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Before Easter, we head to north-eastern Bulgaria, but this time the harvest will not be wheat but grape. 10 km away from the first Bulgarian capital Pliska and at the same distance from the Madara Rider, part of the UNESCO International Cultural Heritage, is the village of Tsarev Brod. The only winery in it bears his name. This part of Bulgaria has long been known as the cradle and home of white grape varieties. It is not at all wrong to also use the definition of “Kingdom of the white varieties” given the variety of styles and the quality of the wines produced. 

They say that nothing is lost in nature, but only changes its shape and condition. The story is repeated once again, and where greatness prevailed centuries ago, today it has come back in the form of wine splendour.

It all began not so gloriously in 2001. Ivan Ivanov, an agronomist and farmer, along with his wife and colleague by profession, decided to plant the first 125 acres of vineyards to the village – 100 decares each with Sauvignon Blanc and 25 decares Traminer. And if today it is fashionable to drink Sauvignon Blanc and it is found everywhere, then at that time the variety is entirely unknown in Bulgaria. Together with Vinprom Targovishte are the first courageous owners of vineyards of the French variety. It attracts the attention of the Santa Sarah Winery, which buys the young company’s first-ever fruit.

Nothing is accidental in this life. The business relations between Ivan Ivanov and Santa Sarah Cellar became the occasion for the acquaintance of the innovator agronomist with the young winemaker Nikolay Krastev at that time. Luck is said to be a preparation meeting with opportunity. And if today Nikolay Krastev can rightfully be called one of the new faces of Bulgarian wine, he walks long but eventful life and professional path to get here. One thing is for sure. This is the person with a mission – it proves that top quality white wines can be produced in Bulgaria and their ascent and world recognition are yet to come. He believes that winemaking is not just a job, but a way of life, a daily adventure of a curious nature on the path of cultivation, a source of new ideas and divine inspiration.

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His personal life story starts from Lom – a small and beautiful town on the banks of the Danube river. He is best known for his brewery Lomsko Pivo or Almus. Niki Krastev was born into a family of brewers – his father and his uncle, and their apartment block was glued to the beer factory. The young dreamer spends every summer in it, and from a young age is nursed with technological secrets. The same year 2001, when the Tsarev Brod project started, for Nicky was the first year of his brewing training in Plovdiv. A series of moments follow that change the direction of his life.

In the first year of his studies, he began an internship for Santa Sarah, which became a 13-year service as a winemaker. The project is on wheels, and if in 2003 it is in Nova Zagora, in 2006 it is in Stara Zagora and 2012 – in Burgas. The owner of Santa Sarah buys vineyards near Sunny Beach, where Nicky spends three years with his family. The accumulated experience improves him not only as a person but also as a winemaker with a vision and longing to conquer new horizons unknown in the Bulgarian winemaking. After meeting with Ivan Ivanov in Tsarev Brod, Niki Krastev discovers that both are like-minded in the same struggle and have similar views on vineyards and winemaking.

In 2015, the Tsarev Brod winery was born, and Niki Krastev began a new chapter in his wine career as head winemaker, as well as one in his personal life. In each of the three cities he has been to, he has one child, and his family jokes that they will no longer change their address.

From 2001 to 2015 Ivan Ivanov gradually expanded the vineyards. In 2007, he added 50 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling, and in 2011 planted the first vineyards with Gergana. No one suspects that the then-unknown variety will be sold out only a few months after its release, and all this only after seven years. Like many of their other projects, this one is fueled by a dose of curiosity and research flair.

The white Gergana variety was created in 1972 and is a cross between Dimyat and Muscat Otonel. The idea for this comes from the need to develop an earlier-ripening alternative to Dimyat, who would typically be picked in mid-October. Dimyat’s varietal characteristics are not neglected and their preservation, combined with earlier ripening conditioned by Muscat Otonel, gives the perfect result – the fresh and fragrant Gergana variety. Initially, during the years of the planned holding, the variety was grown in vineyards, part of the former cooperative cellars. 

 

It is exceptionally fertile, juicy, with a large cluster and large berries and quickly reaches 2000 kg yields when not regulated. Niki finds other uses of it – consumption as a dessert grape, suitable for sweet wines, as well as for the eternal Bulgarian drink – brandy. Ivan Ivanov had several vines in his yard planted under vine arbour formation and spread them throughout the village. In 2008, the vines gave birth to several crates of grapes, and Ivan found significant potential for wine production. He decides to plant it, but since it has almost disappeared, he has been taking buds from other viticulture enthusiasts in the village of Tsarev Brod. From this moment to fruition, it takes seven years, and the first vintage of 1500 bottles arrives in 2015. 

Enchanted by the results, together with Niki Krastev, they add more vines to the holdings of it every year and today have 20 decares of Gergana. The number of bottles produced is also being increased to reach 10,000 for the last harvest of 2019. In current conditions, yields are regulated to 800 kg per decare by green harvesting, and the girl Gergana gets more and more attractive every year and reveals her splendour. In terms of the ageing potential of the variety, Nicky likens it to Riesling, but the fragrance of Gergana imparted by Muscat Ottonel is distinctive. The high acidity refreshes and preserves the fruit flavours and opening the 2015 harvest today, Niki Krastev is impressed with its development. The only thing he regrets about is that there is no larger quantity available to track her change over the years. All these features of Gergana encourage the winemaker to embark on another project of its kind in Bulgaria boldly. For the 2019 harvest, natural sparkling wine has been laid out using the classic method, which will mature for a while and is expected to hit the market in two to three years.

Niki Krastev and Ivan Ivanov entirely rely on the slogan: “Think globally, act locally.” The wines they make are modern, some of them altogether revolutionary for the Bulgarian market. What leads them along this thorny and steep path is that they have built with great thought their impregnable fortress – the vineyards. They have carefully selected their varieties. They have planted some that are proven to suit the local terroir and can show good results right here in Tsarev Brod. On this stable basis, together with Mariela Petkova, a visionary and stylist for the whole vision, design and marketing, as well as the entire cellar team, build on their successes and would not risk trying locally unsuitable varieties just to be modern.

The local climate is one of the critical points for the success of white varieties. The high daily range of temperatures (warm days and cold nights), the gust of winds caused by the distance to the coast (about 80 km), the lower number of hours of sunshine (about 3500 hours per year, compared to Melnik – 4500 hours), and an altitude of 250 m determines the success of fresh and fragrant white and early ripening red varieties. The soils in the area are one of the challenges for the winegrowers since the top layer is composed of 60 cm of extremely fertile chernozem. And as we know, the most complex wines come from the most infertile soils. Niki Krastev and Ivan Ivanov have found a solution to this case. Through proven practices, they encourage the roots of the vines to penetrate deeper and feed on the lower poor loess layer. It is no coincidence that Nicky says that it takes seven years for the varieties to plant from fruit to fruit, which is satisfying in quality.

The Tsarev Brod mission is a project that is sure to outlive its creators. Another reason to call Niki Krastev and Ivan Ivanov modern faces are that their plan goes decades ahead. Niki has long thought that the maximum age of a vineyard is 40-45 years, and even if it lives to 70, he wants to always have a vineyard with an average age of 20 years. In 2017, this led to the planting of new 150 decares with repetitive varieties already grown for renewal and preparation for the future. 

 

When the cellar was furnished in 2015, the first year of its existence, Nicky and Ivan produce their first wine – cepage (direct blending of grapes of different varieties before fermentation) from Chardonnay (60%), Sauvignon Blanc (20%), Traminer (10%) and Riesling (10%). This first work is a symbol of the awakening of the adventure spirit of Niki, who will follow him in the future in the evolution of the cepage in each successive vintage. The idea for the style of the first wine has come from Niki since the time in Santa Sarah when he notes that if the varieties start their life together from the very beginning, the result is inevitably harmony and perfection.

Yes, the cepage with the first vintage is a huge step – it falls into Divino’s Top 50. And Niki identifies this complexly arranged puzzle is suitable for a wide variety of dishes, as well as a real mathematical challenge for wine connoisseurs. Each of them initially finds a different dominant grape that stands out from the background.

The route leads through unpaved paths and quick solutions for Nicky in the production of the cepage in the coming years. Mother Nature tested it for each of 2016, 2017 and 2018 vintages. In 2017, hailstorms destroyed the Chardonnay grapes to such an extent that he managed to include only 10% of it in the blend. He was not afraid but compensated by an increased percentage of Traminer, which completely changed the style of the final wine and brought a different balance. For Nicky, the father of three, wine is the magic of juggling and stability, just like family.

It takes a lot of hard work, but the process itself doesn’t stop paying him with new ideas and inspirations as long as he wants to follow them. Or as they say – the road is where there is no road. The success of 2018 is not over, too – this time the wine is in Divino’s Top 20. The ratio is Sauvignon Blanc (60%), Chardonnay (20%) and Traminer (20%). Nicky likes to say that wine is a way of life, something that you immerse yourself in and keep a spark for you for life. Just like in love. The wine industry has many experiences in many areas – from the vineyard to winemaking and sales. It’s an intricate craft, but just like good wine – once you try, you want more.

Tsarev Brod Winery mainly sells their wines on the local market, but about 10-15% of them go to England, Belgium, Finland, Czech Republic, Germany, USA and Norway. The winery team makes their products with a lot of love and individual care for each grape. It is also the attitude of the traders who present their wines abroad – educated Bulgarian importers with a passion for their native beverage and striving to promote it in other parts of the world.

When describing Tsarev Brod’s wines, we should note the three different colours of the labels that distinguish the styles – white, yellow and black. The white indicates fresh, fruity wines, the yellow indicates 12-month ageing without preservative, and the black is synonymous with their reserve – or several years of wine ageing before bottling.

Another weakness of Niki Krastev and, of course, the entire wine world, is King Riesling. Due to its freshness, but also its complexity, its almost endless maturation potential, the dizzying development in the bottle, and the sheer variety of culinary combinations it suits, the grape is no coincidence presented in four different styles by the Tsarev Brod winery. In addition to these four, Nicky’s head is spinning ideas for a dozen more.

The white label is associated with early harvest (around the 20th of September), retaining high acidity and freshness, and the result is suitable for daily wine consumption. His current vintage is currently 2016, and 3000 bottles have been produced in the series.

The yellow label is a symbol of a serious gentleman who has been thinking about living for 12 months while settling on his fermentation sludge. During this time, so-called “batonnage” or stirring of the lees in the stainless steel vessel is carried out to enrich the wine. For the yellow label Riesling or “Amber Harvest”, the grapes were picked in early November, or we are talking about late-harvest grapes. Two thousand bottles are produced of it.

It is time to turn our attention to Pet-Nat Riesling or sparkling wine produced by the most ancient method known in the world – Petillant Naturell. The technology originates in France but is also practised in many other countries around the globe. It is associated with the completion of fermentation in a bottle, and the resulting style is sweeter and in some flavours such as cider, yeast and green apple, resembles craft beer. Tsarev Brod has bottled the 2019 vintage with 12 g / l sugar and 9 g / l acidity. The wine is unfiltered. Only partial disgorging is performed. The bottle is turned down, and the area with accumulated coarse sediment is frozen, and yeast is removed. The filling is done with liquid from another bottle. But where did Niki’s idea come from for such an experiment, which ranks him the first in Bulgaria to produce Pet Nat by Riesling?

? Together with their colleagues and former students Radostin Milkov and Petar Georgiev in 2017 set up a consulting firm that helps many wineries to find the right winemaking technologies for them. They ask themselves the question: “Why not produce sparkling wine according to the Pet -Nat method from the Bulgarian local variety?” After an extensive tasting of Pet- Nats mainly from Austria, but also France, for inspiration, Milkov and Georgiev registered in the textbooks a distinctive style and the first for Bulgaria Pet-Nat Funky Mavrud. Niki’s plan worked, but not in its original form. Mother Nature repeated her hard word – hail killed 70% of what was initially chosen for Pet Nat Gergana. 

 

“After the worst comes the best.” said the Bulgarian people. Niki is not embarrassed and throws a real bomb on the market – the first vintage Pet- Nat Riesling. Trying out 2017 today, he is pleased to find that his prediction for bottle development is coming true and the experiment has turned into a charming magic fluid. Production continues for the next two years, and the last vintage of 2019 has been increased to 3,000 bottles. 

The cherry on the cake is Niki’s fourth Riesling offering – dessert icewine. The production of dessert wine is an extremely complex, labour-intensive and nature dependent process. It occurs in areas with a continental climate, ice-cold winters and the presence of a long series of days with consistently low freezing temperatures. For this reason, icewine is not produced every year, only when natural conditions permit.

The grapes should be left on the vine until late fall, winter, and squeezed still frozen in the vineyard to release concentrated and dense, sugar-rich nectar. In Tsarev Brod, this usually happens in December. Still, with the global warming and the increasing frequency of the seasons, the lack of a clear winter, during this vintage 2019, the team is surprised and harvests the grapes at the end of November. No one hides that they are forced to freeze the material and ferment it at a later stage. How ungrateful and time-consuming the process is, showing the ratio of 100 kg of frozen grapes / 10 l of juice obtained. It did not stop enthusiasts from producing about 3 to 4 barrels a year of the divine drink, starting in 2015.

The other white wines of Tsarev Brod are Sauvignon Blanc white label and Chardonnay yellow label. 10% of the latter is fermented in new oak barrels and 90% in stainless-steel vessels. Matures for 12 months in stainless-steel containers before bottling. For the production of Sauvignon Blanc black label was used again, an innovative and unfamiliar approach to Bulgaria. First of all, I must mention that stainless-steel micro-vessels with the shape of oak barrels were used for fermentation.

Also new here is the addition of 15% pressed by hand whole berries, which move continuously in the container and puncture their skin. During the process, entire grains add a dose of tannin and increase the complexity of the wine, and at the end of the fermentation, they are placed at the bottom of the vessel together with the deposit. Sauvignon Blanc black label is life and preserved wine that continues to develop in a bottle. From the 2018 harvest, 2000 bottles have been produced and will be released soon.

As mentioned earlier, Tsarev Brod works mainly with early-ripening red varieties. These are Pinot Noir and Evmolpia.

Pinot Noir is available in three series with different colours on the label – white, yellow and black. For white, 12 months of ageing in stainless-steel vessel is applied, spontaneous malolactic fermentation is carried out for about nine months, which contributes to the naturalness and perfect variety expression.

An exciting and patient approach is to make yellow etiquette. The wine is aged for 12 months together with the sludge and without preservatives in oak barrels at the ratio old/new – 80/20. It was then transferred for a further 12 months of maturation, but this time without sediment for harmonization and completion. The current harvest of it is 2015, and the bottles produced are 3000. 

The black label is a true medallist. It takes a total of four years to work with it before being bottled. The first stage is one-year ageing in stainless steel containers, followed by two years in recycled barrels. They are borrowed from the technology of producing some of the best cognacs in the world. The wooden board of the barrel, 27 mm, is scraped to reach the core and baked, which imparts specific and distinct flavours. For the last four years before bottling, the wine was returned to stainless-steel containers. In the words of Niki Krastev – “To reach the final style.” The current vintage on the market is 2015 and from it is produced 3000 bottles.

Niki Krastev’s latest passion is called Eumolpia. Although the variety is a cross between Mavrud and Merlot and suggests, late-ripening Evmolpia is an early-ripening variety. This makes it adaptable to the weather conditions in Tsarev Brod.

The winery produces two rosé wines – from Pinot Noir and Evmolpia. Pinot Noir pursues a gentle and elegant style that is achieved without cold maceration. In the first vinified 2019 vintage rose, Evmolpia is at the other pole. The vineyard was planted just three years ago, and Niki is especially careful about his approach to it. It macerates grape juice on the skins between 6 and 12 hours before fermentation and does not filter the finished product to give a well-deserved compliment to the wine’s charm – juicy fruit and enormous potential. 

If today the wineries that work with the variety are counted on their fingers – Tsarev Brod, Borovitsa and Oprev, in 10 years Niki expects an absolute boom of Evmolpia and full disclosure of its possibilities. Therefore, he has prudently placed red wine on it and is eagerly waiting to mature enough to show it on the market.

 

COVID 19 and Niki Krastev. According to him, the pandemic is undoubtedly a difficult period for all of us, but it also offers many opportunities. We can use the time of isolation to pause for a moment, to sort our thoughts, to set our priorities and to do all those little things that we still don’t have time for in a busy day. When we are desperate, we cannot seem to see the light in the tunnel and feel that we are sinking more and more. According to Niki Krastev, when we seek to overcome something, a mysterious magical power comes from somewhere and helps and guides us. Let us trust him and be positive. Let us give a chance to Bulgarian wine on the eve of the bright Christian holiday – Easter.

Author

Pavlin Ivanov