Extract: The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, by Caroline Gilby MW
16 May 2022 by Infinite Ideas in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits
The wines of Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a wine country very close to my heart – exciting and frustrating in equal measure. It was only the second wine country I visited in my professional career, when Eastern Europe was my first buying responsibility as a trainee buyer back in the late 1980s. I’ve seen this country take its first steps into a new era, just as I did myself. And I like to think that we’ve matured together, though the relationship has had its rocky moments.
That first trip to Bulgaria was eye-opening, not least because my one and only previous trip had been to Château Lascombes in Margaux. Memories have stuck fast of grim communist wineries; vast marching rows of vines supported by crumbling concrete; dining in huge, ornate ballrooms empty apart from our group; inevitable cucumber and tomato accompanied by ‘tractor fuel’ (a.k.a. rakia) at every meal and scrabbling for coins to pay for a few sheets of scratchy toilet paper from a babushka-type with bad hair-dye. I carried on buying Bulgarian wines when I was back in the UK but didn’t go back to the country for another dozen years or so.
In 2003 I returned for the first internationally judged wine competition, along with Jancis Robinson and a handful of judges from Norway, Poland and Scandinavia. So much was different; better hotels (with free toilet paper) and much better food (though cucumber and tomato are always standard fare). Usually everything was drowned in a thick fog of Balkan tobacco smoke. A mouthful of food and a puff on a cigarette wasn’t uncommon in those days (a habit that only faded with the indoor smoking ban in 2012). Winemaking was evolving, with the first few individual pioneers like Maxxima and Santa Sarah starting to appear, and privatization issues on their way to being resolved. But the larger wineries still seemed to believe that grapes grow in the back of trucks and couldn’t understand when we wanted to look at actual grapevines.
For some though, I think the proverbial penny (or stotinka) was beginning to drop as they realized that controlling fruit quality was going to be the next step for Bulgaria. Of course, problems of land ownership and vineyard neglect were still huge and have had major implications for Bulgaria.
Like all of Eastern Europe, Bulgarian wine has undergone a complete revolution from those early days of communist-scale, cheap, cheerful Bulgarian Cabernets; the ones I used to drink regularly as a student. I remember waiting with great anticipation for the arrival of Oriahovitza Reserve 1979 in Oddbins in the mid-1980s. There was nowhere else where you could get a wine with this level of maturity for the sort of price that even a student could afford. But the wine industry has undergone a complete revolution since then, through the challenges and problems of privatization, and has emerged as an exciting and dynamic scene, scattered with wines that I would be genuinely happy to recommend to anybody.
There is more to wine than just an enjoyable liquid (though obviously that’s important) and the stories behind the wine scene in Bulgaria are fascinating, though it hasn’t always been easy to get Bulgarians to genuinely open up and talk about it. And yet on the other hand Bulgarians are outspoken and blunt, and will tell you exactly what they think of you in so many words. Trust is a difficult thing for Bulgarians still, and they always seem to think there’s a catch, or a hidden agenda, so getting the wineries to tell me their genuinely personal stories has sometimes been hard. The more Latinized Romanians and even the Soviet-scarred Moldovans seem to have found it easier. And it’s a shame, because when you do get through that shell, Bulgarians and their wines are well worth getting to know.
The landscape of the Bulgarian wine industry has changed dramatically since the fall of the Iron Curtain and even more so since the completion of privatization. Accession to the EU in 2007 accelerated the pace of change, bringing with it reformed laws on winemaking as well as significant investment.
As part of the EU membership negotiations, Bulgaria agreed a vineyard area of 153,000 hectares, and official data for 2006 showed an area under vine of 135,760 hectares. However, this was never a realistic reflection of the area of viable productive vineyards and was most likely a political decision to give the industry maximum possible planting rights (which were extremely limited within the EU, basically requiring like for like replacement). Vineyard area continued to fall and the Ministry of Agriculture’s Annual Agrarian Report stated there were just 46,145 hectares in production in 2011, which fell further, to 36,551 hectares, by 2016.
Nearly half of Bulgaria’s vines are more than thirty years old, but in the last five years 6,000 to 8,000 hectares have been renovated each year. This almost certainly reflects purchase of land and planting or replanting of vineyards by large wineries, as well as the emergence of small and medium-sized new wineries with quality aspirations. Today, the majority of wineries have their own vineyards supplying all or part of their needs, and where they don’t own vines, longer term contracts specifying fruit quality and vine management are typically in place.
Vineyard development is likely to continue. Bulgaria had established a government-funded wine sector programme, worth nearly €70 million from 2014 to 2018, to support further conversion and restructuring of vineyards, plus investments in wine cellars and green measures. The change in attitude from technology towards the land shows the major mental switch that the industry has undergone. However, there is still a need to get to grips with the next step, which is to understand what the right locations for specific varieties are, and not just plant vines wherever a winery has been able to buy a plot of land. Look at France for examples of where the link from people to land has been uninterrupted for centuries (unlike Bulgaria where the link between land and individual people was largely destroyed over the years of communism). There are long established reasons why Pinot and Chardonnay grow in continental Burgundy while Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc reign in the Atlantic climates of Bordeaux and the Loire, and Syrah and Viognier suit the baking heat of the Rhone. It’s worth noting how little varietal overlap there is too, unlike in Bulgaria where many of these grapes are found together in the same vineyard. The alternative way of looking at this is that Bulgaria is experimenting with freedom from prescriptive laws about what to plant where.
There are two aspects to quality: the first is freedom from faults and off flavours, while the second relates to the individuality and complexity derived from a location that imparts its unique character. Bulgaria needs to learn from the mistakes of her New World competitors. Frequently vines have been planted without considering the suitability of the variety for each site, with winemakers putting their faith in the power of technology and modern winemaking to overcome any disadvantages, such as the wrong soil or excess heat, and ending up with uniform and even boring wines. In the early years of the new era, it was such a challenge to put together enough land in Bulgaria for a commercial vineyard that owners may have rushed into planting without thinking through what grapes might work best. Terroir may determine character and complexity, but the human factor determines quality level.
New vineyards have their place, and young vines do get older and better balanced in time, which is starting to happen now in Bulgaria with the first wave of new era vines. The earliest investments from the early to mid-2000s are now getting over this problem, and the wines are better for it, showing ripeness at lower and better balanced alcohol levels. Just as an example Bessa Valley Reserva 2006 was 15.7% abv and the latest release is a more harmonious 14.3% abv. But the industry should not forget the old vines – especially gnarly, ancient things planted decades ago. Such vines are often naturally in balance with roots reaching deep into the soil, but importantly, they are not the modern clones that are increasingly widespread, which suggests they have survived because they suited Bulgaria’s conditions. I would love to see someone taking cuttings before this potential treasure trove disappears in a sea of French or Italian clones. And the myth that old vines are automatically better is often disproved by the reality here. Older vineyards from communist times were planted for quantity, on vigorous rootstocks and fertile soils. Just getting old will never completely solve that problem, and in many older vineyards there are missing and sick vines, as well as a few that are overcropping, so giving very inconsistent results.
To explore the idea of terroir a bit further, three factors need to come together. First is the place itself – the soil, climate, microclimate, aspect, rainfall, wind, sun, altitude and nearby water – and of course vine varieties that suit all these factors. Second is competent winemaking, which allows what the place gives to shine through. It mustn’t dominate, either with faults, or through being too technical and manipulative. Third and arguably most important is the human factor – the passion to aim for high quality and to experiment. And yes, this may mean winemakers being prepared to put their reputations on the line and admit they got it wrong sometimes (and I know this is not something that comes easy to proud Bulgarians). There also needs to be a dose of realism, as there must be a market place to sell these wines into. Recent years have seen several Bulgarian producers embracing ‘terroir’ in a move to be recognized for fine wines. As Yuson Jung points out in her 2014 paper: ‘Terroir is a compelling narrative to legitimize the premium quality of their wines and enter the ranks of fine wine in the global wine hierarchy,’ adding that, ‘wine is not simply an alcoholic drink but a cultural commodity and a symbol of identity’.
Local or international – does Bulgaria need a flagship variety?
For the international market, local grape varieties are a good way of gaining interest and starting conversations, though selling a grape no one has heard of from a country with little reputation for quality wine can be a big ask. If a grape only comes from Bulgaria, it is – by definition – a wine of its place, and such local varieties can also be used to add Bulgarian character to blends. In some cases, the fact is that local grape varieties have remained local because they only suit specific local conditions or because they are too ethnic or rustic to gain wider attention. Shiroka Melnishka Loza for instance, only really suits the Struma Valley and its wines can be challenging to drink without modern winemaking. Grapes like Pamid appear totally unsuitable for producing quality wine that will appeal to modern drinkers.
In other cases, with a more knowledgeable approach to viticulture and winemaking there could well be some gems to discover. At the moment, Mavrud seems to be leading the way as Bulgaria’s red flagship, and today it is the most widely planted of the quality native grapes. By no means does everyone agree that this is the only choice, with supporters for Rubin, Melnik 55 and even Gamza. However, as Radoslav Radev (head of NVWC) pointed out to me, the situation is the opposite in the domestic market, where young people often associate local grape varieties with what their parents and grandparents drank. International grapes are the ones with glamour for new drinkers rebelling against their parents.
Finding the balance point between these conflicting demands is a challenge. There is also a valid argument that showing the world what Bulgaria can do with well-known grape varieties helps buyers understand what quality the country can offer. Adriana Srebrinova (owner of Maxxima and Borovitza) explains, ‘I think we will have a better chance of showing the unique qualities of Bulgarian wines through the place where we grow our grapes, because wine lovers in the world know how a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or a Bordeaux tastes, it is easy for them to discern the difference in a Bulgarian Cabernet.’
Extract from The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova © Caroline Gilby (Infinite Ideas, 2018)
To read more, buy your copy direct from the Classic Wine Library shop.