Bulgaria’s Vinous Battles

The Bulgarian wine industry has always shown immense promise, but history has not been kind, with disruptions ranging from invasions and world wars to communism and no-alcohol policies forcing the industry to rebuild … over and over again.

Bulgaria's Thracian Valley

From ancient times, the Thracian Valley region just north of Greece grew plenty of grapes and made plenty of wine, although periodic invasions by the Greeks, Macedonians and Romans disrupted trade. But when the Turks arrived in 1393, they outlawed winemaking and alcohol. Families continued making a little wine in their own cellars, but commercial winemaking was forbidden for nearly 500 years, until the Turks departed in 1878.

There wasn’t much time for the industry to get back on its feet before World Wars, communism, and nationalization of land once again knocked it down. Finally, by the 1950s, state-owned Vinprom began creating a series of modern wineries and encouraging the planting of “international” grapes like Cabernet and Chardonnay in place of native varietals. But the winemaking focused on quantity far more than quality.

PepsiCo Arrives
It was a soda company that provided Bulgarians with the connections to begin to make quality wine. As Master of Wine Dr. Caroline Gilby explains in the Oxford Companion to Wine, “Western expertise came with the men from PepsiCo, the giant American cola manufacturers. Eager to trade their soft drink concentrate for a saleable product, they provided links with California’s wine faculty at UC Davis … and other western wineries.”

Wine quality soared in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s, Bulgaria became the United Kingdom’s preferred source of great value, everyday wine. In the ’80s, even the US saw sharp increases in Bulgarian wine imports.

But once again, boom turned bust when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the USSR and Eastern Block. Gorbachev launched a drive to reduce alcohol consumption and, under pressure, required Bulgaria to rip up huge tracks of vineyard (including some top sites) and set fixed grape prices regardless of quality. Not surprisingly, growers and wineries quickly exited the wine business in search of other, more profitable markets.

Following the fall of Bulgaria’s authoritarian government and a halting privatization program, the country entered the late 1990s with plenty of potential, but few resources.

Bulgarian Wine Re-Born (Again)
Fortunately, over the past 20 years, both money and expertise has been moving into the Bulgarian wine business in a slow and steady way, accelerating rapidly after Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. Wineries face a huge challenge re-consolidating vineyards fragmented during privatization. Because ownership and boundary lines are hotly disputed, more than one Bulgarian winery pays multiple full-time staff just to manage vineyard purchases!

Wines from Bulgariana are a great example of the positive trends in Bulgarian wine. It starts with Jair Agopian, who purchased the Telish and Castra Rubra wineries in 1999 and began assembling quality vineyards. Agopian met super-consultant Michel Rolland during a trip to France and, in 2004, signed him on as the winery’s consulting winemaker. By all accounts, the wines started out pretty good and kept getting better!

The Next Chile?
We have two wines made by Bulgariana, which come to us due to the work of Robert Hayk, founder and principal of G&B Imports based here in the DC area. Having worked at the US Embassy in Bulgaria, Robert knew that there was fine wine in Bulgaria as well as outstanding value. This knowledge, combined with business experience with Merrill Lynch, meant he knew how to put together a business plan, find investors, and make great things happen.

Robert went looking for vineyards and winemaking partners in Bulgaria and connected with both Castra Rubra and Michel Rolland to help create Bulgariana. With older vineyards uncovered by Robert and winemaking support from Rolland, Hayk hopes someday to “turn Bulgaria into the next Chile.” Wines like these are a great start!