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SLOVAK MATTERS

In praise of burčiak and internal September storms

FOR THOSE of us who love fall (jeseň) above all other seasons, Slovakia gives us another reason to celebrate (oslavovať) the arrival of September - burčiak (immature wine) in all its yeasty, good-humoured splendour.
I first drank burčiak 10 years ago this month, urged by students (who else?) to sample a light-brown, still-fermenting broth. I've since then over-indulged, sworn off it, helped to pick the grapes (hrozná) that are its main ingredient, and then been cheated out of the yield.
Burčiak is the first result of Slovakia's wine crop, here and in the Czech Republic being a traditional admixture of the juice (mušt) from freshly picked grapes (usually white) mixed with sugar (cukor) and yeast (kvasnice). After about a week, or less in a warmer cellar (pivnica), you get a frothy (spenený) mixture said to be only slightly alcoholic. If, however, you drink more than a litre of burčiak, you'll know you've been drinking, and so will those around you.

FOR THOSE of us who love fall (jeseň) above all other seasons, Slovakia gives us another reason to celebrate (oslavovať) the arrival of September - burčiak (immature wine) in all its yeasty, good-humoured splendour.

I first drank burčiak 10 years ago this month, urged by students (who else?) to sample a light-brown, still-fermenting broth. I've since then over-indulged, sworn off it, helped to pick the grapes (hrozná) that are its main ingredient, and then been cheated out of the yield.

Burčiak is the first result of Slovakia's wine crop, here and in the Czech Republic being a traditional admixture of the juice (mušt) from freshly picked grapes (usually white) mixed with sugar (cukor) and yeast (kvasnice). After about a week, or less in a warmer cellar (pivnica), you get a frothy (spenený) mixture said to be only slightly alcoholic. If, however, you drink more than a litre of burčiak, you'll know you've been drinking, and so will those around you.

For one thing, burčiak is still fermeting (kvasiť, verb, or kvasenie, noun), which means that after you drink it, it continues with its merry kvasenie in your stomach. Large quantities of burčiak drunk can give you very uncomfortable gas, not to mention the French ivresse (in Slovak spoločenská unavenosť, or 'social fatigue').

It's best drunk soon after you buy it, however, as the fermentation will blow the cap off any container you leave it in overnight and make a mess of the fridge. Also, if left more than two days, the yeast eats most of the sugar and you're left with the rather vinegary rampaš, which is still drinkable in a pinch but far inferior to its younger cousin.

Slovakia's young wine celebration traditionally starts with the harvest (zber) in late August and ends on November 11 with the opening of the casks (sudy) and the tasting of the first product of the harvest (úroda) that can truly be called wine (the event is called Požehnanie Svätého Martina mladému vínu, or the St. Martin's blessing of young wine).

September sees several major wine celebrations in the western Small Carpathians area of Slovakia, this year kicking off in the Bratislava suburb of Rača from September 13-15 at three sites in the city (Námestie Hrdinov features the wine and burčiak tasting, or ochutnávky vín, while at several amphitheatres close to downtown Rača you can see exhibits of grape pressing, or lisovanie hrozna).

But the real event to visit is the Vinobranie celebration, which usually takes places on the third weekend in September and alternates between the wine capitals of Pezinok and Modra. This year, because elections fall on September 20-21, the festival has been moved to the September 27-29 weekend in Modra (see feature story next week on this page).

Slovak dictionaries are silent on the origins of the word burčiak. But given that burácať means to roar, either in anger or with laughter, or that búrať is to demolish, burič a rebel, búriť to infuriate or stir up, and búrka a storm, I think we all get the picture.

Beware the storms of September, but don't be afraid to stir up an otherwise tranquil life.

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