No matter how murky the legends of St. Trifon Zarezan, the Orthodox Church patron saint of vine growing and wine production, Bulgarian wine is worth celebrating. Since the days of ancient Thrace and their reverence for Dionysus, Bulgaria’s neighbors have prized the wine from this region of the Balkans. At the World Travel Market London, the nation showed off its viticulture bounty to impressed attendees from around the globe.
The existence of wineries for thousands of years meant the industry flowed with history that was not always kind. Through countless wars, Ottoman Empire restrictions on wine production to Stalinist collectivism, both the quantity and quality of the vintages varied. In the past forty years the trajectory for quality has been steadily upward.
President Rosen Plevneliev put it succinctly at a St. Trifon Zarezan Festival celebration, "If during the Socialism we were the symbol of mass production, now we enjoy quality Bulgarian wines. The Bulgarian foreign policy must focus on showcasing the success of our home winemaking; Bulgarian Ambassadors must be Ambassadors of Bulgarian wine as well."
Lubomir Stoyanov, sommelier and manager of the Wine Cellar Restaurant, Varna, entertained and educated the many attendees that visited the Bulgarian exhibit at the November 2013 World Travel Market London (WTM). Lubomir ranks as one of Bulgaria’s top wine ambassadors as well as a popular speaker and educator. This was confirmed by no less a personage, also in attendance at the WTM, than Mr. Branimir Botev, Deputy Minister of Economy and Energy in charge of tourism and a wine maker.
Constituting 42 microclimates in the five wine regions of Bulgeria classic Western European varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling and chardonnay thrive along with the indigenous Bulgarian grapes gamza, mavrud, melnik, and the white misket and dimiat. Although more than 80 commercial wineries collectively produce over 100 million liters per year with 60% exported, Lubomir Stoyanov commented that supply does not keep up with demand. Although available in select stores and distributors, it’s difficult to find the wines in the United States.
What was particularly striking about the vintages offered at the WTM tastings was their bouquet. It was difficult to put the glass to the lips because the nose was being so pleasured. The aromas of berries, especially raspberries, chocolate, hints of honey and the fragrance of oak and summer herbs was as satisfying as their taste on the palate.
Lubomir stressed that Bulgarians favor red wines, hence a higher percentage of vineyards are focused on those grapes. Image Reserve was a basket of ripe summer fruit, smooth with hints of chocolate, soft and full flavored from sip to finish. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, it’s rare and prized with an annual production of only 700 cases. Rhapsody 2009 Chateau Valle de Roses was not only the Deputy minister’s wine but its smooth oak and blackberry notes would pair well with grilled meat. Some of the vines for Ross-Idi Pinot Noir are 2,000 years old. It was light in body with oak overtones.
Ross-Idi Winery Nikolaevo Vineyard merlot had a complex mix of berry notes, pleasantly dry with a slightly acidic finish. Angelus Estate’s Stallion, a blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah from the Thracian Valley in southeastern Bulgaria, continued with the aromas of blackberries and a soft finish, which would match it well with pastas or lamb.
Maryan Ivan Alexander red had only slight oak hints and sparkled with summer fruit notes such as plumbs and blueberries. When my nose did not want to exit the glass of Butterfly’s Rock red, Lubomir explained that they use special egg shaped oak barrels that are rotated frequently. The results are defined notes of oak, coffee, acorns and raspberries that are as pleasant to smell as to drink.
The average Bulgarian, Lubomir sighed, does not take white wines seriously. Even during St. Trifon Zarezan Festivals the reds are favored. Nevertheless, the smaller selection of Bulgarian whites at the WTM tasting was not to be ignored.
Izba Karabunar Ltd’s Misket & Dimgal was light in texture with slightly sweet melon tones. It would make a pleasant iced summer wine. Midalidare sauvignon blanc added semillon to give it body, said Lubomir. It had a surprisingly complex herbal bouquet finish. Maryan Kera Tamara 2012 sauvignon blanc had definitive grapefruit tones all the time with a crisp, dry, slightly acidic finish. White Stallion chardonnay managed to combine grapefruit with hints of honey – a terrific flavor combination of chardonnay, viognier, sauvignon blanc. Levent 2012 is Italian owned but with Bulgarian grapes vrachanski misket and traminer.
Orbelus Melnik sums up Bulgarian wine history. Soldiers of Alexander the Great brought melnik grapes to the Tharcian Valley over 2,300 years ago. The flavor notes of this full bodied red were dark chocolate and walnuts accentuated by the smaller amounts of grenache noir and petit verdot added to the mash.
There is a good reason why wine is part of literature and science since nearly the beginning of the written word. Isn’t all of gastronomy meant to take simple ingredients and transform them into the extraordinary? Wine was the earliest human success, and Bulgaria continues the tradition.