The art of burčák-making

Wine lovers from countries such as France, Spain or Italy might often turn up their noses at wine that is made in Moravia and Bohemia. But each year, there comes a time when Czechs enjoy something unknown to those wine-producing powers – the fresh, fruity and fizzy young wine known as burčák. Jan Richter reports from South Moravia, the wine capital of the Czech Republic.

MikulovMikulov In a small café in the south Moravian town of Mikulov, a burčák party is in full swing, despite the bleak and rainy autumn weather. By the end of October, vineyards on the slopes of the hills around the town lie bare as the grapes have been picked and tucked into the cellars to be turned into wine. During this process, there is a brief period of perhaps a few days when people flock to south Moravia from all parts of the country – it’s burčák time. Filip Brichta took me to his wine cellar, deep below street level in the ancient Jewish Quarter of Mikulov.

“I have some Riesling, some Zweigeltrebe which I am making rosé of; that’s Pálava there – a local crossbreed with rather aromatic grapes. And over there, I have two big vats where my red is fermenting just now.”

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK Burčák, or fermenting grape juice, is common to the whole of central Europe; it’s known as federweisser in Germany, sturm in Austria and burčiak in Slovakia. I asked Filip Brichta if it was difficult to make proper burčák.

“Not really. When you crush and press the grapes, you get the juice, and the yeast will take care of making burčák. If you have grape juice, you can just leave it by itself and it will ferment into burčák.”

”The peak of the process, when it’s at its best, depends on many things – whether is has enough natural yeast, or you put some yeast in to make it ferment; on the room temperature; on the size of the vessel you put the juice in, because the bigger the vessel, the faster it peaks and the faster it goes down. When fermenting, it’s creating its own heat so we sometimes say that it boils. It gets warmer and it’s rather a violent process sometimes.”

A violent process, and also one that does not last very long because fermenting quickly turns the juice into real wine. Pavel Svoboda is the production manager of Vinařství Sedláček, based in the nearby town of Lednice. He showed me around their plant where some 180,000 litres of wine is made each year.

“The juice is purified and rid of sediment and then the clear juice is left to ferment. The fermentation might take, depending on the wine-maker, between eight days and three weeks. Burčák – the most active phase of the fermentation process – occurs around the fourth or fifth day. White wines tend to remain in this stage for as long as say, eight days. But with red wines it’s a matter of hours, because the environment is much more intense.”

In other words, you would be very lucky if you could get hold of burčák made of red grapes, because it turns into wine much quicker. But there are for sure enough places to get burčák made of white grapes. But as Filip Brichta points out, you have to be careful.

“Many of those sellers make it from apples because they are obviously cheaper than grapes, and many people can’t tell the difference. They are willing to pay for the fake.”

I turned to an expert for advice on how to make sure that you are getting the real stuff, instead of apple or even carrot juice that’s sometimes sold in the streets of big cities where people know little about wine. Pavel Svoboda says you should always examine the colour.

“This is a very tricky question but if you are going to buy burčák at a stall, you shouldn’t buy anything that is of a different colour than that particular variety of wine. A darker colour can give away that either the juice had been very badly taken care of, or that it’s not grape juice at all. Grape juice, if properly prepared, doesn’t change colour. By contrast, apple and other kinds of fruit juices change colour immediately after pressing to the shade of brown leaves.”

So before the burčák season is over by mid-November, make sure you’ve had some – they say that you should drink as much burčák as you have blood in your veins.

“My father used to say you should actually drink not only the equivalent of your blood but of all of your body’s fluids And why is it healthy? The juice is very clean and pristine. All the water in it has been filtered though the vines and its roots, so there are no pollutants you might have in your normal water. That’s one thing, but it also has quite a lot of fruit sugar, which is instant energy. There is lots of yeast and as you know, yeast contains a lot of vitamin B.”