By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 20 February 2021 (pictured above winemaker Maria Stoeva of Bratanov winery)
I first visited Bulgaria in the early 1990s and remember being surprised at the number of women working in wineries, at a time when it was still unusual to find women winemakers even in the New World.
“This is something that Bulgaria should now be proud of – with more women than men in their oenologist union”, says Dr Caroline Gilby MW, author of ‘The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania & Moldova’ (Classic Wine Library), who has spent three decades working with the Eastern European wine market.
“Today 47% of Bulgaria’s 282 wineries have female winemakers”, she says. “This appears to be significantly higher than any other country – even California is only 14% female amongst its 4200 wineries – and in neighbouring Romania it is just 5%”.
Gilby reckons this infiltration into a male-dominant industry may be a hangover from communism. The first woman winemaker in Bulgaria was in 1953, at a time when it was considered unlucky for women to even enter the cellar in France or Spain.
“During communism, women studied all subjects, worked outside the home setting up an expectation of equality – and those who did not work were considered bourgeois”, she says. “Today, with the rise of small dynamic wineries, more women are taking on winemaking positions – with several wineries in Bulgaria actually owned by women”.
To demonstrate the female touch in this Balkan wine land, Gilby set up a fascinating tasting to highlight the dynamic rise in quality of wines with new styles and revival of indigenous grapes from Bulgaria’s current 30,000 hectares of vineyards – with all wines in the tasting made by women.
“After the early days of communist-scale, cheap cheerful wines, Bulgaria has undergone a complete revolution in wine quality”, says Gilby.
There are now an increasing number of small independent artisan wineries. Some are ambitious family concerns like Chateau Copsa in Moskovets in the famous Rose Valley, Bratanov set up in 2010 in south Sakar near Bulgaria’s southern border with Greek Macedonia or Orbelia winery in Stroma Valley in southern Bulgaria reviving their grandparents vineyards.
Others, like Borovitza winery near Vidin on the Danube in north west Bulgaria set up by Adriana Srebinova (pictured right) and the late Ogy Tzvetanov, are new enterprises. There are also important outside investors like Italian textile-magnate Edoardo Miroglio based at Elenovo, Bordeaux chateaux-owner Count Stephan von Niepperg at Bessa Valley as well as Kazakhstani-owned Midadlidare and Swiss-owned Eolis – all in Bulgaria’s Thracian Lowlands wine region.
The new generation of Bulgaria’s women winemakers are gaining experience abroad. Desi Hitova of Orbelia winery loved the openness and creativity of Australia whilst working at Two Hands winery in Barossa Valley, returning to her home country determined to experiment with styles like Pet Nat fizz – whilst Maria Stoeva (pictured top & right centre), of Bratanov winery, trained in France where she fell in love with its culture and wines.
What our tasting highlighted was not just the skill of Bulgaria’s women, but the impressive array of new wines now emerging. The whites are particularly interesting considering Bulgaria’s summers are so hot, you might think they would struggle to produce crisp vibrant whites – but the results are surprisingly good.
“Bulgaria has come a long way from its days as a supplier of bulk Cabernet Sauvignon in mid-1980s – and women are at the forefront of change here”, says Gilby.
Rose Valley, N Thracian Lowlands: CHATEAU COPSA AXL MISKET 2019 (13%)
Owner: Petia Minkova Winemaker: Madlena Kugmanova
Grape: Red Misket or Misket Cherven, an ancient Bulgarian grape with slightly pink skins
Delightful floral rose-petal aromas, minerally zesty palate and vibrant acidity. Very well-made white from 25 year old vines grown on sandy pebbly soils from the only winery in the sheltered Rose Valley in the foothills of Balkans – home to the world’s largest supply of rose oil.
South Sakar Hills, Thracian Lowlands: BRATANOV TAMIANKA 2019 (14%) ***STAR BUY***
Winemaker: Maria Stoeva
Grape: Tamianka is Bulgaria’s version of Muscat a Petits Grains
Impressive aromatic dry Muscat with grapey notes, rich spicy full flavoured palate and long length bottled in a sleek Alsace Riesling-style bottle – made by Bratanov winery’s French trained winemaker who focuses on low intervention winemaking (wild yeast fermentation) at this 24 hectare estate.
Danube Plain, NW Bulgaria: BOROVITZA GAMZA 2016 (12.5%)
Owner & winemaker: Adriana Srebrinova
Grape: Gamza is known as Kadarka in Hungary
A tiny lone star in cool, but sunny, north west Bulgaria. Borovitza works with 60 year old vines in this abandoned corner – producing really distinctive intense ‘terroir-led’ wines like this intense juicy succulent Gamza.
Struma Valley, SW Bulgaria: ORBELIA MELNIK 55 2018 (14%) ***STAR VALUE***
Winemaker: Desi Hitova
Grape: Melnik 55, an early-ripening cross created in 1980s.
Very fleshy super-ripe blackberry and cherry fruited unoaked red with sweet spicy palate and soft smooth tannins made in the baking hot 2018 vintage – it tastes like New World Merlot. Vines are 15 year old grown on sandy loam in Orbelia’s family-run 10 hectare vineyard.
Join Rose’s South American virtual wine tasting in association with Corney & Barrow Fridays 5 & 12 March 2021 www.rosemurraybrown.com