Kraków and Wine

26 April 2024

Wine and Culture

text: Szymon Gatlik

Libiamo, libiamo! sings Alfred in a toast in one of Verdi’s most famous arias from La traviata. This may be the most famous example invoking wine in the arts, but it’s certainly not the only one.

“When we consider that God creates the world on the first page of the Bible, and by page 8 Noah is lying blind drunk in his tent, it soon becomes clear that He considered it a matter of urgency to bless humankind with the divine drink…” wrote Julian Tuwim. The satirical words of the acclaimed poet barely conceal an obvious truth: wine has been an indelible part of our culture since the dawn of time. 


The earliest vines were cultivated in the Caucasus (it remains unresolved whether it was first grown in present-day Georgia or Armenia), soon spreading to Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and ancient Roman lands, all the way to the Christian civilisations of Western Europe; this fermented grape juice has been an inseparable part of religious cult and unbridled joy for millennia. It has been inspiring poets and painters, earning it pride of place in art all over the globe: in the Theatre of Dionysus in ancient Athens, Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of Bacchus, Vermeer’s The Wine Glass and Baudelaire’s chilling stanzas of The Murderer’s Wine… In days gone by, wine also played an important role in our own culture, with vines being cultivated in Polish lands for over a millennium. Surprised it’s been this long? Read on…

In 965 (or 966), Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, a Sephardi Jewish traveller and merchant, was the first person in history to make a note of the word “Krako”. During his visit to the city, which then belonged to the Czech ruler Boleslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, he was likely to have seen the first vineyard in this part of Europe growing on the slopes of Wawel Hill. Just over a century later, the monks arriving from the west and the south (starting with the Benedictines settling in Tyniec) brought with them customs of winemaking. The production reached an almost industrial scale with the arrival of the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages: not only did they have their own extensive vineyards near Toruń, they also imported drink from all over Europe. Drinks served during the peace negotiations between the Teutonic Order and King Władysław Jagiełło in 1408 included the exotic, sweet Malvasia from Greece. Did the king sample it? It’s unlikely – he was famously teetotal.

That certainly cannot be said for the court of the Jagiełło dynasty in later years, in part because of a shift in customs during the Renaissance and in part thanks to Queen Bona Sforza’s own fondness of wine. Italian drinks were served at daily meals, ceremonial feasts, balls and knights’ tournaments. The arrival of many other hot-blooded southern Europeans is also likely to have had an impact. In his epigram The Spanish Doctor, the Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski wrote about Pedro Ruiz de Moros – known locally as Piotr Rojzjusz – widely regarded as one of the biggest party animals in the city. Ironic, really, as the clergyman lived at the bishop’s palace on present-day Franciszkańska Street… The building was in a rather dilapidated state, inspiring Kochanowski to write that the good doctor simply couldn’t keep the door shut, and so wine flowed well into the night.

Then there was King Stefan Batory’s vineyard at his summer palace in Łobzów, and the love of 17th-century Polish nobles for Hungarian wines, imported from Eger and Tokaji to mature in cellars in Małopolska. Wines from the Rhine region flowed freely at the feast held in Sukiennice in 1879 to mark the 50th anniversary of Ignacy Kraszewski’s work. Antoni Hawełka and other 19th-century Cracovian merchants hosted famous wine tastings… So we can certainly say that wine had an important place in Polish culture and traditions, until the communist authorities deemed it to be too decadent.

Fortunately, Polish wine has been undergoing something of a renaissance (almost straight from Queen Bona Sforza’s time!) since the turn of the millennium. In the last two decades, the number of vineyards has leapt from just a few dozen to an impressive six hundred, of which well over a hundred are in Małopolska. And the rapid growth of the numbers of winemakers and vineyards also means wine is regaining its rightful place accompanying high culture.

Wine and culture are a perfect pairing,” enthuses Bożena Schabikowska, graduate from the Academies of Fine Arts in Kraków and Poznań and owner of the Pod Lubuskim Słońcem vineyard. “Both art and wine shape our sensitivities and attentiveness, move our emotions and encourage us to think outside the box. Just like precious art, good wine can and should be contemplated. Wine has a distinctive advantage here over plastic arts: it involves our senses of taste and smell as well as sight and touch. It means that drinking wine becomes a complete multisensory experience.
Bożena organises wine tastings combined with outdoor exhibitions, invites art connoisseurs to the gallery in her vineyard and her vernissages serve wine she has produced herself. Other winemakers (for example, Piwnice Antoniego in Małopolska and the Jaworek Vineyard in Lower Silesia) host similar events, and some go as far as placing art on their labels. Many vineyards host art, flower arranging and craft workshops.

The Janowice Vineyard, just over an hour’s drive east from Kraków, has been hosting the Vitis Music Sfera Festival since 2017. The unique event brings together lovers of wine and music. Held in August, the week-long cycle of concerts set in the stunning scenery of rolling hills of the Dunajec valley focuses on classical and jazz music. “The idea for the festival was fairly obvious: I’m a classical musician myself, and I wanted to bring music to the vineyard founded by my parents. I also wanted to stir things up a bit,” says Karolina Chlipała-Dobrosz, daughter of the owners and originator of the festival. “We experience music very differently outdoors than in a concert hall – the atmosphere is far more relaxed. Our guests listen to music with a glass of wine in hand while watching glorious sunsets over the Dunajec River. Music and wine taste a bit different, and experiencing each – and both together – feels fuller and unlike anything else. Wines from Janowice almost taste of Stradivarius violins or Yamaha pianos playing both jazz and classical!”

Cultural institutions in Kraków are also increasingly including wine (and gourmet food!) in various projects. The way was paved Opera Rara with Tastein 2018 – and today the Feast at Wawel run by Bartek Kieżun is unmissable! Bottles of wine from Małopolska vineyards are increasingly accompanying exhibitions at Kraków’s museums and galleries. Just like centuries ago, wine continues to complement our relationship with art. Is this more to do with the flavour and aroma, or perhaps with ancient tales of the drink of gods and kings which the skilled hand of the winemaker turns into a piece of art? We all have our own answer to this question. In the meantime, let’s enjoy wine and culture – they make a perfect pairing, after all

Szymon Gatlik (Kraków Food & Travel)
Guide to local culinary and wine delights, lover of local cuisine and member of Slow Food International – an organisation promoting good, clean and fair food. Expert at the educational programme “Polish Culinary Treasures” and organiser of culinary events. He applies the principles of slow tourism in his work.

photo from the author's private archive

Article published in 1/2024 issue of Kraków Culture quarterly.


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