In-Depth: Eastern Europe - Bulgarian Wine

Oct 6, 2009

Cathedral in Varna
I was not a very good caterer. It wasn’t so much serving food or working behind the bar that I failed at (I can set up a beautiful bar), it was just the refined and robot-like dignity I was forced to maintain while working. Our head manager was the most thankless perfectionist, went by the book and a few of our supervisors were just plain mean – like ‘power-trip mean’.

So one night I cracked. I was bartending for a small group of accountants and, at six-thirty twenty people showed up. They nibbled, they drank, they kibitzed and around quarter after seven, most had left. A handful of guys stayed behind. Settling into the nice plush chairs, they wanted to drink, shoot the breeze. I stood behind the bar trying to maintain my rigid pose but they only yelled at me, ‘Hey relax, buddy! Or, ‘Don’t stand like that, you remind me of my wife!’ One of them with what I thought was a Russian accent invited me to have a drink.

I thought, what the hell, why not?

I poured us both some wine, ate some veggies off the table and we talked for a half hour. Eventually I was caught and (I suspect) ratted out by my supervisor. Not surprisingly, my hours were pared down after that episode.

I learned the man was from Bulgaria and he told me about the wine of his country.

From what this man shared and what I’ve read, Bulgaria was once the ‘wine lake’ for the Soviet Union. As we saw with Romania and Slovenia, wine has been made in the region for thousands of years. But when Communism was foisted on the people, the country was intentionally planted with a massive amount of international grape varieties, all there for the sole purpose of supplying Mother Russia.

By 1966, the country’s output placed them as the sixth largest wine importer in the world. During the seventies, British bargain-hunters who were too cheap to splurge for a left-bank Bordeaux, bought the cut-rate claret-like Cabernets of Bulgaria. The country peaked in exports before the fall of Communism in the 1980s. The first signs of let-up arrived with Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.

During the 1990s, figures suggest yields had greatly fallen below the French average. It was at this time that many of the state-owned wineries were privatized. International investors rushed in to take advantage, with foreign support arriving from as far away as Japan and the U.S. Even Russia, newly ‘democratic’ took part.

Before things took a bit of turn for the worse, Bulgaria initiated the Wine Act of 1978. This decree classified wine into several categories: Standard wines for your basic light wines, Special Wine which included sparkling, liqueur and fruit wines, High Quality wines without Geographical Origin (similar to our ‘Cellared in Canada’ wines except the grapes are actually grown in the country), High quality wines with Declared Geographical Origin (DGO), which are wines grown in one of the five regions and Controliran – which is higher than DGO and similar to France’s Appellation Contrôlée. This assures customer quality but if it says Reserve, the oak flavor will most likely come from the oak chips instead of the time spent in a large wooden vat (which imparts hardly any flavor).

My new Bulgarian friend told me about Bulgarian Cabernet. “The freshest and fruitiest. It is absolutely delicious. One of the best reasons to visit my country. It is so good and reasonably priced.”

Besides the four main international varieties - Merlot, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and of course the Cabernet (the country is believed to have more Cab vineyards than California) – Bulgaria also offers up eastern European varieties.
Mavrud grape bunches
MAVRUD – is a fine, late-ripening grape used to produce spicy reds.
MELNIK – named after a small town in the Struma Valley, this variety is grown closer to the Greek border, producing powerfully scented wines of beautiful, sometimes sweet flavor.
PAMID – a common grape, pale and quaffable.
GAMZA – a grape you’ll find in Hungary called Kadara, it is also planted throughout Bulgaria

Whites include: a Georgian, Rkatsileli, Dimiat (Serbia’s everyday Smederevka), Red Misket (not red but a crossing of Riesling and Dimiat) and some other foreign grapes, including Muscat Ottonel which is very popular and Aligoté, the lesser-beloved grape of Burgundy widely planted in Eastern Europe.

Bulgaria isn’t a big country. (“You can drive it in a day.”) From Serbia to the Black Sea, it’s only 450 km and from northern Greece to southern Romania (at its widest), just about 300 km.

The summers are hot, temperatures can reach as high as 40 degrees Celsius while winters can be quite cold with -25 degrees at its lowest. The Black Sea does offer a moderating effect in the east but much of the country experiences a continental climate.

There are five distinct wine regions:

The DANUBIAN PLAIN, where most of the famous regional wines are produced in the north-northwest of the country. (Look out for wines from Sukhindol or Subhindol)

In the east, the BLACK SEA takes up the entire coastline. International varieties like Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer are grown here and do extremely well due to the maritime influence. Reds are planted further inland on the mountain slopes around Khan Krum and Novi Pazar.

The southern portion of the country is divided between the EAST and WEST THRACIAN LOWLANDS, with the West Thracian Valley putting out the most wine. Here you can find higher-quality Mavrud from Assenovgrad.

The STRUMA VALLEY (or South West) is considerably smaller than its neighbors as the vineyards ‘snug up’ against the Greek border. This is where you’ll find the Melnik wines I mentioned, the most “original wines” according to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in their World Atlas of Wine. Unfortunately, the originality of these wines is fast becoming “a rare commodity” in Bulgaria according to the Atlas.

Unlike France, Germany, Spain and Italy where the vineyards of the Côte du Beaune, the Mosel, Rioja and Tuscany take precedence on a wine’s label, Bulgaria is all about the winery. What happens in the vineyard, stays in the vineyard and what you’ll discover is that the winemaker’s expertise and the winery’s expensive equipment are more important than where the grapes are sourced. In many instances, they’re grown in one region and vinified in another. This is why the European Union only recognizes two of Bulgaria’s wine regions (Danubian Plain and the Thracian Lowlands) in terms of quality.

This issue has largely been a result of fragmented land holdings. With the fall of Communism, the government wanted to resolve pre-1947 ownership of plots. My friend explained that: “Yes, vineyards, unfortunately fell into the hands of people who had no vine growing experience whatsoever. But here you are, let us say you are a young man living in the city. One day you get a call. You find out your grandfather used to own land in Lozitza near the Danube. That was in 1939. You live now in Varna on the coast. What are you going to do? It is on the other side of the country and you don’t have the money or the time to work the land. But you don’t want to sell it, either. You are very proud of your family. The land has been returned to you; you don’t want to just let go of it. So, for many, the vineyards just fall into neglect.”

So if you’re in the wine store, it won’t much matter where the wine is from as who is making it.

In the north, top producers are as follows: Russe (under Russian ownership since 2003), Suhindol (best known in the west), Magura, Festa Holdings, Vinex Slavyantzi.

And in the south: Boyar (one of the biggest selling - 65 million bottles worldwide) Vini Sliven, Blueridge, Beleveder Group, Vizvanod Assenovgrod, Peshtera Group (a leading Bulgarian spirits producer) and Damianitza.

I had a great chat with my new Bulgarian friend. He told me about his culture shock when he first arrived in Canada. Apparently nudity isn’t a problem in Bulgaria and children swim naked. When he went home to the Black Sea (the Cherno More in Bulgarian), he told a friend children had to wear bathing suits in Canada. His friend replied, “they must be sick people!”

“The fact that you are ashamed of nudity makes you suspect in my friend’s eyes. And in the eyes of my country.”
Bulgarian beach with nudity edited out (note there are two sailboats)
I had to laugh. Maybe we are a bit twisted – too much Victoria prudery.

He also mentioned a therapist he met at a business conference. She told him that we are all intrinsically connected to our homeland. It made sense as he talked of Chernobyl, a city he knew that was literally wiped out by an environmental mishap. The citizens had safely gotten away but within a year, many had died of cancer. His belief: their city had ‘died’ and its displaced people eventually died with it.

“That is why I have to go back to my homeland. I have to be there. To see it, to live it. Yes, the Black Sea is beautiful. Do not get me wrong, Canada is nice but a temporary home. I have work here. But I have to go to my true home once a year. And when I am there, I drink my country’s wine. It gets me through the year.”

Pamid Grapes on Foodista

Fielden, Christopher, Exploring the World of Wine and Spirits. WSET: London, 2005.
Johnson, Hugh and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine. Bounty Books, London, 2001.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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