Bulgarian white varieties – in search of identity

B u l g a r i a n w h i t e v a r i e t i e s i n s e a r c h o f i d e n t i t y


Traditionally Bulgaria is a producer and consumer of mainly red wines, but recently the world wine trends have contributed to a wider penetration of white wines in the Bulgarian household and their more frequent consumption. If Bulgarian ladies were fans of other types of alcohol in the past, today more and more of them are turning to the magic of wine, and more precisely white wine, which attracts them with its freshness, lightness, receptivity. Thus, they became a major factor in promoting the golden liquid. Here I should also mention the healthy diet, including salads, white meat, fish, which are successfully combined with a glass of white wine and make it an increasingly common choice for a drink. Last but not least is the increased demand from the younger generation (18-25 years), for whom white wine falls into the category of “party drink”, displacing beer more and more. This is only part 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 worldwide phenomenon.</p>

In this regard, an important and frequently asked question by the Bulgarian wine industry is : “What white varieties should be used for wine production in Bulgaria ?” . We – wine lovers – ask ourselves this question. And if we have to call ourselves wine lovers, we are certainly tired of the endless bottles labelled Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and are looking for something unusual, different and distinctive. Bulgaria, an Old World wine country by origin but an exciting and bold New World experimenter by trends today, offers many alternatives to the usual suspects of white varieties. The key to the mystery is local old Bulgarian varieties and their revival, not without the dedicated work of adventurous new Bulgarian winemakers. Their attempts to put Bulgaria back on the world wine map are associated with 100% indigenous varietal white wines, but also blending the same varieties with international ones.

An opportunity to appreciate the results was this year’s edition of Divino – the biggest festival of Bulgarian wines. Divino 2018 presented many series made entirely from local white Bulgarian varieties. I had the opportunity to attend a master class “Traditional white Bulgarian varieties – present and future”, led by Niki Krastev, technologist of Tsarev Brod winery.

What was I impressed by ? From the progress in the quality of the wines selected for the masterclass, the freshness and elegance of almost all of them, but most of all from the heartfelt stories of the technologists and sommeliers who presented them.

I start with the two wines from Dimyat – “Sense of Tears” 2017 by Marjan winery and “Wine bridges” 2017 by Ekaterina Gargova. The Dimyat variety is an old Bulgarian indigenous variety, which occupies 29134 hectares of plantations, or 38% of the white Bulgarian varietal vines, 9.5% of all white varieties in Bulgaria and 4.8% of all vineyards in Bulgaria. The fruit is distinguished by a light zip and a characteristic accompanying vanilla aroma, so intense that it is hard to miss. “Sense of Tears” Smoke 2017 is a wine with full body, aromas of ripe citrus fruit, peach, quince, honey, spice, hints of minerality, but with balancing acidity, elegance on the palate and a long finish. The production technology includes interesting and innovative solutions such as fermentation in half in Inox vessels and Bulgarian oak barrels and then aging for 6 months in the same Bulgarian oak barriques. 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 dishes from Thai and Japanese cuisine.

Before I describe Wine Bridges Dimyat 2017, I cannot help but mention the fascinating story behind the name of this wine project, told by the technologist Ekaterina Gargova. She has a lot of international experience behind her, but a key moment for her turned out to be a wine forum she attended a few years ago as a technologist of a Macedonian winery. At that time it was mentioned that wines from the red variety Vranec would become an identity for the Macedonian wine industry and Ekaterina asked herself:” Which varieties will be the identity of Bulgaria?” This is what prompted her to start the Wine Bridges project because wine creates bridges and connects people, countries, ideas through them….

And so “Sense of Tears” Dimyat presents the terroir of Southern Bulgaria or more precisely the village of Asenovets, Novozagorsko. “Wine Brides” Dimyat is an expression of the terroir of Northern Bulgaria, Tutrakan, in Ekaterina’s words – “the northernmost vineyard on the Danube”. The difference in the two styles is significant, as is their production technology. In Ekaterina Gargova’s wine we have 24 hours of maceration (standing) with the hard parts, 5 months of aging on lees, undergoing malolactic fermentation in 30% of it and storing the same percentage in old oak barrels, and the remaining 70 in a stainless metal container. The result is a lower alcohol content of 11.5% compared to 13% in the first, tidiness, medium body, with a very different palette of aromas and flavours on the nose and palate -less intense, subtle apple and lemon fruit, toast, smokiness. The relatively high acidity and long aftertaste are characteristic, making the wine an excellent start to a hot summer day, but also a welcome partner to light appetizers, salads, seafood. After the adventure with these two wines, I am convinced that Dimat is one of my favorite varieties, but I am damn curious what new surprises a few years of aging will bring, for which the variety definitely has potential.</p>

Gergana 2016 and 2017 of the winery Tsarev Brod was the next couple examined at the master class. Gergana is a Bulgarian white variety created in 1956 by crossing Dimyat and French Muscat Ottonel, typical for the Alsace region of France, but also grown in other parts of Europe, including Hungary and Bulgaria. In both wines, the variety exhibits the typical strong, distinctive grape aroma and perfume derived from Muscat Ottonel, freshness, elegance and juiciness of the fruit on the palate. The 2016 vintage is less intense than the 2017, which features more perfume, sweetness, ripeness, and a fuller body. The 2016 vintage is characterized by aromas of ripe peach and apricot. Two well-made wines, suitable to pair with many dishes and refresh the wine lover.</p>

Vrachanski Misket is an interesting cross between Coarna Alba, of Moldavian origin, and small-grained Muscat, part of the noble grape family of Alsace, France. The wine of Salla Estate, a winery from Varna and the Black Sea region, vintage 2017 from Vrachanski Misket, combines both flavors and aromas of green spices and vegetables, as well as a specific perfume, flowers, citrus and white fruit, minerality. An extremely complex wine, with an almost imperceptible natural effervescence, reminiscent of the white wines of Vinho Verde, Portugal.

Sandanski Misket is a newly emerging Bulgarian variety, obtained from a cross between the local Melnik variety Shiroka Melnik vine with pollen from Tamyanka and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is grown only in the valley of the Struma River. Orbelia winery, located near Petrich, presented its 2018 vintage, which although not fully ready shows aromaticity, delicate perfume, juiciness of the fruit, minerality, grace. Sandanski Misket is yet to show its true character and reveal its potential, but the first results are certainly promising.

The introduction of local varieties is not a new phenomenon in the world wine industry and some of the first examples in Europe are Greece and Portugal, which can serve as important lessons for the emerging Bulgaria. The uniqueness of the aromas and flavours of certain varieties, their miniature production which puts their wines in the boutique and rare category, and offering an alternative to top-selling international wines are a good start. Barriers to these local varietal wines gaining popularity are the often difficult to pronounce and read Western World names that stop them being ordered. The high cost of production due to small batches often makes the product more expensive,and along with the sometimes lack of consistency in quality makes it too adventurous,distant and misunderstood by the end user. This is why they report the highest sales in the domestic market and have a hard time breaking into new international ones. The Bulgarian wine scene is unfortunately too small and does not offer much opportunity for expansion and increasing the scale of production, which in turn reflects back on the economic survival of micro-wineries.

Therefore, only an aggressive marketing policy, attracting the sommelier community in the fight to impose these rare products are key to breaking the trends and presenting the new face of the Bulgarian wine industry.

Surely Bulgaria will meet on this path the challenges that Greece and Portugal have already faced and are still facing. And whether it will cope with them depends only on the dedication and love for the work of the new generation of Bulgarian winemakers, the unwillingness to give up in the face of difficulties, but to continue on the path of tradition and innovation.