The ride from Veliko Tarnovo to Varna over good roads is uneventful and takes me about three hours with a stop for fuel, coffee, and a much-needed drink of cold water.
After battling the notorious Varna traffic, I get lost looking for my hotel. My time is tight as the clock ticks. Legendary sommelier and wine educator Marin Atanasov will meet me at Divest Hotel at noon. I will join him and his colleague and fellow sommelier Nina Nikolova for a trip to Tsarev Brod winery near Shuman Bulgaria.
Beyond curating one of the best wine lists in Varna, Marin consults, promotes, and exports Bulgarian wine worldwide. He contacted me after I reached out to Tsarev Brod winemaker Niki Krastev. Marin speaks better English and is intimate with the winery’s story and portfolio. So we connect in Varna and then drive out to the winery to see the vineyards and taste its wines.
With Nina at the wheel, after escaping Varna traffic in less than an hour, we drive down the country road toward the estate. We pass a tennis court, a football field, and drive along massive tall hedges before entering a gate and into the complex. Tsarev Brod vineyard manager Mariela Petkova takes us on a walk through the vineyards.
Often new wineries start by building a physical winery and fitting it with the usual equipment. Mariela tells us that Tsarev Brod started by first planting vineyards. Mariela’s father-in-law began planting vines in its 27-hectare vineyard in 2001. Sitting at 250 meters in elevation, the total east-facing vineyard gives the grapes maximum sun exposure.
“The most important part of any winery is the vineyard. We started with the vines and waited ten to fifteen years before we started making wine, allowing the roots to grow deeper into the ground and rocks.” The old vines yield wines with more structure and minerality. They built the winery building and tasting room in 2015.
Mariela explains that when her father-in-law planted these vines, there was nothing here. No trees, no garden, no grapes—not even the tennis court or football field. They planted everything. Wearing paisley pants, an ivory sleeveless top, and fashionable sunglasses accented by her blond resting on her shoulder, she appears to be more of a sales and marketing professional than a vineyard manager. But no—she tends to these grapes and takes care of the vines.
Mostly, the Danubian Plain yields a colder climate than most of the other Bulgarian wine regions like the Thracian and Struma Valleys. Here the weather is better suited for white wine grapes. “When bud breaks here, the vines in the Struma Valley already have large leaves,” she tells me with Marin translating. “Here, we are always at least two weeks later.”
Winemakers from other regions often source white grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc from this region to elevate the acidity and bring freshness to their wines. Here the grapes yield wines the highest acidity in Bulgaria, often measuring anywhere from 7.5 to 9 grams per liter.
We walk between vines of Traminer as Mariela points to various plots, including Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gergana, a rare local and endangered varietal that is practically extinct if not for the efforts of the winery to rescue it. She assures me we’ll taste this later.
The vineyard slopes down to the east, pointing that way she shows that’s where they have plots of Pinot Noir. While they planted most of the vineyard with white varietals, the cool climate also makes for good Pinot Noir. They also cultivate two other red varietals, Cabernet Franc and Evmolpia. The latter is a new but scarcely planted varietal developed by Soviet-era viticulturists from the Institute of Viticulture and Enology in Pleven by crossing Bulgarian Mavrud with Merlot.
Mariela points to a few hills in the distance and tells me on one of those hills and carved into a 100-meter high cliff is the Madara Rider, a figure of a warrior knight fending off a lion. It’s the only UNESCO World. Heritage Site in Bulgaria dating back to the 8th century during the First Bulgarian Empire and before it converted to Christianity.
The Danubian Plain is not only home to Tsarev Brod and many other wineries, but it’s also laced with history from both the first and second Bulgarian Empires—dating back to medieval times. Yesterday I visited Veliko Tarnovo, one of several capitals during the 800-year reign of the Second Bulgarian Empire. And just east of here, the medieval towns of Pliska and Preslav also served as capitals during the early years of that empire. Here at Tsarev Brod, the winery takes its name from the nearby village, which in English translates to “King’s Road”—you can only imagine how many kings and emperors traveled these roads eons ago.
After our brief history lesson and walk through the vineyard, we wander into the wine cellar. The cavernous building at first seems sparse, but I realize it’s built to grow. Today Tsarev Brod uses just 30 percent of its grapes for its own label, selling the remaining 70 percent to other wineries. In 2018, Tsarev Brod produced about 40,000 bottles or the equivalent of about 3,300 12-bottle cases.
Even though production at this boutique winery is small, Tsarev Brod garnishes big awards and accolades. In 2017, Divino Magazine named the 2015 Tsarev Brod Riesling in its list of top 20 wines in Bulgaria—the first time any Bulgarian Riesling made the list. And in 2016 the Tsarev Brod Pinot Noir Reserve 2012 was the first Bulgarian Pinot Noir to make the top 20.
At first, the cellar looks like most any other I’ve seen in wineries here Bulgaria and all over the world. But there’s something different about the three stainless steel fermentation tanks. The unique shape of the tanks allows for more C02 from fermentation to be integrated by the wine while keeping it still. Also, the long line of oak barrels is strikingly different. Marin tells me Niki loves old and neutral oak barrels. Some of these barrels look as if they’re as old as the vines in the vineyard. Then there are three stainless steel barrel-shaped casks.
Marin tells me that Niki likes to experiment and has definite ideas on how to produce wine and get the results he strives. We walk past a large box of DIAM corks, and I share the story of my time with Rossidi, another Bulgarian winery which now uses the so-called guaranteed taint free corks from France.
In the far corner of the winery, Marin shows me Tsarev Brod’s laboratory. “The law requires every winery have a laboratory,” he explains. “During harvest, this means faster test results and the ability to adjust and make more immediate decisions.”
Brushing by a ping pong table, Marin walks up to a stack of wine boxes, pulling out a bottle to show me. It’s the Tsarev Brod Pet Nat, a sparkling wine made by using an ancient technique dating back to France long before they ever made Champagne. Short for Pétillant Naturel, Pét-Nat is a spritzy wine produced in the méthode ancestral, bottling the wine before it completes its first fermentation. This allows carbon dioxide (read: bubbles) production by the natural sugar in the grapes.
Pét-Nat’s tend to be lower in alcohol, fizzier, and often sweet—though some can be dry. Finding a Pét-Nat ten years ago would have been challenging. Today they are becoming trendy, tagging onto the natural wine movement. Most Pét-Nats are hazy and still contain the dead yeast in the bottle. Whereas in traditional champagnes, the yeast is discouraged. At Tsarev Brod, Niki disgorges the dead yeast and tops the bottle with a bit of Riesling, admitting that the Bulgarian market isn’t ready for a cloudy wine with floating sediment.
We walk into the tasting room where Mariela has set a gorgeous wood dining table with a spread of cheese, bread, dried meats, and plenty of stemware for tasting Tsarev Brod wines. Mariela opens a bottle of Pét-Nat, using a bottle opener to pop off its crown cap—better known as a beer cap, and also a signature of Pét-Nat bottles.
“All the progressive wineries are trying to make Pét-Nat,” Marin tells me. “It’s booming in the big cities of the world. People are discovering it because it was the first sparkling wine made in the world.” Tsarev Brod produced just 400 bottles in 2017. He laughs, “they sold half of them and drank the other half.” For 2018, the winery increased production to 1700 bottles. Speaking in Bulgarian with Mariela, they laugh. “We’re counting how many bottles are left.”
The 2018 Tsarev Brod Pét-Nat shows a bit of yeastiness and crusty bread on the nose along with citrus, apple, and mineral. On the palate, it’s bone dry with flavors of green apple, citrus, and a bit of seashell salinity and citrus on the finish. It’s wildly interesting, fun, and fresh.
When bottled amid its fermentation, the Riesling measured about 35 grams per liter in sugar, but after fermentation and in our glasses, it measures that bone dry one to two grams of sugar.
With our palates zinging with the lingering flavors of Pét-Nat, we sit down and start our tasting of about eight wines. First up is the 2015 Tsarev Brod Riesling. I’m surprised to learn that the nearly four-year-old 2015 Riesling we’re tasting is the current release.
“Riesling is a very cool climate grape,” Marin explains. “Sure, Bulgaria doesn’t strike as a Riesling producing country. But if there is a place that can grow a proper Riesling, it’s right here.” He goes on to explain that nearby in the old capital of Preslav outside Shuman, during communist times, the town was famous for producing Riesling. “The Riesling here has a lot of depth and needs time to develop in the bottle.”
As we taste the Riesling, Marin tells me that the previous vintage, 2014, was a tough year for Riesling. So winemaker Niki Krastev held back 300 bottles and will wait until 2024 to serve them. He thinks the wine needs ten years to develop and be ready to drink. We’re drinking the 2015, which is the first year Tsarev Brod bottled it in a traditional green Riesling bottle. Before they served it in a Burgundy bottle.
The wine is driven by intense minerality, with hints of petroleum and candle wax around a core of citrus, lemon, grapefruit, and apple on the nose. On the palate, there is no hiding the nearly nine grams per liter acidity, and the wine tastes flinty with lemon, apricot, pepper, and spice. It finishes creamy with honey and Marcona almond. I also detect a hint of tannin, which Marin says probably the winemaker used some thick-skinned whole berries during fermentation. There’s no question it’s a complex and multilayered wine. We all agree this is a wine that needs focus, and each of us could fill a page of tasting notes.
It’s a gorgeous expression of Bulgarian Riesling. “When you have the right place, the right winemaker, the right vineyard manager, and fifteen-year-old vineyards, you have everything lined up,” quips Marin. “I love Riesling!” he says, adding, “You cannot make a good Riesling in a bad place.”
The conversation and wines get more interesting. Next up is the 2018 Tsarev Brod Gergana. They are the only winery in the world producing wine from Gergana grapes. The story is very personal. In the 1980s, Tsarev Brod owner Ivan Ivanov and Mariela’s father-in-law was the most prominent farmer in his village. He took cuttings from a vineyard plot planted with Gergana and gave them to his neighbors to grow around and on their pergolas. He knew the grapes would thrive because Gergana is a vigorous varietal and is ideal for growing on a pergola. The grape was developed in Pleven by crossing Dimyat with Muscat Ottonal. Historically Bulgarians produced brandy, or Rakija from Gergana, though some grapes may have been used to make home wine.
Some twenty years later, the grape varietal was nearly lost in Bulgaria. So he went back to the community and took cuttings from many of the remaining vineyards in the community and replanted them here, single-handedly rescuing the wine from oblivion. Except instead of brandy, he believed that he could make an aromatic and easy drinking wine from Gergana.
Mariela shows me a photo of the vines and grape clusters. Wow! They are massive clusters with huge grapes. She tells us the vines need to be tamed, but when cultivated correctly, it makes for a beautiful wine. Marin points out that Niki uses yeast intended for red wine because these yeasts don’t overly extract floral aromas. With typical white wine yeast, the wine might take on the unwelcome characteristics of rose water.
Even so, the wine is extremely aromatic with floral notes dominating, with hints of lemon zest and banana peel on the nose. The wine is very viscous and has good structure, all because the wine spent some six months on the lees. It’s a fascinating wine that also begs to be discussed. For now, the only place you’ll find Gergana is here at Tsarev Brod.
The grape’s name comes from a traditional Bulgarian name for a woman. “Gergana is a girl’s name,” Marin explains. “The shortened version of Gergana, it Geri—so we call this wine Geri, too.” We laugh.
The Gergana label design is different than the other Tsarev Brod labels. It incorporates a geometric motif from the traditional Bulgarian dress of women. This is combined with the Tsarev Brod grape leaf icon, giving it the appearance of a crown. “After all, we are in the Valley of the Kings and on the King’s Road!” Mariela’s brother, who lives in the United States, designs all of Tsarev Brod’s wine labels.
Continuing with the tasting of whites, we move on to the 2016 Tsarev Brod Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, which undergoes a fermentation proces where the the juice is mixed together with 15 percent of hand-selected and de-stemmed grapes. As with the Riesling, Tsarev Brod holds back the wine so it can develop in the bottle. Typically wineries release Sauvignon Blanc within a year of harvest, Tsarev Brod released its 2016 Sauvignon Blanc to market in November 2018.
Intensely aromatic with wafts of eucalyptus combined with citrus, kiwi, and apricot. On the palate, there’s good acidity, lots of minerality with flavors of citrus, stone fruit, and apricot. “This wine is like a ballerina,” notes Marin, “it’s got muscle and finesse.” He tells me this is a crowd favorite at Sea Terrace where they move 60 or 70 bottles a night during the summer.
We talk about the decision to cull Bulgaria’s wine regions from five to two EU recognized PGI subregions, the Danube Plain, and Thracian Lowlands. However, Marin admits that Bulgarian winemakers tend to recognize nine distinct winemaking regions in the country, and in time the community may seek to update these to better represent the unique climate and terroir of additional sub-regions.
It’s time to taste the Tsarev Brod Pinot Noir. Mariela will pour us three distinct bottlings of its Pinot Noir. She tells us that they have two clones of Pinot Noir planted in the vineyard. Clone 105 is from Champagne and doesn’t ripen easily, so they use it for the Tsarev Brod rose. The other, clone 115, is used for its varietal Pinot Noir bottlings.
First, we taste the “white label” Pinot Noir, an unoaked beauty that undergoes spontaneous fermentation using only natural yeast. He tells me fermentation for this vintage lasted some eight or nine months. Mariela pours the wine. We’ve been tasting wines and talking for nearly an hour. I haven’t even sampled any of the fine cheese or meats on the table. The air-dried beef, made by the winery owner and Mariela’s father-in-law, is rich and is an excellent accompaniment to the unoaked Pinot Noir I’m now tasting.
The 2017 Tsarev Brod White Label Pinot Noir (unoaked) is dark in color and shows sour cherries and strawberry on the nose, with black cherry and strawberry jam on the palate. With the fresh bottle just opened, at first, I find it a bit awkward, but after some time, the wine opens up and evolves.
“This wine needs a least another year in the bottle,” Marin points out. “It will come around.”
The 2015 Tsarev Brod Amber Label Pinot Noir also shows a deep vibrant dark color. Beautifully balanced, the wine is aged 12 months in oak, of which only 30% is new, and the rest neutral. As I take in the aromas of the wine, there’s something I struggle to identify.
Marin blurts out, “It’s like new sneakers—you know—a slight rubber smell.”
I take another whiff. Hmmm. He’s right. Marin explains that Niki likes old barrels. And as the barrels age, he refuses to get rid of them. Instead, he chooses to recondition them, where a cooper strips the wood on the inside to expose fresher oak. On one of the old barrels, Marin hypothesizes, the cooper perhaps cut too deep into the wood. That barrel, or barrels, earned Niki a reputation. The wines reveal such unique aromas that winemakers prod him by saying, “Hey, you still have those old barrels, don’t you?”
Some ten years ago, Marin tells me, Bulgaria offered winemakers a program where they had access to money for buying new oak barrels. Many winemakers participated in the program. With Niki’s fondness for his hold barrels, he didn’t join the crowd. Most of the others did, which he thinks paved a path for over-oaked wines.
The Amber Label Pinot continues to open up and evolve in our glasses. I get aromas of earth and mushroom on the nose around a core of strawberry jam. On the palate, both tart and ripe flavors of sour berry, wild strawberry with anise.
I pick up the third Pinot, the 2015 Tsarev Brod Reserve Pinot Noir, which is even darker. They make the Reserve from hand-selected grapes and the wine ages in oak barrels longer, often up to 24 months.
With more earth and dark cherry flavors, the Reserve is thick and a tad hot, showing its 14.5% alcohol. Even at four years old, this wine could use more time to evolve. On the nose, it reveals aromas of black cherry and baking chocolate. After a few moments, it shows some sweetness like molasses and cherries jubilee. It’s wonderfully seductive, and even in its “young” state, I’m attracted to it and mark it my favorite of the three.
Marin feels the Amber Label is the best drinking wine for right now. All the wines will improve with time. It’s a revealing tasting, and I appreciate the opportunity to taste three different expressions of Bulgarian Pinot Noir from the same vineyard. The white label is a pure expression of Pinot without any added oak. The Amber Label shows what neutral oak and a bit of new oak can do to add structure and complexity. And with the Black Label Reserve, I get a wine that pushes a bit more oak with the hand selection of the best grapes from the vineyard.
As Mariela sets to pour the next and final wine of our tasting today, Marin discusses how the Bulgarian palate for wine has been teased and manipulated over the years. “The misrepresented fairy tale view that Bulgarian wines must be full-bodied and dark, is just wrong.”
He says many winemakers are under the notion that they must produce big and bold wines. “They do this by blending wines to make them darker and full-bodied. We’ve just recently seen a movement with many winemakers focused on terroir, single varietals, and true varietal expression. And Pinot Noir,” Marin continues, “people are just starting to understand Pinot Noir. During communism times, there were just .2 hectares planted in Pinot. Nobody knew about it.”
Our final wine is perhaps the most unique of the bunch, an Ice Wine made from 100% Riesling. Grapes are harvested after the first snowfall of the season, usually late November or early December. The longer the grapes hang on the vines, the smaller and more shriveled they get, losing water with each day. By the time of the first snowfall, the grapes get encrusted in ice.
Mariela shows me a few pictures of the grapes, vineyard, and a photo of her standing by the vines. I look closely, and yes, she’s not wearing fancy shoes like today. No, she’s wearing knee-high farmers’ boots—but even they are stylish, in color that is: shiny red boots. Perfectly suited, I believe, for the beautiful vineyard manager. Nice.
The grapes produce very little wine. She explains that for every 100 kilograms of grapes, they get just ten or twelve liters of wine. They bottle the wine in small 200ml bottles for retail sales and in a larger liter bottle for restaurants so they can pour by the glass.
The 2017 Tsarev Ice Wine wine is a golden nectar color with aromas of sweet apricot, fig jam, and cassia, and on the palate, I get alluring flavors or fresh apricot, lemon curd, and honey. It’s sweet, but not cloying. The ideal taste to end an afternoon of exploring vineyards, reflecting on history, making connections, laughing, and incredible and exciting Bulgarian wine from the Danube Plain.
As we say goodbye, Mariela hands me a bottle of the Ice Wine. I remark how cute the bottle is and how it’s the perfect sized bottle to take on a motorcycle. Thanking her, we all laugh, hug and say goodbye.
The ride back to Varna is filled with more history, geeky wine talk, and making plans. Tonight Marin is hosting his weekly wine tasting at Sea Terrace, and Nina will be working the terrace dining room suggesting and serving excellent Bulgarian wines to the guests.
As we are rolling down the road, a look of panic flushes Nina’s face. She blinks and looks at her instrument panel. “Oh no,” she cries. “we need gas—real bad.” We are traveling a remote part of eastern Bulgaria. There are few gas stations. The gas gauge needle is already past the “E.” We all wonder what happens if we run out.
I feel bad for both Marin and Nina. They must work tonight, and if they’re late, that can be a problem. I pull out my phone and test Google. It shows the next gas station is just under 30 kilometers (18 miles) away—but is Google accurate?
Nina is convinced we won’t make it before running out. I suggest she pull over and keep her foot light on the gas and slow down. We’re biting our nails, feeling our hearts beat harder and faster as we get closer to Varna.
We finally spot the gas station as we crest a hill. Cool, at least we could coast if the engine stops. But it doesn’t. We make it. Now it’s our story—and we’ll tell it over and over again each time we connect again and again in the future.