What do you know about Bulgaria? Not much I'd reckon and what you do know will no doubt involve their membership of the Axis in World War II, the communist uprising in 1944 or the fact that in the 1980s you found their cheap, crappy wine on supermarket shelves.
The reason that you will remember the terrible wine is that the Communist state-owned company, Vinimpex, had a monopoly over their country's vineyards and exported up to 2 million bottles of wine per year to the UK, which accounted for just ten percent of their total wine exports. Since the collapse of Communism in 1989/90, there hasn't really been a route to the Western markets for Bulgaria's wine, and even if there was, would we Brits buy it? After all, the past twenty years have seen the wine buying public become a lot more educated and interested in what they were drinking. We now know what is good and bad, and Bulgarian wine is cheap muck.
Over the past year, I've been eager to try more Bulgarian wines, learning that the last statement is totally false. I've been drinking, and selling, Bulgarian Pinot Noirs and Mavruds and have found that there is a willingness within the public to explore less well known countries for two reasons. Firstly, people brought up on Aussie Shiraz and American Chardonnay are getting bored of the same thing and want to try something new, but mainly, the traditional old and new world producers are raising their prices so there is a lack of good quality wine at the sub ten pounds price point. Bulgaria is a country that is not only producing good wines, but is charging prices that people can afford, and is leading the way of the less well known wine producing nations in tapping into the lucrative British market.
The Bulgarian Wine Club was formed to bring Bulgarian wine back into the UK market. Five producers - Vinex Preslav, Khan Krum, Terra Antika, Chateau Rossenovo and Medovo - produce around twenty million litres of wine every year, and are acting as their own agency in the UK, selling direct to retailers, enabling the wine to get to the consumer with one less layer in the supply chain. I tried some wines from two of these producers, Vinex Preslav and Chateau Rossenovo.
Vinex Preslav was established four years after the Communist uprising, in 1948, and they have vineyards in the regions of Khan Krum, Novi Pazar and Veliki Preslav. I started with their whites.
2010 Vinex Preslav Rhine Riesling Novi Pazar
Bright, crisp fruit, a bit of lemon and lime, good minerally notes, a bit of lemon and fresh grass. A nice Riesling, but a bit simple. Why would you bother when there are other Rieslings that are better? 84pts £10
So not really a good start, and it didn't get much better with the next wine.
2010 Vinex Preslav Golden Age Sauvignon Blanc
Clean, slight grassy note coming through with bit of pear and gooseberry. Touch of flint coming off, nice simple fruit with a clean gentle palate. 85pts £10.50
Neither of these two were bad wines, it is just that they weren't particularly interesting. They could have come from any number of countries, and whilst they are worth the money, you wouldn't buy them again. I had heard however that Chardonnay can grow reasonably well in Bulgaria, so was optimistic for the next trio.
2009 Vinex Preslav Chardonnay
A round soft aroma, not a lot of fruit coming forward. The palate is simple, pure and clean, it is just a bit boring, but at seven pounds, it is a damn site better than a lot out there! 86pts £7
2009 Vinex Preslav Golden Age Chardonnay
A little bit of oak coming out with some vanila and pineapple. Sweet vanilla with a little bit of peach coming through. Simple, drinkable and clean, I'd prefer it a touch cheaper though. 86pts £10.50
2007 Vinex Preslav Rubaiyat Chardonnay
Immediately a nice nose, some subtle oak, pineappe and pear. The palate has lovely spice, pure fruit and a bit of honey coming off. Very well balanced, fuller oak on the finish which I like. 90pts £22
Things were getting better. Certainly, £22 is not a price that many people would pay for a bottle of wine, but I took satisfaction in seeing that a Bulgarian producer was creating a ladder of price points, enabling the drinker to trade up if they wanted to. The Rubaiyat was a really excellent bottle of wine, and can compete on taste and quality with some white Burgundy at that price.
I moved onto the red and found things to be a bit of a mixed bag. I understand the need for producers in countries such as Bulgaria to grow 'western' grapes like Merlot, but I want something unique to their nation. They are competing on an international market, and have to provide what the customers want, but I was pleased to see with VInex Preslav continue to grow their indigenous grapes as well as the international varieties. I started with their Pinot Noir.
2010 Vinex Preslav Golden Age Pinot Noir
A tiny touch of rubber coming off the nose with some light cherry fruit. The palate is full of dry cherry, cocoa and tobacco. It is ok, but I have had better Pinot Noirs from Bulgaria. 80pts £10.50
2009 Vinex Preslav Cabernet Sauvignon
Meaty aromas with some sweet rhubarb with some punchier dry, dark musky elements. A gutsy palate, dark, with some tarry notes. A good wine at first but then a bit too powerful which makes it crude. 80pts £7
2010 Vinex Preslav Golden Age Cab Mac Merlot
Think of the big vegetal aromas as the action hero Starsky, the sweet, pretty fruit as the Hutch and the spicy, slightly showy, elements as the Huggy Bear that emerge occasionally and steal the show. And like the TV show, you will enjoy the occasional bottle but would get tired of it quickly. 85pts £10.50
2007 Vinex Preslav Golden Age Cabernet Sauvignon
Big, sweet cherry and some strawberry infused milk chocolate. A bit of earthy tannin up front with some red berries coming through with cocoa, really nice balance - a really good Cabernet Sauvignon. 90pts £10.50
2007 Vinex Preslav Rubaiyat Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot
Nice, well made international wine. Some green pepper, a bit of tobacco, mint and cocoa. Good fruit, nice earthier elements and bit of coffee coming off. A big wine, doesn't scream out as being anything different though. 85pts £22
2008 Vinex Preslav Golden Age Mavrud Merlot
Some sweet, roast pork aromas mixed in with a lovely chunky cherry aroma. Nice leathery elements on the palate with delicious simple cherry stone fruit. 86pts £10.50
2008 Chateau Rossenovo Trilogy
I can understand why they made this, you want an international style wine to entice people into buying Bulgarian wine. It is nice, some simple, tasty fruit, a little spice and some tree bark flavours, but it could be made anywhere. 80pts £8
2008 Chateau Rossenovo Cabernet Sauvignon
Sweet tobacco with some dark plum aromas, very inviting. The palate has a nice balance, pure fruit with some coffee and a bit of leather coming off. Rather tasty, but I prefer the Golden Age Cabernet from Vinex Preslav. 88pts £8
2009 Chateau Rossenovo Mavrud
Smoky on the nose, some lovely dark fruit, with some earthier, vegetal aromas with nice toasty element. The palate is rich, soft and silky with some cocoa, tobacco, spice and forest floor. Delicious and I can't believe it is only eight pounds. 92pts
Ignore Bulgaria at your peril. I spoke to an Australian wine maker who had just launched a cheap £7 Shiraz Cabernet onto the UK market and he said that his wine was the vinous equivalent of floor sweepings, such was the impossibility of producing good wines at the price the UK consumer demands. With that attitude from winemakers, with wines like these coming from Bulgaria, and with the UK consumer embracing the spirit it had 30 years ago when wines from down under were undercutting France, we could see another shift in the balance of power in the UK wine trade and Bulgaria has the ability lead that movement.