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Pezinok vintners bring on the burčiak for Vinobranie 2001

Every year, vintners in western Slovakia's Pezinok open their barrels after the juice from their latest grape crop has been sitting for about a week, and draw off a sweet, thick, half-fermented grape cider. Arriving at restaurants and street corners in early September, this cheap, delicious and pungent beverage, known as burčiak, is a telltale sign that autumn is approaching - much as mulled wine rings in Slovakia's winter season.
Next weekend, around 75 inhabitants of Pezinok will be manning wooden stalls or opening their wine-cellars to sell burčiak to thousands of visitors to the annual Vinobranie festival, which celebrates western Slovakia's grape harvest, the labour of love that is wine-making, and the joys of bacchanalia.
"Vinobranie is about drinking, eating, dancing and having a good time," said Peter Matyšák, a local wine producer gearing up for the festival.


Tens of thousands of visitors are expected at Slovakia's largest wine festival, the annual Vinobranie, in Pezinok September 21-23.
photo: Milan Oravec

Every year, vintners in western Slovakia's Pezinok open their barrels after the juice from their latest grape crop has been sitting for about a week, and draw off a sweet, thick, half-fermented grape cider. Arriving at restaurants and street corners in early September, this cheap, delicious and pungent beverage, known as burčiak, is a telltale sign that autumn is approaching - much as mulled wine rings in Slovakia's winter season.

Next weekend, around 75 inhabitants of Pezinok will be manning wooden stalls or opening their wine-cellars to sell burčiak to thousands of visitors to the annual Vinobranie festival, which celebrates western Slovakia's grape harvest, the labour of love that is wine-making, and the joys of bacchanalia.

"Vinobranie is about drinking, eating, dancing and having a good time," said Peter Matyšák, a local wine producer gearing up for the festival.

Vinobranie alternates annually between Modra, a town north of Bratislava, and Pezinok, a small city to the capital's north east. The festival begins this year at 17:00 on Friday, September 21 in Pezinok, after the Mayor of Modra passes the official Vinobranie scroll to the Mayor of Pezinok, and runs until Sunday evening.

Among some Slovaks, burčiak is considered a healthful drink, thought to be high in vitamins. Local Pezinok legend dictates that every person should consume a volume of burčiak equal to the amount of blood in their veins every fall, in order to "change their blood". Literal-minded foreigners sometimes heed this advice, with dire consequences. First-time festival-goers beware.

"Princess Sajako of Japan came to Pezinok last year with a small envoy," said Oliver Solga, deputy mayor of Pezinok. "Someone told the chauffeur that a person should drink six to seven litres of burčiak to replenish his system. But they forgot to tell him not in one day. He started drinking at noon, and the Japanese had to call another car to get back to Bratislava in the evening."

A typical Vinobranie meal consists of lokše (a buttered flat cake made from potato dough) and goose meat, which will be sold at the hundreds of stands and tents lining the festival's four-block area in Pezinok's centre. Musicians will perform classical, folk and popular music on two stages, 43 concerts in all. A makeshift amusement park, a baker's market and an arts and crafts fair will offer other diversions.

"Something for everyone," said Deputy Mayor Solga.

Records of a festival coinciding with the fall harvest in Pezinok, capital of western Slovakia's Small Carpathian wine-making region, date back to the 13th century, when the end of the picking season at the close of October was celebrated with a procession led by a cart carrying a wine-barrel. A 19th century blight on the vineyards led to the demise of the custom.

The festival was begun in its modern form - held to September and dominated by burčiak - in 1934. Modra and Pezinok agreed to host the festival on alternating years in the 1950s.

Vinobranie was endangered following the 1989 anti-communist revolution, when small businesses didn't have the money to build their own stalls and the town couldn't afford to provide the traditional extent of entertainment. However, the festival has bounced back in recent years; in 1999 an estimated 90,000 crowded into Pezinok on Vinobranie's Saturday night.

A resident of Pezinok for 32 years and a professional vintner for eight, Matyšák says he has seen over 20 Vinobranie. But for him 1999 will always be special, for more than just the record crowds.

"That year I had a problem deciding how many geese to order; you never know in advance how it will go," he said. "We ordered 80 geese, and when our last customers left on Sunday, we found we had used 79 and a half.

"What a coincidence!"

This year, Matyšák will move out of his small restaurant on Holubyho Street and serve food and wine and burčiak out of a large tent. He expects the 2001 festival to be so popular he's ordered 140 geese.

Where: Pezinok (pop. 22,000, 20 kilometres east of Bratislava)
When: September 21 to 23
How much: free
How to get there: By car, highway 502 north from Bratislava; buses, trains leave regularly from Bratislava's main stations

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