by Ivan Bakalov

A guide to the fast-changing world of Bulgarian wine for both neophytes and connoisseurs

Winter in Bulgaria wouldn't be complete without the endless name day celebrations, quivering slabs of slanina, or salted pork fat, and litres of rich red wine. In January and February alone you'll be required to do damage to your liver and waistline on Vasilyovden, or St Basil's Day; Yordanovden, or St Jordan's Day; Ivanovden, or St John's Day; Antonovden, or St Anthony's Day; Atanasovden, or St Athanasius's Day; and, of course, Trifon Zarezan, the winegrower's holiday on 14 February, which many people also celebrate on 1 February.

More than likely you'll find yourself going na gosti, "visiting friends," and will want to pick out a good bottle of wine as a gift. Yet the store shelves crammed with traditional varieties such as Gamza, Rubin and Melnik are enough to make your head spin before you even pull out the cork. But which wines really deserve a place on your table?

Don't trust the hype

Bulgaria's entire wine industry is in private hands, and new cellars and vineyards are constantly cropping up. In recent years several producers have begun making new types of wine, introducing modern technology and even avantgarde viniculture methods, mostly from Australia. Bulgarian wines regularly win gold and silver medals at international wine tastings, among them Mondial du Vin, in Brussels; the Wine & Spirit Competition, in London; and Prowein, in Düsseldorf. However, local producers usually stay away from the Bulgarian wine competition, Vinariya, in Plovdiv. The reason for this appears to be good old-fashioned Bulgarian favouritism: In Plovdiv, chiefly older wine producers from the Socialist era tend to win medals, and the fact that they happen also to be among the event's organisers and members of the Bulgarian Wine Chamber speaks even to the uninitiated. This Old Boys' network makes it hard to get an accurate picture of the best new wines on the market.

Swanky screw tops?

Bulgaria's largest wine producer, Domain Boyar, built a new factory in Sliven designed by an Australian and outἀtted with French and Italian equipment. Wines with the Sinite skali, or Blue Ridge, labels have already been available in Bulgaria and, for several years now, in the UK. ᴀe winemaker's most recent move was the release on the Bulgarian market of screw-top bottles, a long-established practice in the West. Bulgarians tend to regard this innovation with suspicion, thinking it indicates low wine quality. In fact, the only inexpensive wine available with a screw top is Boyar, which costs around 6 leva and others a good balance of price and quality. Two other screw-top labels, XR and Oravinifera, go for 8 to 10 leva a bottle. However, this is a wine that can hold its own in quality terms against more expensive – and corked – competitors.

Domain Boyar's next class of wines is the pricier Cluster series. It comes in two varieties: a mix between Mavrud and Cabernet, and a Merlot-and-Rubin blend. Both are a bit on the expensive side – 18 to 20 leva per bottle – but are well worth the splurge. At its cellars at Korten, Domain Boyar also produces some of Bulgaria's most costly wines – its Solitaire series, made from grapes grown in specially selected vineyards around Sliven. The small vintages of between 5,000 and 10,000 bottles run about 40 leva a bottle – but bargain hunters at Metro, the cash-and-carry chain, can sometimes find them for less. So far the vintages from 2004 (sold out), 2005 and 2006 have hit the market. The Solitaire wines have their own devoted fans and even obsessive worshipers, who consider it the best Bulgarian wine.

Bessa-me mucho

One of the new Bulgarian wines creating a buzz among connoisseurs around the world is Enira, produced by Bessa Valley Winery, located in the village of Ognyanovo, near Pazardzhik. The name stems from the name of a Thracian tribe who lived in the region in ancient times.

Bessa Valley Winery was built by Count Stephan von Neipperg and Dr Karl-Heinz Hauptmann. The count is no newcomer to the wine business – he owns six wineries in Bordeaux that have been producing wine for nearly 800 years. Little wonder then that they call Enira "the blue blood of Bulgarian wine." The count's partner, Dr Hauptmann, is a banker. Mark Dworkin, a well-known consultant to French wineries, is Bessa Valley's manager. The winery has an annual capacity of 900,000 bottles. So far vintages from 2004, 2005 and 2006 have hit the shelves, each one a mix of a number of types – Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In each vintage the balance between the different grapes varies, but Merlot is always dominant. The Enira wines are sold for 21–22 leva for the most recent vintage to 35–40 leva for the Reserve series and older vintages. Currently the vintage 2006 is on the market, and 2007 is scheduled to appear around Christmas or after New Year's.

Belvedere, Bulgarian style

Near Stara Zagora you can find three other wineries that belong to another large Bulgarian producer that is part of the French Belvedere group: Domain Menada, Domain Sakar and Oriahovitsa. These wineries produce a wide spectrum of quality wines at affordable prices. Among them is Merlot from Sakar, which is produced by two different wineries – Domain Sakar and Vinprom Haskovo. Anyone wanting to test his prowess as a sommelier should try both wines from the same vintage: the grapes are the same, the region is the same, it's the vintner that is different.

Domain Menada makes Tcherga – a cuvée of Merlot, Cabernet and Rubin with an eye-catching label and smart marketing. However, what's inside the bottle doesn't quite live up to either the exterior or the price tag. You can find Tcherga selling for 4 euros a bottle in Germany and Austria, whereas here you can expect to shell out 15 or 16 leva.

The Belvedere-Bulgaria group's newest winery is Catarzyna, located along the Greek border. It was Belvedere president, Polish-born Christophe Trylinski, who has long resided in France, who built the cellar naming it after his daughter. Catarzyna's wines first came onto the market in 2007 and 2008.

With prices of around 7 leva a bottle, the MEZZEK series of the winery are an excellent value, having in mind that wine of this quality usually sells for 10 to 15 leva. Catarzyna makes Merlot, Cabernet, mixes of the two, and mixes with Rubin. ᴀey also make small 375 ml bottles – perfect for people who like to drink a glass or two a day. Wines from Catarzyna's pricier series go for 15 to 40 leva a bottle, making them perhaps not quite worth it. All of Catarzyna's wines share a strong fruity aroma and taste, as well as rich body.

Small-scale Santa

Southern Bulgaria is home to some of the country's most notable new winemakers, whose creations are not to be missed. One such recent arrival is Santa Sarah, which produces a line of wines in small quantities, hence the heftier price tags – between 15 and 40 leva per bottle. The vintner behind them is Ivaylo Genovski, a Bulgarian wine merchant in Germany who began trying his hand at winemaking in his homeland years ago. At 40 to 45 leva a bottle, his most expensive offering is Santa Sarah Private 2005. This mix of Mavrud (75 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (25 percent) is made from specially selected grapes fermented in oak barrels.

Santa Sarah's least expensive wines, for example, the Black C series, cost around 15 leva. While well worth a taste, these humbler products are a bit overpriced. To truly get your money's worth, stick with Santa Sarah's premium wines.

One of Santa Sarah's wines, Santa Sarah Privat, vintage 2008, won the Best Bulgarian Red Wine 2008 competition of Bacchus, Bulgaria's wine and gourmet culture magazine.

When cheaper is really better

Another relatively new brand that has caught connoisseurs' attention is Todoroff, a winery that produces upscale wines in the village of Brestovitsa, near Plovdiv. Built by a construction entrepreneur, the cellar produces Mavrud – the region boasts the oldest vineyards of the sort – Cabernet, and Merlot in three different series. The least expensive line, Boutique, costs around 12 leva a bottle. Todoroff's mid-range series, Gallery, features the same wines aged in oak barrels for several months, while Teres, the premium series, named after a Thracian king, has aged for much longer, which is reflected in the price of 22 leva per bottle. However, the Boutique series offers the best balance of price and quality, having a strong fruity aroma and flavour, unlike the oak-aged wines. Contemporary tastes tend to overwhelmingly prefer precisely such wines.

Oldies but goodies

Among the older Bulgarian wineries, Slavyantsi and Pomorie are actively producing new brands. Despite constantly churning out novel lines and series, Pomorie seems unable to make wines that grab connoisseurs' attention. However, wines from the more expensive Vinex Slavyantsi series are worth a try, while the single-vineyard oḀerings are a great buy at 15 leva each.

Vinprom Targovishte also regularly introduces new lines, but the quality is uneven. This producer has a commanding market presence in the lower price categories – a realm wine lovers would be well advised to avoid. In Bulgaria, cheap wines are made using certain techniques that are here better left unsaid.

Founded in 1939 and modernised three years ago, Khan Krum Winery, in the village of Khan Krum, near Shumen, produces red and white wines that have been long-standing favourites on the Bulgarian market. The winery offers affordable products, such as the Grace series; boxed wines; and the premium Wine Maker's Selection series, which has received awards on several occasions. The 2007 Chardonnay from the Wine Maker's Selection was among the winners at the International Wine Challenge 2008.

Vini Sliven has been in the wine-making business since 1920, and is one of Bulgaria's largest producers. The company's cellars and vineyards are located near Sliven, in the southern foothills of Stara Planina, and in the past several years the company has been consulting with Australian wineries. Vini offers both young vintages and aged wines in several series.

Unique grapes, unique tastes

Southwestern Bulgaria is home to one of the best new Bulgarian winemakers, Damianitza Winery. It produces wine from two unique Bulgarian grape varieties – Melnik and Rubin. Their Uniqato series is relatively expensive at 16 to 18 leva, but don't let the price tag deter you – Uniqato is true to its name and should not be missed. It comes in Uniqato Melnik, made from the early-ripening grape variety, and Uniqato Rubin, a 1940s-invented hybrid between Syrah and Nebbiolo. The wine cellar offers a full range of wines in every price category – including the Keratsuda line, which they could hardly be proud of. One of Damianitza's single-vineyard wines, Merlot Dzindziflite – named after the vineyard it comes from – ranks among the best Merlots of its kind in Bulgaria, and is a steal at 20 leva per bottle.

Market newcomers worth tasting include Pendar and Via Diagonalis, produced by the new Telish Winery, in the village of Kolarovo, near Harmanli. The name of the wine cellar and of one of the wines comes from the ancient Roman name for the region. Frenchman Michel Rolland, considered one of the world's leading wine experts, has been a consultant for the winery from its very beginning.

Another up-and-coming winemaker you shouldn't miss is Logodazh, a new winery near Sandanski, which has also released several wine series over the past two years.

If you prefer white throughout the year, try one whose fame reaches way back into the past. The newly resurrected Vrachanska temenuga is made from the renowned Vrachanski Muscat grape variety at the Lopushna winery, near the village of Gorno Damyanovo, in the northwestern Montana region. In 2008 the winery was among the biggest investors in modern production technologies.

In 2001 a well-known lawyer and a family of vintners started the Villa Lyubimets brand. They have their own vineyards that grow Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Mavrud on the Thracian plains near the town of Lyubimets, in the Plovdiv region, and since 2005 they have their own winery. Villa Hissar White Metaphor 2007 received an award at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2008, and Mavrud Premium Reserve 2005 at the International Wine Challenge 2008.

Since winter is the perfect time to indulge in heavy reds, take advantage of January and February's numerous holidays to hone your sommelier skills. Try a new wine on each of the many name days – and get to know the best old and new names on the Bulgarian wine market.


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