A visitor’s observations on the Bulgarian wine scene

I would like to start by saying that, coming from South Africa, we are very impressed by the Bulgarian wine industry, but more precisely, with its potential.

Some of our South African wine gurus think that in the next five to six years, Bulgaria is going to be one of the biggest competitors of which we shall have to take account. You are exploring wonderful terroirs, you are getting good advice from outside, you have big investors and it is just a matter of time for the vines to be allocated to the right terroir, given the time to grow and mature, and develop an effective local and international marketing strategy.

Of course, the first thing that strikes a visitor from abroad is the fact that the whole country seems to be a vineyard. From Vidin in the north-west to along the northern boundary – that is, the Danube – to Varna in the east, down to Svilengrad in the south-east and across to Melnik in the south-west.

Wherever you travel, there are well-maintained vineyards, side-by-side with the overgrown ones, reminders of a difficult recent legacy. And of course, you have a rich heritage of wine-making, stretching back to Thracian times. So it is perhaps not surprising that so much of the wine consumed in Bulgaria is grown and made in one’s backyard!

The second thing that strikes one is the high quality of the wine, quite contrary to the perceived foreign wisdom that Bulgarian wines, possibly with the exception of faint memories of “Bulls Blood”, are to be avoided. I have had some wonderful wines here. Only to mention a few – a Chardonnay from Katarzyna, a Mavrud from Todoroff, a Sauvignon Blanc from Levent and a sparkling wine from Edoardo Miroglio. But there are many more, both out of tasting barrels and on supermarket shelves.

My own experience in the wine industry is rather limited, as I am not a winemaker, but a mining engineer. We bought a grape farm – about 50ha – about 30 years ago, 75km from Cape Town, in one of South Africa’s best wine regions, Paarl. I made many mistakes, trying to produce some good wine for me and my friends. Much fun was had, tasting wines in many parts of the world and meeting some wonderful people. And we made some good wine!

But as we all know, the art is only partially in making a good wine. The real test comes when we have to sell it.

And this is where the South African experience may be of some interest. Very humbly, we from outside, feel that one thing that is lacking is a generic Bulgarian approach. The industry’s approach to selling/marketing seems to be fragmented. There is too much individualism. People are spending a lot of money trying to promote their own labels, which is not a bad thing, but an overarching generic approach would create more confidence among the buyers. To achieve this trust, you need the co-operation of all the important producers, which I don’t see in Bulgaria.

I would like to mention one specific example, which is not unique to South Africa. I am referring to a recognised private sector initiative, which on an annual basis, grades virtually all South African wines. In 2012, more than 6000 were graded and awarded nil to five stars. This publication appears in November each year, and is eagerly snapped up by thousands of buyers, just in time for the Christmas season.