in 2021. To cap things off this summer, wine writer Alice Feiring announced a special event to celebrate the launch of her new memoir, “To Fall in Love, Drink This,” accompanied by “a good glass of wine from Moravia!”
Here in Central Europe, Moravia generally isn’t followed by an exclamation point. The eastern half of the Czech Republic, neighboring Austria, Slovakia, and Poland, Moravia is known as a region where, yes, some decent wine, most often white, is traditionally made. However, Moravian wine has never had much international cachet, especially compared to hotspots like the Mosel Valley, Bordeaux, or Napa. Seeing some of the world’s most prominent wine writers hyping wine “straight outta Moravia” can come as a shock, especially when you remember Moravian wine as generally just OK, sometimes pretty good, and sometimes not good at all. More remarkably, this all happened in less than 10 years. So how did Moravian wine get a buzz?
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In a word: naturally.
The Other Other
Phil Sareil had plenty of experience with natural wine thanks to his time as a New York area sales manager for wine importer Kermit Lynch. During an extended stay in Prague with his family in 2012, he made a point of seeking out natural wines from his wife’s Czech homeland. When they returned to New York six months later, the memory of those bottles stayed with him.
“I was looking for a wine job, and I was sort of pitching these Moravian wines to everybody who was thinking of hiring me,” he says with a laugh. “Nobody seemed very interested in them. And I was like, ‘No, no, no, I know — I’m telling you, these are good wines.’”
He ended up taking a job with Jenny & François, a leading importer and distributor of natural wine. Less than a year later, the company brought in its first wines from Moravia.
That initial shipment in 2013 gave Moravian wine a foot in the door to one of the busiest wine markets in North America. However, the wines weren’t always easy for buyers to understand. Wine menus in restaurants and shelves in bottle shops are often organized by country, and the Czech Republic wasn’t — and still isn’t — a widely known wine producer.
“I called them ‘Other.’ There was always lots of France and California in wine lists, maybe Italy and Spain,” Sareil says. “But then there was this section at the very back of the white or red list that would say ‘Other,’ and it would have like five countries and five wines.”
Eventually, interest in those ‘Other’ wines started to take off, Sareil says, especially when wines from Central European countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia were presented and tasted together.
“People started noticing,” he says. “I think Austria had its moment first, and then the countries around it. There’s a big similarity between the wines of Central Europe, because it was historically an empire, with many small cellars.”
That regional context helped sommeliers, wine buyers, and other early advocates start to understand Moravian wine. And through its association with Jenny & François, Moravia gained an identity, accurate or otherwise, as a wellspring for natural wine.
At Henry’s Wine & Spirit in Bushwick, owner Henry Glucroft says that interest in Moravia got an early assist from a couple of breakout producers known for their natural, low-intervention wines: Richard Stávek and especially Milan Nestarec, whose lo-fi labels and funky branding hit a nerve with younger consumers.
“I think Nestarec gets a good amount of credit for giving wines from Moravia a more modern look, and a more modern approach to winemaking,” Glucroft says. “His wines quickly found their way to some of the hippest places.”
The popularity of bottles from Nestarec and Stávek led many fans to associate Moravia with pét-nat, orange wine, and other aspects of the burgeoning natural wine trend. But for Tucson-based wine educator Arielle DeSoucey, a former resident of Moravia who has judged at multiple Moravian wine competitions, that’s not completely accurate.
“People are looking for natural wine from everywhere — they want the coolest, newest-trending natural wine, and I’m talking about pét-nat and orange wine specifically,” she says. “Those two styles are produced in the Czech Republic, but in [Moravian wine] competitions that I’ve judged, those aren’t even categories. I don’t think that that represents Moravian wine holistically.”
With her firsthand knowledge, DeSoucey might justifiably nitpick with promoters of Moravia’s natural wine scene. However, she also has something in common with many of them: DeSoucey has been a similarly passionate advocate, with 100 Czech wine reviews available on her website. (Because Moravia is part of the Czech Republic, it’s fine to call Moravian wine “Czech wine,” though “Czech wine” is also used to refer specifically to wine from the country’s western region of Bohemia, known as Čechy in the Czech language. However, there is very little of that, as Moravia accounts for up to 95 percent of the Czech Republic’s total wine production.)
That kind of independent, non-commercial advocacy played a big part in Moravian wine’s blossoming reputation throughout the late 2010s. Under the name Družstvo, a group of six Czech friends started doing pop-up festivals of “unmanipulated” wines from the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Prague and Vienna in 2016, after which they expanded those pop-ups to Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Montreal in 2018. Although Družstvo’s events took a pause during the pandemic, they’re starting back up again.
In addition to that kind of independent, fan-based promotion, a handful of additional importers have started bringing in wines from Moravia, including New Hampshire’s Ahtel Wines, which launched in 2017. In Canada, Moravian wines have been imported by Bines & Vines since 2020.
That has all added up to a very organic, word-of-mouth reputation, largely unaided by any kind of official promotion. To date, there has been no significant Czech government program to promote Czech wines abroad, unlike the way the State Department pushes U.S. craft beer, bourbon, and wine overseas, or the way the Italian Trade Agency promotes amari stateside.
However, that might change soon, which could affect the way Moravian wine is seen in the future. The Czech Republic’s National Wine Center, based in Moravia, has recently started work on an export strategy. Part of the challenge is just making more people in the U.S. aware that the Czech Republic even makes wine, according to the center’s newly hired marketing director Dagmar Fialová.
“Your country is huge, and ours is pretty small, so we were pretty used to the fact that everybody knows beer, Václav Havel, and maybe some hockey players, and they are very surprised that there’s wine here as well,” Fialová says. “I believe there’s huge potential. It’s just up to us to get together with a clear message.”
In the future, that message might focus on the region’s cool climate.
“The geography of the place where we are is pretty amazing,” she says. “We are a rather northern area, so we have this fantastic acidity in most of the white wines. But if you do a strong reduction in your vineyards, we can get some amazing reds as well.”
And while natural winemaking was a part of what sold Moravian wine early on, it seems likely to play a smaller role in how the region promotes itself going forward.
“Low-intervention wines are pretty exotic — they are a minimal part of our production,” she says. “In the future, we would like to show that we do wines not only in this style, but also in other styles as well.”
Waking People Up
For fans with deep local connections like Arielle DeSoucey, that would be a more honest representation of Moravian wine going forward. She particularly likes what she calls the region’s “classically styled” dry, aromatic whites, especially Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, and Welschriesling.
“It is a shame that these wines are being held back,” she says. “Sauvignon Blanc and Grüner Veltliner — those wines are fabulous in the Czech Republic. But I think the big success is going to come with Riesling. People will discover Czech Riesling, and that’s going to be a big wakeup call to wine critics all over the world.”
While those international varieties might be most recognizable for outsiders, Moravia’s local crossings also do very well, she says, praising the Cabernet Moravia, André, and Pálava grapes, which takes its name from the Pálava wine region where it was first developed.
Despite its potential and buzz, Moravian wine is likely to remain a relative rarity. The entire Czech Republic only produces about 30 percent of the wine it needs for domestic wine consumption, which means that the vast majority of Moravian wine is simply not exported. Another complication: Moravia has hundreds if not thousands of extremely small producers, for whom export is impractical, if not impossible. By contrast, bigger producers like Nestarec have much larger capacity.
That might create a challenge for Moravian wine, DeSoucey says.
“My biggest drive is to show that Moravia makes great, great wine and we only get to see a small smattering of what’s really there,” she says. “The best wines are not getting into the hands of wine writers and critics.”