An Aperitif for Autumn
Autumn in the Czech Republic, particularly the south east, is a time of wine festivals and celebrating the grape harvest. Many localities, large and small, host wine festivals where you can sample a range of locally produced wines and immerse yourself in the merriment and atmosphere. Beyond the festivals, you can also visit many wine cellars directly to sample their wares at the source.
Alongside the finished wines, you will also encounter burčák; a popular, cloudy concoction that is a fixture of the season. While there is no direct translation of the word “burčák”, it is most often referred to as “young wine” in English.
Burčák is, quite simply, juice from partially fermented grapes and is collected and sold while the yeast is still in suspension. Once the yeast is added, fermentation happens quickly and burčák only exists in a small window of time every year.
Generally, burčák can be found available anywhere from late August to the end of November. However, the last week of September and first two weeks of October are generally considered the best time to enjoy the drink.
If you find yourself in the Czech Republic and near the wine regions at this time of year, I certainly recommend you have at least one glass of burčák to get into the spirit of things.
Getting the Best from Burčák
Buying burčák is far from a foolproof thing. It is typically sold by the cup or in anonymous PET plastic bottles; this gives less than honest types out to make a quick profit off the uninformed a wide margin to sell substandard or even fake burčák. Here, I present a few guidelines to help you avoid some of the traps that the uninitiated often fall into with this beverage:
Consider your location:
Burčák is a delicate thing and does not store or travel well at all. The further you are from the Moravian wine growing regions of the country’s south east, the lower your chances of getting good, authentic burčák become.
Point of purchase:
Only buy burčák at places where they can give you information about the provenance of what they are selling. You should be quite safe buying it directly from the producer at their cellar if it’s possible.
At officially sanctioned wine festivals, all the stalls should have some clear signage of which wine producer they represent along with business cards, brochures or other other documentation to support who they are and where their wine operations are located.
You may also be able to buy burčák at wine bars (vinárna or vinotéka) or at other establishments licensed to sell alcohol. As long as they are within the vicinity of the wine region and can tell you exactly where the burčák came from, you should feel reasonably secure buying in these places.
Never buy burčák from a stand alone vendor on the roadside or street. Wine festivals typically attract people out to make a quick profit who will set up tables on streets leading to the festival, but will not actually be part of it; avoid buying from these types.
Burčák has been a protected drink since shortly after the Czech Republic joined the European Union. True burčák can only be made from Moravian grown grapes; if the merchant selling it can’t reasonably prove that what they are selling came from there, think twice before buying from them.
Time of year:
As burčák is a protected speciality, there are several rules regulating it and the sale of it. One particular rule to keep in mind is that if you see someone selling burčák before the first of August or after the end of November, don’t buy from them. Not only are they not likely selling real burčák, they are also breaking the regulations for selling it as it is strictly against the rules to sell anything under the name “burčák” outside of the aforementioned window of time.
Take a good look:
Colour is very important in determining if burčák is fit to drink. As such, it’s best to buy from someone who serves it in clear, transparent and colourless cups or glasses. If they are serving it in any sort of opaque or coloured container, move on.
Burčák from white wine grapes should be a clear light to mid yellow colour with no hint of brown to it. If there is a brown cast, it indicates that the seller is not storing the burčák correctly or may be selling something that is not actually burčák at all. If handled properly, real burčák will not shift colour.
Good burčák will not have any yeast sediment sitting at the bottom of the container or leave any residue in the empty sections as you drink. If you see either of these things, the fermentation process has gone too far.
Burčák is also available in red and rose forms from red wine grapes. They should be of a clean red or pink colour respectively and the rules for brown colour and settled yeast I outlined for white wine burčák also apply to them.
Have a listen:
While we test finished wine by smell, burčák is best tested by sound. If you hold a freshly poured cup of it up to your ear and hear a fizzing noise, it means the fermentation process is still going. That’s very good sign.
Burčák and You
As with many alcoholic drinks, health benefits are ascribed to burčák. There is truth to these claims when it comes to this beverage.
The primary benefit of burčák is as a cleanser to rid the body of toxins. The traditional advice is to drink an amount of burčák equal to the amount of blood in your body. I don’t recommend taking in so much burčák at all, much less at one sitting.
Burčák is also known to be very high in vitamins, particularly of the B group.
It is a very deceptive drink that, when of very good quality, comes across as refreshingly light, sweet, crisp and leaves you wanting more. However, it goes to the head very quickly and if you make the mistake of drinking it as if it was grape soda you will certainly live to regret it.
It is also on the acid side and becomes more so as the fermentation process continues. If you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to limit your intake as you will feel it there.
The following links will give you more information about burčák, how it’s made, where it fits into Czech culture and what to look for in good burčák:
Please also visit my existing article on Czech wine to get an idea of exactly where the Czech wine regions are and what the country offers to the wine lover: