A wine festival is a fantastic chance to get beyond your normal itinerary of cellar visits, chateau tours and clean, fresh air, and get involved with the people who actually give the region its character.
Valtice Wine Festival isn’t aimed at attracting thousands of tourists and so it is positively overflowing with local character. As with almost every other wine festival in South Moravia, the main events take place in a beautiful town square, with associated events hosted in practically every hotel, guest house and wine cellar with a Valtice post-code.
It cost Our Lass and I 100 CZK each to get into the square (Our Kid and Our Dog got in for free) but we were given wrist-bands showing that we had paid, so we were free to come and go as we wanted to. If you plan on seeing the whole weekend, this is vital; eventually you will need to go somewhere quiet for a rest!
As all sensible wine-tasters know, an empty stomach is asking for trouble. Fortunately, an empty stomach is hard to come by in South Moravia and the town square was filled with aromatic smoke, blasted around by storm-force winds. Our Dog was already straining at her leash, strangling herself in her efforts to follow every smell at once. The hypnotising fragrance of pig by-products being cooked by skilled chefs pulled her like a magnet, straight under the feet of just about everyone.
When South Moravians kill a pig, every part gets used somehow. There were black puddings, white puddings, cutlets fried in breadcrumbs, smoked sausages, un-smoked sausages, pork scratchings, plates of pork knuckle and knee, salami, cured hams, honey-roasted hams, liver pates, and soups ranging from the delicious to the ‘we-had-to-put-it-in-soup-because-there-are-some-things-you-cannot-even-put-in-sausages’.
I’m sure it’s possible to put on several kilos just by looking at all the delights on offer; wherever we looked, potatoes baked, chestnuts roasted, biscuits browned and every imaginable part of recently-deceased pigs sizzled enticingly. Our Dog was obviously in some sort of Dog Hell, unable to run off with even a small string of sausages because I didn’t want to get thrown out.
Once you have tasted this food, it is very difficult to go back to the stuff sold by most supermarkets. It’s fresh because it doesn’t contain preservatives and it’s full of flavour because it’s made using ‘traditional’ methods, i.e. it’s not full of growth hormones and artificial additives.
Our Lass bought a ‘perník‘, a lovingly-crafted piece of rock-hard gingerbread which is designed to be kept around the house for good luck, rather than eaten. The makers used a hand-carved wooden form to shape the dough instead of a machine so that at least one manufacturer is keeping the original techniques alive.
Opposite, a lady wearing most of a sheep to keep the unusually strong wind at bay was idly watching the crowd and weaving decorative bottle covers and wine glass holders from wicker with deft, lightning-fast movements. She was hardly paying any attention at all to what she was doing but the pile of stock was growing before my eyes. Her best selling item seemed to be the wine glass holders – a plaited ring which held the glass firmly, with a cord which goes around the neck, allowing the connoisseur to hold a plate of delicate morsels in one hand, eat with the other and not lose their wine.
Nearby, a gentleman who didn’t appear to be feeling the wind at all was selling decorated bottles of an extremely clear liquid, which was probably very effective at making people not feel the wind. In addition to their wine, South Moravian schnapps is held in high regard because, like everything else they grow, cook, raise, brew or distill, they compete amongst themselves to produce the highest quality possible.
Elsewhere, leather workers worked leather, blacksmiths were blackened, cooks cooked, drunks drank, sound engineers by the stage sweated over their mixing desk fighting the effects of the wind and there was a general air of expectancy among the youth… this was clearly a long-awaited event where parental control would be at a minimum. But although there was obviously a long night ahead for anyone able to face the challenge, the day was for visitors and families.
Over by the stage, the sound engineers had finished practicing counting to three and had discovered settings which (mostly) cut out the feedback caused by the wind, which was still defiantly carrying off hats, paper plates and occasionally small pieces of the stage itself.
One of the first acts was the Schrattenberg Dance Group from neighbouring Austria. Although it’s in another country, it’s the second closest village to Valtice and I was surprised to see that the style of dress and the music were so different from that typical of South Moravia. The dancing was in the finest traditions of country-dancing everywhere though, lots of wheeling around, exchanging partners and stamping of feet to the strains of a trusty accordion.
In a true celebration of European Unionism, this traditional South Moravian wine festival moved from Austria to that other well-known wine producing region…. Scotland. That’s right, Scotland. Scotland The Brave, in fact, beautifully played by The First Czech Pipes And Drums, among other stirring tunes. I guessed that the pipes are not, in fact, that common a sight at a wine festival because the leader spent a lot of time between the tunes explaining the history behind the performance. Everyone certainly seemed to enjoy it, anyway and who knows, with global warming, perhaps Scotland will join the ranks of the World’s wine growing regions!
An act which was certainly typical of South Moravia was Danaj ze Strážnice. They are a Cimbálovká, or cimbalom group. The cimbalom is a kind of dulcimer played with padded sticks, or hammers. Accompanied by violins, clarinets, basses and harmonised singing, their energetic songs are often connected with the love of wine. If you go to a larger organised wine tasting, open cellar event or wine exhibition, you’re sure to see a Cimbálovká setting the mood there somewhere.
The wind was quickly turning my attempts to film this cultural extravaganza into a farce. The little hook under my tripod, designed to hang a sandbag from, was clearly lacking a sandbag and the internal microphone was in sore need of being external and covered with an amusing furry windshield. I managed to get a couple of pictures of Chlapčiska ze Spytínova, an acapella version of the Cimbálovká but the video looked and sounded like it had been recorded during an artillery bombardment.
I managed to find some shelter just in time to see the Valtice College Of Winemaking parade, which was supposed to kick off the festival properly but in the finest traditions of any local festival, the schedule had gone to pot and they were two hours late. We had seen a few of them hanging around earlier on and Our Lass overheard them asking each other when the parade was supposed to be. Perhaps the organiser had fallen into a barrel somewhere.
The leader of the parade came into view carrying a be-ribboned pole with bunches of grapes at the top in a very pagan manner. Clearly no respectable religion was behind this tradition. This was a ritual aimed at thanking multiple gods for a good harvest and putting off the thought of the coming winter.
With due pomp and splendour, the students marched by in their bright red and white traditional clothing, very obviously looking forward to sampling rather a lot of their product in the coming hours. Most of them were carrying ceremonial bottles of wine or glasses.
A brass band followed them, then a group of historical wooden carriages and a classic tractor rally, complete with historic drivers and pre-historic concepts of acceptable exhaust gas emissions. Trailing them all was a cart full of people enjoying some hearty accordion music.
All this excitement proved too much for Our Kid and he started to protest. As he was getting quite vocal about it and Our Dog had been stuffing herself with all the scraps which had fallen on the floor, we decided to leave. You could sneak off back to your hotel if you wanted to, or visit the chateau and museums because the wristbands would let you get back into the square again but knowing Our Kid, he wouldn’t go to sleep until we were driving somewhere so we headed home.
If you’re in the neighbourhood of South Moravia during one of these wine festivals, you really should go and see it. It’s something like the fairs on the village green that we used to have in England or the County Fair my friends in America took me to; it’s not meant to be a huge, international tourist attraction but if you find yourself there, you’ll be among the locals while they’re having a good time and it lets you see something real about life in the country you’re visiting.