Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999

Just a test S L I C E  O F   L I F E:
The Wine Time

Jeffrey Brown

As the end of August approaches, vintners in South Moravia grow edgy with anticipation. After months of waiting, the time has come to pick and prune the voluptuous clusters of succulent grapes, bursting with wine-making potential, that have made the area famous.

While the vintners worry about the first indications of the quality and volume of the harvest, villages in the region are overcome with a more frivolous emotion. Almost as if a magical spell had been cast on the sleepy towns, inhabitants become lively, festive, exuberant; this is the time of vinobrani - the wine festival - and everywhere the air is enlivened with cries of "Burcak!"

Burcak - that murky, burnt-orange-colored elixir more reminiscent of a hearty, freshly squeezed juice than wine - begins to flow after the first grapes have been crushed.

Sipping a glass of 1995 Modry Portugal in his cavernous vinoteka (wine shop) inside the Valtice chateau, local wine expert and vintner Jiri Kopecek talks about the two-fold tradition of the wine festival.

"Vinobrani is first and foremost the actual grape harvest, the work to be done in the vineyards," he says. "Secondly, it is a celebration that kicks off the harvest season with burcak."

Vintners the world over share their secrets only among a small coterie. The same is true of the makers of burcak, even though the actual tricks of the trade vary among growers in the region.

"Some believe that burcak should be warm when drunk, but this is absolutely not true," says Kopecek, who attended and once taught at the Valtice Wine School. "Adding warmth only speeds up the fermentation process and the warmer it [the initial grape juice, ed] is, the shorter amount of time it will remain burcak. So the natural cellar temperature should not be altered."

The Curse of Burcak

Regardless of which grape is used to produce burcak, the alcohol content is usually about five percent - compared to a full wine's normal 11 to 12 percent. But there's a catch. "Burcak continues to ferment inside the body. After three or four hours of continuous drinking, its strength matches that of full wines," says Mikulov vintner Ladislav Stolarik. So don't be fooled. Many have been left to find out the curse of burcak the hard way, says Stolarik, waving a finger and adding a thunderous pozor (watch out!) to his good-natured reproach.

Only the vintner, his family and friends are allowed into the vinny sklep (wine cellar) during the mysterious build-up to burcak season, sometimes staying up all night - even two nights - waiting for the magical one-to-three-hour period when the vintner officially declares that burcak flows. Then, the fun starts. Those on hand usually down a good liter of the juicy stuff once the thumbs-up is given. High in Vitamin B complex, essential minerals and sugars, burcak is believed by many to possess the life-giving energy of sun and soil - the secret of good health.

Local superstition has it that one should drink at least seven liters of burcak during the season to ensure good luck until the next harvest. Thus, while the pleasures of drinking the sweet stuff are fleeting, quaffing enough may be the key to a prosperous year.

While some difference of opinion exists as far as preparing the perfect burcak, most cellar men in the region agree about its place in the wine-making process. Vintner Ladislav Stolarik learned his trade through years of hands-on experience with his father, rather than attending the Valtice school. His cozy cellar-restaurant, which faces the 16th-century castle that dominates the landscape of the town of Mikulov, is carved into the side of a large limestone cliff.

"After the grapes are crushed, there is a high-fructose most (juice) which then ferments to burcak for a short time before becoming rezak (a mixture)," says the husky, soft-spoken Mikulov native. "The rezak stage continues until it becomes a full wine."

The length of time before the juice becomes a full wine "depends on the grape," adds Stolarik. It is the variety of grapes harvested that allows for the long burcak season, which lasts from early September until the end of October. More than 20 types of grapes are harvested in the region, and some ripen earlier than others.

"Muller Thurgau and Modry Portugal belong to the earliest bunches to be crushed," says Kopecek. "Ryzlink Vlassky, Ryzlink Rynsky and Frankovka are among the last."

Several villages in the 14,500-hectare wine region observe vinobrani in some way: from parades in folk costume through historical districts to outdoor concerts. The largest, best-known events are held in the towns of Znojmo, Mikulov and Valtice.

Of these, Valtice's celebration is the most low-key and clings more to the old folk traditions. According to town custom, vintners gather with the mayor at the Valtice Wine School to recognize the year's ten vineyard guards - students chosen from the local school who vow to protect the surrounding vineyards throughout the harvest. After an induction ceremony, the mayor and other town officials, on horseback, lead the vintners and new guards through the town to herald the start of the wine harvest.

A History of the Harvest

While the event has recently grown in popularity, locals shrug their shoulders when asked about the official date of the first vinobrani. Most suspect that some type of grape-harvest celebration dates back to Roman times, when winemaking was introduced to the region. The area boasts a list of famous guests who have visited the region over the years: the great pedagogue Comenius visited on several occasions; even Napoleon once stayed in Mikulov, where he celebrated his Austerlitz victory in 1805 with a south Moravian vintage.

In the more recent past, vinobrani, like other events in the country, carried the stamp of the former Communist regime. Stepan Kopicak of Mikulov remembers vinobrani well during the Normalization period of the 1970s - he served on the planning committee for the Mikulov event. "The official name came to be Okresni slavnost hranicaru, or the District Celebration of the Border Patrol - on account of Mikulov's location on the Czech-Austrian border." But the official decree had little impact.

"Everyone still referred to it as vinobrani," he says.

During the vinobrani festivities, south Moravians, renowned for their relaxed pace of life and warm hospitality, throw open their wine cellars to neighboring provinces as well as to visitors from around Europe. Unlike fine aged wines, burcak is meant to be drunk almost immediately, as it goes sour after about four hours. The short shelf life and the need to throw one's glass back quickly help explain the sense of carpe diem that pervades the vinobrani celebration. The significance of the local adage "Age only matters if you are a wine" comes to life as young and old share in the festivities.

Though burcak is the focus of the festival, there is more to the celebration than drinking.

"The atmosphere makes vinobrani special," says Stolarik, wielding a traditional kostyr (tasting pipette) full of his homemade vintage. "Old friends catch up, taste the young wine and enjoy taking part in the traditions of the event."

These traditions include the dulcimer music that echoes through the narrow Mikulov streets during the festival. Ornately clad musicians belt out traditional song-and-dance numbers, frequently joined by festival goers decked out in folk costumes.

"It's a time to remember where you are from, for young and old to come together," says Jan Machander of Brno, whose dulcimer quintet performs yearly at Mikulov. He adds with a smile that the pace of the singing and dancing noticeably picks up as the day progresses and the burcak imbibing increases.

The Valtice celebration, organized by school officials, is free of charge, but the larger Mikulov and Znojmo festivals are organized by local firms and charge an admission fee. Znojmo, the last of the three festivals, is centered around the simple joys of sipping burcak among friends and enjoying the musical traditions. Most celebrants simply stroll around the streets, refilling their glasses at various burcak booths around town. Costumed jugglers, sword fighters and dancers on and around the main square in Znojmo create a festive, Renaissance-style extravaganza, capped off with a massive fireworks display. Last year, approximately 10,000 guests visited Mikulov and more than 30,000 celebrated in Znojmo over the course of the events.

"No one toasts young wine until St Martin's day," says Kopecek, repeating a local proverb that has taken on a greater significance in recent years - now that he and other vintners in the region are just beginning to push the sale of young Czech wine, similar to that of young Beaujolais in France. While a French saying refers to the third Thursday of November as the start of the young wine season, St Martin's Day is always 11 November. For this reason, Kopecek has marketed his first wine of the season as Sv. Martinsky z rodu Modreho Portugalu. Kopecek says 2000 individually marked bottles were produced last year and over 3000 last year. These are mostly sold to restaurateurs around the country.

While some larger wine firms have ignored the St Martin's Day start in hopes of pulling in a larger profit, Kopecek scoffs at their poor etiquette. "It is the natural end of the harvest season - not only for wine but for all agriculture," he says. As to marketing the new wine abroad, he calmly says it is just a question of time - but then again, most things are in south Moravia.

Jeffrey Brown, Editor of Central Europe Online.

Note: Jeffrey Brown has sent us this updated version of his article which originally appeared in The Prague Post during last year's festival.

1999 Vinobrani Dates and Info

Mikulov: September 10,11

Tourist Information

Namesti 35
Mikulov 69201
Czech Republic
Tel/Fax: +420-625-4200

Znojmo: September 17-18

Tourist Information Center
Obrokova 10
Znojmo 66901
Czech Republic
Tel/Fax: +420-624-222552
Email: tic@oknet.cz

Valtice: October 8,9
Tel: +420627 352 977

Link: David's Moravian Wine Page (it has everything)




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