The first United Kingdom tasting by European Independent Winegrowers took place in London earlier this month. For publication in the week starting 21 May 2018.
The European Independent Winegrowers group, also known by its French acronym CEVI for Confédération européenne des vignerons indépendants, was founded in 2002 with one main aim – to protect the interests of independent winegrowers in Europe.
An independent winegrower is defined as anyone who owns their own vineyard and makes and sells their own wine without using a negociant. As of May this year CEVI had more than 12,000 members in 11 countries: France, Switzerland, Portugal, Luxembourg, Hungary, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Italy, Belgium and Spain.
Members exchange information on best practice. CEVI also increases members’ visibility within the industry through events such as tastings. The first tasting in the United Kingdom was held earlier this month in London.
It was not possible to taste all the wines from the 60 producers in London, so I focused on wines from Bulgaria. In the early 1980s Bulgaria was the world’s second largest producer of wine, though most of that wine was sold, often in bulk, as cheap plonk to the Soviet Union.
International varieties were introduced in the 1960s to replace traditional grapes, something younger winemakers believe was a mistake. They are rectifying that issue by planting and working with indigenous grapes.
The state-owned industry declined after the end of the Cold War in 1989. From the early 1990s state-owned wineries were sold to private or family interests. Wines have improved markedly in the past two decades. Some local producers have attracted overseas investment or European Union subsidies, which have helped to improve quality. Another major contributor has been the development of boutique vineyards, most of whom are members of CEVI.
The non-profit Bulgarian Association of Independent Wine-growers is a major part of the renaissance. Ivo Varbanov, winemaker and international concert pianist and the association’s energetic chairman, believes strongly in the industry’s potential.
Many vineyards are on the same latitude as central Italy or southern France suggesting the climate can provide appropriate conditions for viticulture. For many years the plains around the Danube River and the regions near the Black Sea were the main winegrowing regions, but in recent years vines have been planted in many new areas. In particular the Thracian Lowlands, and the Rose and Struma valleys produce fine wines.
A return to traditional grape varieties, many of them red, has been a feature of the renaissance. 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 southwest is the warmest corner of Bulgaria and is home to the Melnik grape, named after the town of Melnik in the Struma Valley, which has an almost Mediterranean climate. The Melnik grape has a range of clones such as Melnik 55, known as early-ripening Melnik, and Broad-leafed Melnik, which ripens later than most reds.
Melnik tastes like a Rhone red. Unlike Rhone reds Melnik is, like Pinot Noir, difficult to grow. Villa Melnik make juicy reds with this grape that offer robust and rich flavours. These kinds of wine need food.
The Rubin grape is a hybrid of Nebbiolo and Syrah and was created in Bulgaria in the late 1940s. It is grown throughout the south and eastern parts of the country where it is made into wines characterised by their dark colours. The grape used to be made into sweet wines exported to the Soviet Union but locals now focus on dry reds.
Many suggest the traditional variety of Mavrud has the potential to become Bulgaria’s flagship grape. It gets its name from the Greek word for black because it makes dark wines. It is mostly grown in the Assenovgrad region.
The Bratanov Family Winery is about 100km east of the city of Plovdiv, one of the 10 oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. Bratanov make wines with charming acidity and soft tannins. It is based in a former Soviet warehouse. As with much former Soviet architecture, the buildings are ugly. But the wines are beautiful, indicating where the owners’ financial energies have gone.
Their lovely 2016 Chardonnay has creamy texture despite no oak treatment, the result of being left on lees for eight months. They also make a deliciously floral Tamianka. This white grape is indigenous to the Balkans.
Ivo Varbanov Wines originate from the same ugly warehouse as Bratanov and are also attractive. Such a welcome contrast against the dull squalor of the buildings. Each year Varbanov names his wines after classical music, such as his 2013 Firebird Syrah or the profound 2015 Poissons D’Or Chardonnay. His 2010 Clair de Lune Chardonnay, tasted in 2015, was truly elegant and is worth seeking though it appears to be sold out.
A highlight of the London tasting was the Varbanov 2009 Tuileries Rose, a blend of 83 per cent Marselan and 17 per cent Merlot. The grapes are co-fermented and then aged for seven months in French and Bulgarian oak. The wine is almost orange in colour with a nose of ripe persimmon and quince and a profound length. This unique wine is named for Modest Mussorgsky’s Tuileries from Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano.
Ross-idi Winery is based in a former concrete factory in Sliven, 300km east of the capital, Sofia, in the Thracian Valley. It is another case of ugly factory but beautiful wine. A feature of all the wines is their profound length. Winemaker Eddie Kourian ferments his chardonnay in a 700-litre concrete egg. This elegant wine spends eight month on the lees.
Kourian planted Gewurztraminer despite locals telling him the region was too hot. He keeps vines cool through judicious canopy management. His standout wine was an “orange” Gewurztraminer macerated for 30 days to get the right colour and texture. It’s wine to treasure because of its wondrous length and quality.
About eight centuries before Christ the Thracians worshipped the Greek wine god Dionysus. Thrace was said to be his home. Wine goblets made from gold, regarded as priceless treasures, have been cited as evidence of Thracian wine traditions. Bulgaria is producing new kinds of treasures in its wines from boutique estates.