Bulgaria back in the 1970s and 1980s had pulled off something of a minor economic miracle through its wine industry. Back then, the Bulgarian state wine monopoly overcame the fact that Bulgaria offered no real domestic wine market, and featured few exciting indigenous grape varietals, when they managed to successfully sell most of its wine to the Soviet Union, and then also systematically planted and replanted grape varieties that would be known to the UK market: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, and Riesling. At one point in the 1980s, Bulgaria was the world’s second largest producer of wine in terms of sheer volume.
Alas, the anti-alcohol policies of Mikhail Gorbachev took their toll, resulting in a massive drop in demand and the immediate neglect of Bulgarian vineyards. The wineries and vineyards were unsystematically privatized in the 1990s, which resulted in many of the properties being split up and handed over to folks who had little interest in winemaking.
Bulgarian winemaking went into a tailspin and has only recently begun to recover through the influx of new investment and the energy of a new breed of winemakers.
It hasn’t been an easy process. It took one winery three years of haggling with nearly a thousand landowners to put together a 500 acre vineyard. Early on the wines reflected the youth of these new vineyards. But the quality has been improving due in part to motivated wineries and hired consultants, such as the renowned French “flying winemaker” Michel Rolland. Indeed, Rolland was hired by Jair Agopian, owner of both Telish Wine Cellar and the Castra Rubra winery.
Established in 1960 and privatized in 1996, Telish was bought by Jair Agopian in 1999. Under Agopian, the Tellish Wine Cellar specializes in the production of European varietals and has managed to become one of the leading Bulgarian wine producers, with an annual output of 1 million bottles. Telish wines are exported around the globe now.
Here are two Telish kosher wines hitting the U.S. market anytime now: The Pendar 2010 (around $15). A blend of the indigenous Bulgarian varietal Rubin along with 45% Merlot, it shows significant savory notes along a frame of blueberry and dark fruit flavors with some chocolate and spice. The Castra Rubra Via Diagonalis 2010 (around $15?) is a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with 5 percent Rubin and 5 percent Mavrud (another Bulgarian grape) blended in. It begins with jammy dark fruit flavors with some vanilla and spice leading into an interesting, medium bodied, well-made composition accented with earth and leather.
Spirits-wise, our thoughts drifted a bit as Bulgaria has little to offer beyond Rakia, a notoriously rough and ready fruit brandy popular in the Balkans. At least eight Balkan states consider their own version of Rakia to be their national drink. None are widely available in America under kosher certification. So instead we thought we’d settle in with a bracing shot of Slivovitz. For anyone not familiar with the old traditional Jewish tipple, Slivovitz is a Central and Eastern European distilled beverage made from Damson plums and is often called “plum brandy.” Slivovitz is produced in many places, like Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and, of course, Bulgaria. Here is one to enjoy:
Clear Creek Distillery Slivovitz Blue Plum Brandy (certified kosher for Passover by Oregon Kosher; 40 percent abv; $30; 375ml bottle): made from Oregon grown Italian blue plums, this smooth, slightly off-dry, complex brandy offers notes of fresh, sweet, ripe plums and a little distinct pepperiness, with an absorbing, warm finish.