One of the Bulgarian wineries making a name and earning praise and accolades in the eastern part of the Danube Plain is Salla Estate. Located just 60 kilometers from Varna, Salla Estate’s beginnings started in 2007 when brothers Ivan Ivanov and Georgi Anastasov planted some 30 hectares of vineyards outside the village of Blaskovo. In 2010, three years later, they built a winery and bottled the first Salla Estate wine.
Several winemakers and sommeliers urged me to visit Salla when I made it to the Black Sea Coast. Both Nina and Marin know Stefan Ivanov, the son of one of Salla’s founders, and arranged for me to meet him. So many encouraged me to the Salla Estate wines, especially the Salla Estate Pinot Noir which I’m told is excellent.
With business brewing in Varna, Marin cannot join us for the forty-five-minute ride to Salla. With Nina at the wheel, we pull into the vast complex with multiple buildings and a large parking lot. There’s not a car anywhere. I notice three new buildings under construction, one across the road and two inside the gates. The massive facility even has its own gas pump, which I assume is to fuel the farm equipment for Salla’s farming business. Even though it’s a ghost town today, it appears business is booming with Salla.
We walk to a stable on the far side of the parking lot. Beautiful Lipizzaner horses graze on the grass behind weathered rail fences. Plenty of horses, but nobody to greet us. Confused, Nina makes a few calls. Nobody answers. We wander around the outside of the buildings. We see stable hands tend to the horses, and housekeeper doing laundry. They all tend to their business as if we’re not there. There are no signs, nothing is marked. It’s impossible to determine which building houses the winery or tasting room. We knock on locked doors to no avail.
“Did they forget about us?” I ask Nina. She shakes her head. Moments later, her phone rings. It’s Stefan. He is tending to a busload of French tourists in the vineyards, some six kilometers up the road. They are having lunch, and he invites us to join them. We pile back into the car and motor up the road until we find yet another building. This one has a sign.
Outside the building is a large pergola covering a patio filled with more than a dozen picnic tables. A jovial woman, Deanne tends to a grill, turning sausages, farm vegetables, and meats with tongs as the large group of Frenchs watch. Soon enough, she serves Nina and me lunch. She serves everything on traditional Bulgarian ceramic pottery. Besides cold water, there are two bottles of wine. This isn’t the Salla Estate branded and bottled juice. No, this is the ‘home’ wine. Even so, it’s tasty if not just a tad on the fruity side; it pairs nicely with the smokey grilled fare.
Stefan joins us at the table. After lunch, we will go back to the winery and meet Anelia Hristakieva, Salla’s winemaker, credited for making the best and highest rated Bulgarian white wine in 2017. As Nina and I enjoy our picnic and gaze out at Salla’s impressive vineyard, Stefan explains that besides the vineyard, Salla farms another 27 hectares of hazelnuts. Even more, Salla contracts with other landowners and plants and manages produce, wheat, grain, and corn, which they sell to a trading company for export.
Salla’s northwest exposure vineyards increase in elevation as the slope up south. Stefan points out the various white varietals on the lower part of the vineyard which includes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Riesling, and Vranchanski Miskit. They grow just two red varietals, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, which they planted on higher plots in the vineyard. Today, Salla Estate uses only 30 percent of its grape production, and sell the remaining fruit to other wineries. “In the future, we plan to use more, if not our entire production of grapes,” Stefan explains.
Before heading back to join the busload of French tourists, I take the time to snap more photos of the vineyard. Back at the winery, Stefan leads us into the tasting room, where we find the French already seated and tasting their first wine. In the front of the room, Anelia, the winemaker, swirls a glass of Salla Estate Vranchanski Misket while addressing the crowd in French.
Nina, Stefan, and I grab a table in the back and whisper as the French engage in their tasting with the Salla Estate winemaker. When the brothers planned to build a winery, they let Anelia design it precisely how she wanted. Stefan tells us, “we wanted to let our winemaker, without restrictions or targets, to build what she wanted from the ground up.”
“Winemakers are like artists,” he says, “this was her dream, so we let her.”
We taste the 2018 Salla Estate Vrachanski Misket. It’s pale yellow in color with a slight green tint. On the nose, I get floral aromas with hints of spice and bouquet garni. On the palate, it’s dry, soft and has flavors of tree fruit and nut. It has good balance and structure with a beautiful finish.
As with other Bulgarian wineries, it took Salla Estate nearly eight years to buy 30 contiguous hectares of land for its vineyards. They had to locate and convince more than 150 pre-communist landowners to sell.
When I ask Stefan about what he sees as the biggest challenge facing the Bulgarian wine industry, he’s doesn’t hesitate. “We must combine all the wineries and collectively focus on a strategy that will present a single, consistent, and unified face to the world.” He feels that individual wineries taking promoting its wines dilutes the effort and confuses the market. “There are 200 wineries in Bulgaria, we need to market as a whole—build a brand for our country.”
I pose the question of which varietal could be the flagship or identity grape for Bulgarian wine. “Maybe Mavrud,” he reflects for a moment. “It’s Bulgaria and one of the most popular varietals.”
“Or maybe Rubin,” he suggests, “but the wineries making these wines today are very bold and strong. But today there is a tendency and movement to make wines with more finesse, lighter.” Interestingly, he’s referring to grapes that Salla Estate doesn’t grow. In fact, these are most often cultivated in the Thracian Valley and not typically grown here in the Danube Plain.
Salla Estate plans to promote wine and Agro-tourism. I look around, and Anelia is pouring the next wine, a rose made from Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc to the packed room of French tourists. It seems Salla has a head start with tourism.
“We want to build a hotel overlooking the vineyards,” he explains, “People love to come to nature. We want to give tourists an experience. We have a good view, it’s peaceful, we have the horses, and we are close to Varna.” He tells us that they already have a few rooms and a restaurant here next to the winery, but at the time they intended to use for friends and family. Guests can book rooms here, but Salla Estate’s vision is more expansive and will focus on service besides the wine.
After sipping the crisp and fresh Salla Estate Rose, Stefan pours us a taste of the 2016 Salla Estate Cabernet Franc. I notice the French tourists lined up at the bar buying wine from Anelia. This I find ironic given most French citizens feel anything French is better than most anything else—especially wine.
I try to get a few words with Anelia, but she’s more engaged with the French tourists. So I snap a few photos of the winery and with Stefan, Nana, and Anelia. When I get a chance, I ask about the Pinot Noir everyone talks about. At that moment, Anelia grabs a bottle from the shelf and shows it to me. Interesting, okay.
Stefan takes us on a quick tour of the horse stable and into the restaurant/dining room used for events and the guest rooms. He points to a photograph of his father and uncle, the founders of Salla Estate—Ivan and Georgi Ivanov. His father, Ivan, is the older brother and worked at a bank for 20. years before deciding to commit full time to the winery. His Uncle, Gogi, is the agricultural trader who started with corn and grain.
I ask about the horses. The Salla Estate logo features their beautiful animals. “They are a passion of my father,” Stefan explains. “And they fit in here, on this ranch in the country.”
I agree, and it creates a strong brand image. Stefan points out the spur in the logo, something both Nina and I didn’t see at first. He tells us the name Salla dates back to the Ottoman Turkish time in Bulgaria. At the time, they named the village Salla, which comes from the Turkish word Salik, meaning pure, nice, and good.
“That’s what we want to do here, make pure, nice, and good things,” Stefan smiles.
When the previous owners of the property and farm here filed for bankruptcy, the brothers resurrected it—first with hazelnuts, corn and grain, and then the winery. “We’ve done this all organically,” he says, noting that there never was much of a plan. He tells us the business just grew along with the passion and desire of the family. “We are a family business.”
As I look closer at the dining room, an eerie feeling engulfs me. The mounted taxidermy trophies of big African game adorning the walls seem out of place. As I scan the hung trophies, I’m reminded of another winery in Paso Robles in California. There, Michael Gill Cellars displays taxidermy of big game and even endangered animals in its tasting room. I laugh to myself as I have no recollection of the Michael Gill wines at all. The only image I can conjure in my mind is that of a dead polar bear standing in the tasting room. But that’s California.
Here at Salla Estate, at least they don’t display in the winery or the tasting room. Yet I look at the magnificent African antelope, including Oryx, Eland, Springbok, and others. I cannot imagine pulling the trigger of a gun and killing them. To be sure, here at Salla East none of these are endangered. Also, I understand that the Ivanovs love big game hunting. I’m sure they do it legally with proper licenses. But I can’t help thinking about them—and the animals I know these guys love animals given the fantastic care and home they have built for their horses. I make no judgment, it’s just not me. To be sure, I’m far more interested in the trophies, medals, and awards this Bulgarian winery have earned for its wines, rather than the trophies donning the walls of the Salla Estate dining room for the marksmanship of its founders.
Come to think of it, I never tasted the Salla Estate Pinot Noir. Hmmm.
Mentioned In This Post
Village of Blaskovo
Blaskovo, Varna, Bulgaria