14 September 2009

Benito vs. Eastern Europe: България

Bulgaria might not be the first country you think of when it comes to wine. In fact, ask most Americans to locate Bulgaria on a blank map and they'll gesture generally at an area that starts at Germany and ends at the Pacific Ocean. This little nation sits at the crossroads of history, bordered by the Black Sea, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and Macdedonia. It has witnessed every army, religion, and culture that has passed in any direction between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. And it's one of the oldest wine regions in the world.

These wines come from the Thracian Valley in the south, part of the ancient province of Thrace which was home to such legendary figures as Orpheus and Spartacus. Over the centuries Thrace (and the rest of modern Bulgaria) was controlled by the Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, and a dozen other regimes. The Romans in particular valued this region for wine production and it remained a strong wine producer until the middle ages. Unfortunately, 500 years of Ottoman rule meant no wine until the 1870s, and then they had a few decades of wars before Communist takeover... Fortunately since the 1990s the wine industry has rebounded and we're able to try the products of Bulgarian vineyards.

While I've had some of the native grapes (Melnik and Mavrud), here we're going to look at three mainstream grapes aimed at the bargain sector of the American market. All three retail for $8 and are inscribed with Roman Empire motifs: the date, and the inclusion of Julius Caesar's quote "Veni, vidi, vici." The tagline on the back is amusing: "Since we haven't seen you in Bulgaria lately, we've brought you some of the finest local flavors." More information on these wines and others from Bulgaria can be found at BulgarianWine.com.

2008 Vini Sauvignon Blanc, 12.5% abv. Light grapefruit aroma, touch of lemon on the finish with a big, full body and a crowd-pleasing fruitiness. Very food friendly with fish or vegetable dishes.

2008 Vini Merlot, 13% abv. Classic cherry aromas with a hint of cedar and black tea. Plum and black cherry, soft start with a touch of tartness on the finish. Tannins sneak up on you with a mouth-drying feel on the finish. Like some other Mediterranean Merlots I've had it's a bit warmer than what you might expect from France, but consistent with California. With just fifteen minutes of breathing, it smooths out considerably and becomes a pleasant afternoon sipper.

2008 Vini Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% abv. Ripe plum aroma, with a touch of black pepper. Comparable in body and tannins with the Merlot, though with this one I'm craving more strongly flavored meats, like duck or lamb.

6 comments:

fredric koeppel said...

where the hell did you get these wines? another friend in the Army?

Benito said...

Fredric,

My friend Dave has passed some Bulgarian wine to me in the past, but these came in as samples. For $8 wines these were quite enjoyable. Like Lebanese wines, they're more "mainstream" tasting as opposed to nearby Greece, which has its own unique sets of flavors.

Cheers,
Benito

Michael Hughes said...

Are they trying to market themselves more as the varietal & price point as opposed to where they come from. This has sparked my interest very much. Does someone have these in town? I'm curious if that $8 price will hold after all the TN & City taxes get thrown in.

Benito said...

Michael,

I haven't spoken directly to the marketing folks, but I'd guess the target here is for the bargain wines up near the register/front of store. The price is decent, the label is classy, and the wine is certainly tasty.

Perhaps if it were marketed prominently as a $15 Bulgarian wine, it would end up on that "Miscellaneous" on the back shelf near the door for the storeroom.

The Roman Empire connection works because this country is producing wine in ways similar to other former Roman possessions, like France, Spain, Portugal, etc. I'm not saying this is the next Burgundy, but I've enjoyed all the wines I've had from Bulgaria. This is not the case for Romania and Belarus.

Cheers,
Benito

Pifcho said...

As a Bulgarian native, living in the US and inspired by wines that are found in US wine stores, my 2 cents on the wines that I drank on my last couple of trips to Bulgaria:
- Reds are very food friendly and easy drinking (often in the 12-13% alcohol range)- don't look for big cabs from Bulgaria as most of what is produced tends to be medium bodied, acid driven with relatively low tannin levels. Good fruit and medium complexity. I have yet to have a 90+ red from Bulgaria, but most of what I had is consistently in the 85-89 range. Good values.
- Whites - I have had a couple of pretty darn good Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, which would stand their ground in French line-ups... I have also had a lot of very cheap tasting whites though...

There are a few new wineries (Katarzyna, No Man's Land, Todoroff), which are trying to make wines that are more new world in style - bigger more concentrated reds, with alcohol levels creeping into the 14-15% range... I have had some pretty good results - will be interesting to watch...

Benito said...

Pifcho,

Thanks for the local perspective! I had the pleasure of serving the Sauvignon Blanc to a friend who worked for the Peace Corps for a few years in Bulgaria. I agree with you that there is a lot of potential for future success in the region, it just depends on people being willing to open their minds a bit.

Cheers,
Benito