The COVID 19 quarantine period continues, and I continue with the Bulgarian wine stories.
The Crusade to the North met me virtually to Varbovka Winery – another small producer dedicated to the “Mission of Wine Production in the North Central Region”. As I mentioned in my previous article on Haralambievi, the North Central region from the swing of viticulture and winemaking over the past century has become a God-forgotten place these days. Varbovka is the name of a village with 1500 inhabitants, 10 km from the town of Pavlikeni. Thirty years ago, both the Pavlikeni and Suhindol wineries boast huge amounts of wine for export. Thousands of decares of vineyards are grown in the area, and cooperative wineries such as Varbovka (created back in 1934) and Dimcha deal with the primary processing of grapes and wine, which then goes to Pavlikeni and Suhindol and becomes a final product.
Penevi, Plamen and Svetlana, are winemakers at Suhindol Vinprom. Changes in the regime quickly reoriented them to the idea of starting their own project in 1999. They bought the former Varbovka cooperative winery and started working vineyards for rent. Their dream came true, but not quite. The reality is sobered them up and for a short period of time they realized that it will be difficult for them to fight against the theft of grapes in the vineyards. Another factor that tilts the scales is the age of the vineyards that are inappropriate to provide the quality that their family has set out to achieve.
During this initial period of its existence, the Varbovka Winery mainly produced bulk wines for other wineries as well as for export to Japan and Germany.
In 2015, the family focused on the production of bottled wine for the Bulgarian market and the full purchase of grapes from trusted growers offering quality tested over time. The focus is on limited series and the pursuit of quality. This model of work continues to this day.
The heirs of the Penevi family also did not waste their time surrounded by wine, vineyards and inspiring parents. Kaloyan has chosen to be a winemaker since his early childhood and graduated from Wine Technology at UCT Plovdiv. At first, Lora didn’t even think about wine, and focused on Marketing and Sales at Varna Free University. Entering the family business, she was increasingly interested in wine and has successfully completed the WSET Level 3.
And when fate puts you in a situation of no choice, there is only one way forward. This is also the case with Kaloyan and Lora. They lost their father in 2015 and have to become actively involved in the family business by helping their mother Svetlana. Kaloyan integrates his views and ideas into the ultimate wine look, and Lora is involved in marketing and sales of the family business. They bring a revival, a new dimension, longing to preserve the tradition, but also to restart Varbovka winery. It does not scare them into being the last remaining fortress of winemaking in the Pavlikeni region. Instead, they embarked on bold experiments.
Varbovka’s wine offerings are in three series. No Occasion reflects that typical of countries such as Spain and Italy with an attitude to wine – no special occasion is needed to raise a glass in your hand every day. Wine is a way of living, an emotion to share with family and friends. This is the idea of varietal wines from Chardonnay, Muscat Ottonel, rose wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, as well as a cepage from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The grapes for them come from the Suhindol area. The family believes that the varieties should be self-explanatory and does not use oak barrels for maturing whites and roses. In 2016, the Penevi family for the first time sent their wine to a competition. It was then that their Cabernet Sauvignon rose won the silver medal at the IWC in Bucharest, where only 30% of the winners of the medals for wine were awarded one. 2000 bottles of each type of wine were produced.
The Penevi family are adamant that the local varieties, or as they like to say: “native varieties”, have a future potential. Native varieties are the trademark of the Native series. They say, “Nothing is accidental.” Yes, it is no coincidence that in 2018 a close friend of the parents from the village of Orehovitsa, Plevensko calls the family and offers them to make wine of the Kailashki Misket variety. Varbovka and Haralambievi are the only wineries that currently produce white wine from Kailashki Misket. Many producers have tried unsuccessfully to work with the variety, while others make home-made brandy because of its aromatic characteristics. The whole batch is 1500 bottles. Stylistically Kailashki Misket of Varbovka is totally different from that of Haralambiev’s. The first is well ripened, with a juicy, distinct fruit that outweighs the aromatic flavors typical of the variety.
It has a full body and can be combined with more substancial dishes such as white meats with typical rich and creamy French sauces, risotto, pasta, firmer cheeses. The second is rather a fresh and elegant summer adventure with an unforgettable nose. It is no accident that the sommelier Marin Atanasov (the man behind the Wineground Bottles & Beans project) is a sworn fan of this wine and introduces it to his Divino.Taste master class in 2019.
Another experiment with a local variety is white wine from Tamyanka(Muscat Blanc a Petit Grain). The family buys grapes for it from the Haskovo region. In Southern Bulgaria, this variety has been taken seriously and it has been worked with it for longer time and producers such as Bratanov and Rupel are no accidentally proud of their impressive results. Varbovka’s Tamyanka is a different read, ethereal and elegant urban mademoiselle who does not intrude but delicately suggests her femininity.
Gamza has an interesting history in the area. In the past, huge quantities of wine were produced here. Lora tells us that, unlike the New Zealand version, closer to Pinot Noir, the Gamza style of Pavlikeni and Suhindol is denser and closer to Sira. The third wine in the Native series is a rose from Gamza and features a sparkling pink color, far from the Provençal, and with juicy strawberries, raspberries and cherries. The material for it travels from Novo Selo, Vidin to Varbovka. The series is only 1200 bottles.
The family has an ambition to increase the collection of local varieties. The stumps are driven by harvest variations when they decide to buy grapes. They only vinify material they have approved as quality and if they find something interesting, they do not miss it. Therefore, we can still expect more surprises from them. For the labeling of the Native series, Lora uses ornaments from BG Pafti – belt elements for national costumes. The idea of connecting with Bulgaria directs her to them after a long search.
The highest class of Cabernet Sauvignon wine falls in the Varbovka Cuvee series. It is one-of-a-kind and from the 2016 vintage. It matures in stainless steel vessels together with oak alternatives – two types of wood with different degree of roast for 6 months. This is the largest series of the winery – 15,000 bottles. The family thinks 2016 is particularly successful for Cabernet Sauvignon and decides to produce more of it. The grape is grown in the village of Doyrentsi, Lovechko. In addition to being ranked 36th in Divino’s Top 50 rankings for 2018, it is also the first major solo campaign by the tech-brother, Kaloyan. Wine experts tell him about Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 that it is a serious request to continue making high quality wine.
Varbovka Winery has chosen to be one of the boutique wineries in Bulgaria and therefore its wines will not be found in the big chains. Those who decide to try them can find the Varbovka branded bottles in:
Sofia: Vino Orenda, Enjoywine, Coupage, Tempus Vini, Balaban, Bread and Wine
Plovdiv: Wine Culture
Stara Zagora: Kent Store
Veliko Tarnovo: Vino Veritas
Varna: Rhodope Milk Shops, Cheers, Wine ground bottles and beans
Pavlikeni: The Absolute + Shop
Today, Varbovka Winery provides permanent employment for 8 people, including its family members. It faces many trials and difficulties of various nature, and the COVID 19 pandemic brings additional tension and uncertainty to the future. However, Lora and Kaloyan have long decided that they will stay home to support their family, home and Bulgarian wine. Laura is optimistic and thinks that after the last two years in which the winery appears on the Bulgarian wine scene, participating in festivals and exhibitions, the best moments are yet to come. Supporting local products and small producers is very often about helping whole regions and believing that Bulgarian crafts have a future.