Given my fondness for a well-rounded wine, it’s not at all surprising, then, that I donned the latest in Eastern European farm-fashion and jumped at the chance of making my own plonk.
Bulgaria has been famous for its winemaking regions ever since the time of Thracian rule, around 500 BC, so who could blame me for wanting to tap one of Europe’s oldest vineyards. Nestled at the western edge of the Thracian Valley, is the small winegrowing village of Perushtica – famous not only for its wines, but also its mind-blowing cousin: grape rakia.
The first historical record about the Thracians is found in the Iliad, where they are described as allies of the Trojans in the Trojan War against the Greeks. I wonder if the etymology of ‘rakia’ has anything to do with the Tracians, especially if we look closely at the Latin name: Th-raki or the Greek: Th-rakios?
The day started early and given my sampling of rakia the night before, I wasn’t in a hurry to get out of bed. But I wasn’t about to be outdone by grandparents who’d been up for at least a few hours and now pacing outside my door with anticipation of the harvest. In my defense I’m not usually expected to function the morning after a rakia-fuelled dinner which drank its way well into the night.
My farm-issued clothes were a bit too small but made an easy job of converting them to shorts and short sleeves during the hot day. The colour was certainly in line with my communist past and my mind was already humming party slogans honed during potato harvests from days gone by.
This was shaping up to be a commie-reunion like no other and the only thing stopping the experience being totally reminiscent of the past, was the absence of banner-wielding children marching across the horizon.
As far as the eye can see, Perushtica is completely surrounded by vineyards. Getting in and out of the village requires some careful driving so as not to collide with rakia-fuelled tractors, and similarly fuelled drivers, unexpectedly jumping out from between the rows pulling their grape-laden trailers.
Our field wasn’t far from the house, but judging by the mountains of grapes other people had already collected, we were late to the party. The window winder was broken on my side of the old Fiat and my clammy skin was showing all the signs of early perspiration. Late start can only mean a late, and probably a sweltering finish – no thanks to: I’m with –> sleepy, over here.
It didn’t take long before I was sucking on one of the water bottles rolling around and between my feet.
After receiving my pair of scissors and some general instructions on what to cut and what to leave behind, we hit the rows like a well-oiled machine. Grandparents in the front, taking the good stuff and what can be sold, Todor and I behind, grabbing anything that could be used for rakia and homebrew.
It’s easy to see why the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are so much easier to pick than their white cousins – the deep purple berries are easily seen against the green of the vine leaves.
I particularly liked the symmetry and denseness of the berries, their smooth and thick skins shelter a juicy flesh that explodes in the mouth with the full force of a rich flavour. Needless to say, I ate a good proportion of what I picked – call it, dehydration prevention.
We only had eight rows to finish today, and both Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc varieties would be picked. The best quality grapes were sorted, cleaned, placed in crates and sold to a merchant encamped in the center of all the surrounding fields.
These good-quality grapes would, no doubt, finish their life as wine or table grapes. What the grandparents left for me to pick, would end up as home-made wine or Rocket-fuel Rakia.
It was interesting to find out that many of the local growers prefer to make rakia during times of low grape prices because rakia allows for risk-free storage as well as provide relatively stable income from one year to the next.
The sun was still high in the sky, but seven hours in the heat and eight rows later, it was time to retire for a well-earned rest and maybe even a swirl (or two) of rakia. But with a large quantity of unsold produce in the trailer, it was time to get the homebrew-grade grapes back home and start fermenting. After all, isn’t this what it’s all about?
I was ready to roll up commie pants and join the local skimpily-clad girls stomp around feverishly in a giant vat to squeeze out every last drop of grape juice beneath their toes.
Imagine my surprise when a cigarette-smoking guy in a VW pulled up outside the garage and delivered an electric-powered destemmer. The machine stripped the stems, crushed the grapes and piped the juice directly to the plastic vats beneath the house. Call me crazy, but where’s the romance in that type of progress, or enticing innuendos for that matter?
But you can’t fight efficiency, particularly if you’ve a thirst for the final product. The thousand-litre plastic vats were filled as quickly as we could shovel the grapes into the juicer. Within a few minutes the whole garage was filled with the sweet bubbling stench of fermentation.
Can’t wait to get back there to sample the finished wine and rakia.