First time I tried it, the cloudy, pumpkin-colored wine blind-sided me. I assumed the bottle of sticky-sweet burcak I bought at a festival in Prague was some sort of cider, but the delirious buzz I experienced after proved otherwise. This was potent stuff.
A year later, the quest for burcak took my husband and me straight to the source — the South Moravian town of Mikulov, near the Austrian border, a 90-minute drive from Vienna. The village’s Pálava Vine Harvest Festival was still a week away, but it was early September: burcak season.
The late-summer grape harvest and first tasting of the fermented young wine draws locals and tourists who drink it with abandon. (Rapid consumption is not just part of the region’s spirited festivities; the wine goes sour a few hours after opening it.) We rolled into Mikulov in the late afternoon and were greeted by a fairy-tale cluster of charming red-roofed buildings, perched on the Pavlovské vrchy hills and surrounded by sun-drenched vineyards.
Not a hint could be found of the revelers and parade marchers in traditional costume who would soon crowd the cobbled streets — this was the quiet before the drunken storm — but the burcak was plentiful. Vendors in the town center sold liters of it, in plastic water bottles, for cheap. The first sip of the season reawakened the sensation of other first tastes: truffle oil, tequila, my first cup of truly great hot chocolate in Paris. Burcak has a complex taste — sugary yet a bit sour, with a hint of wet sock (an acquired taste, I like to think).
A cup of burcak was never far from reach that weekend, while we wandered the village and climbed the Holy Hill to the St. Sebastian Chapel. We got lost trying to navigate the Mikulov wine trail (clearly meant for bikes not cars) but did stumble upon several vintners along a dusty roadside. These holes-in-the-wall were a far cry from the wineries of Napa, little more than damp, musty bomb shelters with no signs or gift shops, just a thick, sour perfume and rows of the orange-tinted bottles. Yet the first seller, a burly man who didn’t speak a word of English, understood me perfectly. I plunked down the koruny and he handed me the elixir.
Back in the car, I opened the bottle gingerly, careful to contain the carbonated overflow. While my husband drove in search of other sources, I took a long swig from the passenger seat. There would be other pit stops for burcak along the way. This one was for the road.
For a look at another fabulous wine region, check out Todd Pitock’s look at the wineries of Franschhoek, South Africa, here.