In the early 1980s Bulgaria was the world’s second largest producer of wine. International varieties had been introduced in the 1960s to replace traditional grapes, and most wine was sold as cheap plonk to the Soviet Union.
The state-owned industry declined after the end of the Cold War in 1989. From the early 1990s state-owned wineries became privatized, some attracting overseas investment or European Union subsidies, which led to major improvements.
The plains around the Danube River and the Black Sea regions are the main areas for vines, though the Thracian Lowlands, Rose Valley and Struma Valley also produce respectable wines. Many vineyards are on the same latitude as central Italy or southern France suggesting the climate can provide good conditions for viticulture.
Several centuries before Christ the Thracians worshipped the Greek wine god Dionysus – Thrace was believed to be his home. Evidence of Thracian traditions in wine production and consumption can be found in magnificent treasures connected with wine such as gold goblets.
A tasting in London in late March revealed much about the renaissance of Bulgaria’s wine industry. We began with a handful of whites. Three in five bottles produced in Bulgaria are red wines.
The 2013 Bratanovi tamianka had an intense aroma reminiscent of ripe gewurtztraminer with a touch of riesling. Tamianka is better known as muscat blanc and has traditionally been used for grappa distilling. It would be a good aperitif because of its lively floral notes and dry finish.
Caroline Gilby MW said the Bratanovi estate provides a good example of the changes in the industry since the end of Communism. The family originally had a 1ha vineyard because most vineyards were smallholdings, but over time the family had acquired 24ha and all wines are estate grown. Gilby first went to Bulgaria in 1989 as a buyer. “Under Communism bulk wines were mostly poor and the link between the winemaker and grape grower was broken.” The country has a minimal wine culture but Gilby said she had noted a rising interest in wine in recent years. “The smaller winemakers with their own land have a passion for wine and it shows in what they produce.”
Some critics believe chardonnay has potential in Bulgaria. The 2011 Rossidi chardonnay is unoaked and fermented in egg-shaped concrete vessels that allow subtle levels of micro-oxygenation. This wine had rich fruit yet finished dry and clean with a slight touch of salinity.
The 2013 Ivo Varbanov Clair de Lune chardonnay is classy with good depth of flavours, the result of deft winemaking. Varbanov is a concert pianist as well as winemaker and names his wines after music. Of all the chardonnays tasted it reminded the most of white burgundy. The rich fruit and texture suggest a wine that will improve with time.
The 2013 Borovitza chardonnay had a most unusual colour of gold-orange, obtained it seems from the skins. It is fermented in old 3,000 litre barrels and has a slight tanninic edge with hints of orange pith. This is a unique chardonnay that would appeal to people who prefer unusual Old World wines.
For many years Bulgaria could not establish a particular wine style. But that has changed in recent years with a return to traditional grape varieties, almost all of them red. Gamza – the Bulgarian name for Hungary’s kadarka – is similar to pinot noir and comes from the cooler northwest and central north regions close to the Danube River. The 2013 Borovitza gamza originated from vines more than 40 years old and had vibrant acidity. A sharp tanninic edge suggested a wine that needs food.
The traditional variety of mavrud has the potential to become Bulgaria’s flagship grape. It gets its name from the Greek word for black, and is mostly grown in the Assenovgrad region. The 2013 Bratanovi mavrud was grown near Plovdiv, one of the 10 oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. It has charming acidity and soft tannins.
The southwest is the warmest corner of Bulgaria and is home to the melnik grape, named after the town of Melnik. It tastes like a Rhone red, though unlike Rhone reds melnik is reportedly difficult to grow. The 2011 Villa Melnik red offered juicy fruit with robust and rich flavours; the kind of wine that needs food.
The rubin grape is a hybrid of nebbiolo and syrah created in Bulgaria in the late 1940s. It is grown throughout the south and eastern parts of the country where it is made into dark red wines. The grape used to be made into sweet wines exported to the Soviet Union. The 2013 Rossidi rubin had a slightly harsh tannic edge compensated by earthy tones and a touch of sweetness despite a dry finish.
Some of the other interesting wines were mostly Bordeaux blends. The 2009 Eolis is a mix of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon that showed precision in the winemaking. The 2011 Orbelus Prima was made of cabernet sauvignon, melnik, merlot and petit verdot from an organic estate. It was powerful with a quality mouthfeel. The 2008 Sintica was a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. It had a classic Bordeaux nose and tasted delicious.
Also attractive were a 2013 Villa Yustina pinot noir whose winemaker Vasil Stoyanov spent three years in New Zealand and returned with good ideas. It tasted more like Central Otago than Burgundy. The 2008 Sintica Explosion is 100 per cent cabernet franc. It’s a generous wine with a savoury nose of bacon and Vegemite and soft tannins.
The new face of Bulgarian wine is exciting. What is the way forward: Should they focus on indigenous grapes or Bordeaux blends? Probably both.
Bulgaria mainly exports to Russia, the Czech Republic and Poland, though China is emerging as a substantial market.
Words: 960. Find a link here.