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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Bulgaria - Part 1: Three-Thousand Years of Wine History

July is Bulgarian Wine Month thanks to!

Old Bulgarian vineyardBulgaria isn't a country that makes the news over here very often and it never comes up in conversation, so it's no surprise that Americans generally know nothing about it. The first thing you'll probably think of when Bulgaria is mentioned is Communism, and that'll likely be the only thing you think of.

So it's pointless for me to say that we don't know enough about Bulgaria and its people. Well, check this out: Your computer, your digital watch and the airbags in your car... invented by the Bulgarians. The world's biggest IMAX 3D is there. The head gestures for yes and no (nodding and shaking) that we're used to are reversed. They're obsessed with yogurt and their national instrument is the bagpipes, which they call gaida. They produce most of the world's rose oil by an overwhelming majority. And their official language iiiissss... *drumroll* ... Bulgarian.

But the very most important thing of all: Bulgaria has 3,000 years of winemaking history and makes A LOT of wine.

Bulgaria is in eastern Europe and right in the middle of a Romania-Serbia-Greece-Turkey sandwich. So because of its location there's been people living there since before the Big Bang, but viticulture and winemaking wasn't introduced until the Thracians popped up around 1000 BCE and started calling the place Thrace.

The Thracians were red-haired and indigenous to the land, a mixed breed of natives and other Indo-Europeans. They were considered barbarians by the Greeks because they preferred rural communities with scattered farms instead of big cities, their living quarters weren't all that enclosed, they had almost no seafaring trade and just had a rather rough lifestyle in general. But they did have a strong culture, spoke and wrote their own language, were excellent singers and well educated. They were just as advanced as the Greeks. With access to the gold of the Balkans, they were lookin' pretty stylish as well.

Thracian Warrior by Rocio Espin Pinar
However, the Thracian claim to fame was their uncanny ability as warriors. Growing up in an atmosphere where raiding your neighbors was your daily work-out probably had something to do with that. They would even sing while heading into battle, and the Greeks named their battle-hymns titanismos. As history moved along from the times of Ancient Greece, through Persian Empire rule, to Celtic invasion, to the Roman Empire, the Thracians were still around and their warriors were still highly regarded as dangerous mercenaries.

They also loved their wine, and they were the ones that introduced the fermented grape beverage to what is now Bulgaria way back when they first appeared as a civilization, acquiring grapevines from Asia Minor. Our old friend Pliny the Elder claimed the very first viticulturist in Europe was a Thracian named Evmolp. Homer described their wine as black and honey sweet, and Greek historian Xenophont recalls a feast hosted by the Thracian King Sevt where the wine was served in animal horns as part of a ritual. Sevt's tomb, discovered in 2004, contained a two-handled drinking cup made of gold and three amphorae. Some of the indigenous grapes of Bulgaria today are believed to be first cultivated by the Thracians, such as Mavrud, Pamid, and Gamza. Their favorite god was Dionysus, the god of wine and, among other things, theater and fertility.

After the Third Macedonian War (171-168 BCE) the Thracians went under Roman authority. Then their King was murdered by his own wife in 46 CE, and Thrace became an official Roman province. The Thracian people were basically absorbed and eventually disappeared. 1,546 years isn't a bad run.

Under Roman rule, the coast of the Black Sea became the place where the white grapes of the ancient world were literally evolving into something worthwhile. Because of the region's importance in viticulture, Emporer Antonius Pius (138-161 CE) issued the very first vineyard law in history: The Decree for Preservation of Vineyards in Lower Misia (central and northern Bulgaria). Anyone that destroyed a wine-producing grapevine would be punished. But Bulgaria fell victim to numerous invaders until the Roman city of Byzantium (now Istanbul) was established in Turkey with the Bulgarian provinces under its watch. By then the Slavs had moved in, the Bulgars had come from Turkey, and the Avars from the Caucasians were there too. There were many different people of completely different cultures now in Bulgaria, and they all acquired the wine traditions of the Thracians.

Then one man united the Bulgar tribes to take out the Avars. In doing this, Khan Kubrat had created the confederation of the Old Great Bulgaria in 632. The Byzantines probably welcomed, and may have actually helped, the emergence of this new state as they had many enemies and were in dire need of local friends. That peace was short lived and the Bulgars were pushed away and separated by the Byzantines and Slavs. Those that found themselves in the northeastern Balkans created the First Bulgarian Empire in 681. They'd have a love-hate relationship with Byzantium for the next 504 years.

Khan Krum the Fearsome
In 755 a cute little baby boy named Krum was born to a Bulgar father and Slavic mother. Such a little pumpkin. He would grow up to be the Khan of Bulgaria from 803 to 814 and have adorable nicknames like "the Fearsome", "the Horrible", "the Formidable" and "the Dreadful".

This guy once surrounded the city of Sofia and offered a deal that if the city was surrendered he'd let everybody leave safely. After they agreed and defenses were let down, he slaughtered 6,000 of them instead. His sole motivation for getting up in the morning was to conquer everything in sight and kill everyone that stood in his way.

On the bright side, he would succeed in doubling the size of his empire and the territories gained would make Bulgaria important to trade for centuries to come. He made laws and punishment equal no matter who the offender and their riches (or lack there-of), and tried desperately to abolish poverty. But Krum wasn't happy with the drunkeness of his people and put prohibition into place, ordering all vineyards to be destroyed and intoxication illegal. Of course, it was largely ignored. Even by the Khan himself.

In 811 the Byzantines entered Bulgaria in massive numbers led by Emporer Nikephoros. They caught Krum's army by surprise and beat them down in battle until they were forced to retreat, then marched right into the Bulgarian capital city of Preslav. They burned everything, murdered the citizens, and took all of Krum's personal possessions... including... EVERYTHING IN HIS WINE VAULTS!!! Krum was pissed right the eff off and immediately took action. He ordered a pass in the mountains to be blocked off as the Byzantines returned home. Emperor Nikephoros and his army were trapped while the Bulgarians attacked from the mountains above, handing out a brutal massacre on sitting ducks.

The Emperor's corpse was brought to Krum's tent, where he severed the head and put it on a spike as a trophy. Eventually he had the skull turned into a silver crested drinking cup. Prohibition be damned, he wasn't drinking milk out of that keepsake!

United Vacations

Legend has it that one of Krum's many pet lions escaped its cage and angrily started killing the good people of the city. That same night a peasant man named Mavrud was sloshed off his mother's secret stash of wine and happened to encounter that same angry lion. So what did he do? What any good, upstanding, drunk young man would do. Of course he had to go to court for killing a royal lion because that was illegal, and his mother confessed in a desperate plea to turn the blame on herself that her son had gotten drunk off of her illegal wine. And just like that prohibition in Bulgaria was ended. Krum wanted all of his people to be as ballsy as Mavrud, so he allowed them to drink their courage. One of the wine grapes that the Thracians first cultivated was at some point renamed in honor of brave, drunken, lion-slaying Mavrud. Somewhere, momma is proud.

Or that's how the story goes. Mavrud comes from the Greek word mavro, which means black. Mavrud being a black grape, and its wine deeply pigmented, it's probably more likely that the story was made up to honor the grape rather than the grape being named to honor the man.

St Stephen Bulgar Church
The Bulgarians would take over Hungary under Krum's son and successor Khan Omurtag, then Romania, Maldova and Macedonia under Khan Presian. They became Christians in the mid-800's, which is historically always a good thing for local viticulture and winemaking. As I explained in The Adventures of Aglianico, wine had always been the drink of religion and spirituality, the grapevine coming from the earth and all, but now wine was a necessity for the worship of the Christian God. Quantity, quality and technology of wine increased wherever Christianity hung its hat. The cool vaults under medieval Bulgarian monastaries were among the first wine cellars in the world.

Byzantium conquered the First Bulgarian Empire in 1018 and an uprising gained their independence again with the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185. With this change, the Bulgarian leaders went from being named Khan to Tsar. This was the golden age of Bulgarian wine, as famous and as revered as those from France and Italy.

The Fourth Crusade brought Gofais de Villardouainne to Bulgaria in 1205 and he would have burnt the city of Assenovgrad to the ground if he didn't hold their wine in such high regard. His famous words "Wait, what? I'm supposed to destroy this place with fire? Bitch, have you tried their vino? Shit... screw this." will echo through eternity.
"Inside the fortress there is a large and elite army, its soldiers are heavily built, moustached and look war-hardened, but are used to consume wine and rakia — in a word, jolly fellows." - Ottoman commander Lala Shahin on the garrison of Sofia
Then... the Ottomans came and took the capital city of Tarnovo in 1393. A terrible thing for wine. The Ottomans were Islamic, and Islam prohibits alcohol. At the beginning of their rule over Bulgaria they held boozing and winemaking to a very strict NO! Grapevines were to only be grown for table grapes. They would loosen those rules after accepting how much cash could be made off of wine trade, and the Ottomans would even introduce dessert wine into Bulgaria's production. Even still, the Ottomans were a major setback for Bulgarian wine, and they were there for almost 500 years. The people of Bulgaria got sick of their occupiers and started revolting, and in 1876 the Ottomans responded with multiple massacres totaling over 30,000 Bulgarian deaths.

Bulgarian Declaration of Independence "Indipendence Manifesto"
The Russians really wanted to make a move on the Balkans and that was enough for them to come to the rescue of several Bulkan countries under Ottoman control. The Russo-Turkish war lasted until 1878 and, in the end, Bulgaria would remain under Ottoman control but they were now the Principality of Bulgaria (AKA the Third Bulgarian State) and they self-governed their own business.

By the 20th century the Ottomans were quickly losing their support and power. Talks of Bulgaria declaring independence were heating up, and with so much else going on in the world both Russia and Austria-Hungary passed up the opportunity to lure them in to joining them. In September of 1908 Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria was transported from his mansion in Hungary back to his home country where the final decision to declare independence was decided on a ship named Krum. The de jur independence manifesto was completed and declared just a few days later and the Ottomans didn't even ask for compensation. Not even money or custody on the weekends. Bulgaria was now its own kingdom and Ferdinand was its Tsar. Within ten years vineyard land went from 63,671 hectares to 114,823.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria would receive the highest casualties of any country in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and were allies of Germany and Austria in World War I. In 1929, viticulture provided for 100,000 households and 200,000 wine-producing grape growers. Cooperatives began to be established and ten years later they were starting to pick up good export markets in Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria. United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill bought 500 liters a year of Bulgarian wine made from the Shikroka Melishka Losa grape, also known as Melnik.

After trying to remain neutral in World War II, Bulgaria was forced into joining the Axis in 1941 when Nazi Germany threatened to create a war path right through their country to get to Greece. At the time Bulgaria had the largest army in the Balkans so their allegiance had tremendous value. Three years later, Romania quit on the Axis in August of 1944 and they let the Soviets walk right up to Bulgaria's borders. On September 5th the Soviets invaded and the Bulgarian Army was quickly told not to do anything about it and just let it happen. That same day, most likely after changing its underwear, Bulgaria declared war on Nazi Germany, and three days later the Soviets had complete control of the northeastern portion of Bulgaria. Hello, communism. Can I get you a kebapche?

The Kingdom morphed into The People's Republic of Bulgaria later that same year, led by the Bulgarian Communist Party and backed by the USSR's Red Army. The opposition from the people was enormous at first and the PRB pretty much spent most of its time the first few years beating everybody in submission and punishing resistance. Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov returned from exile to his homeland country in 1945 and further promoted the fact that they weren't screwing around. In 1947 they figuratively made a Xerox copy of the Soviet Constitution and called it the "Dimitrov Constitution".

People's Republic of Bulgaria wine bottling line, 1960
Just like the Soviets and their Soviet Champagne the wine industry in The People's Republic of Bulgaria was run by the state and all about mass production. Everything was now state-owned, including vineyards. Vinprom, a production company that was founded in 1939, was suddenly a communist production company. But unlike the Soviets, they weren't looking to just provide crap wine to keep their people satisfied. Instead, they were completely driven by export sales. They were all about that bla-bling bla-bling, cha-ching cha-ching.

In 1951 the government declared the wine industry a high priority business sector. They immediately started attempting to clone the style of wines that made the big sales in the West. Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay were brought in and planted in high numbers, and they took a liking to the land. Rkatziteli from Georgia also was planted and became their main white grape variety. Their variety zoning and growing regions were completed in 1960.

The '60's saw machines for harvesting and winemaking brought in from France and the USSR. Oceans of Bulgarian wine was being exported and the country was one of the top wine producers in the world by volume. A law was passed that fixed prices on grapes every year no matter how good the quality was, so grape growers obviously started to slack and the quality of Bulgarian wine in general went down. But good wine was still being made. The best ones were sent to the United Kingdom and the United States where they did okay in sales under the label Trakia, and their not-so-good wine was sent to the Soviet Union where it was drunk in mass quantity.

My research has lead me to two different scenarios in which California began helping communist Bulgaria with their wine in the 1970's. The first one goes like this: Some California enologists were confronted by Stoyan Kindekov, former director of Vinprom, and asked if they would help Bulgarian wine become competitors on an international scale. They said yes. The second one goes like this: It was a trade. Pepsico could sell their concentrate to Bulgarians so they could have a Pepsi, and in return they'd get the help of University of California, Davis. Either way, it worked. Sales went up and they began competing in Europe, the States and Canada. The Vine and Wine Institute, based out of Pleven, invented a new method of growing vines in the '70's, with tall stalks and rows spaced further apart, and received an award from the government for their efforts. Before this new system, Bulgarian vines were still being grown the ancient bush-like way.

The late 1970's and early 1980's saw great prosperity for Bulgarian wine sales, particularly their Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot as well. But you didn't think it would last, did you? Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbechev began his "dry law" campaign  in 1987, partially banning alcohol in the USSR. Prices of alcohol were raised and you could only buy it at certain hours of the day. Being drunk in public was a prosecutable offense. This is Russia we're talking about, where since the invention of vodka it's been socially unnaceptable to not have it on your breath. More money must have been put into public intoxication arrests annually than American tax dollars are put into trials of 19 year old's busted with a few ounces of pot. Anyways, this really hurt the Soviet market for Bulgarian wine, thus hurting the industry overall.

1968 Trakia
Then, communism fell. Todor Zhivkiv was the communist head of state for the People's Republic of Bulgaria and had been trying to assimilate the Turkish minority in the country since 1984. The dude even forced them to take Bulgarian names. Deadly riots broke out in 1989 and Zhivkiv told the Turks that they could leave if they wanted. 300,000 of them got the hell out of there within three months. Gorbechev already didn't like him and this was an excuse to finally be rid of him. While a plot was being hatched to dispose of Zhivkiv, he ordered protesters at a political conference to be beaten, while 36 others were driven way out into the boondocks and forced to walk back to the capital city of Sofia. That was the final straw. He was confronted and told to resign or be executed. He resigned in November of 1989 and the Communist Party gave up its right to rule in July of 1990. The People's Republic of Bulgaria became the Republic of Bulgaria, and the first free elections since 1931 were held. The Communist Party won, but they now had to operate under a capitalist and democratic system.

Success continued for Bulgarian wine in the UK and USA until 1991 when Vinprom was disbanded. By then the quality of the wine these countries were getting from Bulgaria had declined anyways. Now they had started to gravitate to newer, more exciting things like Australia and Chile. See, what happened was that after communism fell, all the seized land from 1944 was given back to their "original owners". So if your deceased grampa owned a vineyard back in the day then you suddenly found yourself owning a vineyard. You've never even touched a vine in your life and you don't have any of the appropriate equipment. Some people tried to do it and succeeded, some tried to do it and failed miserably. But mostly they didn't try at all, and there were many cases where nobody even knew who owned the rights to them now, so vineyards sat there and died without any caretaking whatsoever.

Winery privatization finally occurred in 1999 so that helped bring vineyards back from the dead, and the quality of the country's wine industry started to make a comeback by the early 2000's. Then in 2005 both Bulgaria and Romania signed accession treaties to join the European Union, and began taking advantage of the programs offered by the EU to help prospect countries reach the requirements of joining. One of those programs is SAPARD (Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development), only available to Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. It was, and still is, an invaluable tool that continues to help modernize and increase the quality of vineyards, wineries and other farming what-ya-call-it's in those countries. Bulgaria and Romania started 2007 off right by being accepted into the EU on January 1st.

PART 2: THE CURRENT STATE OF BULGARIAN WINE covers the wine regions, indigenous and international grapes that they grow, how Bulgaria has the wine with the most antioxidants in the world, and how they're doing on the market today. A year after these articles came out PART 3: INVINCIBILITY OF RAKIA was released, in which you can learn about the history of rakia and how it's made.

- Joey Casco, CSW

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  1. This is the coolest story about the history of Bulgaria and its winemaking! Thank you and Nazdrave!

  2. A very interesting history! I used to drink Bulgarian Cabernet now and again in the early 90s - Domaine Boyar springs to mind - and it was pretty drinkable, especially the "Reserve" bottlings.

  3. Cool! Only the Thracians are still here, the latest DNA confirms it...

  4. While I normally enjoy my Speysides, sherry finishers and after experimenting with the Laphroigh Select I went straight to this monster. Oh you will be suckered in if you didn't see the proof. The nose is smoke all day long. The palette however, is not at all harsh. The smoke is there and while heavily, highly surprisingly doesn't wrestle you. It's caressing, velvety and soft. Despite being a knock around 54.2% it's very, very smooth and astonishingly the smoke completely disappears on the finish. Hell of an experience and I will definitely return for more.



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