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Wine & Vine - Bulgars Aren't so Vulgar

Source: John Hunter, The Belfast Telegraph
Published Date: 29 Sep 2005

VULGAR Bulgars they're referred to, snootily, by know-all wine trendies, who are usually well-acquainted with Sweet Frances Adams. In fact, Bulgarian wines generally get a bad press, despite the fact that they still offer bargain-basement prices, for cleanly-made internationals, such as Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay.

Basically, they're seen as naff - certainly not the show-bottle you'd bring to that networking dinner-party. But, for many of us, the Bulgars were major educative experiences in wine, years ago. Penniless students found Bulgarian bottles not only affordable, but also discovered well-made single varietals before we knew what the word meant.

Back in the Seventies, as part of the Soviet bloc, centrally-planned development of vineyards, and massive investment in new wineries were major priorities for Sofia. Apart from the internal Warsaw Pact market - Bulgaria practically became Russia's vineyard - wine was designated as a major foreign currency earner in the capitalist west.

The result was that reasonable quality Cabernet and Merlot went on sale here, at prices Bordeaux couldn't match. But it couldn't last: at the end of the Eighties the Soviet system collapsed, and attempts were made to privatise the Bulgarian wine industry, with disastrous results.

The following chaos in the vineyards and wineries took most of a decade to overcome, during which the New World producers consolidated their export-position, at Bulgaria's expense. Now, however, things seem to be back on track, with massive foreign investment, and a new drive on international marketing.

Currently, the big name is Boyar Estates, which now owns the largest winery in Bulgaria, and is part of a huge Eastern Europe export combo. Stricter wine classification, modelled on the French system, is now in place and, predictably, 'flying wine-makers', from Oz, are on site. There's huge potential at the lower end of the market, at least.

The wines you're most likely to see here will be the Blueridge range, and the slightly more up-market Domaine Boyar. Blueridge is a new winery, in the Sliven region at the centre of the current export drive, based mainly on the old reliables, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Priced at a come-on 3.99, the wine-style, as well as the marketing techniques, are very New World - right down to trendy bottles.

In fact, if you look at the Blueridge front-label, there's no mention whatsoever of Bulgaria - turn the bottle round to see that it comes from Sliven, in Thrace, one of Bulgaria's best regions, where wine was made probably three thousand years ago.

On that point, Bulgaria's native varietals are also worth trying - the reds Gamza, Mavrud and Melnik, sometimes with a decent oak edge. (Bulgarian vinous fashion seems to veer from heavily-oaked monster reds to the current commercial idea of slight oak on up-front fruit, easy-drinkers.) I'm not so keen on the local whites such as Blueridge Dimiat.

Still, I'm interested to note that Bulgaria gets a distinctly positive mention in wine-guru Hugh Johnson's "Pocket Wine Book 2004", which is published tomorrow. (Mitchell Beazley 9.99). Shock the snobs at your next dinner party with a couple of his recommendations: Domaine Boyar Iambol Royal Reserve Cabernet 1996, or the Oriachovitsa Cabernet Special Reserve 1997.