Bulgarian white grape varieties – in search of an identity.

Bulgarian white grape varieties – in search of an identity.

Bulgaria has traditionally been a producer and consumer of red wines. Still, in recent times world wine trends have contributed to broader penetration of white wines in Bulgarian households and their more frequent consumption. If the Bulgarian ladies have been admirers of other types of alcohol in the past, more and more of them are turning to the magic of wine, more precisely whites, which appeal to them with freshness, lightness, receptivity. Thus, they become a significant factor in popularizing the golden liquid. Here I have to mention a healthy diet, including salads, white meat, fish that successfully combine with a glass of white wine and make it a more and more common choice for a drink.
Last but not least, there is an increased demand from the young generation (18-25 years), for which white wine falls into the category of a “party drink,” slowly displacing the beer from there. These cases are only a piece of the puzzle, and it would be wrong to consider the Bulgarian market as the only consumer of Bulgarian white wines. Bulgaria exports a large part of its wine production, and the rediscovery of white wines is a phenomenon happening globally.

In this regard, relevant and often asked by the Bulgarian wine industry is the question: “What white varieties can be used for wine production in Bulgaria?”. And for us the wine lovers, too. If we have to call ourselves wine lovers, we are undoubtedly tired of endless bottles labeled Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and we are looking for something unusual, different, and distinctive. Bulgaria, by origin country of the Old Wine World, but by the trends, today exciting and bold New World experimenter offers many alternatives to the usual suspected white varieties. The key to the mystery is local old Bulgarian grapes and their revival, not without the adventurous new Bulgarian winemakers. Their attempts to replace Bulgaria on the world wine map are associated with 100% local white varieties, but also blending the same with international ones. An opportunity to evaluate the results was this year’s edition of Divino – the biggest festival of Bulgarian wines. Divino 2018 presented many series made entirely of white indigenous Bulgarian grapes. I had the opportunity to attend the masterclass “Traditional White Bulgarian Varieties – Present and Future,” led by Niki Krastev, winemaker of Tsarev Brod winery.

What was I impressed with? There was progress in the quality of the wines selected for the masterclass. All were very fresh and elegant. The most exciting part was the incredible stories of the winemakers and the sommeliers who presented them. I start my story with two wines from Dimyat – “Sense of Tears” 2017 from Maryan winery and “Wine Bridges” 2017 by Ekaterina Gargova. Dimyat is an old Bulgarian indigenous grape variety, which occupies 29134 decares of vineyards, or 38% of all white Bulgarian indigenous grape varieties, 9.5% of all white types in Bulgaria and 4.8% of all vineyards in Bulgaria. The fruit is distinguished by a thin skin and typical accompanying aroma of vanilla, so intense that it is difficult to miss it. “Sense of Tears” Dimyat 2017 is a full-bodied wine, with aromas of ripe citrus fruit, peach, quince, honey, spices, notes of minerality, but with balancing acidity, elegance on the palate and a long finish. The technology of production includes exciting and innovative decisions such as fermentation of half the wine in inox vessels and another half in Bulgarian oak barrels. Then aging for six months in the same Bulgarian oak — an excellent wine that can be tasted both on its own and in the company of salads, white meats, fish, and why not spicier food such as sushi and Thai and Japanese cuisine dishes.

Before describing “Wine Bridges” Dimyat 2017, I cannot miss the fascinating story behind the name of this wine project, revealed by the winemaker Ekaterina Gargova. She has a lot of international experience, but a crucial moment for her was a wine forum she attended several years ago as a winemaker of a Macedonian winery. At the event was mentioned that the wines made of red variety Vranets would become an identity for the Macedonian wine industry, and Ekaterina asked herself the question: “Which varieties will be the identity of Bulgaria?”That’s what motivated her to start the Wine Bridges project as wine builds bridges and connects people, countries, meets concepts.
And so “Sense of Tears” Dimyat represents the terroir of Southern Bulgaria, or, more precisely, the village of Asenovets, Nova Zagora. “Wine Brides” Dimyat is an expression of the terroir of Northern Bulgaria, Tutrakan, according to Ekaterina’s words – “the northernmost vineyard of the Danube.” The difference in both styles is essential, as well as in their technology of production. Ekaterina Gargova’s wine was made through 24-hour maceration with grape skins, followed by five months of maturation, wherewith 30% of the wine naturally occurs malolactic fermentation. The same percentage is aged afterward in old oak barrels and the remaining 70% in stainless steel vessels. The result is the lower alcohol content of 11.5% compared with 13% in the first, delicacy, medium body, completely different type of flavors on the nose and palate – not so intense, excellent fruit of apple and lemon, toast, smokiness. Relatively high acidity and long aftertaste suggest this wine could be an excellent start of a hot summer day, but also preferred match for light appetizers, salads, seafood.

After the adventure with these two wines, I am convinced that Dimiat is my favorite grape variety. Still, I’m damn curious what new surprises will bring several years of aging for which this grape has potential. Gergana 2016 and 2017 from Tzarev Brod winery was the next tasted couple at the masterclass. Gergana is Bulgarian white variety, created in 1956 by the crossing of Dimyat and French Muscat Ottonel, typical for the region of Alsace, France, but also grown in other parts of Europe, including Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Bulgaria. In both wines, the grape shows a typically robust and distinctive aroma of musk and perfume derived from Muscat Ottonel, freshness, elegance, and succulence of the fruit on the palate. Vintage 2016 of the wine is not as intense as 2017, which shows more perfume, sweetness, maturity, fuller body. Vintage 2016 is characterized by aromas of ripe peach and apricot — two well-made wines, suitable to combine with a variety of dishes and to invigorate the palate.

Vrachanski Misket is an exciting cross between two varieties: Coarna Alba of Moldavian origin and Muscat a Petit Grains, part of the noble grape family of Alsace, France. The wine of Salla Estate, a winery from Varna, Black Sea region, vintage 2017 made of Vrachanski Misket, combines both flavors and aromas of green spices and vegetables, as well as specific perfume, flowers, citrus and white fruit, minerality. Extremely complex wine with almost the same subtle natural spritz, reminiscent of white wines from Vinho Verde, Portugal. Sandanski Misket is a new-emerging Bulgarian variety, the result of a crossing between Melnik’s indigenous Broad-Leaf Melnik vine variety with pollen from Tamianka and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is grown only in the valley of Struma River. Orbelia Winery, located near Petrich, presents its 2018 harvest, which, although not fully ready, shows delicate perfume, juicy fruit, minerality, grace. Sandanski Misket is yet to prove its real character and reveal its potential, but indeed the first results are promising.

The introduction of indigenous varieties is not a new phenomenon in world winemaking, and some of the first examples for that in Europe are Greece and Portugal, which can serve as valuable lessons for Bulgaria in this direction. The uniqueness of aromas and flavors of individual grapes, their minuscule production, which relates the wines made of them in the boutique and rare categories, and offering of an alternative for the best-selling international wines, is indeed a good start. Barriers to the popularity of these wines may be their names, quite often difficult to pronounce and read by Western World that would stop consumers from ordering. High production costs due to small batches regularly contribute to a way too expensive product, and along with the lack of consistent quality, both lead to final wines that are too adventurous, unknown, and misunderstood by the general public. That is why they have the highest sales in the local market and have difficulty breaking through new international ones. The Bulgarian wine scene is regrettably too tight and does not offer particularly great opportunities for expansion and increased production scale, which reflects on the economic survival of micro-wineries.

Consequently, they register their highest rate of sales on the local market rather than entering new international ones. Bulgarian wine scene is too tight unfortunately and does not offer particularly great opportunities for expansion and increase of scale of production, which reflects on the economic survival of micro-wineries. Therefore, only the aggressive marketing politics, the attraction of the Sommelier community in the mission of popularizing these rare products are vital to breaking through the trends and presenting the new face of the Bulgarian wine industry to the world.

Surely Bulgaria will meet the challenges that Greece and Portugal have already encountered and still face today. And whether will succeed dealing with them depends only on the dedication to work, the love and passion of the new generation of Bulgarian winemakers and wine ambassadors, the unwillingness to give up in front of the difficulties, but to continue walking the path of tradition and innovation.