Bulgary - ancient gods for modern wines
"We harvest around one hundred tonnes of grapes every year “, explains Tanya Avramova, that is 100,000 bottles every year, "and we could do a lot more". You cannot live from a small-scale operation here." That might sound a bit brisk for a vineyard that has been in business for five years and which does not have a large investor behind it. But it is not necessarily incorrect and describes the dichotomy of the situation that so many small winemaking operations have in Bulgaria.
"We still don't bottle everything though. There just isn't the market for it, explains the winemaker. Things are the same for her as they are for many private enterprises in the country. The hurdles attached with profitable marketing are high.
Tanya and her husband took over the vineyard in 2009. Her family has been making wine for generations. They were self-sufficient providers, like the majority in Bulgaria, and who do not come into question as customers as a result. So you see that there is no point in hoping to make a living selling in the region. You have to think a lot bigger. "Even as a small enterprise, explains Avramova, "you don't really have much choice but to look to export."
On the flip side, the growing conditions are good. The soils are made up of sand, clay, quartz and some lime provide promising conditions for cultivating vines, as do the climatic conditions. Bulgaria is roughly on the same latitude as Bordeaux. Rain falls mainly in spring and summer when the vines need it and the thermometer sometimes climbs up to the 40° Celsius mark. The autumn is dry. The days remain hot right into October and the nights are continental cold. But the winters are ice cold due to the influence of the Asian continent.
Besides the mountain regions such as Pirin and Rhodopen, low hills are the most common landscape features. Vines are not only cultivated on the slopes, but also in the river valleys. The sedimentary rock and the calcareous loess offer good bases. Calcareous loess and weathered clay soils are to be found on the slopes, while barren stony soils dominate on the highest lying surfaces.
Like a gleaming crystal in the twilight, Baigorri floats weightlessly in an endless sea of vines. Of course, the effect is calculated, and you go into raptures a little and think of space ships and science fiction films. However, inside the glass cube, the main building of Bodegas Baigorri, gravity plays a leading role. According to all the rules of modern science, the grapes and all subsequent products are moved exclusively with the help of gravity. From the delivery to the top floor to loading the filled bottles, seven floors below.
"The terroir can change dramatically here within just one to two hundred metres“, explains Goblets Dimyat. After his first retirement from sport, the former rugby player looked for a second challenge as a winemaker with his Villa Bassarea. One of his wines is called Bassareus. That is the Thracian name for Dionysus. That seems a bit far-fetched at first glance. A vineyard's history is something that a lot of winemakers in the world use as a decorative accessory in order to conjure up some romance with which to better sell their wines. Many boastfully point to the fact that the Romans and Greeks had already cultivated their wine here. However, it is actually not important for the self-image. In Bulgaria that is different.
The Thracians were the largest ethnic group in the region in ancient Greece and were leaders when it came to metalworking. The intricately decorated goblets and chalices made of gold, which have been found in burial mounds, is proof of this. They developed their wine culture 3,000 years ago in the area stretching from the Balkans to Asia Minor.
They did not write, but they depicted their cults and rituals on vases and paintings. They drank wine, danced and sang. Spartacus and the mystical poet Orpheus are supposed to have come from Thrace, as is the concept of Dionysus. The wine god's intoxication and party cult was one of the most popular in the ancient world and beyond. Even Friedrich Nietzsche saw the principle of human existence in the intoxication idea.
The Greeks, who cultivated a self-image in the ancient world which required little or no improvement, regarded the Thracians as being a bit rough around the edges and hard-drinkers. But even they could not help but be a little impressed by their neighbours. Their weapons and horses, "as fast as strong-blowing winds", were famous and already raved about by even the likes of Homer.
After battle, Greece's most influential poet observed that the warriors drank a heavy wine. And it was wine that they had made themselves.
Thracian wine would later become an export success thanks to the modern cultivation methods employed by the Romans and would be shipped as far as Egypt.
In 681, the Bulgarian state founded itself, and taverns started to be opened in the capital Preslaw. The houses of the ruling classes had well-filled wine cellars, and the many monasteries also produced quality wines.
The 500-years of Ottoman rule, which lasted up to 1878, meant that areas used to produce wines in Bulgaria literally lay idle. Bulgaria never again produced a wine with the reputation of a Tokaji or a Burgundy.
Bulgaria fought alongside the Axis powers during the Second World War. That did not make things any better. After 1945, the socialist monopoly characterised wine production, and they in particular strived for large volumes using industrial methods. Bulgaria rose to become the second largest wine producer in the world, and it supplied wine to the member states of the Warsaw pact in particular. Following the break-up of the military alliance in 1991, when almost everywhere in the world on that latitude good wines were being bottled using modern technology, Bulgaria was left with massive capacities and outdated Soviet machines. The majority of the export markets in the former sister states were weak. On the other hand, a global market opened up on which Bulgaria was pretty much unknown. The exports fell sharply from 85% down to 50%.
The dismantling of the old system saw large areas be divided up into small holdings and given to farmers who often had no interest or possibility of establishing themselves on the export market. A large number of vineyards remained fallow. Even today, investors still need to have a lot of patience, if they want to purchase blocks of land together. The EU agricultural development programme started to help alleviate the situation somewhat from 1999.
Smokers with a weakness for Burgundy
Bulgaria has been a member state of the EU since 2007 and has conforming wine laws. 40 billion Euros of agricultural subsidies from the EU also helped. Alcohol and tobacco are popular in Bulgaria. There is a tobacco industry, smokers are an integral part of any street scene. Bulgarians like to drink alcohol, also wine. Imported wines are expensive compared with the rest of the EU. Nevertheless, 3.4 million litres make up a small and widely spread percentage of the wines sold in the domestic specialist retail stores.
However, "half of Bulgaria's 7.3 million population live off the land and are self-sufficient “, explains Ivo Varbanov. "The domestic market is so small". The winemaker produces, among others, a Chardonnay whose intricate complexity allows his love for Bourgogne to shine through. A lot of winemakers look for their role models in France, locations are taken very seriously. But even Varbanov cannot make it on his own. His bread-and-butter job is as a classic pianist in London. It is worth it because of the better earning potential there. But his contacts with sales partners in Great Britain are also worth their weight in gold.
The area being cultivated in Bulgaria has halved to around 60,000 hectares since 2006. This also does not tell the whole story with many areas that had not been cultivated for many years being removed from the statistics entirely. In 2015, a production volume of 175 million litres of wine is expected.
The turnover being generated is fluctuating, however. Alone from 2012 into 2013, overall exports fell from 35 million down to 15 million litres. Russia, where one third of Bulgarian wine is drunk and where politics continually affects foreign trade, is regarded as an uncertain partner.
The narrow margins and the variability of the market are the biggest problems facing Bulgarian wines.
The EU member state with the stable currency, first linked to the D-Mark, and then to the Euro, comparably stable public finances, low production costs and taxes has not yet been able to make best use of its trump cards.
Abundance of grape varieties
And there are certainly a few of those. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most frequently planted grape varieties. They have been in Bulgaria for decades. The soils in the Sakar region made up of clay, lime and granite are particularly good for Merlot, which was recognised by Michel Rolland. The jet-setting star oenologist has already been providing advice to winemakers in the country for a long time now. Wines from those grape varieties now match up well internationally.
One of the advantages, provided by the fact that the winemaking tradition had been cut off, is that there is a far more open attitude when it comes to experimentation. Castel Rubra was brought to life in 2000 with an investment of €30 million. Today, there are more than a dozen different varieties of grapes being cultivated on 150 hectares around Kolarovo ranging from the local Rubin to a Petit Verdot, as well as wines with an international profile and which were also created by Michel Rolland. The results speak for themselves.
Word of this potential that is in Bulgaria has spread. Miroglio, the Italian textile entrepreneur, has managed the Barolo vineyard Tenuta Carretta since 1985, and sees big chances for Pinot Noir and produces certain complex sparkling wines from it. Italy is the largest export market for Bulgarian sparkling wines. The modern wine cellar has a spiral design and is erected on top of a mountain, with the lower floors inside the mountain. This allows gravity to be used. "We have tried out a lot of Menik, Mavrud and other autochthonous varieties", explains Franco Miroglio. "We like Mavrud in particular, even though hardly anyone knows it".
Dionysus and Orpheus are sure to have known the autochthonous variety, it originates in Thracian. The wine produced from the thick-skinned red grape tastes a lot like blackberries and chocolate, and it is good for barrique maturation. The grape is capable of ageing and is one of the finest in the country.
Almost forgotten incense
Others are still only being re-discovered. The bouquet variety Tamianka, which literally means incense, had almost disappeared completely. The Terra Tangra vineyard’s oenologists acquired its clones from the seed bank in Montpelier. The wines have hyacinth and herb aromas and are very autonomous.
Tangra is a Thracian god who stands for the sky and the meaning of life, and he gives his name to vineyard Terra Tangra. The connection to the antique world is also with a fervour in this case. Tangra was founded in the forties by the village teacher Mikola Zasichev. When the collective farm was closed down in the nineteen nineties, we carefully bought back some of the vineyards", remembers junior boss Dimo Hadjiev. Just like so many ambitious producers, they set themselves up completely new with grape varieties from France. The old vines had been weakened due to viruses.
This is how a winemaking story started, which now plays out on 350 hectares of organically cultivated soil. The cellar is filled with barrels of various sizes from America, France, Russia as well as Bulgaria. The domestic wood is so good that French barrel makers like to buy here. This is something you hear time and again. Wood is tradition and many vineyards are playing with that.
Terra Tangra’s flagship is a Cuvée from French grape varieties, and which is created in 400 litre barrels employing rotation fermentation. Those, who are expecting the next Thracian god behind the name, will find themselves faced with a significant break with tradition. Because of their enthusiasm for the refinement for the technology, they christened the wine "Roto “.