Ex­plor­ing the wines, vine­yards of Bulgaria, Ge­or­gia and Greece

The China Post - - ARTS -

Bulgaria, Ge­or­gia and Greece all claim to be the cra­dle of wine­mak­ing. It is dif­fi­cult, given the swirling mists of history, to pin­point an ex­act birthplace. But a lead­ing con­tender is the Thra­cian Val­ley that runs through the mid­dle of Bulgaria al­most to Is­tan­bul in the east.

Sev­eral cen­turies be­fore Christ the Thra­cians wor­shipped the Greek wine god Diony­sus. Thrace was be­lieved to be his home. Ev­i­dence of Thra­cian wine cul­ture can be found in mag­nif­i­cent trea­sures such as gold-adorned drink­ing horns known as rhy­ton found in tombs in Greece and Bulgaria. Homer praises the wine of the Thra­cians in his Iliad. Along with the Odyssey, these are con­sid­ered the old­est ex­am­ples of Western literature, writ­ten al­most 2,750 years ago.

In re­cent years the Bul­gar­ian wine in­dus­try has ex­pe­ri­enced a re­nais­sance, driven by im­proved qual­ity and fo­cus at bou­tique vine­yards. The non-profit Bul­gar­ian As­so­ci­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Wine­grow­ers is lead­ing that re­nais­sance. Ivo Var­banov, wine­maker and in­ter­na­tional con­cert pi­anist and the as­so­ci­a­tion’s en­er­getic chair­man, be­lieves strongly in the in­dus­try’s po­ten­tial.

Bulgaria was the world’s sec­ond largest pro­ducer of bot­tled wine, af­ter France, dur­ing the 1980s. Most of it went to com­rades in the for­mer Soviet Union. The in­dus­try col­lapsed with the de­cline of Com­mu­nism af­ter the fall of the Ber­lin wall in 1989.

Con­fu­sion about own­er­ship was a fea­ture of the next decade as in­di­vid­u­als sought to re­claim land that had been col­lec­tivized. The re­turn of this land was badly han­dled. Even to­day, only about half of Bulgaria’s 60,000 hectares of vines are be­ing tended. The rest lie fal­low be­cause of con­tin­u­ing own­er­ship dis­putes, noted Guy Labeyrie, a for­mer Bordeaux wine­maker who co-runs, with Dimo Atanassov, Vi­tis Tours, a lux­ury wine tourism com­pany.

A gov­ern­ment de­cree in 1960 of­fi­cially di­vided Bulgaria into five dis­tinct wine re­gions. But since 2007 when Bulgaria joined the Euro­pean Union the EU only rec­og­nizes two — north and south Cold 187um di­vided by the Balkan Moun­tains that run east- west through the mid­dle of Bulgaria.

De­spite the EU edict, lo­cals still think in terms of those five re­gions. The Danube Plain in the north is char­ac­ter­ized by a tem­per­ate con­ti­nen­tal cli­mate with hot sum­mers, and fo­cuses on lighter reds and whites. The Black Sea re­gion in the east con­tains just un­der a third of the coun­try’s 280 vine­yards and makes fine dry whites.

The Rose Val­ley ex­tends south of the Balkan Moun­tains where the lo­cal grape known as Red Muscat pro­duces dis­tinctly fruity wines. This re­gion is fa­mous glob­ally for the oil dis­tilled from the Damascus rose, used to make per­fumes. Depend­ing on the year, be­tween 3 and 5 tonnes of rose petals are needed to make 1 kilo­gram of oil. One kilo­gram sells for be­tween 4,000 and 7,000 eu­ros depend­ing on qual­ity.

Most of Bulgaria’s reds are made in the Thra­cian Low­lands in south­ern Bulgaria. The moun­tains pro­tect the vines from se­vere north­ern winds, and Caber­net Sauvi­gnon and the lo­cal grape Mavrud thrive. The Struma Val­ley, cen­tered on the town of Mel­nik in the deep south­west, has an al­most Mediter­ranean cli­mate and fo­cuses on wines made with the Mel­nik grape, dif­fi­cult to grow and capri­cious like Pinot Noir. It has a range of clones from Mel­nik 55, known as early ripen­ing Mel­nik, through to broad-leafed Mel­nik, which ripens later than most reds.

This col­umn men­tions the emerg­ing bou­tique es­tates that are pro­duc­ing high qual­ity wines.

Nikola Zikatanov, owner of Villa Mel­nik, said he was inspired by a story from the Gospel of St. John where Je­sus, in the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane, said he was the root to the vine of life. A replica of a paint­ing de­pict­ing the Gospel story sits in the main re­cep­tion at the win­ery. Nearby Or­belus Es­tate is the first and one of the few cer­ti­fied or­ganic vine­yards in Bulgaria. Wines are made in a strik­ing win­ery and cel­lar shaped like a half bar­rel de­signed by the ar­chi­tect daugh­ter of owner Blagoy Rous­sev.

Eo­lis Es­tate, named af­ter the Thra­cian word for wind and sun, was es­tab­lished by a Swiss fam­ily. Chateau Koloravo pro­duces the Ahal range of wines. Ahal is a species of horse found only in Bulgaria. Bred for long-dis­tance races, they are beloved of Koloravo’s owner.

Bratanov Fam­ily Win­ery is based in a for­mer Soviet ware­house. Its sur­round­ings are ugly but the wines are beau­ti­ful, in­di­cat­ing where fi­nan­cial en­er­gies have gone. Ivo Var­banov Wines come from the same ugly ware­house as Bratanov. His wines are named af­ter clas­si­cal mu­sic, such as his Clair de Lune Chardon­nay, and are equally el­e­gant.

Ross-idi Win­ery is based in a for­mer con­crete fac­tory in Sliven. Owner Ed­die Kourian chose to fer­ment his chardon­nay in a con­crete egg. His wines have won De­can­ter awards. Nine wine jour­nal­ists who at­tended a pri­vate tast­ing in the fac­tory gave a spon­ta­neous round of ap­plause at the end of the tast­ing.

Sopot Es­tate nes­tles at the foot of the Balkan Moun­tains and fo­cuses on in­dige­nous grapes. The name comes from the word mean­ing “in the moun­tains.” Villa Yustina is one of the few com­pa­nies to ex­port to China, and is also unique in pro­vid­ing free Wi-Fi through­out its 40 hectares of vines. In­ter­est­ingly, many winer­ies in the coun­try only use Bul­gar­ian oak and the bar­rel in­dus­try ap­pears to be thriv­ing. Dis­claimer: The Bul­gar­ian As­so­ci­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Wine­grow­ers supplied ac­com­mo­da­tion and some meals for Stephen Quinn. Stephen Quinn writes about wine for a va­ri­ety of publi­ca­tions in the re­gion. From 1975 he was a jour­nal­ist for two decades with the Bangkok Post; BBC-TV, The Guardian, ITN, the UK Press As­so­ci­a­tion; TVNZ; the Mid­dle East Broad­cast­ing Cen­ter in Dubai and a range of re­gional news­pa­pers in Aus­tralia. Dr. Quinn be­came a jour­nal­ism ed­u­ca­tor in 1996, but re­turned to jour­nal­ism full time in 2011. He is based in Hong Kong and is the au­thor of 17 books. Annabel Jack­son has worked in the wine in­dus­try for more than 20 years, and has writ­ten eight books about wine and food. She is an Ad­vanced Am­bas­sador of the Academy of Wines of Por­tu­gal, and teaches wine mar­ket­ing at the Univer­sity of Brighton in the United King­dom.

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