Where now land is has not always been land, and where now water is has not always been water. And where now wine is made has not always been made before. Thus begins the story of the Bononia Estate winery. Back in 1895, two Hungarian brothers bought land on both sides of the Danube River – one is in Bulgaria, the other in Romania. The brother who bought the land in Bulgaria was called Victor Olinger and he founded one of the first and oldest breweries in Bulgaria, which was later turned into a winery. The place is between two Vidin villages, Koshava and Gomotartsi. Since then, many years have passed and many stories have been written, but the winery closed and remained forgotten for a long time.
They say that every other Bulgarian man is an avid hunter or fisherman. In the case of Ivaylo Yotov, his passion for hunting has taken him to many places in Bulgaria. He loved hunting game in the woods and listening to the local legends, old and shrouded in dust and oblivion. One of them was for a forgotten brewery between Koshava and Gomotartsi. He and his father Angel decided to buy the almost destroyed building in 2016 and to give it a new life, but this time, as a winery. It turned out that the old building has its mysteries – preserved underground corridors with beautiful Prussian arches. Faced with the dilemma of demolishing it and building a completely new one or restoring it, they chose the latter – they strengthened the building and restored it in stages.
Let us tell you about the vineyards of Bononia Estate as well. The first 400 decares were planted in 2013, and to date between 1300 and 1500 decares have been cultivated. The terroir and the climatic features of the area suggest that the emphasis here is on the white varieties. 600 decares were planted with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and the rest with Traminer, Viognier, Vermentino, Riesling and Pinot Gris. Of the red varieties are present Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and, of course, the local variety Gamza. To date, the initial 50 decares have increased to 85.
But why a winery in the Vidin area? This region has one of the oldest wine traditions in Bulgaria. Here is where the first wine school in the country opened immediately after the liberation and its building is currently housing the Military Club of the town. A mere 15 km from this Danube town is the Zlaten Rog Peninsula, named after the fertility of the soils in the area – the vines are planted right there, where the 23rd meridian passes right through the middle of the parcel. Only a few places in Bulgaria are defined as golden – Zlatna Dobrudzha, Zlatograd, and Zlatiyata in Montana.
The northwestern region is a corner of Bulgaria endowed with rich and interesting nature and it is famous for its fertility. Here are combined the picturesque nature of the mountain and semi-mountain landscape with the vast expanse of the Danube plain, the wonderful world of the Belogradchik rocks with the underground beauties of the Magura and numerous other caves, and the fortress “Baba Vida” – the only fortress in Bulgaria, which is fully preserved.
Due to their proximity to the Danube River, the soils are sandy, loess, extremely rich in minerals, which is always felt in the wines. Some of the plots with vines are located next to the Danube River and it is impossible not to talk about its role. It is rightly called by the locals “the European Amazon”. Its tempering influence is especially favourable for the viticulture in the region – air masses from the river warm the microclimate and do not allow the vines to freeze during the ice-cold winters typical for the region. Another advantage due to the proximity of this body of water is the local winds blowing from the river to the vineyards. Similar to the so-called “Cape Doctor” in South Africa, which removes the pathogenic moisture from the vines, here the local Danube wind is an assistant to the vine growers. Everyone has heard that when you are near the Danube River, it is good to take extra outerwear with you because there is always the possibility of a sudden change in weather. Another climatic feature is the large day-night temperature amplitudes. Sometimes they can reach 20 degrees. Still, the area is quite sunny – 4,000 hours of sunshine a year are reported. This makes it significantly warmer than certain parts of northeastern Bulgaria and affects the vines. They have a more powerful body and density than those of the Black Sea region. In recent years, there has been an earlier ripening of the grapes and a shift of the grape harvest to unusual dates. Is the global warming taking its toll on this otherwise way cooler northern terroir?
To reach the vineyards and the future winery, one should pass either through Gomotartsi or Koshava. Both villages are impressive due to the care of the locals for the appearance of the settlements. In this increasingly depopulated area, where one is welcomed by ghost houses and villages with several inhabitants each, Koshava and Gomotartsi are the exception to the rule. The aroma of freshly cut grass, painted sidewalks and carefully arranged yards are indicators that life here is bursting and it has not stopped. In Gomotartsi, lovers of old architecture can even see houses from as far back as 1910 and enjoy the magic that has left its mark there more than a century ago.
Soon after the first vineyards were planted in 2013, the first vinified harvest followed in 2015. It was very small in quantities and had a rather experimental character, but from the very beginning there have been four series of wines – Gomotartsi, Istar, O La La, and Bononia Estate Reserve. These four main lines have been preserved to the current 2019 harvest.
Gomotartsi attracts with its freshness and originality. It includes wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rosé from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Gamza. Aging in oak barrels is not applied in order to preserve the terroir character and the primacy of the varieties. Between 10 000 and 20 000 bottles a year, depending on the harvest, are produced from the Gomotartsi Gamza series.
The Istar series is a step forward and here the focus is on wines with more potential for aging. It engages careful operation with second and third charge French barrels, and not with all varieties, so as not to lose the charm of the wine. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Traminer are again present as single varieties. Sauvignon Blanc 2018 was extremely successful and the last bottle of it was sold only a few months after its launch. The blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc is a great find, and the pure Cabernet Franc is a real temptation – gentle and elegant, with a style close to Pinot Noir. This is one of the good examples of what the independently vinified Cabernet Franc variety is actually capable of. The Istar series wines also produce between 3,000 and 5,000 bottles a year.
There is only one representative in the O La La series – rosé. This is a series unique with its playfulness, summer temptations, and the promise of a happy and carefree life. It became the flagship of Bononia. Harvest 2018 won the gold medal at the Balkan Fest. Between 3000 and 5000 bottles a year, depending on the harvest, are produced.
Bononia Estate Reserve Harvest 2013 is a blend of red varieties: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It ages for 12 months in French oak barrels. Characteristic of it is that, although its core is of classic Bordeaux varieties, it is an elegant and ethereal manifestation of the northern terroir and in no way weighs on the palate, but on the contrary – leaves an unforgettable feeling of lightness. The Reserve is intended mainly for restaurants. The variety of its provocative flavours fits a number of dishes – hard cheeses, red meats, typical salamis and sausages.
So many varieties and ideas, but one would ask who is behind it all. The winery technologist is Stefan Pirev, a unique person with diverse interests. He is always ready for new wine experiments, armed with inexhaustible sense of humour and professionalism to his very bones. All in all, we can safely assume he has actually united many personalities into one. As a winery specialising in white varieties, Bononia also has plans for the Riesling, Dimyat and Vratsa Muscat varieties. Given the experience of Stefan Pirev with the varieties described, we can expect many pleasant surprises in the coming months.
As in many other family projects, so in Bononia sooner or later a representative of the next young and ambitious generation appears in order to infuse new strengths and ideas into the project. In the case of Bononia, this is Aglika, the daughter of Ivaylo Yotov. She joined the team in June 2019 and she is already working on various assignments to support the family business. Meeting her would bring you feelings of positivism, a vision for the future and faith in the family values. The label of the special series Bononia Estate Gamza, first harvested in 2018, was Aglika’s idea and responsibility. She is engaged with branding and marketing, development of foreign markets, social media presence and, of course, the complex commissioning preparation. She admits that she has an affinity for beautiful and quality photos, or photography in general. Therefore, she accepts maintaining the social networks as her personal mission and responsibility, but to her it is also an everyday entertainment.
Regarding the COVID 19 pandemic, she thinks it will have a corrective effect on the oversaturated market. There is already an increase in sales through online channels and this is encouraging for Aglika. She sees an opportunity in the current situation and sincerely hopes that after the end of the pandemic we would find ourselves drinking more interesting wines. In the difficult times of everyday life, she finds support in the face of her team. She believes that this is one of the greatest treasures she has in her life. When one loves their job, one does not measure time and is always ready for new challenges. This is the energy she feels because of the people standing beside her and she draws her strength from them to fight the difficulties of the day.
Under normal circumstances, one does not seem to have time for everything, but since the beginning of the pandemic, the Bononia Estate team has been loaded with ideas and has been rethinking all those mini-projects left in the corner to dust and awaiting attention. In the conditions of a pandemic, they decided to support relatives, friends, team members, colleagues and partners with Bononia wines. Everyone had the opportunity to assess the wines and to form their own personal opinion.
Aglika, her family and the team are looking forward to the future, where the site of the former brewery will soon be a spectacular complex for the Vidin area and all of Bulgaria, making them one of the largest and most ambitious investors in northwestern Bulgaria. As a start, the boutique complex will have 21 hotel rooms, a restaurant, tasting rooms, a cigar bar, a SPA area, an ‘infinity pool’, and terraces overlooking the Danube River. An expansion is planned in the last few months, which will include tennis courts, mini-golf, terraced alleyways, a second, larger ‘infinity pool’ with a bar, as well as venues for holding various events. The complex is located only 15 meters from the riverbank. This is the most current topic in Bononia’s kitchen and everyone is looking forward to seeing the project completed. Tours around the vineyards, fishing, yacht tastings, ATVs, various private and business events, as well as many other extras are planned to add to the endless pleasure of the future guests. The project will constantly expand in the future and its creators believe that it will outlive them all.
The aim of the family is to draw attention to the backward northwestern region and to reveal to all the wonderful beauty and diversity it could offer. And for sure, this long-forgotten area has something to shine with. A trip to the northwest will soon have a different meaning, and the credit for this will go to the Bononia winery.
Author: Pavlin Ivanov
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