An Eastern European country that stretches from the mountains to the Black Sea. Just north of Greece it should be no surprise that Bulgaria has a long and rich wine making tradition. What may be a surprise is that it is (or at least may be) the largest producer of Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines here are inexpensive, light, and overall surprisingly good.
Bulgaria: Mavrud and Muscat
Mavrud may mean black in Greek, but the wines I have tried from the grape of that name have been lighter than not. Exclusive to the Thracian region of Bulgaria, this unusual wine is pretty common through out the capital city of Sofia where I am currently residing.
The more familiar grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are widely used in Bulgaria, but I know those, and so I have been experimenting with this local variety. The examples I have been able to taste so far have been memorable for their forest floor flavors and soft tannins. It is a taste that is not familiar to US wine drinkers, but that may be its main charm.
In its youth there is a strong mushroom flavor although pleasant and far from overwhelming. With age there is little change in flavors, just a gentle overall softening. Without pronounced tannins to resolve with time, there is little that would allow this wine to develop in the bottle. The relatively high acidity keeps the wine fresh and allows it to survive at least the 15 years of the oldest sample I have tasted.
It is exactly this crisp acidity that makes Mavrud work surprisingly well with food. It stood up nicely to a steak and fries, and didn't over power a delicate pizza.
Chances are this is not a grape that is going to travel well, so any Mavrud you find in the States may well have lost its charm, but be sure to try it if you get the opportunity to visit Bulgaria (I recommend it, we are having a great time).
Muscat has been our favorite white to date. This grape is found in almost every wine producing region of the world, and the Bulgarians have been pretty successful with it. American wine drinkers often think of Muscat as being a dessert wine, but in Alsace, and Bulgaria, it is usually produced in a drier style.
The result is a floral wine with just a hint of sweetness. Lighter than a riesling or Gewurztraminer, it is reminiscent of both. The ubiquitous pizza joints that are found every few blocks here in Sofia almost universally have a decent Muscat on their menus. For about $7.50 in a restaurant or $4 in the store, this wine is not only delicious and surprisingly perfect with pizza, it is too cheap to ignore.
I am still working out how I am going to visit the widespread wine regions of Bulgaria, but even if I don't get out there in person, I will continue to do my part to help the economy, one bottle at a time. (Note: I never did manage to visit the vineyards and wineries, the Country was not well set up for it at the time).
Good cheap wine in Bulgaria
I have long asserted that one of the stumbling blocks to wine being more widely accepted in developing countries is the price, especially when compared to beer. I may be changing my mind a bit on that position.
I have only been in Bulgaria a few days, and I have only had a few very inexpensive wines so far. I would no sooner judge the Bulgarian wine scene from these examples than I would judge the whole of the US from 2 bottles of the cheapest wine I could find. That said, the $4 bottles of Cab and Merlot I tried were not bad. No real varietal character, but not bad.
Like I said, wine starts about $4 a bottle here, and beer runs closer to $.40 for a 1/2 liter bottle. At first blush this seems to support my original contention that wine cost so much more than beer that the locals eschew wine. In China where it is all about the alcohol this may be more accurate than here, but even then I have to wonder.
China's prices are similar, so if I just look at the alcohol content I see that it takes about 4 beers to equal the buzz of 1/2 bottle of wine. That makes the comparison much closer as the wine runs $2 and the beer then would be $1.60.
So the price difference is not as great as I originally thought, unless you are comparing volume to volume. As any neo-prohibitionist will tell you with alcohol equivalence one drinks more volume of beer than of wine.
And so I am rethinking what it takes to make wine acceptable to emerging countries. Maybe price is not the bugaboo I have always asserted it is. Culture, familiarity and habits play a much bigger part. Here in Bulgaria they have a rich tradition of wine that makes it much more likely that the locals will enjoy wine now and then, and not just beer.
In China they have no such traditions, and so just like the US not so very long ago, they are a nation of beer drinkers. India and Asia in general are in the same boat. No history of wine consumption. It is not just a price obstacle, it is a cultural one.
I will be bringing you more details on the wines of Bulgaria and in 3 months, even a look at the Indian wine scene, stay tuned.
Bulgaria: Misket Varnenski
I got to try a new grape variety today, Misket Varnenski. One of the down sides of traveling is that I have limited research resources with me. As far as I can tell this is a recent crossing of the widely planted white Bulgarian grape Dimiat and the ever popular Riesling.
The name certainly evokes Muscat, and the Varnenski either suggests or literally means "From Varna" (one of the famous beach towns of Bulgaria) but the wine I tried had nothing in common with the venerable Muscat grape. In fact it had nothing in common with Riesling for that matter. Perhaps it takes after Dimiat, I will have to search out a few examples and see for myself.
The wine I tried was from one of my favorite producers, so while there may well be better examples, I had high hopes. There was nothing wrong with the wine, there just was nothing special about it either.
I have an expression I use when I am speaking into my tape recording at wine tastings. It is designed to keep the winemakers or representatives from knowing exactly what I am saying. The term is NVNV and it stands for "no vice, no virtue."
That sums up this wine, and likely the grape from which it hails, perfectly.
It is not a bad little wine, it just has no real character. It tastes exactly like white wine, and save for a hint of dust in the nose and aftertaste has almost no specific flavors that I can find.
Why would a wine industry embrace such a grape? The usual, it grows well, it makes consistent wines, and it is probably cost efficient.
At least one technical report I found on the wine referred to its pleasant muscat like quality. I think the name fooled them into finding something that isn't there, or they had a far different example than the one I tried.
Am I bashing the grape? Not at all, it really is pleasant and that is saying more than a lot of other varieties can boast.
I have also read references to a red variety of Misket, I will keep my eyes open for it. Muscat also can be found in dark varieties, although as I said Muscat doesn't seem to be related to this grape variety (unless Dimiat is related to Muscat). They may well just be using the similar sounding name for marketing purposes.
If anyone has more information on this variety or Dimiat for that matter, please drop me a note or leave a comment.
Just one more vinous adventure in Bulgaria.
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