PARTNER COUNTRY: South African winemakers presented their wines at a news conference at Vinaria on March 15. In a first, South Africa was the partner country for this year’s event.
Vinaria, the annual showcase in Plovdiv of the vine and wine industry in Central and South Eastern Europe and even further afield, is always a story about numbers – along with some words about the state of the local industry.
The numbers: the 18th Vinaria, with 262 companies exhibiting – 148 foreign and 114 Bulgarian – and first-day visitor figures, on March 14, estimated 25 per cent higher than in 2009; a first for South Africa in being the partner country for this year’s event; a 45 per cent increase in the number of foreign wineries taking part. Counting in Bulgaria and South Africa, 14 countries are represented: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Moldova, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine. The largest number of companies are from Italy, France and South Africa.
Twelve contracts have been signed from the beginning of 2010 to date under the European programme for development of wine production in Bulgaria, worth in excess of 5.6 million euro, according to the Zemedelie agricultural fund. A total of 158 winery projects received approval and financial assistance in 2009, amounting to 21.1 million euro. The European programme, which will be operational until 2014, has a total budget of 112.6 million euro.
Wine producers in Bulgaria may apply for the programme under three criteria: restructuring and conversion of their grape vineyards, insuring the annual produce and promotion of the product in third countries. The resource, which will be allocated in 2010, is set at 21.2 million euro, and in 2011, 22.3 million.
More numbers: Economy Minister Traicho Traikov tells the opening ceremony that more than 200 wineries in Bulgaria increased production in 2009. And yet. There are media reports about the less sparkling side, with Bulgarian-language mass-circulation daily 24 Chassa reporting that some of Bulgaria’s largest-scale winemakers were not taking part, as a means of cutting costs – Peshtera, Karnobat, Yambol, Svishtov, Vinex Preslav and Vinex Slavyantsi were named as absent.
Similary, a number of smaller wineries were not there, saying that stands at Vinaria cost too much and it served them better to exhibit at events in Western Europe. According to bTV, close to 100 wineries of various sizes declined to come to Vinaria.
Production overall in Bulgaria has decreased by up to 50 per cent, thousands of bottles lie rotting in cellars because there is no market for them and some wineries this year have had no money to buy grapes because of the downturn in exports, according to bTV’s report.
Of those domestic wine producers who were present, the event was used not just to sing the praises of their products but to condemn the iniquities faced by the local industry – competition from abroad, especially from other European Union countries bringing wine into Bulgaria and undercutting local prices, the high cost of being on the shelves at major retail chains.
Most of all, complaints about new Finance Ministry rules intended to prevent excise evasion, which will require winemakers to install gauges on wine casks.
The new measure, in the literal sense of that expression, will mean bankruptcy for many producers if they bought the expensive equipment required, winemaker Ana Tashkova tells Bulgarian National Television.
According to winemaker Dimitar Vichev, the new rules will benefit unregistered domestic producers who, among other things, sell wine over the internet, undetected by authorites.
National Vine and Wine Chamber chief Plamen Mollov tells bTV that, at a time of economic crisis, a new regulation requiring the use of software to submit information in real time to customs is "irrational".
Traikov says that the new system is in a trial period and open to review, and adds that the regulation is intended to ensure a level playing field and preventing anyone avoiding paying excises.
Meanwhile, by the second day of the show, the South African stand – of a scale unprecedented for the country, even though it has been represented at Vinaria previously – draws a significant number of visitors.
Through the country’s department of trade and industry, six of South Africa’s significant winemakers are at the show for the first time, among them Mont du Toit, Zandvliet and Waterstone, Welgegund, alongside pioneers such as Smart Business Solutions, while a history-maker is there too, Thembi Tobie, a black South African woman who has unleashed her creative energy in South Africa’s wine-making industry, which for centuries was the sole preserve of white men, and – in a definitively upfront touch – has her own face on the label of her four wines: "My faces tells the story when I am not there to tell the story myself".
South Africa boasts innovations, not just technologically. It has more Fair Trade wines than any other country in the world. It also has a new classification system advising about wines that are sustainably produced.
The final word to Tobie, said in the context of underlining her view that overseas buyers do not expect a black economic empowerment story when doing international business, but also true of the wine industry as a whole: "I find that people overseas come to your wine stand because they like your label and what’s in your bottle and the fact that it comes at a good price. That’s all that matters".