Poland is not the first place that leaps to mind when one ponders the great wine countries of the world (it’s hard to believe that vines once cloaked the slopes of Wawel Hill). The communist era, not famed as a fertile period for gourmet pursuits, didn’t help much either. Still, there’s no doubt that you’re slightly less likely to come across a glass of wine that will do a good job of stripping the enamel off your teeth than it was a few years ago; Krakow’s wine lovers are having a much easier time of it than in the dark days of socialism. As are wine-loving Poles in general: as a nation, Poles drank around 98 million litres of wine last year, a 10 percent increase on the year before, but still far behind the preferred drinks of beer and vodka. Of course, this is nothing compared to the Spanish, Italians or French, who drink that much wine every four months, but the trend is definitely upward, helped by the growing number of Poles who travel abroad and experience other cuisines, often accompanied by local wine. This growing interest in food and wine, together with higher earnings, has expended the market for wine and drawn a number of importers into the industry. The resulting competition forces them to reduce their margins and makes wine more affordable for the Polish drinker.
So although it’s now much easier to get a glass of decent wine here, it’s not all rosy. Krakow’s dependence on tourists who are only here for a few days means that there are precious few discerning restaurateurs here, and owning a restaurant is most frequently seen as a good way of extracting money from transient visitors. As a result, most bars and restaurants in Krakow are tied in to contracts with one of a small group of beer distributors, the terms of which force the bar to sell only a small range of beers. These contracts usually commit the bar to buying wine from the distributor too, and as beer is still the biggest earner, the wines on the wine list tend to be the cheapest available. In exchange, the bar or café gets lower prices and freebies such as espresso machines, branded tables, chairs, umbrellas etc.
In short, if you want to get beyond the usual suspects, you have to work a little harder than heading down to the nearest bar. Although I’m no expert on wine, there are a few places in Krakow that I think are worth mentioning as a starting point.
Most central is the Vinoteka 13 in the basement of the OTT building at Rynek 13 (you mean that ostentatious “Pasaż 13” sign isn’t an original 15th century stone carving?). Ignore the disconcerting loud music piped onto the street and head down the stairs to a swish bar that has a surprisingly affordable selection of wines by the glass, and a wine shop with a wider range of wines from small wineries around the world by the bottle.
Slightly further out is Wine Garage (ul. Józefitów 8), a tiny wine bar and shop tucked away in one of Krakow’s most boring streets, but this just makes what happens at the Wine Garage more interesting. Owned and run by a couple who have been importing and selling wine for years, they specialise in organic and biodynamic wines, mainly from Italy, Spain, France, Moravia and Tokaj. They make a point of visiting all of their producers and can talk at length (in English, if you press them) about each of the vineyards and winemakers they stock. It’s pretty rare to find this level of dedication to suppliers at the best of times, so it’s even more special here. The Wine Garage is open from 12 noon to 8 pm (sometimes later) every day and you can buy wines by the glass to drink there as well as a small range of bar snacks. They also run regular tasting evenings – previous events have included Polish wines, biodynamic wines from Tokaij and vegetarian wines.
There are a couple of off-license shops that might also be worth a look; Viners on ul. Zwierzyniecka is a recent arrival and Wina.pl on ul. Krowoderska and Dom Wina on ul. Starowiślna are both shops run by much larger Internet-based wine businesses. There are also shops run by large importers, such as the charming Winarium Marek Kondrat (ul. Dolnych Młynów 9) and Sobiesław Zasada (ul. Florianska 20 and ul. Armii Krajowej 19), although these trade in a large volume of wine so their ranges are correspondingly homogeneous. Finally, there’s the ingenious combination of wine shop (with a good beer selection, too) and DVD rental at ul. Filarecka 3 – a favourite of our editor, I hear.