Today I head to Plovdiv where I’m excited to explore the wines of the Thracian Lowlands and meet one of Bulgaria’s most lauded winemakers, Natalia Gadjeva. I’m eager to taste her wines and talk about the history and future of Dragomir Estate Winery which she owns and operates along with her husband, Konstantin and their partner Valeri.
The ride from Sofia to Plovdiv takes me just under two hours. The scorching sun and rising temperatures cause my iPhone to overheat and shut down. I pull over to a shady area on the side of the main road leading into Plovdiv to let the phone cool down so the GPS can guide me to the Hotel Ego in the town center.
Once out of my riding suit and into regular civilian clothes, I meet my driver, Todor, in the hotel lobby. I’ve hired a driver so I can stick to my “no tasting when riding” rule. Todor speaks perfect English and is a wine lover. He tells me he spent most of his career working in fine dining restaurants.
He drives me to the outskirts of the city to an industrial park. Pulling into Dragomir doesn’t evoke the image and romance of a chateau or villa where they make excellent wine. There are no vineyards, no grand entrance, and no elaborate tasting room.
Inside I’m greeted by the lovely Natalia. He long flowing auburn hair gently bounces off her shoulders as she guides through the tasting and retail room into the back of the building, which serves as the winery. She’s matter of fact when she tells me that she admits that upon first glances Dragomir doesn’t appear like a traditional winery. But when she started Dragomir with her husband, and their partner and wine lover Valeri, they all agreed the focus must be on the wine.
Natalia explains that for Dragomir, they first focus on the vineyard and the winemaking. As she whisks me around the winery, it’s clear that they are tight on space. Soon I’m joined by Mira and Metodi two Dragomir employees responsible for hospitality and sales and marketing.
“We are getting ready to move,” she finally reveals while telling me about the new Dragomir Winery. She hopes it will be ready and functional for vinifying the 2019 vintage—the first vintage in the new winery. “I cannot sleep at night,” Natalia confesses. “I’m worried about everything with this move.” We pass by a bottling machine where they’ve been bottling the 2018 Dragomir Rose Cepage. The bottle is uniquely etched, and they must hand label each one.
Drink & Think Local: Bulgarian Wine By Dragomir
“We maintain both quality and quantity with strict control in the vineyards. We work in two different vineyards,” Natalia says. In one moment she speaks calculated as a winemaker and in the next moment as a proud matriarch. “Only Dragomir wines are on the list of top ten wines in Bulgaria every year,” Natalia proudly asserts, referring to DiVino the Bulgarian wine magazine, and website that publishes a list of top fifty wines every year. She laughs and waves her arms around the unlikely warehouse winery, “top ten wine every year from this not so typical place.”
“It’s the vineyards,” she reminds me. “One is five kilometers is 13 hectares planted with Rubin and Mavrud, and we have a new vineyard about one hundred kilometers from here,” she explains. “We have strict control in the vineyards, and in the cellar.” She tells me that it took about ten years to purchase the new twenty-four-hectare vineyard where she planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Rubin, and a small amount of Petit Verdot. “I started working on this vineyard in 2006, and each year we got five hectares here, three hectares here, and so on.” They completed the large plot in 2015 and finished planting in 2017.
“This year will be the first year we will get fruit,” she explains, “but this will not be good quality.” She admits that thirty-seven hectares are too much for Dragomir, so they will keep the best quality grapes for Dragomir, and sell the rest.
We walk into one of several barrel rooms. “Half of our red wines we barrel age,” she tells me while explaining this is important for the style of Dragomir wines. Dragomir uses ninety-five percent French oak barrels and five percent Bulgarian oak barrels, working with six different cooperages. The wines aged in barrel sit for at least twelve months and up to thirty-six months. I remark about the barrel racking system and how each barrel sits on wheels and therefore making it easy to rotate them.
“Sure this is one way to use these racks, for those wines made using bâtonnage,” Natalia tells me. But for Dragomir they use these racks for a more practical reason: it makes moving and cleaning barrels much easier.
We walk past a wooden box with several magnums- and double magnum-sized bottles wrapped in red paper. “This is the 2011 Reserve, these can age for ten to fifteen years,” she says. The packaging is clean, classy, and very distinctive.
We snap a bunch of pictures and move into another room, stacked with bottles and bins. During harvest, they use this room to cool the grapes before fermentation. They harvest about six tons of grapes each day and cool them down to six degrees (celsius) overnight so we can begin cold fermentation the next day.
Natalia shows me a sign that reads “Drink Local.” “This is very important for us to send a message to people to not only drink Dragomir, but to drink local, live local, and eat local. We walk past more barrels and bottles.
Natalia has made wine in Bulgaria since her first vintage in 1993 while working for another winery. “We were the first generation after socialism to have a vision and see a future for Bulgarian wine,” she says.” At the time they exported most of the wine to Russia and to the low-price market in the United Kingdom. Then after six or seven years, things started to change, and quality improved.
Natalia and her husband Konstantin started Dragomir in 2006. They set out to make something unique and to seek a balance and to show the uniqueness of different grape varietals. “We wanted to make something special so that they would never forget the taste of the wine.” She admits this was a challenging time because she wanted to do something different and along with others of her generation to change the concept and perception of Bulgarian wine. They set out to show Bulgarian people—and the world—how to reimagine wine from Bulgaria.
She admits that after working with young wines, each year they learned something. They didn’t know what to expect and step-by-step after twenty years the Dragomir wines—and many other Bulgarian wines improved in quality, color, aromas, and taste.
Dragomir wines are some of the highest-priced in Bulgaria. “I was very nervous when people told me Dragomir wines are too expensive. But they don’t know the time, process, and effort we put into everything—from buying the vineyards to making the wine.”
She tells me that five barrels of wine are pre-sold only to one local buyer—and not to an importer. They have enough confidence in the wine that the pre-order before bottling.
Dragomir bottles about 60,000-65,000 bottles each year. Though during the tough 2014 vintage they produced just 38,000 bottles. “We prefer to maintain quality, not our production numbers.” In the new winery and as the new young vineyards mature, Dragomir will slowly increase production that will top out at 90,000 or 100,000 bottles.
She laughs. “We must do this because our new winery is very expensive and we must pay the bank!”
We walk back into the tasting room and front office where Mira shows me architectural drawings of the new winery. It’s modern and spotless. There is a tasting room that looks down to the barrel room. There will be a wine bar. Dragomir also will host wine experience and education classes to continue to help Bulgarians and tourists to understand and appreciate wine.
With a Master’s degree in winemaking and a Doctorate in wine, Mira will host guests, lead master classes and tastings and be Dragomir’s Eno-guide. Plus, she’ll assist Natalia in the winemaking and in the laboratory. I sense the excitement from all three of my hosts today. This new winery is a big step and investment for Dragomir. They are just about a month away from beginning to harvest white grapes. The countdown for this massive move is on.
As Mira explains a bit about the various brands and levels of Dragomir produced wines, Natalia takes phone calls, and ushers in an out of the back room. Several staffers, there are bottling and packing wines for shipments. Yet every time she is back in the room, she knows precisely what Mira is explaining and often adds a bit of detail.
I place my recorder down on the table next to my camera, with it sitting partially on the strap. While talking about the Sarva wines, Natalia moves the recorder off the camera strap. She’s meticulous. Later she notices one bottle displayed on a table at one end of the room is not facing forward, she turns it, so it’s perfect. I know she gives this and much more attention to her wine.
I ask Natalia the most unfair question: what is her favorite Dragomir wine. This is like asking a mother, who is her favorite child. She is quick to answer and with the usual caveat. “If right now, I prefer the Sarva Rose,” a pale salmon-colored wine made from two local Bulgarian varietals, Rubin and Mavrud. “If we are having dinner, I will prefer the Pitos,” she says, referring to the popular blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Rubin.
As we prepare to taste Dragomir’s entry-level brand of wines titled “Sarva,” Natalia is quick to point out that entry-level doesn’t mean low quality. They produce every Dragomir wine with the same approach to quality in both the vineyard and the winery.
“We make these wines specifically to be fruity and fresh, and with complexity,” she explains. “These wines are for beginners, for people just starting to enjoy and understand wine. You need not work hard to understand Sarva.” Mira adds that you don’t have to think about which food to pair them. Instead, they are easy to pair with any food, and at just 12.5% alcohol, they are simply easy to drink. Natalia adds they put much effort in the vineyard and to when to harvest so they can maintain the low alcohol. Perhaps most important, they make each Sarva wine with at least one Bulgarian varietal.
For the Sarva, they bottle three wines. The Sarva White is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Dimiyat, a local Bulgarian varietal. Next, they offer a Sarva Rose, which is a blend of Mavrud and Rubin, and finally the Sarva Mavrud, one hundred percent Bulgarian Mavrud.
The Sarva white is aromatic, crisp, clean and shows hints of green apple, pear, and lime on the nose with citrus flavor and a hint of honey on the palate. It’s an easy-drinking wine to have with a salad, sitting on the patio in summer, or just to open before dinner like an apéritif. I enjoy it.
With the excitement of the new winery and the next vintage likely to be bottled in the facility, they share with me new labels for several of the wines including the Pitos Reserve and the entire lineup of Sarva wines. Like the entire Bulgarian wine industry, Dragomir Estate Winery is evolving and the new designs reflect its growth, maturity, and quality.
While tasting through the Sarva wines, I ask each of my hosts about the challenges and opportunities for Bulgarian wine. Mira admits that most Bulgarian people know little about wine. So the opportunity is to expand the domestic market through information that will spur a stronger wine culture throughout the country.
Mira also recognizes that around the world, Bulgarian wine has a bad name. This comes from many years of inferior bulk wine exported to Russian and the United Kingdom. “Even though Bulgaria has a history of thousands of years in winemaking, we have to create a new brand and clear our name by producing quality wines. The perception of Bulgarian wine in the export markets from the time of socialism was Bulgaria made cheap wine,” she confesses.
Metodi says that new wineries are popping up all the time, many taking advantage of EU funds and subsidies. At the moment he reflects and says, “there are too many wineries here,” Mira interrupts him.
“There aren’t too many wineries, there are not enough customers.” She makes a good point and asserts that in the new winery, Dragomir will have two tasting rooms, a wine bar, and will hold educational and informational events. They all hope to open the eyes and minds of Bulgarians and others to the possibilities and potential of Bulgarian wine.
Mira pours me a taste of the 2018 Sarva Rose. As I sip the wine, I’m struck by the pale salmon color and the gentle aromatics of flowers and on the palate, it’s fresh and with good acidity. Made from Rubin and Mavrud, Natalia tells me they harvest grapes just for rose usually about fifteen days before harvesting for the red wines. The wine sees no additional skin contact, taking the juice immediately after pressing. They vilify the two grapes separately, and when ready, they blend the two. For those hot Bulgaria summers, this rose is a crisp and delicate drinker and at just 12.5% alcohol a perfect summer wine where it’s easy to drink a full bottle. A healthy rose!
As I swirl my glass and savor the Sarva Rose, Natalia talks about the Dragomir Cepage Rose, a wine that perhaps challenges the notion of what a rose wine can be. They make the wine from a field blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Rubin grapes all harvest at the same time from a single vineyard. In one day they press the grapes, extract the juice, and put it into barrels. Here the juice endures extended fermentation and sits in used barrels with regular stirring of the lees for about eight months.
This is a very unusual approach to making a rose. In deciding to make this Cepage rose, Natalia observed that many winemakers with ambition and who now work in modern wineries are eager to increase the quality and change the perception of Bulgarian wine—give it a new face. So when she discovered the winery where she worked for more than seventeen years came up for sale along with the vineyard Natalia planted with her own hands, she was ecstatic. But after she inspected that that vineyard, it disheartened her because the previous owners neglected it—the vines were in terrible shape. As part of her heritage and personal history, this emotionally drained Natalia. So she and her husband bought the winery and worked for many years to resurrect the vineyard.
When the vineyard began producing grapes, she knew the wine from these grapes had to be special and different. Admitting that all the Dragomir wines have a story, but the Dragomir Cepage Rose is perhaps the most personal. Plus, it had to differ from the Sarva Rose, which is made to be crisp and fresh as you would expect in a rose. So they set out to make the Cepage as a different expression and a unique approach to creating a rose. It had to be personal. Even the bottle is distinctive with its etched glass and hand label.
She pours me a taste of the 2018 Cepage Rose, bottled just a few days ago. Usually, she says, this wine needs at least three or six months of bottle age, but she is eager for me to taste. “The wine is another Dragomir experiment,” she tells me.
“We like to experiment at Dragomir.”
I swirl my glass; it has a hint of butterscotch on the nose with floral notes and dried berries. On the palate, it has good acidity and slightly weighty in the mouth with layers of fruit and floral flavors. I swirl and contemplate the wine—it packs plenty of complexity for a Rose.
Knowing that the recently bottled 2018 had yet to settle, Natalia wants me to experience the full expression of the Cepage, so she grabs a bottle of the 2017 and pours me a taste. The 2017 has elevated and more expressive aromas and is more round on the palate, but still showing good acidity. This is a rose made for food.
“This is our autumn and winter rose,” Natalia says, “And it’s our gastronomic wine.” She explains that this wine needs special food such as foie gras, escargot, mussels, or clams which all pair superbly with this wine.” In contrast to the light and fresh summer Sarva Rose, Natalia calls this the perfect “welcome drink” wine.
In 2015, for the first bottling of the Cepage Rose, Dragomir produced just 800 bottles. As the vineyard matures they produce more: 1600 bottles in 2016 and for 2017 and 2018 they produced 2700 bottles. At about 30 Lev ($17) the Cepage rose is nearly double the cost of the Sarva which costs 17 Lev ($9.50). Dragomir wines clock in as some of the most expensive in Bulgaria.
For our next wine, Mira pours me the 2015 Dragomir Karisma. “Now you can see what Chardonnay can be like from Bulgaria,” she explains. The 100% Chardonnay comes from a vineyard close to the Black Sea Coast, explaining that the only grapes Dragomir buys are white. The 2015 Karisma is barrel fermented and spends nine months in second-year used barrels. Then they hold the wine back for over two years before release. The wine is medium to full-bodied with layers of honey, flower, toast, and parmesan on the nose and toasty honey, floral notes, and tree fruits on the palate. It’s a complex wine, and at four years old, Natalia tells me it’s one of her experiments—showing white wines continue to evolve after two years.
Mira is excited about offering tastings of older vintages of Karisma to guests at the new winery. “People are hesitant and get scared when they see of 2014 Chardonnay,” she explains, “we want to educate our customers to show them how these wines can evolve—even whites—with age.”
As our conversation and tasting continue, we move to red wines. They make the 2017 Sarva Mavrud from 100% Mavrud, an ancient varietal indigenous to Bulgaria. Here Natalia uses minimum oak, blending fifty percent from two-year-old oak barrels with fifty percent of the wine made in stainless steel tanks. The wine is dark and shows aromas of black cherry, anise, and baking chocolate. On the palate, it has ripe cherry and mocha flavors. It’s well made with good structure but not too complex and a short but beautiful finish. To me, this is a perfect barbecue wine.
It’s also just 17 Lev, it’s price-to-quality ratio is very high. “Just because it costs less, doesn’t mean the quality is less,” insists Natalia. She says the winemaking for all their wines is the same, it’s just the style and use of oak that changes.
We move to the bigger reds starting with the 2012 Dragomir Pitos. This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Rubin—a varietal made by crossing Nebbiolo with Syrah during Soviet times at the Institute of Viticulture and Oenology in Pleven. The wine spends fourteen months in oak and then after bottling the hold the wine back another four and a half years. They produced about 16,000 bottles of the 2012 Pitos, which is the current vintage. The full-bodied wine is very well integrated with blackberry, cherry, and spice and finishes long with firm and yet balanced tannins and toast with more dark fruit.
Dragomir named Pitos after the clay vessel that the ancient Thracians buried in the ground and used to make wine, like the qvevri that Georgian winemakers still use. Though Dragomir doesn’t use this to make its Pitos wine.
We move to the 2013 Dragomir Pitos Reserve, made from 60% Rubin with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon making up the rest. The Pitos Reserve sees 24 months in French oak barrels; 60% new oak and 40% second year. It then spends two years in the bottle before release, so it’s available sooner than the Pitos. And like the Pitos 2013, Dragomir produces about 8,000 bottles annually of the Reserve Rubin and Reserve Cabernet Franc. Though Natalia tells me that the 2014 will be very limited because of a tough vintage thanks to tiny berries. For 2014 there are only 2,000 bottles.
Quality is key to the Pitos Reserve, and she only bottles the best for this blend; a great year in 2015 resulted in 20,000 bottles but 2016 just 12,000. Both the 2017 and 2018 are still in barrels, and she expects to bottle somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000.
I notice a gold sticker on the reserve bottle. It’s not calling to attention to an award or medal, which Dragomir wins plenty. Instead, this is a note to the consumer or sommelier: advising them to decant the wine before serving. A nice touch.
Yet even more astonishing are the labels. Well, they do not actually label the bottles. Instead, they adorn every bottle with a handwritten hangtag. Draped over the next of the bottle is a black card with a red and silver foil stamp of the Dragomir logo. They handwrite all the essential information about the wine in silver metallic ink.
Natalia tells me that she and her husband write each of the labels by hand. The thought of this daunting task is mind-boggling. She just told me that these wines make up nearly half of the winery’s production, and she and her husband label every single bottle by hand. The notion of hand-crafted wines just took on new meaning for me.
To prove that the handwriting is hers, she hands me her business card, which is an oversized book of matches. “These are not for cigars,” she points out, “these are for lighting candles,” she says. She takes a liquid ink pen and handwrites her contact info on the book of matches and then compares the writing to the 2013 Pitos Reserve bottle sitting on the table. They match.
Next, we taste a mini-vertical of what I think could be Dragomir’s flagship wine, the 2013 and 2015 Rubin Reserve. Made from 100% Rubin grapes from a 45-year-old vineyard of which they have an exclusive contract. Natalia directs and dictates the viticulture and tending to the vineyard, so it’s up to Dragomir standards. Divino, the leading Bulgarian magazine and website, awarded the 2012 Dragomir Rubin Reserve as the number one wine in Bulgaria.
The 2015 is a lush, full-bodied red that packs deep dark blackberries surrounded by hints of spice and pepper. On the palate, it is thick, chewy and yet with firm but fine tannins and a finish that goes on for well over a minute.
Natalia wants me to see the aging potential of Rubin, so we move to the 2013 which still is luscious and even more aromatic than the 2015. It also has more finesse, and the palate is still full-bodied by the tannins are even finer.
I ask Natalia what could be the identity grape, the wine that the world would know Bulgaria—what could be the signature grape? It’s not even a fair question, she tells me, answering, “Of course, Rubin!”
In front of me are the two Rubin Reserves, and as the time passes and the conversation gets deeper, the two wines evolve. I am slowing seduced into loving Rubin. I think of the possibilities for Rubin—and for Bulgaria.
Over that past several hours while wandering the winery and tasting these wines, I see yet another side of Bulgaria that commands notice. But Natalia isn’t done yet. She gives me a special treat. While her dessert wine made from another Bulgarian varietal, Dimiyat, garnered the top wine last year, she wants to share with me a couple of experiments. The first is a dessert wine made from Mavrud. Then she hands me a baby—a barrel taste of her latest project—a 2018 dessert wine made from Rubin.
I’m having such a great time and learning so much about Dragomir and its wines in the company with three passionate wine lovers. I am compelled to share the experience with friends, so I “Go Live” on Facebook and introduce Dragomir to my friends and followers.
Alas, All Things Must Pass. They need to get to work, as do I and move on to my next Bulgarian wine adventure. So with more photos and a promise to visit Natalia, Mira, and Metodi at the new winery soon, we hug and have our long goodbye.
Once again at Dragomir, I find the passion and a desire to not only make great wine but to extend and extra effort to reverse Bulgaria’s reputation from the Soviet period. By innovating, and experimenting, Natalia and her team are not only pushing Bulgarian wine to new heights in quality and price.
One thing that hasn’t changed, and that’s the Bulgarian hospitality. At Dragomir—as with everyone I meet in this beautiful country, it’s vibrant, welcoming, and warm. Thank you, Dragomir.
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