White Story, Rose Story, Red Story… a personal story!Varna in August, the summer of 2014.
Sunshine reggae… but I somehow knew that visiting the sea capital of Bulgaria in mid-season would be a challenge.
People with 'unbalanced acidity' are more nervous than ever. They buzz chaotically around town going the wrong way in one-way streets, music blasting out of their cars show the rest 'how it is done here'.
Oh, come on! This is a cliché. For the first time ever I notice that driving school vehicles are parked in the prohibited zone in front of the Cathedral where an 'island' is supposed to separate the lanes to facilitate traffic. This explains a lot! Why should it be easy? I wonder if this nips the efforts of all willing to learn to drive right in the bud. Later, I decide that it doesn't matter and I should look more philosophically on things. To do this, I come to the realization that I need to leave the sight of sandals and boiled corn behind and comfort myself with work. I wonder how to convince my team and to join in. It turns out to be not so difficult after all. They are also failing to "have a break".
I call my secret agent in Varna who never lets me down. Desperately, I ask him what's new in the hood. In response, he asks me if I've ever seen "The Pavement" and if not, not to go because the center is all dug up and doesn't 'bring any joy to the soul'. I reassure him that Vitosha Blvd. in Sofia is currently also just a humongous dune, but I don't think that with this news makes the conversation more comforting. So better to speak to the point. He says that there is this brand new winery, which I probably have not heard of, but is very worthwhile. I ask him what it's worth is exactly. Wine, he says. Nice! We'll take it, so to speak. I get a phone number and a name, plus an explanation that the man was very 'genuine'. A genuine person in Varna! This post will sell itself, and obviously there are some good wines, which we have not tried. What more could I ask for!?!
image: Staro Oryahovo Winery
I dial the number. Good afternoon, can I speak to Simo Simov? I expect a nervous landowner who has no time for nonsense and scribblers. On the other end of the line I have a very quiet and polite person. Shocking! He says he is glad that we want to write about him but doesn't want to disappoint. There is not much to see, he says, so he want to know specifically what we want to visit: the winery, the vineyard or do a wine tasting. I wonder whether it will sound terribly presumptuous if I answered "everything". We need to be able to write something decent after all, I explain. He laughs and says that in that case we'll have to spend at least half a day outside Varna, because the winery is in the village of Staro Oryahovo, the vineyard near Debelec and the tasting-room not far from the vineyard. A few hours outside Varna... Sold!
In this context Simo offers us to take us there on a Friday morning. Despite his calmness I think of the driving school cars in front of the Cathedral. I tell him I don't want to bother him. We have our own transport and be where we needs as at the exact time he needs us. He asks whether the car will cope with the challenging terrain of the vineyard and I realize that I've left my truck in the future... We have nothing resembling an off-road vehicle for that matter. I make a mental note to revisit the subject one day when our blog becomes a spectacular success. I slip back to the conversation and announce with a semi-fresh tone that will be glad to meet him at 9.30 am and see if we'll survive.
The guy is nice, smiling, somewhat reserved and several maneuvers later we are on the way to the winery. He tells us that his grandfather was a landowner, but he himself never imagined that he'd have to deal with the same one day. His family had a lot of land in the region of Kavarna and Shabla back in the time. They worked in the field of agriculture until September 9th, 1944 when everything became 'of the people'. What followed is no secret to many Bulgarians proclaimed 'enemies of the state'. I get upset. That is a familiar story. I try to distance myself from my thoughts, because the conversation would go in the wrong direction if I succumb.
Simo lived in England for some time, and then decided to come back and see what he can do here. Soon he started off with farming. Winemaking came much later. He realized that one was able to cope with all the challenges in the country and relaxed a bit.
He planted the first vines in 2010 and he gradually came to realize that he couldn't rely solely on consultants or interfere in their professional endeavors with his lacking knowledge. Thus, Simo applied at University of Food Technologies in Plovdiv and went 'back to school' for two years. He passed his 26 tests and graduated happily from the program, which, he says, gave him a solid foundation. He was impressed by the attitude of teachers towards their small group and their patience to share what they have experienced and learned about wine. While he talks, we think that Simo is a very down-to-earth man with sincere and contagious laughter. He shares with us that one of his favorite phrases since he deals with wine is "rounded acidity". The oxymoron always amuses me, he points out. So, it turns out, we are having a chat with the actual winemaker of Staro Oryahovo.
Before we know it, we arrive at Staro Oryahovo Winery and Simo apologizes in advance that none of the workers is warned that it will come. He wants to see them perform without any duly notice.
We are in a privatized ex farm yard where two small renovated buildings are currently functioning: the administrative offices and the winery itself. Passing through the romantic grassy courtyard that Simo quietly tells us he hopes one day to turn into something more polished. I don't know why, but it reminds me of Fattoria il Palagio in Chianti.
I explain that the difference is the function of the imagination and the efforts involved. He seems to agree.
In the beginning most of the efforts were put in the vineyard, because according to Simo [and not only] "that's where good wine is mainly made." They equipped the winery with freezers, tanks and laboratory instruments. The rest was a matter of time.
Approaching the winery we hear laughter and conversations. The workers joke with each other while bottling some new order. The winemaker enters and tells them to be quiet, because they'd stress wine. They all laugh. The mood is almost like an Italian movie about winemaking from the 80s, only that we are in Staro Oryahovo and the room is new, clean, neat. Hygiene, obviously, is a priority. The containers are also new and small in volume. Production happens in a limited area and because of the specifics of making red and white wines the team has to move much of the technology around the three small rooms. They hope this would change if they have another winery in the vineyard itself, but it's too early to talk about that. I ask Simo if they've jumped into too deep. He tells me that there is no way anything could happen without the jumping, but they are trying to do it carefully; they used their "jumping helmets". I find the idea of protective equipment comforting. Apparently, it is possible to for agriculture to exist without the obsession for euro funds, grants and loans.
We're going to the vineyard. We pass through some interesting villages and see what is hidden deep in this part of Bulgaria. When we arrive the vineyards is a textbook one: southern slope, protected by a forest.
It located about 40 km west from the sea, between the Tsonevo and Eleshnitsa dams. They decided to plant the vines in parallel to the airflow between the two dams to solve part of the problem with humidity inherent in location.
The only noise comes from the passing tractor doing yet another spraying. 2014 strikes a record number for the past four years. That bad, we ask. No, he says, he doesn't want to complain and tries not to think of a given year as good or bad. When you know what you're doing, you just adapt it to the conditions. Then, according to the raw material, you decide how to make wine. There is no place for complaints and excuses.
The varieties are quite a lot and currently include Vrachanski Misket, Muscat of Alexandria, two types of Muscat, Traminer, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir. If they want to experiment with other varieties, they buy from selected wineries in the region and have fun.
We ask Simo to show us the differences between the leaves of the different varieties. He explains that this is useless unless you decide to live with it. Infuriating! I see a real person experiencing my dream, "living with it", having a small, neat vineyard and an academic approach, experimenting without much anguish whether the final product will appeal to people and things are working out. How did the saying about noble envy go?! That's OK, I try to calm myself downs, there's still time.
image: Staro Oryahovo Winery
The vineyard, as usual, look fabulous to us (we realize that that we've started drooling around vineyards, which is not a good sign for personal finances and a possible answer to the traditional question "Where do you see yourself in 10 years”.
Simo has a total of 9 hecatrs of vineyards. How much is that in bottles? About 20,000 with no plans for major changes despite the triple potential. That's totally enough for personal use and, well, Simo's friends'! We munch on a few grapes of Pinot Noir and we are ready to transform.
Tasting time! We are on the Tsonevo dam: beauty and lack of coverage is a well-respected combination.
We arrange the bottles. I like how they look in my hand, even the back label offers a recommended period for drinking after bottling and opening. Rare thing to help wine lovers and shop assistants in the field. The author (no surprises here) is Jordan Jelev, The Labelmaker, so let’s proceed to the magical cooler bag.
We start off with the blue label of White Story (Traminer, Italian Riesling and Vrachanski Misket) that accidentally and refreshingly has won a bronze medal at the 2014 Decanter World Wines Awards. This was fondled his confidence, Simo shares, but was not as nice as the medals he won at VinoBalkanika and the Union of Oenologists in Bulgaria. We take a sip. An unusual but impressive start.
He asks me what I think. I tell him that I think the blend is perverse, but I really like it. He tries to smile. I explain that few people make wines so in line with their own tastes and that would buy just such a product. I guess that if they consult the market demand trends it is highly unlikely that a panel of marketers or even colleagues would recommend them to necessarily "try" with a blend of Traminer, Riesling Italian and Vrachanski Misket. I don't know if he gets my point. I add that such "experiments" do nothing but rejoice me, especially when they turn out just right. The wine is exceptional!
Next are pure varietal Varnenski Misket, Vrachanski Misket, Traminer and then another blend of Chardonnay and Muscat, which also seems to hit the bull's-eye.
While we taste the rosé from Pinot Noir I remind myself that the vineyards are young and "things can only get better". We are pleased, but our joy is even greater because we took samples of the soon-to-be-bottled Merlot and an experimental dessert wine, which is currently labeled for personal use only until Simo "sees how it turns out". It turns out pretty well, I think. And we felt pretty good ourselves.
So, tell me. What do you want to hear first? The good or the bad news?
The good one: we found a truly boutique winery with exceptional wines and a sober judgment of the market and opportunities it offers.
The bad one: it is near impossible to find and buy Staro Oryahovo's wines in the stores or restaurants, even in the region. Quantities are small, distribution is carried out in a car trunk every day after work and consists in what conossieurs order from the limited availability. Final price of a bottle in the winery: about 11 lev.