Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Rebirth of Bulgarian Wine

Photo credit: Publicist PR
What can we learn from the history of Bulgarian wine? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket? That the only constant is change? From being a major supplier to the Soviet Union from the 1970s until the mid 1980s, Bulgaria experienced a rapid descent into viticultural obscurity after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced anti-alcohol measures, followed shortly after by the collapse of the USSR itself. For a time, the UK showed interest in Bulgaria’s affordable exports of international varietals, but soon countries such as Australia and Chile showed similar competence at producing wines aimed at the lower end of the market. 

The Bulgarian Regional Vine and Wine Chamber held a dinner in Singapore on the 27th of January with the express aim of “securing a better position and reputation of European regional wines from Bulgaria”. Besides Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were also included in this year’s Asian tour, which was funded by the European Union. I saw several familiar faces in the crowd, among them local sommeliers, wine writers and distributors. Wines for the evening were supplied by the Trakia Wine Consortium and Villa Yustina, both located in the Thracian Lowlands although there was also a Chardonnay from Yamantievs and a red blend from Kamenki. Petya Angelova, Trade Director of Villa Yustina, had an upbeat view on the future of Bulgarian wine, commenting that “Just like Bordeaux, we want everyone to know about Bulgarian wines.” 

Bulgaria is bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea in the east. For most of Bulgaria the climate is continental, with hot summers and very cold winters. Increased privatisation has led to the growth of smaller wineries, some established with the expertise of foreign winemaking. Local grape varieties include Dimyat, Rkatsiteli and Misket for the whites, and Mavrud, Pamid, Melnik, Rubin and Gamza for the reds. Although the wines for the evening were pretty much a mixed bag, I did enjoy the two reds from Villa Yustina. The basic Villa Yustina Dry Red Cuvee 2012 was a kitchen sink blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah, which showed vinous character with red fruits and a solid backbone. Even more interesting was the Villa Yustina Monogram 2010, a full-bodied blend of Mavrud and Rubin with savoury black fruit notes and just a touch of vanillin. I found out later that the wine was aged for 14 months in 100% Bulgarian oak barrels. 

Does Bulgaria have a seat in the global amphitheatre of wine? Judging from the wines poured that evening, the industry is still in its infancy, with many steps to take before it can develop an identity and compete with countries that have had decades, and sometimes centuries, of continuous winemaking history. The most important market for Bulgaria is Russia, where the average price of a bottle is €3, but this clearly does not encourage the pursuit of higher quality wines. Inroads are being made into places such as Vietnam, China, and the United States, and it will take a few years to see if these efforts bear fruit. In any case welcome back, Bulgaria.

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