Konstantinos Lazarakis is currently the only Master of Wine on the Balkans but beyond that, as you are about to find out, he is also an extremely pleasant collocutor, a gentleman and well, charming, in his very Greek kind of way. Just having flown back from the London Wine Fair, where he spread the word about the latest Bulgarian and Greek wine achievements (we appreciate that wholeheartedly), he is in Sofia, Bulgaria to once again be chairman, judge and master class lector at the Balkans International Wine Competition (BIWC) 2014.

We shot this interview with him at last year’s BIWC and felt this was the best time to finally show it to you. There is no way of overemphasizing how strongly we urge you to go to his Master Class entitled Judging with Konstantinos Lazarakis, Master of Wine. As usual, we highly recommend all the master classes and lectures at the BIWC because their topics each year are amazing. Here is what Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW had to say.

You are currently the only Master of Wine on the Balkans; how did this fact change your life?

I am privileged in being the first Master of Wine on the Balkans and Greece, of course. I have been trying a lot and for many years to get it. It took me 7 years to pass the exam but it was difficult and that is why I wanted to do it. If it was easy no one would like to do it or it would not mean a thing. But I have to say that from 2002, when I got my MW, and thereafter it has been a crazy life but a very enjoyable life. Getting the MW changed a lot the way people were approaching me, opened enormous opportunities for me and my career was never the same. I am delighted to be a part of this.

You have been to Bulgaria several times as a speaker and a judge at different wine events. What are your impressions of Bulgarian wines and the wine market here?

I think that the Greek wine market and the Bulgarian market have a lot of common things, so it feels like home, it does not feel really different. It is the same story. More and more people are interested about wine. For the majority of people wine is just another alcoholic beverage. Some people are willing to pay for wine, some people are not. Some people are dealing with wine because wine is in vogue, so they would look important and high class while they would like to enjoy a beer in the privacy of their house. So it is everything, more or less, of what we see in Greece. What I see here, I think, is that a number of people are getting into the wine as a part of the gastronomic experience, so it’s not just about wine – it is about food and wine, and going out into a nice restaurant and enjoying both a good bottle of wine and a nice course, nice food. And for me this is good because I think that people can relate to that easier. Very few people can say “Oh, I am a wine aficionado and I will be thinking about wine, drinking wine just on its own, reading about wine…” This is a bit unnatural. Wine is a beverage to be consumed mainly with food and if people get close to wine as a part of a, as I said, gastronomic experience, it’s only a good thing.

What is it that Bulgarian consumers do not know about the wines of Greece and what can these wines offer Bulgarian wine lovers?

I think that Bulgarian people know more things about Greek wines than Greek people know about Bulgarian wines. This is mainly because a huge number of Bulgarian people are travelling to Greece for their summer holidays, so they will drink and enjoy Greek wine while in Greece. I don’t think that Greece has touched the potential – there is still a lot of development that can take place in the Bulgarian market. I think that in the near future more and more Greek wineries will be willing to invest in promoting their wines in Bulgaria.

Many tourists consider low-cost Retsina to be representative of Greek wines and they say they don’t like Greek wine altogether. Do you think this is still a problem Greek wineries face?

This is something that is very common – Greek wine being the worst enemy of itself. And I think this is the case in many Old World countries that made huge steps ahead but then they were not communicating these changes in the correct way, so you start talking about Greek wines and everyone thinks about Retsina. You start talking about Bulgarian wines and everyone thinks about a 3 Euro Merlot sold in the supermarket in Germany. If you talk about Hungary, and you know Hungary has a very important appellation – Tokaj, one of the best and most expensive wines in the world and still most of the people will think about Bull’s Blood [Egri Bikavér], again sold in supermarkets for 4 or 3 Euro a bottle. So this is a problem of many, many people and many countries. It is down to us to go out and reach these consumers.

You spoke about rare Greek varieties earlier. Do you think they are an important part of understanding the future of wine in Greece?

I think it is all about heritage and potential that can be lost at any given point. You go to Santorini and you talk to old people and they say that a century ago people were coming up with about 8 different grape varieties in Santorini and now people in Santorini talk about three or four, or five grape varieties. We know that there is a plant of that variety in that vineyard in Santorini or maybe there is a very small vineyard of 20 plants from the other grape variety in Santorini. Some people believe that maybe if we would research every single plant in Santorini, we might come up with maybe 40 grape varieties. What happened to the rest and how could good could they be? This is all gone, it is never going to come back. And, you know, there could be one grape variety out of the 40 lost that could be twice as good as Assyrtiko, four times as good as Riesling, so why have we lost it.

Have you tried any of the local Bulgarian varieties and what do you think about their potential?

I had some great Mavruds in Bulgaria. I think I am a bit more excited about Melnik but then it is down to the producers. It is about finding out whether what we know of Mavrud is the best Mavrud that can be. As I explained in the Master Class, you had Savatiano and everyone was looking down on Savatiano, saying it is a bad grape because it was mainly associated with low quality Retsina and because no one was paying any attention to making good quality Savatiano; and then you have five people taking a closer look, making things in a whole different way and making fantastic wines.

Earlier, you spoke about the "Cabernization" of our wine-drinking habits. Do you think more and more consumers are straying from this trend because they get to know wine better or do you think wineries lead the way by being willing or not willing to offer more different wines (in terms of varieties and styles)?

If we think that all the people drinking wine out there are people who would like to spend two hours talking about the rare grape varieties, I think we are missing the point. Most people drink wine as a simple product and it’s very difficult to condemn these people and say that only the people that have a high involvement with wine have a right to drink wine. So, yes, we have some people getting tired of the Cabernets and the Merlots around the world and getting to more interesting and rare grape varieties but still I do believe that Cabernet and Chardonnay is a big part of the global wine trade.

Do you embrace the idea of the Balkans being marketed as a single region?

That’s the idea of the Balkans International Wine Competition. We are a lot of different countries with a lot of things in common, one of which is the huge diversity within the wines produced. Therefore, I think that it is a great opportunity to try to promote this on a larger scale. United we stand.

Finally, there was just recently a visit of several Masters of Wine who explored Greek wineries. How did it go? What do you expect may change as a result of this visit and do you think it is the right way to go as a strategy of a small wine-producing country trying to sell to a global market?

I was very happy to organize the first ever official visit of the Institute of Masters of Wine in Greece. The National Inter-professional Organization of Vine and Wine helped a lot, they did the whole thing because there was money used to promote Greek wine in export markets and that was made possible also with the valuable help of the Greek Export Organization. The trip went amazing. The MWs loved Greek wines, loved Greek people, loved Greece and I don’t see a reason for not making this event as a turning point into how people view Greek wines. You should do the same in Bulgaria!