One of my fond memories of university days was the £2 bottle of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon from Tesco.
You have no idea what a revolutionary item this was – wine in those days seemed inaccessible and elite. Here was a decent bottle of red that even I could afford, 75cl of sophistication to go with that dodgy risotto. Best of all, it was even drinkable.
Back then Bulgaria astonishingly was the world’s second largest wine exporter and a vital way for the country to earn hard currency in its Communist days. But the enormous upheavals the country underwent with the collapse of Soviet rule in the 90s led to a slump in production. Vines were grubbed up or simply left untended.
Happily though today Bulgarian wines are making a comeback. Domaine Boyar, the first post-communist winery in the country, has been leading the way for some time, but excitingly there are now a whole series of independent and family-owned wineries competing for the attention of the adventurous British palate. And unlike the monolithic Cabernet Sauvignons of old, there is a profusion of different grape types and blends to try and choose.
Today Bulgaria is a fascinating blend of old and new world wine making. It has a heritage stretching back more than 2,000 years, but the profusion of new wines, a commitment to innovation and organic methods and all-round entrepreneurialism makes it feel more like New Zealand 20 years ago.
All this makes Bulgarian wine well worth looking into and it is a journey that in truth I have only just started. The difficulty is that it’s still hard to track down in any quantity. One or two supermarkets have dipped their toe in the vat; a good place to start is Waitrose’s Sant Ilia Cabernet Sauvignon, which at £6.99 is decent value for a full bodied, well made wine. But by far the best selection to be found is by The Old Cellar in Battersea, which stocks more than 80 different Bulgarian wines on its website at prices from £5 to £40.
The real adventure on offer here are Bulgaria’s indigenous grape varieties. My favourite is the powerful, spicy Mavrud –not least because of the legend behind it. It’s said that in the ninth century Khan Krum (nicknamed ‘The Horrible’, so we can guess he was no pushover) ordered all the vines to be dug up. Then, however, a lion escaped from its cage and started eating people. It was only one brave young man who managed to kill the lion – when asked why, his mother proudly revealed it was because she kept him topped up with Mavrud wine – so the vines were duly reinstated.
So if you feel in lion taming mode, I suggest the intense, spicy ApplauZ Mavrud from The Old Cellar (£14.95 when you buy six). Keep an eye out however; I feel we are going to be seeing a lot more wine from Bulgaria in the coming years.