When parts of Europe quieten in a moment of remembrance at 11am this Friday, in the Czech Republic corks will pop, glasses clink and the country will resound to one collective gulp. For 11 November does not just mark Armistice Day. Here it is also St Martin's Day, and that means something else: the start of the Czech wine season.
For a country so synonymous with beer, the term "Czech wine season" may strike the casual visitor as a bit odd. I didn't see a glass of wine for the first six months I lived in Prague, so I imagined they just didn't care for the stuff, or it was made in some secret cave my ropey Czech hadn't yet bought me the password for. But it wasn't a cave I was looking for. It was Moravia. Less than 150 miles south-east of the capital, sprawling with quaint villages and hundreds of lush, green vineyards, this is undoubtedly wine country.
St Martin's Day is when the first fermented wine of the year is tasted (Czech "beaujolais"), and it provides the perfect excuse to escape into the Moravian countryside to sample it with the locals. Of the four major Moravian wine-producing towns – Mikulov, Slovácko, Velké Pavlovice and Znojmo – I headed to the latter, a gorgeous place just north of the Austrian border. There are plenty of accommodation options listed in English on the town's website (znojmocity.cz), and I would recommend a stay in the sleepy, rural hamlet of Nový Saldorf, just 10 minutes' drive from the centre. The family-run wine cellar, U Smrcka (+420 739 144 688, usmrcku.cz, doubles from £28), which has cosy, modern rooms attached, is particularly charming.
Our host there, Mr Smrcka himself, perfectly epitomises the Moravian vintner: big hands, big belly and a plasticine face that ripples into an avuncular grin at the slightest joke. Leading me and my friends into his cellar – an ominous dark corridor with huge fermentation jars piled at the sides – he treats us to four different types of wine: two whites – veltlínské zelené (grüner veltliner in German) and ryzlink rýnský (rheinriesling) – as well as two reds, modrý Portugal and frankovka.
"This is the only part of the Czech Republic where the weather is warm enough to make good red wine," says Smrcka, firing a shot into our glasses with his beloved "wine thief" – a long pipette that extracts the wine from the barrels. And he is probably right. The reds you find in Prague are almost always terrible – but his two local reds are divine.
After the degustation, we pick out a couple of bottles we like and join the groups of settled-in Czechs upstairs to drink them and chat and listen to Moravian music. The food is the usual platter of cheese, meats, and vegetables, but we are treated to a local delicacy, znojemská okurka (gherkin flavoured with paprika). Smrcka ensures us that eating it will prevent a sore head in the morning – which it does, though this is possibly more because local wine-makers don't use chemicals in their wines. Either way, these locally-produced gherkins are delicious.
To discover other wines, the next day we take a leisurely two-hour walk along the River Dyje to Hnanice, a small, hamlet with a pretty little church, and a hill lined with wine cellars. These cellars, mostly just tiny doors cut into the hillside, open on weekend afternoons and you can just turn up without a reservation and sample away (if there's no one there, just dial the phone numbers on the doors to summon them). We explore a couple, but the one we choose to nestle in is the property of two best friends with huge beards who are more than happy to join us for a couple of glasses as the fruity aroma wafts pleasantly around. The walls, typical of the cellars here, sparkle with old coins stuck to the yeast residue from the wine.
We sample some delicious ryzlink rýnský, then adjourn to their terrace when the two friends wish to depart. Selling us a few bottles, and leaving an open one for us to finish at our leisure, we ask them on parting which their favourite is. "All of them!", the larger, white-haired friend grins back.
"So where are you going now?" I ask nosily, clearly affected by the wine. The two wine-makers look at each other sheepishly, look around, then whisper, "We have a secret. We are from Moravia, but we prefer beer to wine!" And with that, they walked off down the hill to the nearest pub.
The wine in Moravia may be excellent, but it seems the beer from Bohemia still reigns supreme.
The Wine Bar
This is a perfect stop-off after a day's sightseeing at Prague Castle, tucked as it is into one of the beautiful descending streets in Mala Strana. Fortnightly tastings are held, but an impromptu large glass of Moravian white, or a nice Italian red, will also do the job.
• Tržište 14, +420 257 215 739, thewinebar.cz
A stone's throw from Old Town Square, this spacious wine bar is a refreshing alternative to the countless beer halls surrounding it. The cheese and tapas selection is excellent, a perfect accompaniment to a cold glass of delicious muškát moravský.
• Na Perštýne 15, +420 224 239 602, monarch.cz
Vinný sklep Újezd
A charming stone-walled cellar at the bottom of leafy Petrin Hill, this drinking cave imports its wine from the Moravian village of Boretice — voted best wine village of 2006. It also has a great line in Chilean reds if you fancy something a bit fuller and fruitier.
• Újezd 19, +420 257 317 410, vinnyujezd.cz
Vinotéka Karlovo nám 17
This is a tourist-free cavern tucked off Charles Square specialises in wine from smaller Moravian vineyards. There is a healthy assortment of reds and whites, with friendly advice on hand, and a shop where you can buy reasonably-priced bottles to take away.