Finding markets, developing connections: Bulgaria takes on Prowein

Prowein, a very international trade show for wines and spirits, is swiftly and only slightly subtly taking the foreground as the place to do wine business.

This year, Bulgaria participated with a national pavilion of 13 wineries. Twelve other Bulgarian wineries were also present, either on an individual basis or as part of a foreign importer’s stand.

The annual event in Dusseldorf, Germany, was held from March 15-17.

The goal of participation, of course, is to earn Bulgaria a name for good-quality wine, and to get it onto the worldwide market. This follows years of varying quality of production, and varying opinions from wine drinkers and professionals, or, as in many cases when mentioning the grapes mavrud or melnik, simply a blank stare.

And the winemakers and estate owners at Prowein 2015 were well aware of the significance of this task, a turnaround from the winemaking mentalities of the early and mid-2000s, when international grapes like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay sat in the minds of producers as varieties that would bring credibility to national production.

It having been five-and-a-half years since my leaving the country, it was encouraging, a blessed discovery.

Galina Niforou, chairwoman of the Bulgarian Wine Export Association and managing director of the Balkans International Wine Competition, told The Sofia Globe that in the past few years, there had been an improvement in the quality of Bulgaria’s wines, and people in Bulgaria had been becoming more interested in their own indigenous varieties, “which is very important. It will give us our own identity”.

The aim is for an official Wines Of Bulgaria brand to be created for Prowein 2016, to unify producers and, together, strategically further this brand.

Stanimir Stoyanov, president of the Union Of Bulgarian Enologists and winemaker at the long-established winery Lovico Suhindol, has been experiencing similar.

“Lots of people have started to work on wine culture in Bulgaria. Slowly, the thinking of people drinking our wines is changing,” he said. “We still have to run to get to the rest (of the world), even though we have a unique, special wine culture, wine grapes. In the past seven to eight years, there has been a huge increase in new wineries and thus new styles, and this can help Bulgaria to create a wine image of its own. And for the wine to be from Bulgaria, not from some random, unknown place.”

Lovico Suhindol winemaker Stanimir Stoyanov, right, talks with a client
Lovico Suhindol winemaker Stanimir Stoyanov, right, talks with a client

Lovico Suhindol has historically been known for its wines made from the gamza grape, known in Hungary as kadarka. The winery believes that using a traditional grape variety like gamza, sometimes blended with varieties like merlot or pinot noir, can present this new face: it makes an unknown past approchable.

Logodaj is one of the newer generation of wineries. Founded in 1999, its speciality is the indigenous melnik grape. Though well-known on the local market, manager Petar Drosanski said to The Sofia Globe that “it’s hard to convince export markets to buy Bulgarian wines. They don’t even know that we make (wine)”.

Logodaj manager Petar Drosanski
Logodaj manager Petar Drosanski

He considers Prowein the best wine trade fair in Europe, and hoped to find more exporters. Logodaj’s wines can already be found in England, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Slovakia and a bit in the United States.

While Bulgaria is usually most proud of its red wines, Nikola Zikatanov, executive manager of Winery Villa Melnik, which does make some lovely melnik wines, said that the complexity of his Bergulé Chardonnay had won over the owner of a Berlin wine bar, where it is now a staple on the list.

Militsa Zikatanova (daughter of Nikola), Villa Melnik executive manager and owner Nikola Zikatanov
Militsa Zikatanova (daughter of Nikola), Villa Melnik executive manager and owner Nikola Zikatanov

The country’s white wines do seem to be winning fans abroad, with the long-time German importer of Terra Tangra’s sauvignon blanc, Matthias Holzner of Naturian, saying that it was the “best” sauvignon blanc that he had ever tasted.

Terra Tangra, founded in the early 2000s, was also the first winery in Bulgaria to be certified organic.

Terra Tangra winemaker Dimo Hadjiev
Terra Tangra winemaker Dimo Hadjiev

Wine today is an international market, and producers and consumers are learning from one another. As Zikatanov said: “We need to get our watches on time with worldwide winemaking trends, to learn from those better than we, to get exposure for (our) native grapes.”

(An interesting sidenote: many of the winemakers at Bulgarian estates are young, and have studied in places like Bordeaux, California and Australia in addition to at Plovdiv, and, not uncommonly, are female.)

“It’s exciting to create the identity of the country, because it has been lost in past years,” Niforou said.

For the record, Prowein 2015 welcomed more than 52 000 international trade visitors to visit 5970 exhibitors from 50 countries.