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Bulgarian Wines (September 27, 2001)

I spent five days in Bulgaria in September, travelling from Sophia to Varna on the Black Sea, looking at the wine industry. Here is my report.

Bulgaria is an ancient wine region full of irony and contradiction. Built to service the huge Soviet market from huge industrial plants in the first half of the last century, it has been forced to find new markets after the fall of Communism.

More wine is made in basements and garages in Bulgaria than is produced in the country's forty-odd wineries. They export more wine than they drink at home (500 million bottles go abroad out of a total production of 800 million), and it's almost impossible to find imported products except on wine lists in some luxury hotels. There is barely any wine culture in the restaurants, which means wine is served at the wrong temperature and in inappropriate glassware.

After the fall of Communism in November 1989, the land that had been collectivized was returned to its former owners, many of them peasant farmers or absentee landlords who knew nothing about grape growing. The condition of most of Bulgaria's vineyards today would make New World viticulturalists despair. A week prior to harvest, the majority of them were overgrown, unkempt and unpruned, no recognizable trellising and tangled weeds growing between the rows. Many Bulgarian vineyards can actually claim to be organic - at least, organic by default because the farmers can't afford to spray them. "People are not that rich to use pesticides," one winemaker told me.

Yet, for all that is wrong with the industry, there are wines that could be as good and as inexpensive as Chile's with some investment and training. The grapes are there – Chardonnay, Riesling, Traminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot – as well as such local varieties as Misket, Dimiat, Gamza and Mavrud.

There are 40 wineries in Bulgaria's five regions, named after the towns where they are located, but only about 12 of them are viable; the rest are no longer producing, merely selling from stocks after management buyouts left them with little capital to purchase grapes. Touring the country, you still see many collective farms and factory winery sites abandoned and derelict. At Rousse – on the Danube, which separates Bulgaria from Roumania – the largest winery in the country is located: Vimprom. With a 20-million-litre capacity, it looks like an industrial complex of sheds and outdoor tanks. Current production is 7 million bottles, 6-7 million litres of bulk wine and 3 million bottles of brandy. Brandy is significant in Bulgaria. It is traditional to start your meal with a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, eggplant and cheese accompanied by a glass of Rakia, a distillate made from wine and pomace. Bulgarians drink as much Rakia as they do wine, which they consume at the rate of 12 litres per head annually.

The typical Bulgarian winery looks like a Southern France co-operative in the 1930s (which is not surprising since they were built by the French) – three storeys with cement tanks (now epoxy-lined). These facilities are hopelessly under-utilized. Margo Todorov, CEO of Boyar Estates, the largest wine conglomerate in Bulgaria – owning facilities in Rousse, Shumen, Sliven and Yambol – says, "In theory we could process all the grapes of Bulgaria."

The most encouraging sign for the future of the Bulgarian wine industry is a new facility built in an industrial suburb of Sliven by Domaine Boyar. In his London office, Margo Todorov saw what the Australians were doing in the British market and realized that he had to make wines in similar style to compete. To make Australian-style wines you need an Australian winery, and that's exactly what he had built. With an investment of US$15 million, Boyar Estates employed an Australian company to design and build a state-of-the-art facility from the ground up ("It looks like a Penfold's winery," says Todorov). The ground was broken in 1998; by the following September it was finished and ready for its first vintage in 1999. They called the winery Blueridge, a salute to the jagged mountains behind, whose stones look blue in certain lights.

In addition to Aussie technology in the cellar (which contains used Château Lafite barrels as well an American oak), Aussie know-how in the vineyards is being employed. Di Davidson is consulting on the company's private vineyards on a five-year programme to plant Domaine Boyar's 1000-hectare holdings. Thirty hectares are already in the ground.

The first year's bottled offerings from the new winery under the Blueridge label are promising. Maybe this will signal the birth of a new age in Bulgarian wines.

To give you a sense of the wines being made in Bulgaria, I have gone through my notes and singled out five wines that I enjoyed.

Rousse Winery Merlot Limited Selection 1996
Mature ruby colour; elegant blueberry and blackberry nose; nicely oaked with ripe spicy fruit, quite fresh for its age and still showing marked tannins. (87)

Targoviste Chardonnay "Private Selection" 1999
Pale straw colour; something of a canned fruit salad on the nose – apple, nectarine, grapefruit, very expressive for such an inexpensive wine ($8.80 in Ontario). The palate doesn't really offer what the nose promises, though, but it's clean, easy drinking with an apple and grapefruit zest flavour. (86)

Domaine Boyar Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 1996 (Yambol Branch)
Mature purple colour; an immediate impression of cedar on the nose that flows to an inky, floral note with a suggestion of newly sharpened pencil. Lean and sinewy on the palate like a St. Emilion; well structured red currant flavour with good acidity and a firm finish. Could hold for two to three years. (87)

Domaine Boyar Cabernet Sauvignon Royal Reserve 1996 (Yambol Branch)
Quite the best wine I tasted in Bulgaria. Dense purple-black colour; cedar and plum on the nose with a hint of iodine. Ripe black currant fruit, with obvious maturity, well balanced, good length with a tannic lift on the finish. (88)

Blueridge Merlot Barrique 1999
Deep purple-black colour, opaque. Vanilla and intense oak aromas on the nose from nine months in American oak. Expressive mulberry flavour, well extracted with a richer layer of plum under the acidity. (87)




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