Wine had formed an important part of the Bulgarian economy since the Second World War. With the creation of the Communist Block trading organisation Comecon, Bulgaria supplied wine to the Soviet Union and those northern Warsaw-Pact nations less favoured by the sun. To this end, the peasant viticulture of pre-World War days was reformed: vines that had ordinarily inhabited the south-facing hillsides were relocated to the plains where they could be more economically managed and farmed according to kolkhoz methods. The vines chosen were chiefly the Mac varieties, such as Cabernets, Merlot and Chardonnay. Some local varieties survived, however, notably Mavrud, Gamza (which as “Kadarka” features in Hungarian Bulls’ Blood) in the north-west, and Melnik in its eponymous region on the Greek Border.
In the early eighties, Bulgaria’s trade diversified and my friend Margo Todorov opened an office in London to sell Bulgarian wine. The campaign was a huge success. I still recall the ubiquity of “Uncle Bulgaria” at the time, and not just in England. When I went to Ireland in 1987 or 1988 to interview Peter Bielenberg about his part of the German Opposition to Hitler, he fetched up a handful of bottles of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon to make sure our talk ran smoothly into the small hours.
Meanwhile problems began to affect markets closer to home: Gorbachev wanted to wean Russians off the excessive amounts of alcohol they consumed, and then in 1991 Comecon collapsed in the shipwreck of the Soviet Empire. In Bulgaria the government allowed people to claim back the land taken from them by the Communists, but the former landowners had to compensate the state for improvements in the form of vines. If there were no “improvements” then there was nothing to pay. In many instances this meant the vines were allowed to die. A number of old state cooperative wineries were closed down at this time as well, leading to a shortage of Bulgarian wine.
The obvious solution was to seek foreign investment and to replant the old hillside sites on the south-facing slopes of the Balkan Range that would create better wine, but it was around this time that I stopped visiting Bulgaria and until my recent tastings, I had given it but little thought.
Todorov is still the principal figure as far as Britain is concerned. His company Domaine Boyar owns two wineries: Sinite Skali and the boutique Korten, both in the Thracian Plains, homeland to the God Dionysus. Boyar wines are all very keenly priced. The cheapest are labelled Silver Mine, of which there is a ripe Sauvignon Blanc and a very satisfying Merlot for as little as £5 from the Co-op. The next step up is Deer Point. Deer Point Merlot is best drunk slightly chilled . The 2019 Domaine Boyar Merlot with its black olive-like aroma and black and redcurrant fruit is a snip at £6.95 like its creamy buttery Chardonnay running mate.
The 2018 Stone Arka Chardonnay was pleasantly intense and probably all the better for having no obvious oak treatment. I had not forgotten tasting a wine from a vat in Bulgaria once and inadvertently sucking in a number of oak chips that had been put there to impart an oaky flavour. When I spat the wine out I thought I’d lost several teeth. For a good oaky Chardonnay there is Boyar’s Elements with all the creaminess associated with what has become an international style.
Best of all, perhaps, is the nicely packaged Korten Natura organic range: a 2018 Mavrud combined with Rubin with a lifted raspberry nose and a white blend of Muscat and Dymiat from 2019, an excellent pale aperitif wine with a little spritz from CO2 and a lovely honey-like smell.
Mavrud seems to have gained ground in recent years. From Bolgaré, the 2019 was a nice cherry/raspberry scented wine with fine tannins, but I can’t find a distributer for it here. The 2017 “Loud and Proud” Mavrud came from the pretty, undulating region of Melnik with a suitably noisy label. It used to be stocked by the Wine Society. It packs a punch at 14 per cent and it is quite peppery. Again I’d say chill it, should the warm weather ever return.
Gamza is a speciality of the north-west, where Bulgaria is tucked in between Serbia and the Danube, with Romania on the other side. Here is the Bononia estate owned by the Yotov family that released its first wines only in 2016. The 2019 Gamza comes stylishly presented in a heavy bottle. I did what I was told, and cooled the wine, serving it with the plate of pasta with a spicy sauce. I liked the caramel/redcurrant tastes and above all the bite.
Also from Bononia was the peppery 2018 Istar Cabernet Franc and a good Chardonnay smelling of fresh pears. The Sauvignon Blanc sadly fell victim to the delivery man.
The Midalidare Estate near the ancient city of Plovdiv provided some of the most exciting wines of all. It is the property of the Kazak Eugene Yusupov and includes a hotel and 160 hectares of vines. I was tremendously impressed by a classic sparkler with a fine, persistent bead and a nice apple-like taste. The 2019 Synergy was a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris which had a lovely playful structure and acidity. The 2017 Mogilovo Valley Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot blend was quite an eye-opener. At 14.5 per cent it was a big, peppery, spicy wine and very professionally made: a considerable step up from the simpler Bordeaux style wines made in Bulgaria in the past. Its stable-mate, the Single-Vineyard Merlot, Cabernet Franc blend, does not seem to be available here, but it is well worth looking out for with its cooling fruit and aromas of strawberries and raspberries, it is earnest of a new sophistication rolling off the Balkan Range.
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