Czech wines are good enough to make Roger Scruton rethink some deep-rooted opinions
Czech wine is not obtainable outside the country that produces it. In encouraging you to drink it, therefore, I am going against my deeply held convictions. For years I have insisted that travel narrows the mind, spoils the planet and undermines the local identities without which travel is pointless anyway. And here I am saying that the Czech lands are worth a visit. My excuse is that the country still has a proper railway system, which takes you rattling from village to village in a state of suitable discomfort, doing no more damage than if you had stayed at home.
A day-long journey, chopping and changing, might cost no more than £10. And while the train shakes and squeals past forests and gorges, by the banks of rivers and the backs of allotments, you can sip one of the local products, secure in the knowledge that, by supporting the wine trade, you are helping to break up the collective farms - the most ecologically disastrous of communism's many disastrous legacies. Small producers are springing up everywhere, planting vines, trees and hedges, restoring rock-hewn cellars and abandoned cottages, and generally reclaiming the sod from the sods.
Understanding the labels is the first difficulty. Familiar varietals have acquired unfamiliar names in Czech. The Cabernet Franc, which produces a clean and aromatic wine, is named Svaté Vavrinecké after St Lawrence (Svatý Vavrinec); the Pinot Noir, following German usage, is "blue Burgundian" (Burgundské modré); Pinot Grigio comes out as Rulandské sedé.
In any case, grapes taste different in this slow-growing climate, and the excitement of private ownership has led to the kind of variation from vineyard to vineyard which is the beginning of history: I recall a sweet Pinot Grigio from Znojmo in Moravia, a luscious wine, with an acidity unaltered by the sugar, and a flavour of apricots.
The second difficulty is knowing when to drink. The main meal of the day - obìd - occurs some time after 2pm; it is full of grease from slowly melted animals, sopped up by dumplings and cabbage in a pile of work-forbidding and sleep-engendering stodge. There is no way round it, so if you find yourself on the wrong side of one of these heaps, reach for the bottle and flush it down. A strong Moravian Riesling usually does the trick. And when waking some time in the early evening, you may find it necessary to take another dose.
My favourite, however, remains the Tramín, the Gewürztraminer of Alsace, which here produces a full, flowery white wine that should be drunk on its own. A bottle accompanied the Scrutons from Prague to Týniste nad Orlicí, and when the train finally jerked to a halt and we fell on to the tracks in futile expectation of a platform, it hardly mattered that Sophie sprained her ankle, I bruised my elbow and one child was calling from the already moving train.