It’s about a fifteen-minute drive east from the center of Plovdiv to the sprawling Zagreus Winery. My driver Todor never visited the winery but admitted he isn’t familiar with the wines.
The winery and tasting room sit on a hillside overlooking over a hundred hectares of vineyards. Its modern architecture and floor to ceiling curvilinear glass that towers more than fifteen meters above is ominous, reflecting the deep blue sky, puffy white clouds, and vineyards.
Inside the expansive space offers stunning views of vineyards, fields of sunflowers, and gently sloping hills on the horizon. There’s a long tasting bar against one wall accented by a facing of thousands of corks behind glass. Sun streams in on the bar and a few high top wooden tables and chairs. Mostly the space is open.
Dimitar Ivanov, Zagreus enologist and assistant winemaker, greets me. Dressed in shorts, a t-shirt that reads, “my superpower is making an awesome wine.” Though today he looks like he’s more ready to supervise the pending harvest than to endure my curiosities.
Zagreus Winery began in 1998 and 1998 with the planting new wines. Every year since they plant more. We walk outside to the top of the hill behind the winery. “Everything you see,” he tells me, “are estate vineyards.” Today the vast winery stretches for 120 hectares. They grow just four varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Mavrud, the ancient Bulgarian variety. They planted more than half of the vineyards with Mavrud.
“We work a lot with Mavrud,” he explains. They bottle several different expressions of Mavrud and believe in the future of Mavrud as possibly the signature or identify grape for Bulgaria.
Zagreus built the winery in 2003 and completed the first harvest here in 2004. Since 2010 they have cultivated its vineyards in compliance with EU specification for organic production. In 2013, after a three-year mandatory waiting period, they received the certification for BIO and organic production.
“All of our vineyards are growing organically,” he explains. “We don’t use any artificial manures for fertilizing, no pesticides—nothing artificial or with any chemicals.”
The vines are dry-farmed without irrigation, which yields very high-quality grapes. He explains that vineyards are more than just grapevines. “Nothing exists in a monoculture,” his tone turns professor like as he elaborates, telling me the vines share the many organisms. “We have herbs, insects, animals like rabbits and snakes.” While many might not like them, but they are super important for the ecosystem. Everything is a blend of many cultures; everything is important.”
As we continue to hike up the estate dog, Benji joins us. Dimitar tells me that the dog showed up one day and never left. I tell him about my cat (kotka) Dar in California, and how she did the same thing.
Zagreus Winery and vineyards are owned by the Kostadinov family and with third generation Dimitar Kostadinov running the operation as general manager and vitner. Beyond the 120 hectares of vineyards, the family also grows sunflower, beans, and different grains. These are all grown organically, and the winery uses the spelt it grows to make its organic bread.
There are 70 hectares devoted to Mavrud, 25 planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 in Syrah, and the youngest five hectares are Merlot and planted in 2010. They started farming organically in 2010 and, after three years, received the organic certification from the government.
Back inside the winery, Dimitar guides me through the modern facility with massive stainless steel fermentation and storage tanks, the barrel room, and the final bottling and production area. Zagreus can produce up to one million liters but currently produces about 700,000 – 800,00 liters, yet only 40 percent of the wine in bottles. They sell the rest of the production as bag-in-the-box or by the tap—like draft beer. This is not bulk wine, he explains. These wines are not premium quality, but they are good and provide customers a good value. They have relationships with several large retailers who have wine by tap offerings—something everyone can afford.
He shows me the two different fermentation tanks Zagreus uses. The tall vertical fermentation tanks that stretch to the ceiling are for everyday wines that need to be fruity, fresh, ready, and easy to drink. The horizontal tanks are used to ferment wines of higher quality with more structure, extraction, and depth.
Walking from one room to another and another, I’m taken back by the size of the winery. The barrel room stores some 400 barrels. Dimitar explains that Zagreus uses exclusively Bulgarian oak barrels, which they source from six or seven cooperages. “I’m not saying Bulgarian oak is better than others, it’s different,” he admits. “But it’s important we find the difference that gives more character to our wines. And we must work with indigenous Bulgarian grape varietals.”
Our conversation turns to marketing and the image of Bulgaria in the wine world. “You can find good cabernet or syrah all over the world,” he smiles and exudes an air of confidence. “But Mavrud… you can only taste good Mavrud here—in Bulgaria—and if we want to show the best of Bulgaria, we must focus on what makes us different.” He admits that it’s hard to compete with international varietals on a global scale, but that Mavrud is a varietal unique to the region.
We talk about the absurdness of the current regional wine regions as designated and recognized by Bulgaria and the rest of the EU. Bulgaria is a small country of about 111,000 square kilometers (43,000 sq. miles) or roughly the same size as the state of Tennessee. It stretches just 280 miles (450km) from its western border to the Black Sea and some 200 miles (300km) from Romania and its southern neighbors Turkey and Greece. There are snow-capped peaks to the southwest and sunny and mild climate along the Black Sea coast to the east. You can find continental, alpine, Mediterranean, and even subtropical climate here. But here are only two protect geographical indications (PGI). Yet there are 52 protected designations of origin (PDO). The only countries with more PDOs than Bulgaria are Spain, Italy, and France, and each of those countries is bigger and has much larger and more mature wine industries.
The fact that only two PGIs, the Danube Plain to the north and the Thracian valley to the South, define a country with such diverse geography is controversial and the source of contention and debate by wine producers of all sizes. Right now, it’s the largest producers who benefit most from the limited PGI designations. These producers source grapes from all over the country and still can use the PGI designation for marketing their wines.
Before the 2007 decision to name just two PGIs, there were four Bulgarian wine regions and one sub-region. Smaller producers argue that this division of wine regions makes more sense because it recognizes and identifies unique differences based on climate and geography. They insist that because the two PGIs used today are so large, that using them to designate wine is short-sighted and pointless.
“Even though Bulgaria is so small, we have many different wine regions. But it’s stupid that the government defines just two.” Dimitar fears that the Bulgarian government doesn’t care about the wine business, and this designation is just one example. He points to the lack of marketing support is another. He hopes as many others do that the government reconsiders the pre-European Union regional designations. Even if they do, he feels the industry is already set back and will take some ten years to get back on track.
We return to the front of the winery and the big room framed by massive windows. Just in the last three years has Zagreus looked seriously at the potential of wine tourism in Bulgaria. We talk about the winery and this room. “We’re starting to market winery visits to large groups. We can handle up to 120 people at once. But we will great both big and small groups and even a single visitor.” They want to expand awareness of Bulgarian wine and its potential.
For now, I feel privileged for the opportunity to taste Zagreus wines in such an intimate setting with one of its winemakers.
With such a wide range of wines and labels, Dimitar tells me he thought it would be most interesting to try some more unique and interesting wines in the Zagreus portfolio. He opens a bottle labeled “Tiara.” It’s a white wine made from Mavrud, the signature red grape, and important to Zagreus. They simply harvest and press the grapes immediately and ferment the free-run juice separately. The 2018 Tiara White Mavrud from Zagreus is crisp, clean, and fruity with low acidity. It’s a perfect summer patio wine, and it’s Zagreus bestselling wine.
Zagreus is the only winery in Bulgaria bottling a White Mavrud. The Tiara label is its mid-range wine and sells for about five euros. Dimitar tells me that part of the Zagreus mission to show Mavrud in virtually every type of wine expression. They also bottle Mavrud in a rose, barrel-aged dark red, and a luxurious Amarone style highly extracted red called Vinica.
Dimitar tells me that while Zagreus produces nearly a million liters each year, they love to experiment and learn from past mistakes and successes. They bottle a limited-edition selection of wines under the brand “Hand Made.” Everything about the wine, right down the label, is truly hand made.
The Hand Made project started in 2015 with the idea to try different things—different varieties, different winemaking techniques, and to offer winemakers a blank slate to experiment and explore what’s possible with wine. There are a half-dozen different Hand Made wines, each with less than 300 bottles produced.
“Fifty years ago, nearly 60 percent of Bulgarian vineyards were planted in Pamid. During the communist era, each year the Soviets pulled out more and more Pamid to plant more sophisticated and international grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot. The varietal practically disappeared from commercial and cooperative vineyards. Today, Zagreus is on just a few wineries bottling a single-varietal Pamid. Like everywhere in the Balkans, many people make wine at home for personal consumption. So it’s possible to find Pamid in private vineyards while many large producers will use the grape in blends but not reference it on the label.
“I have a personal interest in Pamid,” he explains, “it is very interesting and just look at the color!” He holds the bottle up so the sun streaming in from the large windows makes the Pamid glow. It’s not deep in color, but the grape produces aromatic wines with medium structure. Like Mavrud, it’s an ancient Bulgarian grape varietal also cultivated elsewhere in the Balkans and Turkey under different names such as Rosioara, Szlanka, and Piros.
The Hand Made Pamid from Zagreus is Dimitar’s handpicked personal project. It’s an early ripening varietal, so he harvested the grapes for 2018 on September 8th and 9th. “I pick the grapes by hand, cluster by cluster by myself,” he explains, “I sort the clusters and then press the grapes with a tiny crusher.” His approach to Pamid is natural, letting the wine spontaneously ferment with no added yeast and minimal levels of sulfur (S02).
To get as much color and tannin from the Pamid grapes, he puts the skins and juice through a weeklong pre-soak maceration before raising the temperature to trigger fermentation in small stainless steel tanks. He racks the wine immediately and works the fine lees, stirring the wine using the traditional batonnage technique. He clarities the wine slightly, fining it using the winery’s organic egg whites. Then it’s bottled.
The 2017 Hand Made Pamid from Zagreus looks like a rose, pink and pale rose in color, so it’s easy to forget that Pamid is a red grape varietal. Its skin is lighter and gives the wine its rose-like look. Aromatic, fruity, and with fresh floral notes with the wine has just enough acidity to make it enjoyable. It’s lovely and straightforward on the palate, with flavors of strawberry and raspberry combined with hints of citrus zest. It’s well balanced and easy to drink.
I love this wine almost as much as I love the Zagreus mission to explore and discover new methods and approaches with its ambitious Hand Made wines.
Our next wine is from Zagreus single-vineyard mono-varietal label. The 2016 Yaldjika Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the varietals bottled under the label along with Syrah and Merlot. All the grapes for the Cabernet Sauvignon come from some of the oldest vines in the Yaldjika estate vineyard. Depending on the vintage, Zagreus produces 3,000-5,000 of the three bottlings using the best fruit from each vineyard.
The single-vineyard varietal bottling idea is to show the pure expression of the fruit and the vineyard. He made the wine entirely in stainless steel tanks with no intervention of oak or blending. It’s a late harvest ripe Cabernet with 14 percent alcohol and sells for about eight euro (16 Bulgarian lev).
It’s rare to find a Cabernet Sauvignon without some wood contact. The 2016 Yaldjika Cabernet Sauvignon is fruity on the nose showing Ranier cherry, spice, and bright red fruits. On the palate, it’s full-bodied with a pleasant mouthfeel and flavors of cherry, Marion Berry, and spice.
As our conversation evolves and devolves to topics from wine, geopolitics, food, and home brewing, we confide in each other that the wine-lovers weakness is the seduction of a good story. “We want romance, and we want the story.” It’s true. The more detail and curiosity evoked by stories of winemakers, climate, geography, and viticulture and farming, the more we talk ourselves into believing and then sharing that story.
Dimitar tells me the story of the Zagreus mission is evolving. They aim to craft terroir-driven wines for its premium brands. “Sure soil, climate, exposure, and vineyard management is important—but the yeast is even more important,” explains Dimitar. So Zagreus set out to find the ultimate wild yeast for its wines. Working with the chair of winemaking at the University of Food Technology in Plovdiv, they devised a specialized project where a team of students and professors collected and tested yeast samples from Zagreus vineyards. In 2016 they collected 150 different strains of yeast from twelve different spots isolated in the vineyard.
The team then produced wine through spontaneous fermentation using the different wild yeasts. Through a scientific selection of these yeasts and the wine made from them, they narrowed the selection to determine which are the best for fermentation. At the end of the experiment, they presented the winery with ten different wines, each made from a different yeast.
“This is why yeast selection is so important,” insists Dimitar. “We tasted ten absolutely different wines, but they were all produced from the same grape, the same row in the same vineyard. The only thing different is the choice of isolated yeasts.”
After the tasting, the team chose three different yeast strains that they felt produced the best wine. The following year they produced three small batches of wine from each of the yeast finalists. After another panel tasting of the three wines, Zagreus chose the best of those three wines. They identify the winning yeast as ZM-86, referring to Zagreus Mavrud, and it was the 86th yeast of the initial 150 isolated from the vineyard.
For the 2017, they used the ZM-86 yeast in a single fermenter with about fifteen tons of grapes. He pulls out a bottle of wine and fits it with the Coravin, a device that preserves wine over e by allowing you to pour wine out of the bottle without pulling the cork. “Spontaneous fermentation can be risky, but wines made this way are much more aromatic,” he explains, telling me that Zagreus is focused on developing its terroir-driven wine program and continues to experiment. “We’ve used yeasts isolated from widely available South Africa yeast—the same used by wineries worldwide, and our wine takes the taste of wines all over the world using the same yeasts.”
“We cannot speak of terroir unless we use our terroir yeast.”
I taste the 2017 Zagreus Hand Made Mavrud ZM-86. It’s beautifully aromatic with notes of spice, plum, blackberry, and pepper. On the palate, it’s rich, lush, and shows good balance and structure with layers of blackberry, mocha, and spice. The tannins are firm and well-integrated, and the wine has good acidity and finishes with a bit of sweet molasses. Dimitar tells me that it’s a bit too young and needs a couple of years to continue to develop and soften.
“This is very close to my idea of how Mavrud should be expressed,” he swirls the glass and brings it to his nose. “Mavrud needs a bit of barrel aging,” he explains, “but only in old barrels,” he insists because, as a medium-bodied wine, oak from new barrels would mask the essence of Mavrud. “You would only smell oak,” he says, “For Mavrud, we use old barrels, second or third year, and we age longer somewhere between eight and eleven months.” However, the Mavrud ZM-86 saw just six months in barrel because they wanted to “see the yeast.”
Wine like this needs food. I grab some bread, cheese, and sausage from the board sitting in front of me. They make the bread from 100% spelt grown on the Zagreus estate, and the sausage is also hand made from Zagreus-raised animals. “We have pigs and cows, and all of our animals roam free. We have a very large property, including a lake.” He tells me while they don’t make the sausage, but partners produce it from animals raised only on their property. Other partners and neighbors of Zagreus make and supply them with the cheese.
“Wine, bread, and sausage,” notes Dimitar, “are all part of the same ecosystem as our wines.”
When I ask him about the future of Bulgaria and how young and passionate people like him can drive the quality by being open and through experimentation, he tells me that most of his friends have left. Wages are low in Bulgaria, and young people are fleeing to better-paying jobs elsewhere in the EU.
“Every year, it gets harder to find people to work in the field and cellar,” his voice softens, and his eyes dart up at the ceiling.
“I had an opportunity too,” he tells me, “I worked harvests in California and Europe.”
I ask him, “Why did you come back to Bulgaria.”
He’s proud and yet emotional at the same time, fidgeting with a cork as he talks.
“I believe in the winking potential of Bulgaria,” he says, putting the cork back on the table. “I will try to contribute to my country by making better wines; to show the world we have great potential here. And not only in wine, but in agriculture in general.”
He hopes that someday the business of winemaking and agriculture will get better and gain the attention of the Bulgarian government. “Soon, they will understand just how important this business is and begin promoting and adverting Bulgarian wine and agricultural products.”
He pours me a taste of the 2016 Zagreus Mavrud Reserve, a brooding and dark wine, garnet in color with aromas of dark fruit, cassis, and black cherry. More full-bodied than the ZM-86, on the palate, a caramel nuttiness follows the cherry notes. It has good acidity with decent balance and a very long finish.
They age the wine for twelve months in Bulgarian oak and then for another year in the bottle before release. Dimitar explains that because they refrain from using new barrels, the wine doesn’t show oak on the nose or in the mouth. “We use barrels and oak for smoothness, body, and structure—not for aromas.”
“This is a good example of red Mavrud and our vision of how it should taste and smell,” he says. They produced the wine using commercially available yeast, but part of the Zagreus vision is in five or ten years to use solely native yeast for fermentation.
As we taste the wine, sample the bread, meats, and cheese, Dimitar suggests I visit a few wine bars in Plovdiv—and even a brewery. Dimitar is not only an accomplished winemaker, but he also toys with brewing beer in his home.
Next, he pours me a taste of the 2016 Zagreus Vinica, another expression of Mavrud produced using the classic method of Italian Amarone. The grapes are hand-harvested in three-kilo baskets and then laid out to dry in lofts housed in a particular building built on a slight knoll on the property where a constant breeze flows through the building. This breeze, along with large fans, helps to dry the grapes until they lose about 30 percent of their juice. The grapes shrivel and resemble raisins.
Several times a week, they measure sugar levels and other parameters until they feel the grapes are ready for pressing and fermentation. Fermentation is slow, long, and hard price often taking a month. The resulting wine is very tannic, high acidity, and dry with just five or six grams of residual sugar. They age the wine for a year or longer in 100 percent new Bulgarian oak barrels, and after bottling, they hold it back at least six months before releasing it.
Vinica is Zagreus’ flagship wine. It’s garnered many awards, including receiving the coveted Bulgarian DiVino Magazine Wine of the Year award, named number one in 2016 for the 2013 vintage. This year DiVino named the 2015 vintage fourth among the best wines in Bulgaria. At just fifteen euros (30 Bulgarian lev), it’s a great value, but expensive when compared to other high-quality Bulgarian wines.
Zagreus first bottled Vinica in 2007 after Tanja Stefanova, its chief winemaker, visited Northern Italy, where the Italians make the infamous Amarone della Valpolicella using the appassimento method (drying the grapes). She thought the grapes cultivated there (Corvina, Corvinone, and others) to be like Mavrud. So she convinced the owners to try it.
Today, Zagreus’ Vinica is one of a handful of Bulgarian wines that have captured the attention of some of the most influential people in the wine world. Jancis Robinson, the legendary wine critic, wrote about the 2007 Zagreus Vinica. “The fruit is fresh, clean and appetizing, and someone clearly knows how to make wine here […] This wine should change your perceptions of Bulgarian wine – and would, of course, be great (ie, sneaky in the extreme) for a blind tasting.”
The Vinica is a serious wine that packs a bold punch. It’s tannic, well structured, and with good acidity, Vinica is age-worthy. Even better, like all of Zagreus wines, it’s grown organically and produced sustainably. Production of its flagship wine varies. In 2016 they produced about 20,000 bottles, but a challenging 2015 only saw 12,000 produced. In 2013 production topped off at about 35,000 bottles.
Sure, Zagreus produces nearly one million liters of wine each year. They sell most of this as bag-in-the-box or through taps at retailers throughout the country. One needs to look beyond the big production to fully understand what’s going on at Zagreus. Here you have passion, the willingness to experiment and try new and different things. The result is premium quality wine at a surprisingly good value. Also, while Zagreus markets international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot, they are genuinely committed to Mavrud. The ancient varietal dates back to Thracian times and is a varietal that could likely be the backbone of what could be Bulgaria’s signature wine in the same way that Malbec helped Argentina gain the attention of the wine world. It’s too early to make bold predictions as Bulgaria’s post-Soviet wine industry is still young, and just now, the second generation winemakers are making their stand.
Before leaving Dimitar and I take the usual photos and even snap a few selfies. We agree that this will be just the first of many visits—perhaps someday, I’ll also have a chance to taste his home beer brewing creations.
Just as I’m loading my camera bag into Todor’s car, Dimitar hands me a bottle of wine with a paper bag tightly wrapped around it. As we roll down the hill from the winery, I cannot hold back the huge smile on my face as I unwrap the wine—a bottle of the Zagreus Hand Made Pamid—one of just a few hundred in the world. Yum.
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