Bulgarian wine routes:

site.btaSouth Sakar welcome guests with natural and organic wines

South Sakar welcome guests with natural and organic wines
South Sakar welcome guests with natural and organic wines
Vineyards in the southeastern Sakar region, October 23, 2023 (BTA Photo)

October turned into a celebration of Bulgarian wine. It started with an initiative of the Bulgarian Association of Wine Professionals (BAWP) to celebrate the International Day of Mavrud with a series of events aimed at promoting wine tourism and Bulgarian wine. As part of this project, a group of Bulgarian journalists went on a three-day wine tour organized by the BAWP team. The destination was the South Sakar region in southeastern Bulgaria.

Tanya Avramova of the Bratanovi winery, who was also the tour guide and whom her colleagues praise as the driving force of wine tourism in South Sakar, argues that this may well be the best part of the country for organic farming and therefore here one can easily find many natural and organic wines.

Another remarkable thing is the number of young wineries and young people working together to promote South Sakar as a wine destination. This is how the Wines of Sakar association came about.

"The three main grape varieties in the region are Tamyanka, Viognier and Chardonnay. Each of us works in their own way to create a white blend that will make Sakar stand out, and it is based on these three varieties. No other region in the world is as focused as we are on these three varieties," says Tania.

She adds that the interesting thing about their region is that, small as it is, it is extremely diverse and there are big differences from vineyard to vineyard. 

Her experience is that it is more expensive for wineries to grow their own grapes than to buy from somebody else.

The first stop on the South Sakar wine tour is the Rosalea Winery. Having started in 2020 with a rosé, it currently grows 10 ha of vineyards with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Rubin and Mavrud. The winery does not yet have its own cellar and rents space in another winery.

In 2022, Rosalea launched a project, Rosalea welcomes youth, which offers internship opportunities for students from the University of Food Technology in Plovdiv. "The idea is to get young colleagues keen to make wine, to attract them not only to learn the job, but also to stay in it. I think the only way to achieve that is to make wine. That way one gets into the process, starts thinking around the clock about making wine and the processes it involved, and that's how one gets hooked," said Rosalea enologist Ekaterina Gargova. 

She says she is the most recent arrival to the region, but has brought with her a wealth of experience from working around the country and abroad, giving her a broad view of the profession.

She is the person behind the Wine Bridges project, where she experiments with local varieties. "Going around different regions and seeing different varieties, I came up with the idea of making a brand called Wine Bridges, where I make one wine a year, from one variety. Last year it was Pamid," she explains.

According to Ekaterina, there has been a lot more female presence in the wine industry lately. When she started in 1995, she had trouble finding work and winning the men’s trust. "Back then it was considered a man's job, but they were wrong because making wine is like caring for a child, there is a lot of detail in the process, it takes the skills, sensitivity, if you will, of a woman and the ability to look in many directions at once, to do many things at once," she says.

The next stop is Bratanovi Winery, which stands out from the rest with its wild fermentation. Enologist Maria Stoeva explains that their goal is to use natural microorganisms instead of lab-grown ones. "Wild fermentation is a very risky approach because there are thousands of strains in the grape microflora and there could be some that are harmful, produce unwanted flavours or components, or the wine may not even ferment fully, or create many other problems, and go sour. But we have done a lot of experiments to prove to ourselves that our microflora is strong enough to take fermentations to the end," explains Maria.

She highlights the importance of the philosophy of terroir and its 5 elements: soil, climate, microclimate, varietal specifics and human factor, that is in every stage of winemaking - from the vineyard to the bottled wine. "We strive to express through wild yeasts in the most authentic way all that happens in the vineyard. It's a philosophy that many people around the world are passionate about, but we are the first winery in Bulgaria to do this on a comprehensive scale," says Maria. 

She believes there is a lot of potential in the Bulgarian terroir.

The Bratanovi winery was established in 2010. They have had no lost years except for 2014 which was pretty bad for all Bulgarian wineries - but even then the whites turned out very interesting and their Tamyanka won a silver medal at Decanter, which is a very high mark.

They started with 22 ha of vineyards in 2006 and then planted as much in 2016. The varieties are region's staples: the reds Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rubin, Mavrud, somee Gamza, and the whites Chardonnay, Viognier and Tamyanka.  Bratanovi use 95% of grapes from their own vineyards, which goes with a certain level of uncertainty because they never know in advance what the harvest will be. "Moreover, we have started transitioning to organic vineyards. This will be the third and last year in transition, after which we will get certified. The next step is certification in the cellar, which will be an even longer process," said Tania Avramova. She added that the vineyards have always been grown close to organic but now they have eliminated absolutely all pesticides and don't use herbicides. They are probably the first in the region to have completely grassed the vineyards.

Bassarea Winery is Bratanavi’s closest neighbour. They have no vineyards of their own and buy their grapes, almost always from the same growers, who have already become trusted partners. “Over 90% of the vineyards from which we buy are no more than 30-40 km from the winery,” said the Bassarea co-owener and technologist Kamen Koev. This winery makes some 50,000 bottles a year.

In his experience, Bulgarians nowadays opt for lighter-bodied and fruitier wines and the massive demand for heavy wines is gone.

Koev says he does not send his wines to competitions. For him it feels the same as earning a gold medal when the cellar is empty. 

Near the village of Glavan is the exit for Zaara Estate, which offers wine, accommodation and a restaurant with organic food.

"The motto of Zaara is, To bottle the terroir. This is very important because the soil itself, the vineyards, sun, warm weather and all that make the wine turn out different every time," says the winery's technologist Daniela Stamatova. 

Daniela explains that the idea of the winery is largely to emphasize on the local varieties: Tamyanka and Mavrud, which they grow on their own vineyards so as to be able to produce terroir wines. The other varieties they produce are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Traminer and Pinot Blanc.

The winery bottles two series, Zaara and the higher-end Dogma, and the rest are reserve wines. They also have a Cause series of one white and one red wine, which they make to support a different cause each year. This year it is guide dogs. 

The winery processes less than 100 tons from its own vineyards only. They have 15 ha of vineyards.

The next stop of the tour is Malkata Zvezda [Little Star], which was the first winery established in the area. The cellar was built in the 1980s, first as a restaurant with a disco. In 1994 it was transfоrmed into a dairy plant. In 2004 it changed its owner and in 2005 it made its first wines.

Following several ownership transformations, it has been a family business since 2020, says the present manager and technologist Svilen Georgiev.

"We have so far produced between 50,000 and 70,000 litres of wine a year. This year it will be less. In addition to the reds, we have a single white variety, Chardonay,” said Georgiev.

They grow 150 ha of vineyards and sell most of the grapes, keeping a fraction of the best for themselves. They grow many varieties, including some rare and unusual.

“I think it is a big mistake that many of our local varieties have been rejected over the years. I think we need to work with all varieties to get good results," said Svilen Georgiev.

Near Svilengrad is the Dimitrovche winery, which started in 2013 - as a hobby. "In 2016, we registered a business and started making various. What I can say about us is that we don’t have old vintages. We manage to empty the cellar - partly because of the smaller batches and because of buyer interest," explained technologist Ivan Stavrev. He adds that they are trying to make more natural wines. He personally has a flair for lower-acid wines which are easy to drink.

Very close to Malkata Zvezda is the new building of the Terra Tangra winery. People here aim to make sure the entire process from the grapes harvesting to the bottling is as close to nature as possible, with minimum interference, said enologist Dimo Hadjiev.

He explained that the climate here does not fluctuate which allows them to make wines that have the same character. “The soils are also identical, if there is any soil. The soil layer is 30 to 60 cm and below it is rock, decomposed granite with cracks in it thanks to which vines survive because they find in the cracks moisture with high concentration of minerals. That gives the specific taste of our Merlot,” Hadjiev said. 

He said that as there is no water for irrigation here, production is expensive and the wines are not competitive on the world market. “Five years ago, some 70% of our output was exported: to Sweden, Canada, Japan, China. Since the pandemic, our export has nosedived to zero, or 1%, to be precise. It turned out that after the pandemic all countries provide massive support to their troubled producers and here support is available for some sectors but not wine making. In this way we cannot fit in the market price trend,” the enologist said.

He believes that the Wines of Sakar association fits in perfectly here because it is the only way for small producers to find a platform to be represent them internationally as a wine region.

Hadjiev also said that the Terra Tangra vineyards have low yields but the quality is high – and so is the production cost. “We cannot compete with regions such as Karnobat where the yield is 15 t/ha, because ours is 5 t/ha,” said he.

With the help of foreign experts, Terra Tangra produced some “interesting wines” early on and in 2006-2007 it took 3 gold medals at the Vinaria wine fair in the southern city of Plovdiv. “Then others started trusting themselves: that a small winery can be successful and that it does not have to be a huge business to be successful,” Hadjiev said.

Terra Tangra is no longer small. Its two cellars can put out 1 million bottles a year but they actually make 200,000 to 250,000 bottles. In 2009 Terra Tangra became the first modern winery to release a new Tamyanka on the market.

“At the moment there are 250 wineries in Bulgaria and at least 150 of them work hard, trying to make interesting wines – not only to sell well but to show a character. If they keep up this work, one day we will remain our glory as good wine makers on a global level,” said Hadjiev.

Terra Tangra has had a licence for organic production since 2009. “People ask me what we do to be organic. I tell them, Nothing, we just have a terroir where diseases don’t have a chance. In Sakar it is easy to be organic. The region is what makes it easier to have organic production. You can’t do the same in other parts of the country,” Hadjiev explained.

The wine tour ended with a visit to the Plovdiv edition of the Urban Wine Fest. It was the last event from the calendar of the Fest that was also held in Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo and Varna. 

//NF//

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