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In the back of the windowless van, we were in darkness as we clung to whatever was available, feeling each turn and bump of the dirt road. Suddenly, the van stopped. The door slid open, bathing us in the morning sunlight as we felt the crisp autumn air once again. We’d arrived at the Skalák Winery vineyards, where we would be starting our day of winemaking in South Moravia.

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South Moravia is the Czech Republic’s wine region, home to award-winning wineries nestled in the rolling green hills. After having spent the previous day wine tasting in Moravian Tuscany, it was time to get even closer to the winemaking process. Years of work go into every bottle of wine, but we only see the final result, popping the cork & enjoying the contents on some chosen evening (or afternoon or morning, no judgment here).

Upon our arrival at the family-owned Skalák Wine Cellars (official website), we were greeted with South Moravian wedding cake and burčák, the Czech young wine found all over the region during harvest season.

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After a quick discussion, it was decided that we would take advantage of the current sunny weather before it inevitably changed to rain, heading out to the vineyard immediately so we could start our own harvest.

We piled into the back of the van & went up into the hills, a short 5-minute ride through the winery’s property. After a quick demonstration of how to harvest the Sauvignon Blanc grapes (it’s pretty simple: use clippers to cut the grapes from the vines, remove any leaves, then toss the grapes into a bin), it was time to begin our work.

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Clip & toss, clip & toss, clip & toss. It seems straightforward. And sometimes, it is. But nobody tells the grape clusters to grow in a way that they can easily be harvested. So many of them twist and wind around the vines & support fencing, resisting all efforts to eventually become wine.

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Between the stubborn grapes & some that had thinner skins & were already leaking a bit of juice, my hands quickly became sticky. Gloves would have been a good idea.

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It’s easy to see why the annual harvest is a social activity in places where grapes are picked by hand. We all chatted as we cleared the vines, avoiding the curious bees & wasps attracted to the rows.

After 45 minutes or so, our group of grape harvest novices had picked 6 boxes of fruit. Each box can produce about 15-20 liters of wine. I tried asking how quickly professionals could harvest this amount, but either the question went misunderstood or our feelings were spared.

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Harvest complete, we packed back into the van, now with an additional cargo of our produce.

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Once we arrived back at Vinné sklepy Skalák, it was time to experience the next stages of winemaking: the processing & pressing of the grapes.

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First, the grapes are weighed and sent into the mill. This machine separates the stems and any rogue leaves from the juice & skins.

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This mixture then goes into the press, creating grape must. Much of the juice begins to drain out at this point. We drank a bit of the fresh grape juice from the fruit we had just picked.

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Since there is still lots of juice left in the harvested grape mixture, it’s time for the actual pressing to occur. This squeezes out every last drop into the must, maximizing the amount of potential wine.

Pieces of wood are placed onto the press like Jenga, then a metal lever is bolted into place.

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At first, it’s easy to spin the press. But then, as everything inside becomes increasingly compressed, turning the lever becomes much more difficult.

When it was my turn to operate the press, I took one lap around it, then nearly knocked the whole apparatus over as it suddenly stopped rotating.

Nowadays, machines do all of this work. At the push of a button, compressed air squeezes the grapes faster & more efficiently than any human ever could. But they don’t do so with nearly as much unintentional comedy.  

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If not enough naturally occurring yeast is present, yeast is added to the freshly-pressed grape must at this point of the process. We each got a bottle to take with us. After a couple of days of fermentation, you have burčák. A couple of weeks more, and you have young wine.

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Beyond that, the wine spends time in tanks or barrels, depending on the varietal that is being produced, potentially being blended before getting bottled. These stages take months, so we will fast forward toward our final winemaking experience of the day.

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Following a nice lunch of pumpkin soup, then deer with potatoes and salad (all with wine, of course), we separated into three groups in one of the Skalák Winery’s tasting rooms. Our task: compete to see which team could create the best blend of wine (cuvée).

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Our host gave us three bottles of wine to use for our blend: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat Ottonel.

On our first try, we created a blend of 70% Muscat, 20% Sauvignon, and 10% Pinot Gris. Our team agreed that it was quite nice for a first attempt.

Then we thought that with a small adjustment, perhaps we could create something even better. With limited time for blending (in reality, winemakers can spend days, weeks, or months finding the perfect blend), we set to work on another carefully measured attempt.

Our second blend was just a slight shift. We mixed 75% Muscat, 20% Sauvignon, and 15% Pinot Gris in our graduated cylinder. Surely, this small adjustment would only change the taste a bit for better or for worse?

The blend was completely different. What we thought would be just a tweak threw everything off. At that point, I realized just how difficult wine blending is. Our palatable first try was sheer luck. We remade the original cuvée and submitted it for judging by the winemakers of Skalák Wine Cellars.

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After a few minutes of deliberation, they delivered their verdict. Our blend had won! We each received a bottle of wine as our prize.

More importantly, thanks to one enjoyable day spent harvesting grapes, processing them, and blending, I can now consider myself an award-winning winemaker.

Going forward, I’ll have a better appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into every glass of wine I drink.

Here are some great Brno tours & activities & other things to see & do in Brno.

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Note: My visit to Skalák Winery was a Traverse press trip hosted by South Moravia. All opinions are 100% my own.

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