MW, More than Words

Meeting Caroline Gilby, MW was all we expected it to be. She is a person you could listen to for hours if only their schedule and patience allowed it. At this point, I am convinced that about 50% of the Master of Wine title is awarded for these people’s tremendous knowledge about wine and another 50% for their astounding communication skills. It may not be a precise 50/50 blend but it is close. These people (and I am not discriminating here) are amazing at talking to all sorts of weirdoes: organizers, winemakers, journalists, myself included, with all of their agendas, provocations and demands. In person, Caroline is a delicate, charming and memorable lady that carries the superpower of a Master of Wine with ease and grace in her own very British kind of way… naturally. And, yes, you could say that this is what being a true professional is all about but, as you know is often the case in the wine industry, no exception here, there is a lot more soul and style in her to just doing her job right.

This year everybody was so excited about meeting Caroline Gilby that I was trying to imagine what this visit could mean to her, having been here so many times already. There was a single starting line from a Robbie Williams song that kept creeping in my mind, trying to describe it and it goes “So unimpressed, but so in awe…” I could imagine all the excitement in the eyes of the winemakers at every sip, so focused on the result, that there was almost never a spittoon at hand. I thought about cutting some parts of the interview in order to make it shorter and more commercially acceptable as a blog entry but I decided against that. If you are interested, you might actually relish every word of it, so keep calm and read on!

©Miroslav Chobavnov

You are back to Bulgaria on the invitation of the Thrace Regional Wine and Vine Chamber and you have visited several new wineries as well as a few you are already familiar with around the city of Plovdiv. How did the trip go?

Winemaking in general is going in a positive direction and it is nice to see people are experimenting with things. I don’t necessarily think some of them are experimenting with the right things (she smiles) but it is important that they do. Overall, there were some good presentations and some wineries that have a lot to learn in terms of presenting their wines.

How can they improve in terms of presentation? Give us all the details, please.

Well, there was a winery I went to in Greece a couple of days ago that kind of did everything right. They took me straight to the vineyards and showed me all the key features of the vineyards. Then we had a lunch where they had thought about the wine and food pairings very carefully and I had a nice menu printed out with all the dishes and the wines, so I would remember what they were. Then we went back for a tasting where all the glasses were laid out, the correct glasses for each wine. Everything was labelled. There was also a water glass and a spittoon – I keep having to ask for a spittoon here. Plus they gave me a little booklet with every wine, including all the technical information about the vineyards, the winemaking and space for tasting notes. This way I could concentrate on just getting on with the tasting and ask the winemaker only the key questions as we went along.

I think most Bulgarian wineries could learn from that on how to present themselves and make the most of the opportunity to communicate what they are all about. Some wineries are closer to that than others but I think all of them have got things to learn. Still, the part with the vineyards has improved. I came here on a trip in 2003 and, at that point, I think, in just about every winery I went to visit, the winemakers clearly believed that grapes grew on the back of trucks. There has definitely been a switch towards people understanding that vineyards are actually critical to getting the right quality in wine, be it vineyards that people own or, in some cases, finding an advantage in working with more established vineyards. As you know, there is a natural concentration that you get working with old vines if they are properly managed and there are a lot of young vines in Bulgaria because everybody rushed to plant them with the EU subsidies. The issue with the young vines will sort itself out with time, of course. However, there are some wineries who are suffering a bit from this lack of concentration in their wines because their vines are still young but their pricing is… ambitious, should we say.

Speaking of which… Whatever happened to Bulgaria five years later? Of course you have been here in the meantime to check on our progress but do you see any significant differences since this article came out? (The question was triggered by Caroline's article "Bulgaria's Changing Fortunes", which looks at why Bulgaria has lost its popularity on the British wine market)

Well… encouraging that you’ve read this… (she laughs). When I speak, which I do quite a lot about Eastern European wines to UK consumers and to members of the trade, that is still a question I get asked a lot. People of a third generation and above in the UK remember drinking a lot of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 1980s into the early-mid 1990s and, of course, it has virtually all disappeared. I suppose the encouraging thing is that Bulgaria is creeping back onto UK shelves. There is still cheap Bulgarian wine in the likes of Tesco, so these are prices that I frankly don’t understand but it is being sold, so fair enough… but most of the Bulgarian listings are actually premium wines. So you’ve got cheap own label stuff in Tescos, then you’ve got a few things at about £7 mark-up from one of the bigger importers but then, above that, you’ve got the likes of Borovitza, Enira, of course, you’ve also got wines from Rossidi, Bratanov, Edoardo Miroglio and a little bit of Zagreus, so, for our market, some decent quality Bulgarian wines. So there is a little more awareness of Bulgaria since I wrote this article five years ago.

Besides the improvement in quality we talked about, what is the right way for Bulgarian wines to make it back to the UK and the international market in more notable economic terms? How do you see Bulgaria in the context of other Eastern European wine producers?

There is a lot of work to be done on the subject of ethics and to develop that thinking. I know, some of the small wineries feel very strongly about my comments that I think there needs to be an industry where there is unity. If Bulgaria wants a category on export shelves, there really needs to be a unity of message and this works for some of Bulgaria’s neighbours. They have big wineries that produce honest, fair quality wines at reasonable prices and they help create a category and bring people into knowing that this country produces wines. And I am thinking particularly here about Romania and Hungary. They have big producers who make, let’s say a decent Pinot Grigio at an entry price, so any consumer who buys that wine says, “Oh, I just had a nice Pinot Grigio, where does this come from? Oh, it came from Hungary. I didn’t know Hungary makes wines…” But once you’ve got their attention as a consumer, then you can hopefully persuade them to try other things from your country. The Romanians are better at this than the Hungarians but they do see that having good, strong, big producers, the likes of Recaș who produce good wines at introductory prices, means that small wineries can also sell their wines at these markets. But in Bulgaria there is such a gulf of attitude between the big wineries, which have this reputation of not playing fair, and the small wineries. And there needs to be an authority in Bulgaria to “clean the industry’s act” really, so that the big producers can help create a category and the little producers can create the image and reputation of that category. Bulgaria needs both and I know I will get lynched for saying that by some of the small producers but that is my perspective from seeing what other countries in Eastern Europe are doing.

If it is a question of people here breaking the rules and the law, than that’s got to be dealt with by the authorities and what people are hinting to me that this is happening, although I have no evidence either way. It is kind of odd that in a modern European nation this kind of stuff is allowed to go on. Particularly from the point of view of the bigger retailers from the UK, since they want to do their audits of product quality and bottling lines, they need to be confident that they are dealing in a professional business environment. A friend of mine recently reported to me that they were asking for samples for actually a big business in the UK and the winery was asking for money for the samples to be shipped over. That is not a professional way of doing business.

On a different note, I believe local varieties could play a significant role in the process of getting people interested in Bulgarian wines. I also think they are useful in starting a conversation with buyers and gatekeepers to get wines into different markets because if you go up to Mr. or Mrs. Supermarket Buyer and say “I’ve got a really nice Merlot here!”, they would say “Yes, I’ve got a lot of Merlots” but if you go along and say “I’ve got a Rubyn, a Mavrud or a Gamza” they might say “Oh, okay, I’ve not tried that before, let’s give it a go.” It is a way to get them interested in some of your other wines and to open the door. You need to have local grape varieties as part of the offer. I think the local red varieties have higher quality and potential perhaps than the local white varieties but, then again, Bulgaria is known particularly as a red wine country anyway. Personally, I think blends that include a local grape variety can be a useful way forward because you can give people both something that they are familiar with and understand and something new. There is a reason why Cabernet and Merlo have travelled the world and it is because they are great grape varieties but if you include something local in there as well that makes it Bulgarian, instead of an international blend, it makes it a nice route to explore.

You mentioned local varieties. How is Bulgaria doing in this regard?

In general and in my personal opinion, there are some styles of wines here that are not sufficiently balanced, maybe overoaked. I am not a huge fan of Bulgarian oak – I don’t think it flatters the wines generally. It tends to emphasize aggressive tannins. Based on the evidence in the UK, the Bulgarian grape variety that has picked up the most press coverage would be Gamza. Probably more people would believe in Mavrud but I think there is still room for learning to manage its tannins a bit better because they can be a little bit rustic. It is certainly a character for a grape variety and it can work really well in blends. I am personally not yet convinced that, on its own, Mavrud makes really great wine. Although, I’d like to be convinced, I am looking forward to it (she laughs).

You are so diplomatic and, of course, you need to be, but what is behind all this wine politics?

Well, as you know I have a lot of friends in Bulgaria but there are also a lot of people who strongly disagree with me. I don’t know… why do I have this effect on people! (she looks around) What I am generally expressing is my personal perspective seen from the outside. Anybody who has got customers for their wine and can sell it at the price they ask for are obviously doing something right. But if they want their wines to be appreciated or sold, or understood in the wider market, then… maybe… listening to people, not necessarily me, but people from outside and their perspectives would be quite useful for some winemakers. So, yes, I am being diplomatic (she laughs).

Did you find more terroir wines at the tastings this time?

The question of terroir is still a bit of a work in progress here. There are definitely terroir differences across Bulgaria but the industry, in its current form, is still quite young and quite a lot of the vines are quite young. So there is still work to do on developing terroir wines but there are some spots that definitely produce distinctive wines that are of their place, not necessarily wineries I’ve been to on this trip.

Legally, Bulgaria is divided into two official wine regions and belonging to one of them as a winery does not tell consumers much about where the wine came from. What do you think is the best way to approach this difficulty for the foreign market, once consumers are interested in exploring more of our country’s wines?

The old five region system did seem to be based on some understanding of climatic differences. And, as you say, Struma Valley is quite different from Harmanly and the same applies to North Bulgaria – the area around Vidin is very different from the one over by the Black Sea Coast. I am kind of in two minds about how much it matters to consumers whether a wine is PGI or PDO, or whatever because in young industries, it is actually the producer that is more influential and I am also in two minds about tying yourself in bureaucratic knots too much in an industry. I am thinking of a Hungarian producer who is based in one region but she has some vineyards in another and she makes a wine that is a bland but because she vinifies grapes from one region in the other, they can’t have any designation of origin. Hungary has gone the other way – it has 22 wine regions and they can be recognizably distinct wine regions but they are too small and this gets too bureaucratic. It does not allow winemakers the flexibility to do the best job they can with the resources they have available. It is quite a difficult one but the PGIs really ought to reflect a distinct geographical origin and at the moment they don’t here. The truth should be somewhere in the middle (she laughs).

Overall, having a laugh with Caroline Gilby is as easy as it gets. Somebody accidentally said the vintage of one of the wines on the table was 2015. Caroline smiled and said… “I believe the wine must be 2014, otherwise it would be time travelling.” Actually, time travelling would not be such a bad idea for some of our winemaking history but since it is impossible, and it is quite human to inevitably learn from your own mistakes, instead of those of others, focusing on our future is the only way forward (quantum physics and “I know best” arguments aside). Listening to outside specialists may or may not be your thing but they do base their comments on a very fair share of experience. I don’t know how it works for wine experts – if they choose the regions they are interested in or the regions choose them somehow. Either way, I am happy Caroline chose to focus on Eastern Europe instead of France, Italy and/or Spain at some point in her professional life and I think she is an honest voice to have, spreading the word about Bulgarian wine.

When we asked her if she was taking any bottles home from this trip, she said “You know, a problem with the more premium wines in Bulgaria is that they insist on stupid, heavy glass… A bottle I took back some years ago turned out to be 1.3 kg for the glass alone but the liquid was the bit I cared about. I suppose it is status and it is part of the marketing ethos but it makes it difficult to take wine home.” Then she said “Fair is fair, you’ve put me on the spot a lot, now, what are your favourite Bulgarian wines?” A tough question indeed… to all of us not because you don’t know what you love – this is the easy part – but sometimes answering this question has a lot more meaning beyond a personal opinion. Finally, after spending an hour and a half in Caroline’s company, I find it inexplicable how this delicate woman could make anyone angry. We all need to learn something about our perceptions of criticism, I guess, and when you do… tell me how. :)