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Christo Kanev – A talk about the wine tasting in Bulgaria

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During the 80s of the 20th century, Bulgaria had been the biggest producer of wine per capita of its population. Now things have changed as during the unsettling period of transition from communism to democracy most of the traditional for Bulgarian wine markets were lost. During the past 10-15 years, the improvement in this field of the Bulgarian economy is visible. There are now a lot of options for wine tasting. I will be speaking with Hristo about wine tasting and how wine production in Bulgaria has changed. Christo please make a very short overview of the wine production in Bulgaria. 

Christo-picThe late 80s is the time when Bulgaria became the biggest wine producer per capita, as well as the fourth biggest wine producer in the world. Though, unless you grew up in Eastern Europe, at this time, the chances that you have heard and tasted the Bulgarian wine are very small as most of the Bulgarian wine was exported only to Eastern Europe. The Bulgarian wine industry was a state-run, socialist wine growing monopoly. In 1989 with the fell of the regime the whole industry shattered into pieces, followed by a 10-year period of land and winery ownership transitions to the private sector – a long, slow and quality suffering period, however, we can say that by the year of 2000 the Bulgarian wine was back. Today, Bulgaria, the breathtaking land of roses, the motherland of the yoghurt, a popular seaside and skiing destination is a wine country. Bulgarian wine has a long history and story to share. It starts with the fact that Bulgaria is one of the oldest winemaking countries in the world. Historical and archaeological research proves the belief that grape vines were first cultivated and produced in the territory of present-day Bulgaria. Evidence can be traced back to the Thracians 6000 years ago. For them, it was a divine drink – a channel between people and Gods. The Thracian analogue of the Greek God Dionysus – Zagreus was worshipped by the Thracians as the god of wine and merriment. They believed that with the wine they could reach their gods. Thus, we are convinced that the talent for winegrowing and winemaking is embedded in the Bulgarian DNA.

What about nowadays?

Now it is time for the modern Thracians to believe in their wine. There are over 50 Bulgarian indigenous grape varieties, though not all of them are actively used in wine production. The most popular are Mavrud, Rubin, Pamid, Ruen, Cherven Misket, Melnik 55, Shiroka Melnishka Loza, Gamza, Gergana, Tamianka along with the most prominent grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. In general, we speak of 5 major wine regions in Bulgaria: North Bulgarian or also referred as the Danubian plain region, East Bulgarian or known as the Black Sea region, Sub-Balkan more famous as the Rose Valley region, South Bulgarian – may be the most famous and referred as the Thracian Lowland region and Southwest or known as the Struma River Valley. They are all very unique in terms of climate, wine sorts and winemaking traditions.

Is there a place in Sofia that you have taken groups for wine tasting? 

Definitely, now it is a growing industry, we see many new places coming in the last 2-3 years. They are all very different regarding the brands they promote. Usually, these places feature 2-3 favoured white wines and 3-4 loved red ones. I remember the opening of the first “club for wine loves”, as we called it at that time, the Darzalas club in the year of 2000. Since then there are so many places that it is difficult to have a favourite one. It was a real surprise for me to visit a wine club in Sofia with some British tourists and have a Frenchman being the owner of the place and personally presenting the wines to taste. Sofia is an international place with wine clubs featuring and catering for guests from different nationalities. A good wine club to recommend always combines a unique atmosphere, attention to the details, knowledgeable staff and a personal touch to the service. Guests want to taste wines with local stories to be told. For every wine lover to walk in a wine club, to feel its atmosphere, look around at the bottles on the shelves, meet a local to advise and choose a wine to taste is just like creating magic. It is a passion and enjoyment, especially if it is shared with the right company.

What about Plovdiv?

Plovdiv is a great place to visit. With Traventuria we have Plovdiv full day trip and also Plovdiv and Koprivshtitsa – two beautiful places in a one-day trip. Both excellent days out to enjoy, with dedicated time to explore the old city and time to enjoy in the downtown area, especially the so-called “Kapana” area with restaurants and wine clubs to cater every taste. On the way to Plovdiv we drive past hundreds of acres of vineyards, as Plovdiv is located in the biggest wine region in Bulgaria – over 75% of the vineyards in Bulgaria are located in the Thracian Valley, and particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that make up over 30% of the vineyard area around Plovdiv, Pazardzhik, Haskovo and Stara Zagora. Most of the times my guests already know little about the area – have read, studied or being told of a “must visit” restaurants and clubs. While travelling, I talk a lot about winemaking and local wines to taste. In Plovdiv, we visit museums in the old town – where tourists actually see how the wine was produced in the old times and once seen they all start exploring the clubs on their own. Last summer season, with Traventuria, I had a small group of tourists who were particularly interested in visiting a wine factory, so we took a short drive to Brestovitsa – a small town close to Plovdiv and visited the Todoroff winery, where we met with the owner, who walked us around the winemaking facilities in the factory, shared his knowledge of old and modern winemaking technology and had a wine tasting with us – truly unforgettable experience. This is just one of the many places that can be visited.

Can you tell me more about the typical Bulgarian types of red wine? 

Let me start with Melnik – a genetic-cross between the local “Broad-leafed Melnik” and French Valdeguié, that grow almost exclusively in Struma Valley in the Southwestern part of Bulgaria. It is an elegant taste with flavours of strawberry, blackberry, black pepper, mesquite and soy sauce. It is not dark in colour and very fresh.

Gamza, (also known as Kadarka), – local red wine, mainly coming from Northwestern Bulgaria – Suhindol, Vidin and Pleven. Raspberry in colour with strong fruit flavour, raspberry dominated. It has a very fresh taste, does not like ageing in oak barrels, I would say it is sweeter than expected and is best for people who like to drink young wines.

Rubin – a hybrid between Nebbiolo and Syrah created at the end of the 1950s. Because of its finessed herbal, plummy fruit matched with somewhat rigorous tannins, it is quite often referred to as a man wearing a suit and sports shoes. Often it is blended with Mavrud to add structure and thickness. There are different flavours, that vary from sweet strawberry to blackberry. The wine shows its best when aged, as the tannin softens. In short – dark in colour, strong taste likes ageing in oak barrels.

Pamid – it is one of the oldest Bulgarian wines, widely spread all over the Balkan Peninsular. It is light red in colour and has a fresh fruit flavour, as well as very soft and warm aftertaste. The Pamid wine is not aged in oak barrels and is best consumed when young.

I associate the Mavrud with the region of Plovdiv. Can you tell me more about this type of wine?

Mavrud – one of the most famous local wines and also one of the oldest sorts of wines, coming mainly from Plovdiv, Pazardzhik and Assenovgrad area. The Mavrud wine is an indigenous variety that exudes rich, crushed cherry and chocolate-like flavours on a medium body. It is thick with Rubin colour, you also get the flavour of forest fruits and spices, best aged in oak barrels. Every time I get the question “If there is only one bottle Bulgarian wine I am to buy and get home – which is the one?” my answer is Mavrud from Asenovgrad – premium quality at most reasonable price.

You have guided a lot of groups to different wine cellars. Which are the top 5 of them according to you and why?

I started guiding wine tours and wine tastings in the late 90s. At this time, I was mainly translating the talk of the local wine experts presenting the wines of the cellar we visited. I still remember the “Christ Wine” cellar, where the wines were aged in an old bomb escape. They bottled all wines in blue coloured bottles – as their export was mainly for the German market and late 90s it was a quality sign. Since then, I have not seen wine sold in blue coloured bottles. During this time, we also had a number of International companies buying the previously government-owned wine factories and becoming interested in wine tourism. Some of them like the ones in Sliven, Yambol, Ruse and other places, promoting their own wine tastings which were great, as at that time we did not have many small players on the market. In the early 2000s the whole picture changed – new enthusiastic entrepreneurs, family-owned brands, unique locations and service set the standards to the expectations of the most demanding customers.

My top 5 – let me start with Euxinograde Winery near Varna – which is the oldest in Bulgaria, built in the late 19th century at the location of the St. Dimitrius Monastery. The winery has 2 underground levels – the lower one at a depth of 12 meters – I find it very authentic and impressive place, maybe because it was the first winery I visited, (maybe some personal nostalgia), sadly, they only produce white wines – mainly Chardonnay and Traminer, and the famous Euxiniac wine brandy. Todoroff winery in Brestovitsa – I did mention earlier – it is just that great feeling when looking around at the mountains, the vineyards, the spirit of the city – its right in the heart of the biggest wine region.

Medi Valley near the Smochevo village – we do drive pass on our way to the Rila Monastery – the place is unique in hospitality and friendly service.

Villa Melnik located in Melnik and close is Damianitsa Winery. Melnik is the smallest Bulgarian town which is world famous for its wines. Both places have excellent local wines, impressive wine collections and present the winemaking traditions. In Melnik we visit the oldest wine museum, I love the way locals talk about wine – it takes passion and love to make good wine – not just sunshine.

What is your favourite type of wine and why? 

There is an old saying that “the best wine is the sold wine”. As a guide, I do not sell wines, I study the wines to make sure I can provide details and recommend different wines to different guests depending on what they ask, say they like, of course where they come from and what they look for. There is wine for every food and customer and food for every wine and customer. Some nationalities prefer white, light, fresh, fruity wines, others heavy dark red ones, some sweet some bitter. I personally enjoy the wine more as a summer drink and prefer the young white wines, served cold, sometimes I add an ice cube and tonic water, as taught by an old Japanese man, who said that this lifts the flavour.

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