Some wine professionals are passionately asserting that the best place for cultivating of vines in Bulgaria is the Eastern part of the Thracian Lowland and more precisely the South Sakar sub-region. Certainly, I could argue with these guys but I have much fewer arguments after visiting 4 wineries from the area (the majority of them – for the first time). The occasion was a kind invitation from Tanya Avramova (manager in the family winery BRATANOV and part of the family) for the first edition of a Wine Festival, which took place on 9 and 10 September 2017 in the small town of Harmanli. I missed the first day because of conducting a dinner tasting for a group of Swedish tourists in Sofia but early on Sunday morning I set off, direction South-East. The good news is that Sofia and Harmanli are completely connected by a highway (meaning only 2-2,5 hours’ drive) and the wineries in the region are close to each other. Besides wine there are plenty of cultural and historical heritage sites in the area of Sakar and the Eastern Rhodopes – the Thracian cult temples Perperikon and Tatul, the Roman estate Villa Armira, the Thracian tomb of Alexandrovo, some other dolmens, megalith stones, the church in Uzundzhovo, the abundant collection of costumes in the Historical museum of Harmanli… A VIA VINO wine tour to South Sakar is definitely on the short-term agenda!
The wine tour was called “4×4 extreme wine tour South Sakar”. Well, nothing extreme in the tour except 4 wineries x 4 wines + lunch + 1 extra winery in 1 day! The awsome South Sakar wine sub-region, is located very close to the boarders with Greece and Turkey. Sakar Mountain itself is a mild one, the highest peak – Vishegrad is less than 1000m. Regarding the wine, the region is extremely popular with its reds, above all Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah… Though people are making efforts to cultivate also white varieties (Viognier, Chardonnay, etc.) and other reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Rubin, Petit Verdot, Marselan, etc.), I would say that the flagships of Sakar are the above mentioned three wines. There are some differences in comparison with the Thracian Lowland in general – South Sakar is hillier; there are rivers, which are influencing the vines; the soils are predominantly brown earth – rich in nitrogen, well-drained, keeping the moisture.
The first wine stop was Villa Bassarea – a new, tiny winery with very passionate winemaker, persuading the fair, terroir expression of the wine. And respecting the Thracian heritage – Bassareus is a Thracian name of Dionysus. They don’t have their own vineyards but are carefully selecting the grapes they are buying. I was amazed by their Syrah ’14. Moreover this was one of the hardest years for the Bulgarian wineries in the new history due to the extremely high precipitation. The cabernet sauvignon, aged in a cherry barrel was also a nice surprise without the wood being too aggressive. The memorable wine experience and a great gesture from Villa Bassarea was the 3 days old rose, presented for tasting!! Thumbs up also for the variety of tasty local appetizers, especially the cheese products, incl. a typical “katak” (cream cheese).
The second winery which we visited was Bratanov – producing arguably some of the best wines in the region in terms of quality and recognition. And they proved it! Though the family winery has less than 15 years history, their ancestors have been kept busy with wine for ages! By the way, this is a common case in the area where the passion for wine is being passed from generation to generation. Most of the houses even nowadays have a small vineyard – a heritage from the grandfather… We were happy to taste only premium wines of Bratanov – I was impressed by the fascinating Merlot ’13 but that was not only me. This wine was selected by the cooks and sommeliers of the French president Macron during his visit in Bulgaria a few weeks ago for the official dinner! Ivo Varbanov, who is using Bratanovi Winery for vinification of his own wines, presented personally two of them. The Syrah & Viognier blend (so untypical for Bulgaria) was excellent!
On our way to the next wine travel destination we dropped by a local celebration – 140 years from the inauguration of the church in the village of Balgarin (interesting name, ha). These festivities have their specific charm, based on ancient traditions and are something essential for the locals. So I was glad to be part of it and to taste homemade “kurban chorba” (mutton soup) and “krushova rakia” (pear brandy).
Winery # 3 of the wine tour Malkata Zvezda has been named after the area where it is located (meaning “Little Star”) and is only a few meters away from Via Diagonalis. It is an ancient Roman road, built in the 1st century AD, 924 km long, starting from Singidunum (today the Serbian capital Belgrade), passing by Danube coast to Viminacium (mod. Požarevac), through Serdica (mod. Sofia), Philippopolis (mod. Plovdiv), and reaching Constantinople (mod. Istanbul). The road is nowadays still in use! The recent wines of “Malkata Zvezda” by the young winemaker Svilen are fresh and fruity, excellent as an aperitif. We tasted also some older vintages, like Essence Quattro ’13 – a Bordeax blend which arguably could compete with plenty of French wines. Did you know, by the way, that the terroirs of Bordeaux and Bulgaria are quite similar? Ask Michelle Rolland who is consulting another winery, less than 3 km away…
The fourth winery which we visited during our wine tour in South Sakar was Chateau Kolarovo – another unglamorous, boutique winery with charming and friendly hosts! To be the last after so many pleasant experiences and excellent wines is a tough challenge. But Iliana (the winemaker) and their wines made our visit unforgettable! I started with the three flagship varieties of South Sakar, and here, at Chateau Kolarovo I was assured that I am right – both wines from “Megalith” brand which we tasted (Merlot’ 12 and Syrah ’13) were fabulous – full bodied, spicy, showing some typical variety characteristics but also the local terroir. I am curious to have a sip of the present which every participant of the wine tour received as a gift from Chateau Kolarovo – a dessert wine from Merlot ’12!
In conclusion, here is my summary of the “4×4” wine trip – lots of passionate winemakers, small and charming family wineries and simply astonishing red wines paired with tasty, local deli food! Special thanks to Tanya from Bratanov Winery and the whole organization team! These wineries will definitely become soon part of the VIA VINO wine tours in Bulgaria!