Quality reborn in Bulgaria

Winemaking is undergoing a renaissance in Bulgaria, one of the claimants to being the cradle of winemaking. For publication in the week of 12 November 2018.

Several nations lay claim to being the place where winemaking started, including Armenia, Turkey, Iran, China, Georgia, Greece and Bulgaria.

This week we return to Bulgaria. Its wines deserve mention because of their recent improvements in quality as well as the country’s fascinating history. We know that vines grew about 3,000 years ago is the Thracian Valley that runs through the middle of Bulgaria almost to Istanbul in the west.

The Thracians worshipped the Greek wine god Dionysus and Thrace was said to be his home. Homer praises Thracian wine in the Iliad about 2,800 years ago.

Bulgaria made mostly cheap wine for many decades. The wine business was nationalised during the Soviet era after the end of WW2, when Bulgaria became part of the Soviet Union. The state wine and spirits monopoly, Vinprom, was set up in 1949. By the 1970s Bulgaria had about 200,000 hectares of vines – about three quarters designate for making wine and the rest spirits.

All exports went through the state monopoly Vinimpex. Most went to comrades in the Soviet Union, though during the 1980s Bulgarian wine was the fourth most popular import in the United Kingdom. At the time Bulgaria was the world’s fourth-largest exporter of bottled wine.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw sales plummet, just as the more recent conflict in Ukraine affected sales to Russia. The 1990s saw a period of confusion as individuals sought to reclaim collectivised land. Anyone wanting to establish a viable vineyard needed several hectares and that involved negotiating purchases with lots of people, many of whom had left the country.

But in recent years winemaking in Bulgaria has undergone a renaissance, with a focus on quality. As the Oxford Companion to Wine notes, “in most markets Bulgarian producers are focusing on quality at the expense of volume”.

The non-profit Bulgarian Association of Independent Winegrowers is leading that change. Ivo Varbanov is the association’s chairman. He is also an international concert pianist who names his wines after great musicians. His 2013 Claude Debussy Chardonnay is a delicious cross between Burgundy and Bulgaria, with honeysuckle and minerality and majestic follow through. Varbanov’s sense of humour is reflected in the label that says “drink in moderation, but always with enthusiasm and food”.

New vineyards are being planting, boosted by European subsidies, as Bulgaria attracts foreign investment. But Varbanov says the Bulgarian industry needs passion and education as much as it needs money. “Investment alone does not guarantee great wine.”

Bulgaria had about 67,000 hectares of vines in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). But only about half of those hectares were being tended, noted Guy Labeyrie, a former Bordeaux winemaker who now owns vines in Bulgaria. The rest lie fallow because of ownership disputes.

Bulgaria has a shortage of good winemakers, Varbanov said. “The industry needs creativity and innovation because we have too many old-school winemakers. We have so much potential here,” he told me in Sofia, the capital.

Julia Kostadinova, editor of Gourmet Publishing in Sofia, confirmed the renaissance of the wine industry in an interview with me in Sofia in June 2015. “Important things are happening in the vineyards,” she said. She writes the influential wine blog DiVino.bg.

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The author (left) at a tasting in the Bratanov cellars

The industry focuses on exports so international varieties have become important. “Our local varieties with great potential [include] Melnik, Mavrud, Rubin and Dimyat. But they are still exotic and work needs to be done.” One of her dreams, she said, was to give a five-star DiVino rating (95-100 points) to a Bulgarian wine from a local variety. Domestic sales will do well over the next few years, because wine has a trendy image, Ms Kostadinova said. More and more younger people were drinking wine, boosted by improved incomes. This is despite the fact Bulgaria has some of the lowest average salaries in the European Union.

The International Organization of Wine and Spirits Record reported that Bulgaria was among the top six in the world for consumption of spirits per capita, at about 14 litres per adult a year. Wine is becoming seen as a healthy option compared with spirits.

It is difficult to calculate how much wine is consumed. Bulgarians have traditionally made wine from vines in their back gardens and this is difficult to monitor. In a highly-rural country grapes seem to grow everywhere.

About 70 per cent of the wine sold in Bulgaria is red but younger consumers want whites so more vines are being planted to bring the ratio more towards 60:40. A new generation of younger winemakers like Eddie Kourian and Nikola Zikatanov are winning international awards, adopting innovative ideas such as fermenting in concrete eggs.

The Bratanov Family are also innovators. Their 2011 Cabernet Franc offers a wondrous nose of brambles, ripe cherries and blackberries plus spices and dried herbs. A wine that made my mouth water, it has a chalky mineral backbone with soft tannins. Touches of coffee and mocha emerge with time.

The Castra Rubra estate represents an example of the drive to export, with three in five bottles going overseas. Half of those go to China. Other destinations include Japan, the United States and most European nations. The estate was said to cost about 100 million euros to establish. It is based near the village of Kalarovo. Michel Rolland is a consultant.

The Castra Rubra, or red camp, was a military base on the Via Diagonalis, a road the Romans built in the 2nd century AD to connect Rome with their eastern capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul). Camps provided safe housing and were places to change horses and rest. The estate purchased the name when the winery was built in 2006.

The links between history and the present continue to influence Bulgarian wine, as the industry evolves with a focus on quality and boutique estates.

Words: 1,005

Categories: Bulgaria, Not home, wine

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