The Balkans are an ancient land that has given rise to such heroes as Orpheus and Spartacus. Since the Iron Age, some 3500 years ago, Thracians have long dominated Bulgaria and developed it into a mighty kingdom. The Thracians, legendary warriors of antiquity, were ready, willing, and able to hold their own against any foreign threat from the surrounding kingdoms. That is until in the 4th Century BCE, when the mighty phalanxes of Alexander the Great conquered the Thracian lands, and deposed King Teres.
With the advent of Greek settlements, wines of the Agean flourished throughout the Bulgarian lowlands. Yet for centuries, the proud and noble Thracians have managed to keep their wine traditions alive. Though Bulgaria ranks among the world’s most prolific wine producers, the country is only recently finding its identity as a modern wine producing nation.
Today, we are the city of Burgos and enjoying the sandy beaches that hug the Black Sea coast. From the veranda of Sunny Beach’s Bolero Bar, we have a captivating view as the sun begins to set. Filling the evening sky with hues of magenta striated by great golden swathes, a deep purple eventually dominates, as day gives way to night.
For this wine tasting, I am joined by friend and fellow sommelier, Galina Vranchev. We will be sampling some of Bulgaria’s indigenous varietals along with some special blends that have found wide favor in the international wine community.
“Do keep in mind that the Bolero Bar is considered by many to represent the pinnacle of Bulgarian cuisine,” Galina openly displayed her pride. “I took the liberty of ordering some traditional hors d’oeuvres often enjoyed with our wines.”
I was immediately impressed by the dishes that were displayed before us. Watermelon wedges with Feta cheese and fresh lime leaves. Nettle and mushroom coquettes with yogurt sauce. Lyuti chushki, roasted and marinated chili peppers. Podlucheni tirvichi, fried zucchini with dill, garlic, and yogurt. And lastly, Bulgaria’s most famous salad, Shopska. The dish is comprised of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, parsley, onions, and Feta cheese prepared in the traditional Bulgarian style. The Shopska salad is served withy a dressing comprised of vinegar and sunflower oil accented by a blend of pepper and spices.
Mavrud is one of Bulgaria’s oldest, and definitely most popular varietals. The name comes from the Greek, macro, meaning, “black.” It is a late ripening red grape that is capable of producing tannic, spicy wines, with a potential for aging. It is also popular with Bulgarian wine makers to use Mavrud for blending. This indigenous varietal thrives in Bulgaria’s Kara Thrace region, primarily in the appellations of Asenograd, Perushitsa, Pazardzhik, Stara Zagora, and Chirpan. I am sure that by now you may be feeling a bit lost, so let’s move on to tasting the wines.
For our first selection, Galina decided on a 2003 Erigone Special Selection Mavrud. Produced by Brestovitsa Winery in the Thracian lowlands, the 2003 Mavrud has been aged between 10-12 months in Bulgarian oak. In the glass, the Erigone is deep ruby red with an almost mesmerizing sparkle. The nose is dominated by intense fruit, slightly reminiscent of blackberry, black cherries, and currants. The bouquet is accented by endearing oak nuances followed by the earthiness of the forest floor. On the palate, the wine is rich, opulent, and bursting with the flavors of black fruit, followed by both chocolate and vanilla oak notes and round tannins. The finish is long and memorable. Erigone of mythology was seduced by the god Bacchus. He did this by turning himself into a cluster of grapes. I am sure that like Bacchus, you will find this alluring wine most seductive. The alcohol content is 13% and with a bottle price of only $25.
“I was completely taken aback by the complexity of this wine,” I nodded in approval. “Wonderful bouquet as well.”
“Agreed,” Galina flashed me a wide beaming smile. “Mavrud is also very versatile and pairs nicely with most meat dishes.”
For our next selection, Galina picked 2003 Marvud & Rubin. Rubin Bolgarskii is an indigenous grape variety that was created in 1944 by the Institute of Wine and Vine in Pleven. They did this by crossing Syrah and Nebbiolo. Since it ripens early, Rubin has become quite popular throughout such European countries as Slovenia, Moldova, and Romania and is often used in blends. This is precisely what the winemakers at Brestovitsa have done with the 2003. The Mavrud & Rubin have spent 12 months aging in Bulgarian oak barrels. In the glass, its color is an intense and deep ruby red. The nose is an absolute delight. Rich in red berries, caramel, coffee, and a whisper of forest floor, all carry onto the palate. Deeply textured, velvety smooth, and a round body, the 2003 is a nicely balanced wine that presents itself quite well. The finish is long lasting and steady. The alcohol content is 13 % with a bottle price of $22.
“I am most impressed by the range of flavors from aging in Bulgarian oak,” I flashed Galina an even grin. “Most impressed.”
“Our oak is in many ways the secret of our wines,” she replied in a matter of fact tone.
“What dishes would you pair this Mavrud, Rubin blend?”
“Most all beef dishes,” Galina paused to reflect fondly. “My favorite would be Sarmi.”
“Sarmi?” I queried.
For our last wine, Galina selected a 2004 Cuvee Passion. Produced by the Assenovgrad Winery of central Bulgaria. The winery first opened its doors in 1947, and as of 2004, been completely renovated to meet modern international standards. Today over 65% of Assenovgrad’s wine production is exported to Western Europe, Canada, and the USA. The winery only uses the finest grapes from the Assenovgrad region. Aged 8 months in small barrels of French, American, and Bulgarian oak, this bold wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mavrud, and Rubin. In the glass, the Cuvee Passion is a glorious deep ruby red. The nose is rich and complex, with inviting aromas of vanilla and chocolate. On the palate, the 2004 shows good fruit that has been impeccably balanced. There are also pleasant accents of cinnamon, spice, vanilla, and chocolate that round out this elegant, full bodied wine. The finish is long and lasting. The alcohol content is 12% with a bottle price of $20.
“I’ve heard that Bulgarians often serve Passion Cuvee slightly chilled.”
“That is correct,” Galina paused on the moment. “However, I prefer to serve this versatile wine at a room temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.”
It is quite clear that Bulgarian wine pioneers are making their mark on the international market. These unique wines have found their greatest popularity in Germany, the Netherlands, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, the UK, Canada, the USA, and Vietnam.
“Vietnam? But that my friends, is a different story …. “