Bulgaria, Georgia and Greece all claim to be the cradle of winemaking. It is difficult, given the swirling mists of history, to pinpoint an exact birthplace. But a leading contender is the Thracian Valley that runs through the middle of Bulgaria almost to Istanbul in the east.
Several centuries before Christ the Thracians worshipped the Greek wine god Dionysus. Thrace was believed to be his home. Evidence of Thracian wine culture can be found in magnificent treasures such as gold-adorned drinking horns known as rhyton found in tombs in Greece and Bulgaria. Homer praises the wine of the Thracians in his Iliad. Along with the Odyssey, these are considered the oldest examples of Western literature, written almost 2,750 years ago.
In recent years the Bulgarian wine industry has experienced a renaissance, driven by improved quality and focus at boutique vineyards. The non-profit Bulgarian Association of Independent Wine-growers is leading that renaissance. Ivo Varbanov, winemaker and international concert pianist and the association’s energetic chairman, believes strongly in the industry’s potential.
Bulgaria was the world’s second largest producer of bottled wine, after France, during the 1980s. Most of it went to comrades in the former Soviet Union. The industry collapsed with the decline of Communism after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.
Confusion about ownership was a feature of the next decade as individuals sought to reclaim land that had been collectivised. The return of this land was badly handled. Even today, only about half of Bulgaria’s 60,000 hectares of vines are being tended. The rest lie fallow because of continuing ownership disputes, noted Guy Labeyrie, a former Bordeaux winemaker who co-runs, with Dimo Atanassov, Vitis Tours, a luxury wine tourism company.
A government decree in 1960 officially divided Bulgaria into five distinct wine regions. But since 2007 when Bulgaria joined the European Union the EU only recognises two – north and south – divided by the Balkan Mountains that run east-west through the middle of Bulgaria.
Despite the EU edict, locals still think in terms of those five regions. The Danube Plain in the north is characterised by a temperate continental climate with hot summers, and focuses on lighter reds and whites. The Black Sea region in the east contains just under a third of the country’s 280 vineyards and makes fine dry whites.
The Rose Valley extends south of the Balkan Mountains where the local grape known as Red Muscat produces distinctly fruity wines. This region is famous globally for the oil distilled from the Damascus rose, used to make perfumes. Depending on the year, between 3 and 5 tonnes of rose petals are needed to make 1kg of oil. One kilogram sells for between 4,000 and 7,000 euros depending on quality.
Most of Bulgaria’s reds are made in the Thracian Lowlands in southern Bulgaria. The mountains protect the vines from severe northern winds, and Cabernet Sauvignon and the local grape Mavrud thrive. The Struma Valley, centred on the town of Melnik in the deep southwest, has an almost Mediterranean climate and focuses on wines made with the Melnik grape, difficult to grow and capricious like Pinot Noir. It has a range of clones from Melnik 55, known as early-ripening Melnik, through to broad-leafed Melnik, which ripens later than most reds.
This column mentions the emerging boutique estates that are producing high quality wines.
Nikola Zikatanov, owner of Villa Melnik, said he was inspired by a story from the Gospel of St John where Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, said he was the root to the vine of life. A replica of a painting depicting the Gospel story sits in the main reception at the winery. Nearby Orbelus Estate is the first and one of the few certified organic vineyards in Bulgaria. Wines are made in a striking winery and cellar shaped like a half barrel designed by the architect daughter of owner Blagoy Roussev.
Eolis Estate, named after the Thracian word for wind and sun, was established by a Swiss family. Chateau Koloravo produces the Ahal range of wines. Ahal is a species of horse found only in Bulgaria. Bred for long-distance races, they are beloved of Koloravo’s owner.
Bratanov Family Winery is based in a former Soviet warehouse. Its surroundings are ugly but the wines are beautiful, indicating where financial energies have gone. Ivo Varbanov Wines come from the same ugly warehouse as Bratanov. His wines are named after classical music, such as his Clair de Lune Chardonnay, and are equally elegant.
Ross-idi Winery is based in a former concrete factory in Sliven. Owner Eddie Kourian chose to ferment his chardonnay in a concrete egg. His wines have won Decanter awards. Nine wine journalists who attended a private tasting in the factory gave a spontaneous round of applause at the end of the tasting.
Sopot Estate nestles at the foot of the Balkan Mountains and focuses on indigenous grapes. The name comes from the word meaning “in the mountains”. Villa Yustina is one of the few companies to export to China, and is also unique in providing free wi-fi throughout its 40 hectares of vines. Interestingly, many wineries in the country only use Bulgarian oak and the barrel industry appears to be thriving.
Disclaimer: The Bulgarian Association of Independent Wine-growers supplied accommodation and some meals for Stephen Quinn.