Whatever happened to Bulgarian wine?

x“Whatever happened to Bulgaria?” is a question I’m often asked. People have fond memories of the cheerful, fruity and inexpensive wines they used to drink back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Bulgaria at that time was a pioneer, making a real impact with its varietal labels long before Australia joined the scene. At its peak, Sainsbury’s Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon was reputedly the biggest selling wine in the country. In 1996, Bulgaria shifted 4.5 million cases in the UK, yet today it’s less than 10% of that. However, the last half dozen years have seen huge changes in Bulgarian wine. Vastly improved quality, and the emergence of a new generation of quality focused producers make Bulgaria worth a fresh look. It certainly deserves more attention than UK trade buyers seem prepared to spare.

Where it went wrong

The tale of what went wrong for Bulgaria is a long one. Reasons behind the drastic fall in sales are multiple and complex, and alone merit a whole feature on ‘how not to do things.’ For now, here’s the potted version: one of the main reasons was the long-winded and poorly handled land privatization process that resulted in tiny plots being handed back to owners with little interest in grapes. Many of these were abandoned or left to fall into ruin. Lack of cooperation or shared vision between growers and wineries was another issue. Growers wanted to pick as early as possible to get paid before theft or poor weather lost them their cash crop. Wineries paying early in the fight for fruit supplies only added to the pressure, and the result was mean, unripe wines instead of those soft, fruity numbers we’d all fallen for – just at a time when the New World was hitting the shelves in a major way. Even as recently as a visit in 2003, it was clear that many winemakers believed grapes grew in the back of trucks, and that’s where their job started.

Bulgaria today

xToday, Bulgaria’s wine scene is almost unrecognisable. Evry time I go back there are new wineries and vineyards to discover. Producers have certainly grasped the message that wine starts in the vineyard, and anyone with ambition now proudly shows off their vines. It’s taken much legal wrangling – for example Bessa Valley reported dealing with around 600 owners to put together their 300ha plot, while the team at the new Castra Rubra investment took 3 years and had to negotiate with over 1,000 people, some abroad, to buy their 200ha in the Harmanli area. I won’t name names, and it doesn’t included producers I’m covering here, but I can’t help the feeling that some wineries have bought and planted land just because they could get it, rather than really checking its suitability for viticulture.

There has been little thought to matching grape varieties to soil and climate, rather than perceived market demand. Young vines are the other issue that producers have to deal with right now, as many of the new vineyards went in recently as a result of massive 50% subsidies from the EU ahead of Bulgaria’s accession. There are already some promising and even exciting wines from these new vineyards, but getting real depth is harder to achieve with such baby vines, and requires serious viticultural work. And sadly some wines lack the real depth one would hope to see at the prices they are asking.

Look Northwest

xEnough of the background, and onto to some of the producers who are making waves. First Ogy Tzentanov and Adriana Srebinova of the new Borovitza winery in the North West. Until a couple of years ago this was an abandoned shell, but it’s in the most stunning location in the Belogradchik national park (right, recently claimed as one of the new seven wonders of the world for its dramatic rock formations). Ogy is an industry maverick,working in US at a time when almost no one got to travel and bringing back valuable experience to add to his academic knowledge. He continues to go his own way, concentrating on the terroirs of the northwest for his red wines whilst most head to the warmer south.

Ogy reckons that the hillside vineyards overlooking the Danube enjoy long sunshine hours without baking heat, giving potential for really elegant wines. He launched Bulgaria’s first real “terroir” wine, called Sensum, and last year released his flagship Dux, aged for 5 years in barrel and remarkably classy and elegant. Adriana owns and runs the Maxxima brand and was the first in Bulgaria to release a premium “icon” wine called Maxxima Reserve in 2000 when everyone else was still pursuing quantity over quality. Her long experience in the industry means she knows exactly where to seek out parcels of old, naturally low-yielding vines, though has a new vineyard too with Pinot Noir, Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier.

xAnother key character in the northwest is Val Markov (left), owner of Château de Val. Val walked to Italy on foot to escape the repressive regime, and started a new life in USA in high tech engineering. A few years ago he came back to his family’s former home and vineyards in Bulgaria to change his lifestyle. His natural approach is about minimal intervention, and with no stainless steel to be seen – after all he’d see enough of that in his previous business. He makes a rich, complex Chardonnay and juicy but concentrated Merlot Reserve, but my favourites are his blends. These are based on the old tradition of wedding wines where guests each brought their own wine to go into a blend for the party. The star, Grand Claret can have up to 12 varieties and the 2007 Reserve includes Saperavi from 40-year-old vines and local lost varieties like Stara Gozia and Buket. It’s a gorgeous mouthful of tobacco, coffee and damson fruit, velvety yet intense.

The Foreign Factor and the emergence of estate wines

xForeign investment is relatively limited – the Bessa Valley project backed by Count Stephan von Niepperg (of Ch La Mondotte and Canon La Gaffeliere) is one of the few. So far 140 ha of vineyards have been planted on abandoned land in the heart of ancient Thrace with Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon matched to the clay-limestone soil. The smart new winery (right) is actually very simple – concrete vats and oak barrels, but meticulous attention to detail by French winemaker Marc Dworkin and his team means there’s no need for anything more. You will have to go the Bulgaria to taste most of Bessa Valley’s wines, including the excellent top selection called BV. However, for a very enjoyable snapshot of what the winery is all about, Enira is available in selected Waitrose and Ocado at £9.99. Miroglio is another major foreign owned project by Italian textile magnate Edoardo Miroglio. 22 million Euros have been spent here on an immaculate winery that spirals down into the hill.

The money also went on surrounding vineyards and a hotel, and Miroglio picked the area of Elenovo near Sliven for its great soils after much detailed research. he has planted both Bulgarian and imported vines. Pinot Nero is a great speciality of the winery – as a stylish blanc de noir, pretty rosé and delicate red (a more elegant style than seems to be appreciated in Bulgaria, where they like their reds rather macho). I also have a soft spot for the bottle-fermented sparkling wines – especially the deliciously more-ish Rosé Brut (available from www.turtonwines.co.uk). The other major foreign involvement has to be the recruitment of Michel Rolland as consultant by Jair Agopian, owner of Telish. Telish itself is a reliable supplier of good value reds, but Agopian wanted to show what Bulgaria could really do, and hence the Castra Rubra project was born. Rolland has been involved in planning vineyards and the smart stone-built winery in the southern Sakar Mountains, and with a young and energetic team in place, the wines I’ve tasted so far bode well for the future. The first release of Castra Rubra itself is ripe, rich and serious. Vineyards are being planted and are being managed organically, and have taken priority over mundane matters like building roads, as visiting the winery involved a mini-rally in the mud.

More Southern Tales

I’ve started hearing claims that the south, between the Sakar Mountains and the lower reaches of the Maritsa River, is Bulgaria’s Cote D’Or. There’s certainly an increasing concentration of Bulgaria’s big names and aspiring newcomers down here, but there the similarity fails as it seems far too warm for Pinot Noir and most producers are concentrating on bigger reds like Cabernet, Syrah and Mavrud, though with patches of Chardonnay, Traminer and lately even Viognier appearing.

xThe biggest investment has to be Katarzyna estate, with its 365ha in No Man’s land right in the border zone with Greece. Back in 2005, I saw the first vines being planted on this abandoned strip of rust-coloured terra rossa soil, still dotted with watchtowers (left). Today there’s an immaculate winery overlooking the vines, decorated with images of the god Dionysius (believed to have been born in what is now Bulgaria). There’s a swooping line of 132 tanks and around 2,000 barrels, and of course, all the toys any winemaker could want. The wines themselves are all ripe and well crafted, and the top picks for me are the Viognier-Chardonnay, Encore Syrah, a promising young Tempranillo, Seven Grapes red blend and Katarzyna Reserve (but only if someone else is paying, as this is priced to make a statement). Also from the same stable is Chateau Menada Cabernet/Merlot from Laithwaites.

There’s a lot more to discover in Bulgaria, so here’s a quick guide to the best of the rest. Sadly few have UK importers so you’ll just have to look out for them on your holidays.

Quick Guide to the best of rest

Run by magazine publisher Philip Harmandjiev, who came as a temporary manager and got hooked. The winery is in the warm Struma Valley in the southwest, where local broad-leaved Melnik reigns. Merlot- based Redark was one of Bulgaria’s first icon wines, and No Man’s Land (especially the vibrant rosé made from broad-leaved Melnik) is consistently good. Uniqato is the label to seek out for benchmark examples of local Rubin and early Melnik.

Also located in the warm Struma valley. The winemaker has been very much influenced by his time in Pomerol with his Flagship Hypnose Reserve, but is also passionate about local varieties especially early Melnik (actually across of broad leaved Melnik with Valdiguie) and Rubin, making some of the country’s best examples of both.

Sarah Sarah
A really garagiste producer, working with parcels of carefully selected grapes and rented winery space. Owner Ivo Genowski is a Bulgarian based in Germany, who ultimately plans his own vineyards but as he points out “planting vines is almost like getting married – mistakes are hard to change and last along time.” Whites are decent but the real stars are the reds: brambly yet fine Bin 41 Merlot and gorgeous Privat – a harmonious, intense and lingering blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Mavrud. Ivo’s luscious snow wine made from frozen Mavrud grapes has to be one of the most unusual wines I’ve ever tasted, but delicious.

Terra Tangra
Bulgaria’s only certified organic vineyards so far. Owner Emil Raychev was previously a vegetable grower and now has 300 ha on the slopes of the famous Sakar Mountains. Terra Tangra’s wines are well made and always show the winery’s hallmark rich, ripe softness, though they tend to have high alcohol. Best is the single barrel selection, but also look out for the velvety, ripe Merlot Reserve from Zelas.co.uk

A new investment near Panagyurishte by a textile manufacturer on a site that used to be vineyards in the 19th century. The brand name is Merul and reds are impressive, especially Reserve Merlot with its lovely, pure, crushed blackberry fruit and fine-grained tannins, and the rich, damson notes of Reserve Mavrud from their own still youthful vines.

Levent Wine House
A small winery in the north near Rousse, focussing on whites, especially Chardonnay but decent nicely balanced, drinkable and not over-extracted reds too.

Lovico Suhindol
A name familiar to the UK from times past. Last year the winery celebrated its centenary and with a new young and clearly “switched on” winemaker in place and 300 ha of its own vines, it’s in a good position to rebuild its reputation.

Malkata Zvezda
Another young winery in south Sakar in what is being claimed as Bulgaria’s Cote D’Or. The owners are a dentist and a businessman who are aiming for high quality and limited volumes, making a promising start with their plummy supple Enigma Mavrud (available from Zelas.co.uk).

Domaine Boyar
Another name that might be familiar to readers in the UK as its Cabernet can be found in Tesco and at Oxford Wine Company. The wines tend be sound but international. Flagship Solitaire wines impress especially Elenovo Merlot, and promising Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

Vinex Slavyantsi
Rather a concrete block of a communist era winery from the outside, but its location in the Valley of the Roses puts it in the heart of white wine country, and that’s what the winery is undoubtedly best at. Bright clean varietal whites and blends are good value, and the winery’s Leva blend (of Chardonnay, Muscat and Dimiat) does extremely well in Scandinavia. The winery, in partnership with its Swedish importer has also set up a charitable body, the Leva foundation, to support the children of local Roma families who work in the vineyards, and encourage them into education. This is by no means an exhaustive picture of Bulgaria and I still have a list of other wineries to visit and explore further next time I head over there. The industry continues to change rapidly, though in fact it’s had little choice about reinventing itself, with the loss of both western markets and more recently the collapse of the high volume, unfussy Russian market. If I had a crystal ball, I reckon I’d be seeing a smaller but higher quality industry emerging from today’s “interesting times.”