Grapevine Archive for Bulgaria
We received the sad news from Bulgaria this week that Dr Ognyan ‘Ogy’ Tzvetanov, winemaker at Society suppliers Borovitza, passed away suddenly on Sunday.
We have been listing Borovitza wines for a few years, and Ogy came to the wine Society to show his wines at our ’50 years at Stevenage’ celebration. Our PR manager, Ewan Murray, and I also visited Ogy just three months ago. As my own write-up of the trip hopefully conveys, he was a fiercely passionate and highly talented winemaker, not to mention fantastic company, and I learned a great deal from him.
His partner in wine Adriana will, we are told, be carrying on Ogy’s work, and our thoughts and best wishes are with her and indeed all who were close to Ogy. He will be greatly missed.
Few if any members of the British wine trade were closer to him than Caroline Gilby MW, and we publish an edited version of her lovely blog post remembering him below with her permission.
I actually had glass of wine called “Carpe Diem” in my hand when I got the news. One of my dearest friends in wine died suddenly yesterday and I’m still in shock that he’s gone.
Another cruel reminder about living the life you have to the full and not putting things off. Last year, I had promised to take my husband to meet Ogy and see his winery at Borovitza in the far north west of Bulgaria, but then work got in the way, winter closed in and I put it off. I was hoping that Easter this year would work, but now it will never happen, something I will always regret.
I’ve known Dr Ognyan Tzvetanov for at least 15 years, first as a winemaker, academic and consultant to the Bulgarian industry, when he was always happy to answer my endless questions about the real picture and politics (always a huge topic) in Bulgaria. Gradually this developed into real friendship. I recall one trip when Ogy took me for walking tour of Sofia back in around 2005. My shoes may have been pretty but quickly reduced my feet to bleeding blisters, but it didn’t matter because it was so fascinating uncovering layers of history in Bulgaria’s capital city. And he always took the time to meet me at the airport for a quick coffee or to squeeze in beer somewhere even if my busy schedule didn’t allow time for anything more (and to hand over a bottle of unlabelled “party special” brandy for my husband as he knew where the good stuff was hidden). Always imported beer at that, as Ogy had no time for what he saw as lax standards of microbiology in Bulgaria’s national breweries.(He had been head of winemicrobiology at Bulgaria’s National Wine Research and Control Institute).
There were often surprises on trips to Bulgaria with Ogy – the ancient Thracian tomb of Dionysios, the stunning golden treasures of Panagyurishte, the Magura cave (where some of Europe’s oldest human remains have been found and last spring a visit to the idyllic mountain village of Koprivshtitsa (where Ogy’s partner-in-wine Adriana had been born).
One of the most valuable tastings I ever did with Ogy was on our way to see the potential winery he had just bought in northwest Bulgaria in 2007. On the way, we stopped to do a tasting in a rather boarded-up hotel so we sneaked in via the kitchen – as ever Ogy had a friend there. The tasting that greeted me was a line up of odd-looking liquids in a random selection of reused water and soft drink bottles. These had been bought from roadside stalls and the local market. I can’t say it was the most fun tasting I ever did as the “wines” showed every wine fault you have ever heard of, plus some randomly weird aromas from use of hybrid grapes too. But the point was well made and has stuck with me ever since. Ogy wanted to show me what local people understood to be the most genuine wines and therefore the huge gulf of understanding that had to be bridged when trying to persuade them what would be required to make quality wine as we might understand it in the west. It was dark by now and after a snack of cheesy chips (a great Bulgarian dish and perfect after wine tasting) we headed onto our hotel for the night. I had no idea what sight would greet me in the morning when I opened my curtains and looked out over one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Even Bulgarians mostly don’t know what a treasure they have in the Belogradchik rocks – though it was nominated as one of seven natural wonders of the modern world a few years back.
Ogy and his winemaking partner Adriana had finally found a way to really make their wine dreams reality. At that time, you couldn’t just open a new winery but had to find a property with an existing licence, which was proving tricky. Both had been renting space in other wineries or even using a warehouse to make their wines to this point, travelling around the country sourcing plots of the best grapes wherever they could find them. North west Bulgaria was not well regarded by the big players of the industry, especially for the rich and super-ripe reds that were their mainstay. However, Ogy and Adriana had found that there were some amazing old plots of vines in this virtually abandoned corner of the country, producing fantastically intense fruit. And because this area is relatively cooler than the rest of the country (especially at night), but with long sunshine hours, ancient soils and good sloping sites, the wines have great potential for elegance, complexity and long life. Bulgaria’s first true terroir wine Sensum was launched by Ogy from the 2003 vintage and came from one such plot of 48 year old vines.
A chance conversation one day led them to an abandoned and utterly derelict winery at the foot of the Belogradchik rocks – and importantly still with the right licence.
Financing the project brought the next headache. There were number of EU funds available to wineries around the time of Bulgaria’s accession in 2007. In theory these were designed to support rural development and provide local jobs, but in reality the burden of bureaucracy and financial restrictions meant it was mostly already well-funded companies who benefited. The rules required that applicants were financially stable, debt-free and could fund any project upfront, then you could reclaim 50% back on completion. In practice, this made money difficult to obtain by exactly the sort of companies who needed the help – but somehow Ogy and Adriana managed it.
In their own place, Ogy and Adriana had total freedom to do what they wanted and adapt their methods to every parcel of fruit. And it helped them get away from some of the unexpected issues with rented tanks – I recall one story about an amazing Sauvignon they had made, but every time they went back to check it, it seemed somehow more dilute and they wondered what had gone wrong. Finally the truth emerged. The winery staff had spotted that this was the best wine in the place and had been quietly siphoning off wine to drink and topping up with whatever else they could find in the winery. At Borovitza, some batches were just a few bottles (they even had special tiny barrels coopered if necessary – below a 67 litre barrel for their first MRV, a Marsanne, Rousanne Viognier white blend).
Not every wine always worked – but everything was interesting, and many wines were truly fantastic. Among my favourites are the winery’s flagship Dux, Vox Dei Pinot Noir (matured in barrel with a piece of meteorite found in the vineyard), Sensum, Bouquet (a rare Bulgarian speciality), Cuvée Bella Rada (a surprise for me as I normally hate Rkatsiteli) and the ever fascinating Gamzas (including Black Pack, Granny’s and others – all of which had some great story about obtaining the grapes).
Ogy was often opinionated about the rest of the Bulgarian wine industry, but in spite of this he frequently took time to arrange visits for me so I would understand the bigger picture. He found it frustrating that industry lobbying influenced dividing the country into just two regions for wines with Protected Geographical Indication status. He firmly believed that this was about making life easier for big companies to source wherever they wanted. He felt the old five regions had been based on clearly identifiable differences in soil and climate. In the end, it meant he went his own way, feeling unrecognised by the industry and wine press in Bulgaria, and let his wines speak for themselves.
And so they did – quietly gaining listings in Berry Bros and The Wine Society, among the very few Bulgarian wines to break out of the trap of “ultra-cheap only fit for supermarket bottom shelf” status. Recognition came in from critics like Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker and others. When I showed him that Jancis had highlighted Dux in the World Atlas of Wine, his face was picture of surprise, disbelief and joy. Just a few months ago, he got to show his wines at the historic Five Kings House in the heart of London alongside the likes of Bollinger, Chateau Yquem, Jadot and Schloss Vollrads. He definitely had an air of “I can’t quite believe I’m here, in this company, and in a hall that has been the heart of the wine trade for centuries.” I’m told he kept the text I sent him afterwards, to tell him that his Gamza had been singled out as a highlight of the tasting by the chair of the Institute of Masters of Wine. I only wish he could have had time to fulfil the rest of his ambitions, but his generous heart let him down in the end.
Rest in peace Ogy.
Caroline Gilby MW
‘There is wine here?!’
Not the most encouraging of questions to be asked by your taxi driver as we attempted to locate the turnoff to the Borovitza winery, deep in the north-west of Bulgaria some 5km from the Serbian border.
He had a point though. Beautiful though this part of the world undoubtedly was, we could see no vines and certainly no winery. I was with The Society’s PR manager, Ewan Murray, ahead of a conference in Plovdiv the next day. We had decided to pop up here a day before to meet the team at this far-flung estate, whose wines are among the best respected in the Balkans, and which The Society has been stocking for a couple of years now.
Here are five things I learned from this fascinating visit:
1. Borovitza takes the definition of ‘remote’ to new levels.
After seeking directions and pulling up the small track in the shadow of the great Belogradchik Rocks (whose pine rock – ‘pine’ means bor in Bulgarian – gives Borovitza its name), we learned that were not alone in having difficulty finding the place.
‘At no point did we have any idea there was a winery here,’ said winemaker Dr Ognyan ‘Ogi’ Tzvetanov. ‘We used to pass through here all the time and have lunch in that clearing over there,’ pointing out a scenic spot on the road we’d just come from. ‘My friend told me one day that it existed and that it was up for sale at a ridiculously low price because it was derelict. We have him to thank for Borovitza.’2. Theirs is a range of wines that would send covetous shivers down the trendiest of sommeliers’ spines.
To microbiologist Ogi, a veteran of Bulgaria’s wine industry but tiring of the sharper commercial end of his duties, Borovitza offered a new and altogether more satisfying challenge.
Here he and his partner in wine, Adriana Srebrinova, make a portfolio of terroir-driven wines that is as artisanal in its production as it is dazzlingly eclectic.
‘I always say that making these wines is more a philosophy and a way of life than a business,’ he said, beaming.
This is a team that is not afraid to take risks or have fun with the wines they are making, proven in some style by the range tasting we were treated to. Chardonnays, gamays and Bordeaux blends rubbed shoulders with indigenous Bulgarian grapes and crossings, a pinot noir aged in a barrel containing a meteorite (!) and even an extended-skin-contact sparkling orange wine which they are now considering bottling commercially.
There are plenty of vines in this part of Bulgaria but Borovitza is the only winery. As such they are able to vinify nearby growers’ wines (often in miniscule quantities – one lot we were shown totalled less than a single barrel, but the smallest lot he has ever made is 6.5 bottles!) and work their magic with fruit purchased from market too.
3. Visit their vineyards at your peril.
Ogi and Adriana have two vineyards here as well, but the bad news was that we would not, apparently, be able to see either. ‘There was too much rain last night – even with our ex-military vehicle I don’t think it will be safe for us,’ explained our host. At this point a colleague became animated and a short but loud exchange ensued. ‘Ok,’ conceded Ogi. ‘We will have a go. This man has years of experience driving ambulances in Sofia – we will do our best.’
‘If you say so…’
I do not quite know how my lumbar vertebrae came through the next hour unscathed, but it was a vineyard trip I will never forget. Nor has buyer Sebastian Payne MW, who had taken the same trip a few years before when The Society first started to list Borovitza’s wines, and told us to watch out.
We survived, and were treated to some spectacular scenery and an insight into their unique terroir: the 7.5 hectares of vines at their nearest vineyard is planted on 240-million-year-old red sandstone, just down the slope from the Belogradchik Rocks.
As the initial amazement of this beautiful setting died down – and the shock as we blundered around it at gradients that no vehicle should be able to negotiate – I became just as taken with Ogi and Adriana’s infectious enthusiasm.
Their experience and boundless energy (‘I go to bed about 3am,’ said Ogi with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, ‘There is too much to be done here!’) make the team as skilled in winemaking as they are popular and respected among their peers, in the Balkans and beyond.
5. Borovitza has earned its plaudits for a reason
Which brings me to my last point: for its remoteness and the team’s risk-taking, tiny-production approach to their craft, this is no novelty act, but a fiercely passionate enterprise making high-quality wines that we feel deserve members’ attention.
There is perhaps a cynical cliché in parts of the wine world that wines from more unusual regions are given something of a free pass on quality – unusual trinkets rather than wines to be assessed on merit. I would counter-argue that had Borovitza’s ‘The Guardians’ MRV hailed from the Rhône and was available at its £14.95 price, people would be buying it by the truckload. It is a full-bodied, creamy, complex and delightfully balanced food white, and at its price it is a fantastic buy.
So too is the red Gamza Black Pack: a succulent, cru-Beaujolais-like wine with an added richness and constitution from this grape that Ogi makes so well.
Do give them a go – thanks to Sebastian’s efforts, the wines at least are now easy to find…
Borovitza: at a glance
• Established 2004 and situated in north-west Bulgaria near the Serbian border.
• The only winery in this part of Vidin province.
• The winery is in the shadow of the ‘New 7 Wonders of Nature’-nominated Belogradchik Rocks.
• Makes a large range of often tiny-production terroir-focused wines from French and indigenous grapes.
• The Society currently stocks two wines: The Guardians MRV (white, £14.95) and Gamza Black Pack (red, £10.95).