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At a time when COVID 19 has run into our homes and we don’t see a way out of the situation, we all need heroes, examples to follow, and hope for a better future. That is why I decided to present the fascinating story of the Haralambievs – the wine heroes of the North Central Region, or more precisely, Pleven.

The city of Pleven is famous for its Viticulture and Wine Institute, the Cave Museum of Wine in Kailaka Park and its old wine-making traditions. From time to time, every older person owns a small vineyard of about a decare that he cultivates to produce wine for personal use. Unfortunately, this tradition is increasingly dying out with the trend of population aging in the region and depopulation of villages.

As a citizen of Pleven, I have always been extremely emotional when talking about my home city, and after entering the wine world, also when the region is mentioned on a wine topic. That is why I was pleasantly surprised at last year’s Divino edition at the end of November when I first met the Haralambievs ((https://www.haralambievi.com/) and their wines. What did I say then? There is a light in the tunnel. Not only because it was the only wine hero of the Pleven region – the only winery in the area, but also because the wines were impressive, distinctive and nothing showed so far on the Bulgarian wine scene. Not only myself but many of the wine community, as well as many lovers of the magical fluid, became convinced of this.

Caroline Gilby, Master of Wine, and traditional explorer of Bulgarian and Balkan wines, tired of the long tastings almost bypassed the stand, but when tried the wine remains astonished. Immediately captured the character of the North, fascinated by Pinot Noir at Haralambievs, defining it as very “different” from the wines at the other stands that she has already tried.

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Not only the wines, but also the people behind them have always been important to me, and many others in the industry. Mitko and Tsvetelina, founders of Haralambievi Cellar (https://www.haralambievi.com/), grab with nobility, kind words, passion for the smallest detail when talking about vineyards and wine, and proverbial industry. For them, viticulture is a way of life!

How did it all start? The story of Mitko and Tsvetelina is not different than the life stories of many of us. What sets it apart is that for ten years, they have never stopped pursuing their dreams and fulfilling them. Tzvetelina, a native of the village of Sadovets, Pleven, like every other student (at the time “Industrial Management” at the Technical University, Sofia), went for work and travel program in America in the summers of 2007 and 2008. She is introduced to the restaurant industry there, and, in her words, it is a valuable experience that shapes her for life. She teaches her strictness, discipline and determination. She returned to Bulgaria and, at one stage of her life, lived in Sadovets, and in 2009 she met Mitko (a forest engineer by education and a man who loves and is strongly connected with nature), knowing that she had discovered the right half. As happens in the movie “Good Year” with Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard, the young couple firmly state that they will remain in the region and launch the Haralambievi project. Every beginning is difficult, and besides romance, it is also filled with 24/7 work. They started with their first vineyard of 90 acres near the village of Sadovets. The vineyard is named “Kalugeritsa” and its name comes from a small songbird Kalugeritsa, which Mitko discovers during the planting of the vineyard.

The plot is located 180 meters above sea level, on the left bank of the Vit River, in a strategic location where most of the rainfall in the area falls. The soils of the massif are gray-forest, on a limestone base, excellent gravel drainage, and typical for Pleven – karst or limestone. Karst is one of the main reasons Mitko and Tsvetelina choose right here to plant their vineyards – the terroir is unique to Bulgaria. They call it the Bulgarian Loire Valley. Mitko and Tsvetelina are classics, but also modernists, dreamers, experimenters, and, above all, optimists.

In search of the best planting material, they began working with the Viticulture Institute in Freiburg, Germany, and from there, they took the experimental varieties Solaris, Muscaris, Shoirebe, Cabernet Cortis, which are planted in the vineyard in the Mogilite area between the villages of Petarnitsa and Gortalovo. The last variety, which is red, is characterized by very early ripening – the end of August. Gives concentrated, well-colored wines of interest to winegrowers.

The real diamond in the family’s collection, their greatest wine love, is local and was created in 1976, at the Institute in the Pleven variety Kailashki Misket. The cross is between Hamburg Misket and Villar Blanc. Typical of it is that it ripens later than other Muscat varieties and retains high acidity, unlike Muscat Ottonel. It was harvested on September 5th for vintage 2019. During its fermentation, the whole cellar was filled with floral aromas, and this exciting moment is sealed forever in Tsvetelina’s memories. The Haralambievs are among the few who dared to present this delicately gracious variety. (Only one other winery- Varbovka, from the region of Pavlikeni, Tarnovo region produces wine from it in Bulgaria).

The family of the planted varieties in the vineyard “Kalugeritsa” is complemented by the elegant French mademoiselle – the variety Pinot Noir. Or at least that’s the definition of it that stylistically ranks the wines from the range to those of Burgundy and Loire. Haralambiev’s aspirations do not end here, and they also introduce the single vineyard model, which is particularly clearly related to the Pinot Noir variety and its three different faces from three vineyards.

When they label their ‘Trois Visage’ series, made up of ” Blanc de Noir ”, ” Rose de Noir ” and ” Rouge de Noir ”, they indicate on the label the vineyard from which the grape comes. The contract they make with Mother Nature is that each year, depending on the characteristics of the harvest, they will change the source of the grapes for each of the wines. Or if this year the name of the vineyard for Blanc de Noir is Calugerica, then next year it could be Above the Caves or Dabnik.

As I Mentioned them, it is time to introduce the other vineyards, for which Mitko and Tsvetelina speak with a lot of love and a sense of sentimentality, related to their characteristics. Each of them has its place in their hearts and their own story.

The Dabnik vineyard near the village of Gorni Dubnik is also located on the left bank of the Vit River on typical fertile robust soils on the limestone base, well-drained from the gravelly terrace of the river. It covers 150 decares, and it is positioned at 180 meters above sea level. Its location near the Sofia-Pleven road and is clear visibility from there makes it symbolic to the family. It has a European look. It is picturesque and tidy and leaves good energy and hope in the soul every time you stare at it. It is the hope that makes Haralambievs think that this is where they will build a future tourist visitor center for wine-travelers. It is planted with the local variety Rubin, creation of the Pleven Viticultural Institute, as well as Pinot Noir, Merlot, and the only white variety there – Muscat Otonel.

The Mogilite Vineyard, near the eponymous locality, is located between the two villages of Petarnitsa and Gortalovo. Here we are already going on the right bank of the Vit River, in the lower part of the Subbalkan zone, and the altitude is 300 m. It covers 210 decares and is characterized by shallow gray-forest soils on a karst base. The massif is located next to the Petarnishka Bara, one of the river Vit tributaries and a forest, which is a climate barrier for the area. The TurkStream project passes through this area, and some of the vineyards have to be uprooted, but fortunately, very few of them. The plot Mogilite is the youngest acquisition of the family – since 2015, it can be reached only by poor roads. That’s why they strategically have positioned their German resistant varieties in it.

Tsvetelina and Mitko are heavily influenced by the German and French schools when it comes to vinification. And although they learn a lot of the intricacies of the craft, they turn to consultations with notorious names among Bulgarian winemakers such as Nikolay Krastev (Tsarev Brod), Peter Georgiev (Rossidi) and Radostin Milkov, or known as the tandem “Vinostudio,” which is their unifying consulting project. All of them are behind some of the latest adventurous and experimental wines on the Bulgarian market, such as Pet Nat Riesling, white wine of the Gergana variety, rose from Evmolpia, Pet Nat Mavrud and a different reading of Rubin and Mavrud in the limited series by Milkov and Georgiev. When Mitko and Tsvetelina went to Nikolay Krastev for a first-time consultation, he tries to tactfully discourage them from delving into the already flooded Bulgarian wine market. A visit to the vineyards, however, radically altered his skepticism and assured him of the uniqueness of the region’s terroir and potential. They were given the green light from the acknowledged Majesty of the Bulgarian wine scene.

And as it is written on the grave of Jane Sandanski: “The slave fights for freedom, and the free for perfection.” Tsvetelina started “Winemaking” at UCT Plovdiv. Although she is a mother of three, she manages to find time to study, between caring for her family and the vineyards. Winemaking is not her last step towards education, and she also decides that WSET Level 3 will add valuable knowledge to what has already been gained. At Wine and Spirits Academy Bulgaria (https://wsab.bg/?page_id=391), she meets with personalities such as Alexander Skorchev, Eduard Kuriyan (https://rossidi.com/) and Dimitar Nikolov (https://apollowine.com /) that brought dimensions to her dreams. Tsvetelina defines them as very successful and inspiring speakers.

The Haralambievs family’s slogan is: “Wine is our love, the vineyard is our impulse.” It is also reflected in their concept of making wine. They spend all day working in the vineyards, thinking of them every morning. To survive financially during these ten years and ensure sustainability, until their vineyards reach their optimum development and ready for making bottled wines, they sell high-quality grapes to both wineries and local customers, and also bulk wine. Here is the coveted first bottling of the 2019 harvest is coming. Of course, it does not go without obstacles. It rains almost throughout the whole growing season. They say: “Luck comes to the prepared.” Luck also comes to Mitko and Tsvetelina after many years of hard work. The rain stops just in time of flowering, and it led to an excellent vintage for white wines and the first of Haralambievievs (https://www.haralambievi.com/).

Haralambievi (https://www.haralambievi.com/) and oak aging. Mitko and Tsvetelina are not supporters of the excessive use of oak, but only when necessary. Following the global trends in winemaking, they make balanced, elegant, graceful wines, allowing the individual varieties to speak for themselves, to let the terroir to enrich its uniqueness and to make the wine itself. In this regard, the family has only three brand new 500 l French oak barrels. 

For the 2019 harvest, they will only use them for aging their Rubin, Cabernet Franc, and for a single batch of Chardonnay. The three described are still being matured in oak barrels. Looking at their wine series, labeled The Chosen One is their Sauvignon Blanc. They decide to plant this old French acquaintance because of market demand, or in other words, the market chooses it.

In the Trois Visages series, the moody kid Pinot Noir displays his three faces in white, rose, and red wine. Yes, white wine of red variety. After Eduardo Miroglio, another brave producer was found to read the Burgundy variety using Bulgarian glasses. In the Royal series, the winery pays tribute to pure royal or traditional grapes – Blanc for Chardonnay and Dark for Cabernet Franc. Here, Chardonnay has another mission – to characterize Haralambievs non-oaked standard or to give its freshness and fruitfulness casually and purely. It was rated in the Top 50 Divino’s rank list – ranked in the wines from the 20th to the 50th place. Cabernet Fran is still being aged in oak but is expected to appear in September this year. It is the other weakness of the family, who is convinced of his vast potential in Bulgaria. Its distinctive and genuine character is expressed in peppery notes that are easy to recognize from the first sip. The variety is planted in three of their plots, but each of them is micro vinified or processed in a separate vessel. Mitko and Tsvetelina have strong faith in the indigenous varieties and their future role on the Bulgarian and why not the international stage. This impulse found their expression in the H’s series, or more simply Haralambievs (https://www.haralambievi.com/).

The red Rubin variety, a cross between Sira and Nebiolo, more widespread in southern Bulgaria, is represented at a high level in the north as well. Tsvetelina says that here, influenced by the cool climate, or more accurate microclimates of extremes and large amplitudes, it retains higher acidity and presents an entirely different dimension to the final result – wine. The Haralambievs accentuate bottle maturation and believe that it is essential for the proper development of the wine. They allow the white varieties at least six months and the red ones for more than 12 months, if necessary 18 months, then another 6 in a bottle.

The economic engine in the North Central Region. The first and historic 2019 harvest in question is 50,000 bottles. That still puts them on the wine list as a small producer. On the other hand, the winery employs 4000-5000 man-shifts annually, with 60-70 seasonal workers working days during the harvest, with it continuing from August 10 to October 20 there.

The vineyard manager and four workers permanently employed in the winery in Petarnitsa and the vineyards, as well as a two-person sales team in Sofia, are permanently in their company. In essence, their brand manager is Nikolai Yordanov, who has excellent credit for starting the winery. Their concern and cohesion with the local community also gave birth to a project for dual training with the agricultural school in Dolni Dabnik. The school opened a class in Vineyard management, and the contract students make internships in the cellar and have the opportunity to continue working for it after the end of the period.

The COVID19 pandemic is occurring at the most unfavorable moment for the family – a few days after their first bottled vintage is launched. The family invests in designer labels made by the notorious Stefan Gyonev, a modern look, and several official wine events for professional audiences.

Tsvetelina thinks that although the crisis will have a stressful effect on the market, it will merely rearrange itself. The better ones will even be in a more favorable position, believes that this is not the time to give up, but on the contrary – with endless optimism, be flexible and adaptable to the situation to wait for better times. And for them, the family already has a dream – to create a tourist visitor center near the village of Gorni Dabnik. A new initiative, a unique opportunity for the economically backward region of Pleven, a new struggle, a new ray of hope, a new page in the history of the Haralambievs family cellar (https://www.haralambievi.com/).

Author

Pavlin Ivanov