They mean business
They teach us to dream big, so that’s how I begin this story and gradually pull you in. “I have a dream” a.k.a. some day I want to know there will be a place somewhere along the Bulgarian part of the Danube river where a neat little boat will have dedicated its time to showing people the best places along both the Bulgarian and the Romanian coasts. A couple of wineries, some historic sights, good music and proper local food would suffice. Perhaps a monotonous voice would be telling passengers stories about the revolutionaries that crossed the river (part of Bulgaria's history) and sneak in a verse or two by Botev, repeating all of this in 5 or 6 other languages (almost fluently). Romantic atmosphere, history, and culture – nothing more, nothing less. If you like it, climb aboard. River cruises are not a revolutionary idea. However, the Danube coastline and Northern Bulgaria in general have stopped being associated with the word “tourism” long time ago despite the fact that a lot of our historic identity and nature landmarks are located in the region.
I know that I won’t find my dream boat on this particular day, but I head for Oryahovo one early morning to get a close look at Chateau Burgozone’s wines. I’ve heard different opinions about the winery but if I have learned something in the past couple of years that is to trust my own impressions. Unfortunately, I have to pass through the poorest part of Bulgaria but neither nature, nor the people manage to disappoint me. On the contrary! I am traveling to a place where wine has always been a hero and I believe it is important to take notice of heroes even when they are somewhat dusty, scruffy and lack faith in themselves. These are the moments when you need to land them a hand, look them in the eyes and tell them to hang on. Chateau Burgozone have landed a hand to wine in this region and now it is our turn to do so. The winery has filled in a big gap on the Bulgarian wine map and we are happy that we get to learn more about another local terroir.
The day is foggy and visibility is below 50 m. Following my hosts’ advise I take the road along the river but it soon becomes clear that I won’t be able to take pictures of the vineyards.
I am meeting the owners of the winery: Svetla and Stefan Marinov who tell me about their 13-year wine odyssey.
The vineyard is truly impressive! Even in the fog, I can picture this exceptional 100 ha lot. I am told that this year the harvest began in the beginning of September and the last grapes were picked up in the beginning of October. The winery uses special custom-made crates protecting the grapes from dust when stacked on top of each other. The vineyard is also tended with extreme care. Burgozone’s biggest issue are weeds that retain the moisture in the soil, which is extremely rich in limestone with layers of loess and chernozem (black topsoil).
What makes the lot exclusive is that it is composed by 350-400 separate pieces of land. In 2005, Burgozone had to build a fence and hire security because the locals still believed the land was theirs. Now things are much different because everybody appreciates the fact that the winery gives temporary or permanent job to people living in the four neighboring villages. Behind the fence, there are 50 ha more land, which are to be planted, according to the winery's needs.
The white varieties were planted in 2006 in the part overlooking the Danube river, the reds followed in 2007. Up until now, Burgozone had worked with 11 classic varieties with plant material from France. Next year Burgozone plan to take on two new local varieties, i.e. Gamza and Tamianka with the help of German consultants who will help with the propagation of quality plants.
We head for the so-called BBQ: a great picnic spot with wine coolers and everything necessary for a wonderful sunny afternoon with a view to the Danube river and the beautiful island of Esperanto with its great sandy beach (you can see it well even with the fog).
Locals claim that in clear weather you can actually see the Carpathians, which are some 200 km away.
In the past, there was a Roman fortress here called Burgozone. It was located right on one of the three main roads, called Via Istrum, leading from Constantinople (Istanbul) to Europe and passing along the Black Sea, the Danube river, through Belgrade and on to Central Europe. This 2000-year old road is marked by a sign right in the middle of the vineyard. Nice touch!
They tell me that “once upon a time” (before WWII and up until September 9-th, 1944 when communism officially "began" in Bulgaria) local grapes and wine were considered of supreme quality to a degree where nobody else could sell their grapes at Sofia's markets before the person who came from Oryahovo had sold all of his.
In the beginning, when the project was just an idea the owners visited Oryahovo in order to decide if that was a good place to build their winery. They put their trust in four professors, experts in soils and viticulture, but all they got were four different opinions. Fortunately, their meeting coincided with the Day of St. Trifon Zarezan (traditional holiday of Bulgarian vine growers and winemakers, celebrated on 14-th of February each year) and all the local vine growers were invited to share their thoughts on the subject. They reached a consensus that the place where the winery and the vineyard are located today was best suited for the purpose.
Every carefully pre-planned process both ат the vineyard and at the winery is supervised by the brothers Krasimir and Valentin Bambalov. Chateau Burgozone is the winery that had a full-blown strategy before the vineyards were planted and the facilities built. I had the pleasure of meeting Krasimir Bambalov who is Burgozone’s winemaker, an experienced professor in viticulture and an enthusiastic participant in everything that is happening in the winery.
I am trying to image the capacity of the winery in terms of fermenters, which is not an easy task. The biggest fermenters for the reds are of a 15-ton volume:
The whites ferment in 10- or 5-ton tanks but there are also many 2-ton fermenters used for shorter varietal series.
The winery has its own labeling machine that can label 1600 bottles/hour. Burgozone say that things here are different from France and the investment is justified when it comes to assuring the quality of the end product. That’s why they also have their own power supply because there are frequent blackouts caused by storms and these would be detrimental to a production of their scale.
The capacity of the winery is 650 tons (the maximum yield from the 100 ha vineyard) but they always process less because of the green pruning. Their capacity is about half a million tons in terms of bottled product. Currently, the winery works with almost every big supermarket chain in Bulgaria, including Fantastico, Metro, Billa, and Kaufland and 50% of their wine is sold on the local market. Just until a couple of years ago their entire production was sold abroad. Their export markets include Belgium, Luxembourg, USA, and China.
The owners comment that foreign consumers would definitely remember that they’ve drunk some decent Bulgarian wine. Stefan Marinov says “We fight the same battle on all fronts: wherever we go people insist that Bulgarian wines are of the lowest quality and are the cheapest and we say ‘No, our wine is no worse than any French wine. Please taste it and compare it. That’s also the strategy of our distributors. They say “Here, try this wine, but I won't tell you where it’s from”. People taste it and like it immediately. They ask where it came from and we explain that it’s Bulgarian. They don't believe us“
In their first five years of production the winery management focused on purely varietal wines in order to get to know their vineyards better. Last year they started making white and red cuvées and decided to continue in this direction. This year (2015) is the first year for their second red cuvée and the barrel fermented Chardonnay. Burgozone’s philosophy, is that wine should have a terroir-specific character and in general they are from the wineries which avoid using oak.
© Chateau Burgozone
Burgozone’s wine series include Iris, Chateau Burgozone Gold, Chateau Burgozone Silver, Rondo and their famous bag-in-box “with the fox” (because it has a fox painted on the side).
Svetla Marinova tells me more “Our wines are meant to be shared in the company of friends and good food, they are ready to drink but some of them can age for 10 years. It depends on why you are buying them. A person should try and compare. Patriotism is not enough. You need to have seen a lot and compared it to your own to have an opinion. We need to know our place, what we stand for and when something Bulgarian is good enough we should support it. We are not an amateur winery. We have a business plan and we cannot afford big risks. We’ve been criticized that we don’t work with local varieties. Not that I don't love my country, but Bulgaria doesn't have a lot of experience with local varieties and we need to be aware of that.“
I am pleasantly surprised by the honest conversation. Many times, wineries (in Bulgarian and not only) put a heavy focus on the magic behind the wine and all the talk about the industry’s material side either seems nonexistent altogether or is considered a taboo and should be avoided. In the context of their attention to their business, we should not overlook some of the touching and personal things about Burgozone.
Iris Creation Chardonnay, 2012 is the winery’s first blend named after their granddaughter Iris. The back label reads “This wine celebrates exceptional vintages and significant events”. This year, their second red cuvée will be dedicated to their grandson Philip. The concept behind the collection wines from the series is to include different wines each year, picked from selected lots and made available to wine lovers at, I admit, really fair prices.
We tried Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Chardonnay 2014, Viognier 2014, Chardonnay Barrel Fermented (a series of 2,940 bottles) 2012, Pinot Noir 2012 and the varietal Marselan 2012. Perhaps, I am supposed to say I was impressed by their whites but this wouldn’t be fair as I also really loved the reds we tasted.
In 2008, Chateau Burgozone made a series of 3,000 bottled from their 2-year old vineyard as an experiment. The Chardonnay was sent to Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (yes, that’s the same competition taking place in Plovdiv in 2016) and won a silver medal. The award gave them courage and they won a gold medal for Bulgaria the following year with the same Chardonnay. Since then, this particular wine has won a gold medal each year, which ensured Burgozone a place at the honorary stand at Megavino, the biggest wine event in Benelux.
Chateau Burgozone are also the proud owners of the first medal won by a Bulgarian wine in China.
They tell me they’ve decided not to participate in Bulgarian wine competitions. I have to ask why. They say they were disappointed and I really want to refute their statement but they offer too many counterarguments. I think that some recent events had such a traumatic impact on the wineries that each new and unbiased competition has to fight the ghosts of somebody else’s past.
The winery is open for tastings but you should call in advance. The owners say they always have pleasant conversations with their visitors and get valuable feedback on their wines. The hotel part of the winery is not ready yet but what's interesting about it is the fact that there are large windows inside with a view to the winery and the fermenters where visitors can explore the process of making wine. Without a doubt, a hotel would stimulate longer trips to the region, which is otherwise a difficult area to find a decent place to spend the night.
The Marinov family tell me that at first they had a dream and then they became vine growers, then winemakers and finally wine merchants as well. It’s nice to make your dreams come true (at least from time to time). Suddenly, I have this vague feeling that the Danube had something to do with a childhood dream of mine.
When I was very little, they used to announce the Danube’s level in centimeters over the radio. It sounds absurd but I found it exciting: unknown cities… a report about a rise of 10 cm. here, a drop of 3 cm. there… level unchanged somewhere else. Then they repeated that again in Russian and in French: “sans changemeau” (sounded so funny to me back then that I swear this program made me choose Spanish as a second language at school). That’s how I fell asleep thinking of distant places and captains who were also having a laugh at the phrase “sans changemeau”. Years later, I became captain with the right to sail a 40 gross tonnage vessel. Somehow I passed the exam and the Bulgarian Marine Administration said “yes, you are good to go” and even gave me a plastic license. Who knows? Perhaps the day a ship serving the needs of wine tourism along the Lower Danube is not so far away. Until then, I suggest that you find the time to visit this part of Bulgaria. There are so-o-o many things worth seeing...