The Veltlin Revolution: Czech Natural Wine Is Born

How a Prague wine bar has become a hub for the first new natural wine scene to emerge on the international market since the late 2000s. Aaron Ayscough on a new era of Czech winemaking.

On the wall of Veltlin, a wine bar south of the river in Prague’s Karlìn neighborhood, there is a map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire drawn by local artist Michal Bačák. It’s illustrated in the style of old sea cartography, except taking the place of mermaids and whales are terrestrial icons evoking the grandeur of the former empire: mustachioed aristocrats, bespectacled intellectuals, the windswept castles and domed capitals of Central Europe. Thanks in part to decades of Communist rule, the Czech republic section of the map is uncharted territory for most non-native wine drinkers.

But it’s here that Veltlin’s multi-talented proprietor Bogdan Trojak—a natural winemaker, award-winning poet and wine distributor—has planted his flag. “The former Austrian Empire used to be the most varied wine land in all Europe, and the Czech Kingdom was important part of it,” says Bogdan.

A redhead in his mid-30s, habitually costumed in glasses, a natty blazer and a supremely well-groomed beard, Trojak appears more graphic designer than a natural winemaker. “From Trento in northern Italy to Prague, from Croatian coast through Budapest to Vienna, everywhere you could find vineyards and different types of wine,” he says. “I was always fascinated by this incredible diversity, so when I decided to open a wine bar, I knew I would offer authentic wines from these lands.”

On a Wednesday evening in early February, Veltlin’s handful of tables are all populated by young professionals conversing over deer terrines, French cheeses and local orange wines. There is something Nordic about the room’s high ceiling and whimsical wallpaper, but its otherwise clean lines and just-scuffed-enough polish testify to the influence of Paris wine destinations like Pierre Jancou’s Racines and Vivant. If the atmosphere in Veltlin is somewhat more studious than its Parisian forebears, I suspect it’s because—25 years after the Velvet Revolution did away with Soviet influence on viticulture—the rediscovery of high-quality native wine commands more reverence here.

In 2008, Bogdan Trojak began selling online and distributing Czech wines he calls autentisté, or “authentic,” a term he prefers to the more common, but divisive term “natural wine.” Through his distribution company (also called Veltlin), Trojak now represents more than 20 like-minded winemakers from the Czech Republic.

“Communism preferred quantity to quality,” says Trojak. “The working class needed cheap wine, but wine was considered a bourgeois beverage, so communists served ‘plebeian’ beer to the nation. And the Soviet and Russian influence of vodka culture was very strong too—fortunately it’s over.”

His wine bar, which will celebrate its third anniversary in May this year, is the relocated expansion of a project begun in 2008, when Trojak opened what was then known as Vinny Bistrot Veltlin in a tiny space in the more central Žižkov district of Prague. The same year, he began selling online and distributing wines he calls autentisté, or “authentic,” a term he prefers to the more common, but divisive term “natural wine.” Through his distribution company (also called Veltlin), Trojak now represents more than 20 like-minded winemakers from the Czech Republic. And this June, he’s organizing the second edition of an annual Prague natural wine festival, entitled Prague Drinks Wine.

“The culture of drinking wine changed enormously in 1990s,” Trojak recalls. “A lot of people started to learn how to recognize really good wine, how to taste it in the right way.”

For Phil Sareil of New York’s Jenny & François Selections, who discovered the autentisté circle of natural winemakers over the course of visits to his wife’s Czech relatives, the appeal of wines of the Czech Republic lies in their northerly climate: “Just as the trend in France these days is for lighter, finer wines—think Loire, Champagne, Jura, Burgundy—the same is true for Central Europe,” he says. “Cooler regions such as Moravia offer wines with freshness and finesse.”

Trojak is quick to distinguish between the Czech Republic wine region of Bohemia, north of Prague, whose wines are referred to as Czech wines, and the Moravian wine region, which extends south of the city of Brno, two and a half hours southeast of Prague by car. Wines from the latter region, while still produced within the Czech Republic, are referred to as Moravian, in the same way that German beers from Bavaria are referred to as Bavarian. Where Bohemia’s scarce vineyards produce mainly müller-thurgau, riesling, saint-laurent and pinot noir, Moravia’s more extensive viticulture offers those varieties, plus substantial plantings of gruner veltliner, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and neuberger, among others.

“Bohemian wines are gentle wines with significant minerality, while the Moravia region can give rounder, fuller wines,” says Trojack, citing the loess (wind-blown silt) soils of the latter region a key reason. Bohemian vineyards, for their part, are mostly on marl soils. “Moravia lies on the border with Austria, so we can compare Moravian wines to wines from Weinvertel in Austria. You can find the same varieties and very similar climate there.”

At Veltin it’s easy to find bottles fit to impress even the most jaded wine drinker. The madcap Moravian winemaker Petr Nejedlík, who bottles wine from his 37-acre organic estate under the straightforward label Dobrá Vinice (“Good Vineyard”), makes a saline sparkling rosé called Crema di Pinot Noir. It’s bottled without sulfur, still in the midst of primary fermentation, meaning that in practice, the longer one retains the bottles, the drier the wine shows. Meanwhile, in Bohemia, the quiet, well-spoken Ales Svatos produces a wiry, pear-fruited wine from the oft-denigrated müller-thurgau, a high-yield, early ripening hybrid of riesling and madeleine royal, favored for its reliability, but rarely considered a noble variety.

Prague wine journalist Jan Čeřovský puts this in perspective: “During Communism, almost everything available was müller-thurgau. Even 15 years ago, high-end oenology was not so common.”

The Czech Republic nonetheless has a long history of viticulture, dating as far back as the Roman occupation of southern Moravia in the 2nd century CE, and the city of Prague contains historical vines beside Prague castle, overlooking the Vltava River. Meanwhile, the neighborhood of Vinohrady, where Vinny Bistrot Veltlin got its start, is so named for having once been covered in vineyards. “There has always been good wine here,” Čeřovský says. “But it is only recently becoming available to the general public.”

Trojak has for the past decade produced about 3000 bottles per year of wines from his vineyards in Moravia. But this year he will begin to move his operation to vineyards he purchased in Velke Zernoseky in Bohemia, drawn by their river-influenced terroir and their proximity to Prague. “So I will start again from zero,” he says, clearly excited by the challenge.

Prague has other popular wine bars, notably Vinograf, which has two central locations, and which also stocks quality Czech wines. Veltlin, however, is the first establishment to specialize in what has become known as natural, additive-free winemaking, specifically from Austro-Hungarian regions. In terms of clientele it leans less on the businessmen and tourists who frequent the city’s more central wine destinations and has instead attracted a new generation of native wine lovers.

Beyond its local appeal, the Veltlin wine bar also serves as a hub for what is arguably the first distinct new natural wine scene to emerge on the international market since that moment in the late 2000’s when natural wine became a bona fide marketing phenomenon. Tucked discreetly on Křižíkova street in Karlìn, boasting an intimate ambiance, bi-weekly tasting events with visiting winemakers, and conspicuously savvy branding, it’s the perfect venue for what Trojak is, to some extent, inventing: cult wines from the Czech Republic.

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