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History of wine making in Bulgaria
According to historic and archeological researches the territory presently occupied by the state of Bulgaria may well be the first geographical region where vines were planted and wine produced. The same area may claim property to the first vine protection decree in 2 c. AD as well as to the first prohibitionist laws implemented in history by the Bulgarian Chan Krum during his reign from 802 to 814 AD. The wine cellar may also be Bulgarian invention since Bulgarian monastic orders had first been reported to have stored wine in cool vaults deep under the ground level.
Wine making traditions have endured during the Middle Ages and the Ottoman rule in Bulgaria. After the liberation from the Ottoman yoke wine making prospered. The economic progress after the Liberation laid the foundations of Bulgarian vinology. Fine wineries evolved such as Sjarovi Brothers for example. As a whole, however, Bulgaria continued the traditions of South and East European wine making, producing light, often over oxidized wines for immediate consumption.
During the time behind the “Iron Curtain” wine making was consolidated, monopolized, and turned into a state industry. Its target market, however, was restricted to the “Eastern Block” in the framework of the UEP ( Union of Economic Partnership) of the socialist countries and standards remained low.
In the 80’s Vinprom, the state owned wine company slowly opened up to western markets. Since then, and especially after the fall of the communist government Bulgarian wine has been growing in popularity and is making its own niche on Western and World markets.
Bulgaria can be geographically divided into five wine producing regions. Each one of those has its own distinct features and peculiarities and is somewhat different from the rest.
The Northern region spans the area between the Danube river and the Balkan mountain range from North to South and between the Dobrudzha Valley and the Yugoslav border from East to West respectively. High quality wines are produced from a number of different grapes, red as well as white. The reds are made from the local Gamza as well as from the noble Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varieties. Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc are the most prominent whites. This region is home to the fine wineries of Suhindol and Rousse.
The Eastern Region covers the territory along the Black Sea coast between the Northern border with Romania and the Southernmost point on the sea coast where Bulgaria shoulders Turkey. The wines from the Eastern region are made mostly from white grapes. Almost all renowned white grape varieties may be found along with the native Misket and Dimiat. To my personal opinion the whites from this region are a little too spicy to the Western palate, yet they are greatly appreciated by Bulgarians and East and South Europeans in general.
Sub Balkan Region
The Sub Balkan Region contains the kettles at the Southern foot of the Balkan Mountain. These deep valleys produce unique micro climates. The famous in Bulgaria Sungurlare Misket comes from there as well as the excellent Sungurlare Eau deVie. White wines from different grapes are local specialty. Slavjantzi is a popular winery from this region.
The Southern Region includes the Tracian Valley from the Balkan Range to the Greek border and boasts almost Mediterranean climatic conditions particularly good for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot production. The best Bulgarian variety grape-Mavrud grows in the Tracian Valley. Reds coming from this region are superb. Jambol and Haskovo are fine appellations.
South Western Region
The South Western region covers what is popularly known as Pirin Macedonia. The Struma Valley runs along it and brings strong Mediterranean influence in terms of climate. Fine Cabernets are produced there. The appellation of Melnik is home to the Melnik variety. An aromatic and hefty wine that ages very well. Damianitza is the winery to note. Their “reserves” are extremely good and my personal favorite. Another interesting local variety is Keratzuda, a rose type produced only in the appellation of Kresna.
The success story of the Eastern Block” as called by R. Joseph, the editor of Wine magazine, Bulgaria is gaining reputation as a producer of high quality affordable wines. Until 1990 the wine industry in Bulgaria was state-owned and was operated by Vinprom and exported by its subsidiary Vinimpex. In the 80’s import of American and Australian know-how laid the ground for production of high quality wines in Bulgaria. Coupled with centuries old traditions and enormous natural potential this tendency bore fruit and Bulgarian wines are gaining popularity among consumers in Western Europe, United States, Canada, and even as far as China and Japan. After the fall of the totalitarian states in 1990 privatization of state owned companies and land restitution went under way in Bulgaria. At first at slow pace it is now gaining speed especially after UDF ( Union of Democratic Forces) came into power in October, 1996. Results followed suit. Land is being returned to its original owners and many wineries are privatized or ready for privatization and sale. If the process continues uninterrupted and there is no other alternative, my prediction is that Bulgarian wines will get more and more competitive on the basis of high quality and moderate prices.
The potential for wine making in Bulgaria is enormous. The climate in the northern part of the country is continental with cool winters and hot summers. It is milder to the south due to the influence of the Black sea and the Mediterranean. Local hilly terrenes create ideal micro-climates and combined with good quality soils they produce extremely suitable conditions for growing best quality grapes. Bulgaria has several well developed viticulture and enology institutes, most notably in Plovdiv the second largest city in the country.
The best wines are produced from the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties, high quality, rich, and Bordeaux-like. Local grapes include:
– Gamza – the most widespread sort produces earthy, light bodied red wine good for simple fare. In Romania and Hungary it is known as Kadarka.
– Mavrud – is a full bodied, spicy red that can age to more than 8 years
– Melnik – grown in the southernmost part of the country makes hefty red wines that age very well
– Pamid – rustic and hardly unforgettable but still good enough “commercial” for weekly drinking.
Whites are produced from renowned varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling as well as from the local: Misket, Ottonel, and Dimiat. Whites are not nearly as good as reds but they are rapidly improving and recently some very nice surprises from Rouse winery have appeared.
As still unpopular as it is, Bulgaria is the second largest exporter of bottled wine in the world, second only to France and it has four times the area, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, of California. It appears to be the fastest growing new-comer on the market. The annual average production of wine in Bulgaria ranges between 200-220 million litres depending on the crop. In the Bulgarian wine industry, traditional classic technologies are applied, as well as refined, and modern ones borrowed from the leading wine producing countries like France.
Types of Bulgarian wine
According to the Wine Law, wines in Bulgaria fall into the following categories:
1. WINE WITHOUT DECLARED ORIGIN, but of declared variety or registered brand name. They constitute 5% of the total production of the quality wines.
2. Regional Wines, also called Country Wines. These wines possess the original properties of the grape varieties they are made from Two varietal names can be mentioned on the label. They correspond to the category VIN DE PAYS (France) and LAND WEINE (Germany). These wines constitute 18% of the total production of quality wines.
3. Wines of Declared Geographical Origin (D.G.O.) These are wines made from selected grapes originating from a particular geographical region. Origin is declared by the producer. This category constitutes 70% of the quality wines.
4. Wines Of Controlled Appellations of Origin (A.O.C) These wines are made from grapes, originating from strictly defined and controlled micro-regional vineyards with a limited maximum yield of grapes per hectare and defined minimum sugar contents. These wines constitute about 2% of the total production of quality wines.
5. “Reserve” Category This is a special category of wines aged in small oak casks with the purpose of extracting phenolic compounds from the wood, and then in larger oak casks. Reserve wines can be either of declared geographical origin, or of controlled appellation of origin.