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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bulgaria - Part 2: The Current State of Bulgarian Wine

July is Bulgarian Wine Month thanks to!

Bulgarian wine grape harvester
In Part 1: Three-Thousand Years of Wine History I went over the entire history of Bulgarian wine the best that I possibly could. I researched my ass off and had a lot of fun doing it. It covered the Thracians that introduced the vine and wine to the area, the Bulgars and Khan Krum that drank from the Byzantine Emperor's skull, the Ottoman's ban on alcohol and then acceptance of its use in trade, the de jur independence manifesto, wine as a high priority business sector under communism, the collapse of the industry due to the fall of communism, and then help from the European Union to get back on track.

And so after all that... here we are today. Part 2: The Current State of Bulgarian Wine is a little shorter but goes over everything you need to know about the country's wine industry NOW. The growing regions that it's divided into, the indigenous and international varieties that make up its vineyards, and how it's doing on the market. 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.

Vineyards are planted everywhere in the country (except for around the capital city of Sofia) and, as you would expect, the best wine comes from the slopes while the massive amount of bulk wine comes from fertile valley floors. But even with three-thousand years of winemaking history, they are just now really getting to test out their own terrior. Because of everything else going on in their history the wine industry has never really had the chance to grasp the concept until recently. What grows best where, what this microclimate does with this grape, what's up with this soil type, what makes the wine from this slope over here so different from that slope over there.

The Balkan mountain range goes from east to west, splitting the country horizontally in half. The majority of the land has an extreme continental climate; frozen-nipples-cold at night and sweaty-crotch-hot during the day. It's only near the Black Sea and by its border with Greece where it gets a bit moderated. 

There used to be five major regions until the recent decision was made to concentrate them into two "vast principle regions" in order to please European Union bureaucracy. This is so recent that I can't find any information on exactly why or when this happened. It's just not available. The only updated map available to me, after scavenging all over the internet, is my copy of The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition which was published in 2013. So I made my own map.

The Wine Regions of Bulgaria

I've got a theory on why this happened. The old system is clearly based on terrain and climate, which is really what you want. However, in case you weren't aware, just because you have a vineyard doesn't mean that you make wine. You can sell your grapes or even go under contract with a winery. I found some information from before the change that says only some Bulgarian wines were specifically labelled with a region as a place of origin, and the majority were a blend of purchased grapes from all over the country. So my guess as to why the change occurred is rather than having a wine that's simply a "Product of Bulgaria" you're now more likely to get one from "Danubian Plains" or "Thracian Lowlands". Sounds better when an appellation goes with the country of origin, right?

DANUBIAN PLAINS - This is everything north of the Balkan mountain range. It contains the Danube River Plains and the top half of the Black Sea Coast.

The Danube River Plains is the northwestern portion of the country. It has a warm continental climate, sees lots of sun, and the soil around the town of Belogradchik has a red, sandy limestone soil. The kind of wines made here cover the entire spectrum, from Cabernet to Aligoté, but its specialty is Gamza and it's the birthplace of Rubin.

Gamza is a red variety and goes by the name of Kadarka in Hungary, which is used to make the famous Hungarian Bull's Blood. The grapes are small but the yields are high, so it needs a lot of attention to keep the yields down or the final wine will be thin instead of aromatic and spicy. It's often compared to Pinot Noir.

United Vacations

The variety that may be the superstar in Bulgaria's future is Rubin. It was created in 1944 in the northern city of Pleven by crossing Nebbiolo and Syrah. Nebbiolo provides incredible acidity and tannin, while Syrah brings the pepper and violet. The fruit characteristics are cherries and raspberries. Back in the day this variety was actually forced on the southeastern part of the country as well and now it's planted all over the country, and Romania too. Everywhere you look while researching the subject, there are people singing the praises of the future of this grape.

Within the Danube River Plains is the sub-region of Vidin Province (AKA Danube Valley) where one of the earliest wine schools opened in 1887.

The Black Sea Coast is literally the coast of the Black Sea and the area whose climate is effected by it. White, sandy beaches make it an attractive tourist destination. It's the Cape Cod of Bulgaria and I'm sure during tourist season it's flooded with Connecticut license plates. But its maritime climate brings mild autumns to make it the best place in the country for white wine, just like it was in the days of the Romans. There, Dimyat is king.

Dimyat is the second most planted white variety in the country and it's mostly in the Black Sea Coast, where it's the top planted white variety of the region. While many wanted to believe it was indigenous to Serbia, legend had it that it was brought there by the Crusaders. DNA testing tells no lies and it turns out that Dimyat is a cross between Gouais Blanc, a French variety, and another unknown grape. So the legend is probably true.

Rkatsiteli wine
Rkatsiteli is the top dog in acreage across the whole country for the white varieties. It originated in Georgia, became well recieved by the Soviet Union, and was brought to Bulgaria during their communist years. It's highly acidic so it's left on the vine for as long as possible to concentrate the sugar and balance the finished wine. It can be bronze in color and sweet to taste, with aromas and flavors of honey, caramel, nuts and preserved fruit.

THRACIAN LOWLANDS - This is everything south of the Balkan mountain range. It contains Rose Valley, Struma Valley, Thracian Valley and the bottom half of the Black Sea Coast. Anything from the Thracian Lowlands is approved to be labeled as "Thracian Valley" in the US market.

Rose Valley (AKA Valley of the Roses) is immediately south of the Balkan mountains and is two valleys in one: Strayam in the west and Tundzha in the east. It's known for its rose growing industry which produces 85% of the worlds rose oil, and for wine it focuses mostly on white. The Rkatsiteli is supposedly incredible here, but the most famous of its wines is from the Red Misket variety grown in its Sungurlare Valley sub-region.

It may be misleading but Misket Cherven (Red Misket) is used to make white wine. The grapes are pink skinned and actually a crossing of Dimyat and Riesling. The wine is straw yellow, sometimes with a slight hue of green, and it's usually dry. Rather than being named by varietal, the wine is more likely to be named by appellation.

Struma Valley has Macedonia to the west and Greece to the south, and is named after the Struma River. Even being so far to the west of the country, the Mediterranean to the south, past Greece, has a strong influence. Its wines have warm climate characteristics so Cabernet and Merlot come up big and bold. The town of Melnik is near the border of Greece and has a grape named after it; the indigenous grape that Struma is known for.

Shikroka Melishka Losa, which translates to "broadleaved vine of Melnik" and is also known as just Melnik, is red and grown in and around Struma Valley. UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill bought 500 liters a year of the wine made from this grape. It has a perfumed and tobacco aroma, is rich in texture, firm in structure, and sometimes sweet. Like Mavrud, Melnik has big tannin and loves to spend time in oak.

Bulgarian vineyard worker
Most Bulgarian wines you see imported into the USA will be from Thracian Valley, and that's not just because anything from Thracian Lowlands can be labeled as Thracian Valley now in the USA. This is the place where Bulgarian wine gets its opportunity to harmonize with the American palate. The Balkan Mountains block the cold winds from coming down from Russia, so the combination of a temperate continental climate and the perfect amount of rain makes it best suited for red wine, although it produces some excellent white wine. It's also the home of Mavrud.

Mavrud's fruit is small, low yielding and late ripening but it makes the #1 top selling local wine within the country of Bulgaria. It's inky in color, tannic, spicy and normally sees a lot of oak aging. Stewed fruit and herbs are its common flavor characteristics. It's only grown in the tiny area of Assenovgrad, north of the Rhodope Mountains.

Pamid is likely the oldest of the native varieties and was once the top planted vine in the country until Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot surpassed it, and now it's dying off without haste. Areas within Thracian Valley and the Danube River Plains seem to be the last of its strongholds. It's a pink grape and makes a light, pale-red wine that doesn't have much flavor or acidity and is kinda meh-whatever. There are those that compare it to Beaujolais but, to me at least, Beaujolais is all about character. Sounds like Pamid has none, to be honest.

Even with those unique Balkan and Middle Eastern varieties, the international ones reign supreme in total acreage and exporting. Merlot takes the top spot in plantings. Cabernet Sauvignon, after all that success in the 70's and 80's, comes in second. There are many plantings of those two in the north but they can be found mostly in the south with Syrah and Malbec, while Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir are mostly in the north. For whites there's Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Welschriesling, Riesling, Traminer, Viognier, and Muscatel.

The Bulgarians also make a grape spirit called rakia (read Part 3: Invincibility of Rakia) and 15% of the vines in the country are growing grapes for it. It's basically the brandy of the Balkans and made with all kinds of different fruit in all those countries. The first record of it being made in Bulgaria was on a 14th century piece of pottery.

Now you'd think that spirits would be the last form of alcohol to catch on in such an old country just because distillation had to be invented. Surely, beer has been around just as long as wine, right? Nope. And don't call me Shirley. Beer just wasn't their thing and they didn't want anything to do with it until the first commercial brewery was built in 1876 by two Swiss Germans. Now there are thirteen breweries in the country... four owned by Molson Coors, two by Heineken, and two by Carlsberg.

A priest blesses a Bulgarian vineyard
But there are many, many more wineries, and vineyards are everywhere because wine IS their thing. The people that lived on the same land as the people that live there now may have introduced viticulture to Europe. They told everybody else around them how wine would be integrated into culture. They drank it out of their enemy's skull. Medieval wine consumers considered it one of the best wine's of the time. Through prohibitions, Islam, devastating wars, communism and "oh by the way, Mr. Softhands, you own a vineyard now" they keep bouncing back with determination and love for the vine. It's ingrained in their very being as a nation.
“The millennial traditions that we have in wine making are not just history but a sound base that we comfortably sit on and draw motivation from to develop abreast of modern technology.” - Bulgarian Wine Expert Villy Galabova
Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union and yet back in 2013 their people saw the price of their wine increase heavily because of a bad 2012 harvest... in both Bulgaria and Italy. I guess Italy purchases a buttload of grapes from Bulgaria and they ended up buying a lot more than usual to make up for their crappy harvest. Dealing with an already low harvest for themselves, supply and demand cost wine consumers in Bulgaria anywhere from 20% to 30% more a bottle. Yeouch!!!

In 2012 it was discovered by a laboratory in Tokyo that red wines from Bulgaria contain the highest content of antioxidants in the world. One brand in particular, Alfa Vita, shattered records and had three times the amount as cranberries, one of the fruits richest in antioxidants. Why is this? SCIENCE!

Alfa Vita Wine AntioxidantBecause of the climate and long exposure to the sun, the red grapes in Thracian Valley are naturally high in polyphenols like tannin, pigment and anthocyannins. So having an extraordinarily high antioxidant content is a normalcy with Bulgarian wine, especially Mavrud. But with Alfa Vita a gentleman named Ivan Kiuila, of the International Academy of Radio Electronics and Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, created a way to use nanotechnology and extract those things to create a concentrate super high in antioxidants, which is then added to the wine. Alfa Vita Wine Antioxidant qualifies to be considered a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Master of Wine Caroline Gilby recently sat down for an interview with Bulgarian blogger Elena Neykova. It's a fantastic read and I highly recommend giving it a gander. Gilbey says that although Bulgarian wine is going in the right direction, some of the experimenting they're doing isn't really the way to go, but that's okay because the important thing is that they are experimenting. The last time she was in the country in 2003 "winemakers clearly believed that grapes grew on the back of trucks" and on her trip in 2015 she could see they now have an understanding on how important vineyards are to making good wine.

Gilby goes on to say that the industry needs to unite rather than let the larger wineries throw their weight around "so that the big producers can help create a category and the little producers can create the image and reputation of that category." She suggests spending more resources on the local grape varieties than the international ones, and using them in blends (such as a Cabernet / Merlot / Gamza blend) to introduce them to outside markets.

The majority of Bulgaria's actual wine production is exported. Cheap bulk wine is sent to Poland and Russia. Infact, half of all the total wine they produce has been ritually sent off to Russia for years until that took a surprisingly sudden drive off a cliff in 2014. The only export markets for fine wines are pretty much limited to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany. The UK especially takes a liking to their silky reds, and most of them imported there are of premium quality.

Gamza grape cluster
It's been a tough go breaking back into the United States, even with wine experts saying for the last decade we need to get in on their juice.

But maybe, just maybe... hear me out... maybe we just need to get in on their juice already. Because they've just bounced off the ground from the last impact, and the ball is on its way back up. Maybe if the ball gets a bit of a lift it may not come back down, and then who knows what it could do.

- Joey Casco, CSW

Throughout this whole month I'll be reviewing fourteen Bulgarian wines from three different brands, two at a time for seven posts total, thanks to Below is a list of the wines and their release dates.

July 9th: VINI Sauvignon Blanc 2013 & VINI Pinot Noir 2013
July 12th: VINI Rose 2013 & VINI Merlot 2013
July 16th: VINI Chardonnay 2013 & VINI Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
July 19th: Domaine Boyar Traminer 2013 & Domaine Boyar Merlot 2012
July 23rd: Domaine Boyar Chardonnay 2013 & Domaine Boyar Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
July 26th: Villa Yambol Merlot 2013 & Villa Yambol Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
July 30th: Villa Yambol Mavrud 2013 & Domain Boyar Royal Reserve Mavrud 2011

Part 1: Three-Thousand Years of Wine History

Part 2: The Current State of Bulgarian Wine

Part 3: Invincibility of Rakia

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  1. I would like to go to Bulgaria to taste their wonderful wine, but I’m afraid of flying, because it’s a very long drive from Portugal.

  2. This way you can travel through many beautiful countries and taste their wines))) If I were you, that’s what I would do. Here you will find everything you need to take with you on your trip. Before you hit the road, make sure you consider these car essentials including tools, battery cables, spare tire, good windshield wipers (invest in them, trust us), windshield washer fluid, etc. .



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