Wine Hippies – the revolution of Bulgarian wine

Wine Hippies – the revolution of Bulgarian wine

The revolution is the most terrifying, but also the most desired event in
human history. It changes the established order, overthrows states and
empires, destroys the old and unnecessary, paves the way to what’s new,
promotes modern ideas and gives rise to whole new eras.
I’m not sure if this is precisely the case with the Wine Hippies project,
but I’m sure it’s a rebellious expression of the charm and potential
behind the concept of Bulgarian wine. Wine hippies bring a desire to
change the stereotypes built over decades, a path to truth, a return to
identity and nature and whole new perception of what the new face of
Bulgarian wine could be.
In every revolution, there are main actors. In the case of the Wine
Hippies project these are the wine legionnaires Dimitar Nikolov (Mitko)
and Atanas Balev (Nasko). What characterises many of the rebels? That
they have gained a wealth of experience before expressing their position
and vision, or in other words, before breaking the shackles. It is also the
case with the two comrades in the project. Their long wine backgrounds
speak eloquently enough about the experience gained over the years in
the wine world.

Let’s start with the story of Mitko Nikolov. Back in 2004, he left for the
United States, where he worked as a Sommelier, becoming part of the
International Sommelier’s Guild. In 2007 he returned to his native
Bulgaria and spent a year as a Sommelier in Bansko, a ski resort. In
2008 he opened a new wine page, starting work as a wine buyer for
Metro Bulgaria. He spent three years in this position and the desire for
further development took him to Moscow, where until 2014 he was a
wine buyer for Metro Russia.
He has been a representative for Bulgaria in the juries of international
competitions such as Decanter and Mundus Vini for ten years. His thirst
for knowledge also led him to WSET London. He graduated from
Advanced Level 3 and studied for Diploma Level 4. Returning to
Bulgaria, he founded the Bulgarian Academy of Wine and Spirits
(WSAB) together with Eddie Kurian from Rossidi and Alexander
Skorchev, sommelier of Zornitsa Estate.
The Apollowine project is of crucial importance for Mitko and his
partner Donny. The family started one of the first online wine shops in
Bulgaria in 2014. The idea appeared while they were still in Moscow,
where they began their preparations, but the real impetus was given in
2015. Тheir most remarkable business progress begins in 2017.
Apollowine inspires them to create a private series of wines. This is how
their first two wines were born: a blend with Shiroka Melnishka Loza
(SHML) 2017, made in Villa Melnik, and Chardonnay Barrel fermented
2015, made together with Zelanos, a winery that Mitko consults. Both
wines have been accepted by the market with great success, with the first
one practically over.

Mitko and his Wine Hippies comrade Nasko Balev’s love for the Melnik
region, with its irresistibly beautiful nature and the Shiroka Melnishka
Loza variety, does not end. For the Nikolovi family and many of
Apollowine’s customers the region is emblematic. Nasko, for his part,
cannot hide that SHML is his weak spot, but he still admits that his real
favourite is Melnik 55.
It is time to tell you about Atanas Balev. For as long as he can remember,
he’s been involved in restaurants. His first was at the tender age of 14. In
time, he discovered that this was his true passion and it continues to
ignite him from within to this day. For him, the restaurant business has
never been just a job, but on the contrary – a mission, self-expression,
and hard work in the name of seeing your dreams come true. Although
he graduated in economics at the age of 19, he is determined to dedicate
his life to the restaurant business.
At the age of 21 he became the manager of restaurant Amsterdam in
Plovdiv. For the last four years he’s been making quite the sensation as
the manager of restaurant Cosmos in Sofia. It’s a space revolution or
pleasure on a plate derived from the celebration of traditional local
Bulgarian products, cooked using the most modern techniques. This has
always been a guiding principle in Nasko’s overall philosophy of life and
all his quests – combining what earth and nature have bestowed upon us
with a new, modern approach and an impeccable attention to every
single detail.
It was not long before he realised that this should be the same approach
to wine. For Nasko, wine is not just one of the basic necessities in any
restaurant, but another inexhaustible source of creativity. He is
confronted also with the generally accepted opinion that Bulgarian wine
is of low quality and will never reach the big stage. Well yes, but actually
no. Nasko decided to be an innovator and create his series of wines,
which would be available only at Cosmos. Not just random blends, but
wines which exude his personal feeling of what he perceives as a wellmade wine that he would drink with pleasure. Today these wines can be
found on the wine list of Cosmos.
They say that children do not have brakes. And even as an adult, once
you have awoken the child inside you, he will continue dreaming for a
Well, the time has come for the historic meeting of Mitko and Nasko and
the birth of the wine hippies. From the very beginning of their
acquaintance, they discovered that they share not only the same wine
views, but also life views. What better way to express them, if not in
something different from the established norms, boldly but also
responsibly? It is the concept that unites them in Wine Hippies –
expressing freedom and creativity refracted through the prism of
knowledge and their many years of wine experience.

Each of them brings a specific view, which is successfully woven into the
overall concept. Both are convinced that certain Bulgarian wineries cope
exceptionally well with specific varieties because they have acquired the
most suitable terroirs for planting these varieties. However, other
varieties from the same cellar may not always bring the same success.
They arrived at that conclusion after many years of tastings, trips and
research of Bulgarian wineries and wines. Then what is the solution? A
selection of individual terroirs, which are emblematic of specific wineries
and varieties that correspond to the idea of honest and at the same time
unusual wines.
Wine Hippies is a profound life project, bringing a hurricane of universal
reflections that will shake the conservative Bulgarian wine world, cure it
of egocentrism and introduce it to a new and modern dimension of
intuition, inner sense of beauty and connection with the roots and
nature. There is a clash between the old – the traditions and values with
which we are brought up, and the new – the trends dictated by the
modern world and the possibility of adaptation and upgrading.
The expression most successfully describing the concept of Wine Hippies
is ‘out of the box’. Being in synch with our souls is what keeps us alive,
and Mitko and Nasko believe that this inevitably applies to the world of
wine. Wines made with love and emotion are different from others.
Through the Wine Hippies project, the two tell their own story of rebels
who don’t accept the conventional when it comes to wine.

Their first wine together is Sauvignon Blanc with cellar
Zelanos, vintage 2019. The label, which has a skull, reveals the idea in
itself – bone dry, dry, with high acids, or in other words different from
other Sauvignons. Mitko and Nasko insist on sharing that the wine is a
blend of the two most successful varieties of Zelanos winery – 85%
Sauvignon Blanc and 15% Pinot Gris. They acted according to the law,
which allows them not to mention the second grape on the label, but also
following market preferences. The trained palate of a wine specialist
cannot miss the character of Pinot Gris in the wine – minerality,
complexity, spiciness; that is why it is on the other hand essential to
reveal its presence. Production is of a line of 1,000 bottles.

The Wine Traveller is a blend of Syrah with Merlot, vintage
2018. Stoycho Stoev, the winemaker of Medi Valley winery, has long
been known for his mastery when it comes to the Syrah variety. This
didn’t go unnoticed, so Mitko and Nasko managed to use some of his
best barrels for their blend. Fruity, youthful and expressive, and without
too much depth and heaviness. The Syrah comes from different French
oak barrels, a combination of first and second use. The Merlot does not
mature in oak: its role in the blend is to tame the lush, structured Syrah
and soften its tannin.
The ratio between the two varieties in the blend is 70/30, and production
is of 1,300 bottles. The symbol that immediately comes to mind is that of
a traveller discovering new wine destinations guided by the free spirit.
The motorcyclist on the label is masculine, devoted to the surprises on
the road and the mission to search for his true self.

Mavrud Faceoff 2018 from Manastira winery symbolises the
removal of the established notion in the wine society that this
variety is capable of producing only heavy, dense wines with
scary tannins. The illusionist on the label is missing a face: instead, he
surprises with a variety of faces shown together. That’s exactly the face of
Mavrud’s Faceoff 2018. It is made from clone 1, which results in a lighter
body wines with a distinctive taste of juicy, red cherry. On average the
wine has aged about six months in French oak barrels of first and second
filling. This is the wine in the highest amount – 1,900 bottles.

The Spaceman, a.k.a. Cosmonaut is a blend of Shiroka
Melnishka Loza (SML) and Melnik 55, produced by Orbelia
winery. According to Mitko, the 2018 harvest was magical and unusual,
as SML managed to reach phenolic ripeness which is a rare moment of
luck. He was amazed by this coincidence and was determined to buy the
entire harvest of Orbelia’s SML. In reality, it turned out that the wines
were ready and Mitko and Nasko blended the two varieties in a ratio of
60/40 in favour of Shiroka Melnishka Loza. The separate batches are
aged for an average of nine months in French oak barrels of second and
third filling.
The two pioneers believe that they have suppressed the wild nature of
Shiroka Melnishka Loza and have increased the visibility of the fruity,
juicy and pleasant-on-the-palate Melnik 55. The flying cosmonaut is
produced in a line of 1,500 bottles.

The royal face of Wine Hippies’ Deer Gentleman is the Bordeaux blend of their 2018 vintage, made with Bessa Valley. A real mosaic of 25% Syrah, 25% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and, ah what a surprise – as much as 30% Petit Verdot, the real backbone, and according to Mitko – the padding of the blend. Besa Valley’s wines are famous for their proverbial ageing until the moment when the winemaker says they are ready to be revealed. The result is softness, pronounced fruity character and integrated ripe tannins. Typical for the Wine Hippies blend is the elegance lined with pillars of depth. If we consider that Syrah and Merlot dominate the character of Bessa Valley, then Mitko and Nasko shocked the winemakers with the decision to increase the percentage of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon (as well as to launch vintage 2018 next to Enira’s 2015). They got an exceptional depth of nuances, structure, complexity, multi-layered expression of the varieties. According to them, this is a difficult combination for wine produced in a Bulgarian winery. On the label, a Deer Gentleman combines the nobility of the deer – its royal nature in the wild, with a clock motif – time ticking relentlessly. The message to all of us is not to take ourselves too seriously. Lightness and professionalism are the right recipes for success, while egocentrism doesn’t lead to a fitting end. The line is of 1.500 bottles.

Wine Hippies and the future of Bulgarian wine.
Mitko and Nasko define the future of Bulgarian wine as bright, a sign for
which is the apparent progress and ever higher quality in certain
wineries. They can’t help but mention the pitfalls and the challenges
ahead. Namely, there is a need for greater foresight in business
management, warmer hospitality and better developed wine tourism. As
one solution, they suggest not to put things in a framework outlined by
market demand, but to adopt an approach with an experimental flair,
freedom of expression of one’s views. Winemaking should be intuitive
and enjoyable for both the producer and the end-user.
COVID 19 and Wine Hippies. The pandemic stops the two dreamers
from starting the project the way they imagined, but it also gives them
time to complete all blends. Wines are intended to be a successful
product in restaurants. Sales suffer immensely in the current situation,
but for Mitko and Nasko hearing kind words about their wines is a real
recognition. For example, the teams of restaurants Mediterraneo,
Hamachi and Botega are impressed by the final result; and it is the first
time for Botega to list Bulgarian wine next to their imported Italian
wines. The young and energetic employees of the aforementioned
restaurants fully reflect the main idea behind Wine Hippies wines – stay
positioned in a small number of retail outlets, but to the benefit of those
with a personal attitude to the product.
According to Nasko, COVID 19 is a red light intended to remind us to
stop accepting the world the old way, humble ourselves, slow down and
look around. The universe encourages us to be conscious: not to lose
self-control, but to work hard for our dreams. Although the symbol of the
project is the vastness of space, Nasko admits that sometimes he and
Mitko need to land. In the context of wine, this translates as a good value
for money benefiting the customer. Mitko and Nasko have already
carefully considered this aspect of their work. What’s left? There is only
one direction – moving forward with the same enthusiasm as before.

Author : Pavlin Ivanov