Around mid-February every year, when Bulgaria celebrates the traditional day of Trifon Zarezan – the "patron saint" of vine-pruners – the state of the country’s wine industry bobs briefly at the top of national debate.
This year, it was the turn of Bulgaria’s newish President, Rossen Plevneliev, to issue the clarion call to invigorate the future of the industry.
Meeting representatives of about 20 wine manufacturers on February 14, Plevneliev said that the tourism industry should be the flagship for the development of the Bulgarian wine business.
His vision was of the development of resorts with more added value, delicious food accompanied by excellent Bulgarian wines, local media reported.
In a subtle reference to the perception problem surrounding Bulgarian wines, dating from the communist era when they competed in international markets solely on the basis of low price, Plevneliev said that "if during socialism we were a symbol of mass production, today it is the quality of Bulgarian wines that is enjoyed".
He said that Bulgaria’s diplomatic corps should show off the success of the country’s wines: "Bulgaria’s ambassadors should be ambassadors of Bulgarian wine – the cocktail reception abroad, national holidays".
Plevneliev said that Bulgaria produced more than 102 million litres of wine a year, of which 60 per cent was for export, and said that state institutions would assist in the future development of viticulture.
"The Government and European funds are on your side and will help you," said Plevneliev, who was elected in 2011 on the ticket of ruling party GERB.
He said that the new law on wine and vine, of which Parliament approved the first reading on February 9, should establish rules, competition, vision and policies in the sector. Plevneliev paid tribute to Agriculture Minister Miroslav Naidenov (who was elsewhere, paying tribute to vine-pruners while making a plea for Trifon Zarezan’s place in Bulgarian tradition not be supplanted by the simultaneous Valentine’s Day) for bringing the reform legislation to Parliament.
Naidenov’s deputy, Tsvetan Dimitrov, said that the rate of production of Bulgarian wine and its quality gave it a place of worth within the Bulgarian economy. Dimitrov said that legislative reforms of the local industry were linked to the revising of EU agricultural policy and were intended to be in place two years before the new programme period started.
For all the salesmanship in the talk, however, the very fact that reform legislation has been making its way through the legislative process is an indication that not all is as it could be with Bulgaria’s wine industry.
Naidenov said as much after the Cabinet approved the reform legislation in 2011: "We want to put the sector in order, the way we did with food production".
The bill actually has to do with root-and-branch reform because, for once, that cliché is literally applicable. Vineyards planted without proper authorisation after August 31 1998 will, if the law is approved as it seems it will be, have to be uprooted.
It is the proposed rules on the content that have attracted much attention.
The Executive Agency on Vine and Wine maintains a public register of authorised and registered grape producers and winemakers. The new law envisages allowing wine to be transported and sold only if accompanied by a document certifying its legal legitimacy.
Producers of grapes intended for wine, grape and grape products and wine will have until January 15 each year to declare to the Executive Agency on Vine and Wine their production levels from the previous harvest. Exempt from this rule will be those whose grapes are produced only for eating or turning into non-alcoholic grape juice, or who produce less than 10 hectolitres (about a ton) of wine which will not be marketed in any form.
The bill brings in a ban on blending in wines from outside the European Union and on the production of wine using certain types of grape must, grape juice and fresh grapes originating in non-EU states.
The bill, approved on December 28 2011, sets out minimum proportions of alcohol in certain drinks and imposes a ban – with steep fines – for falsely labelling drinks as wine. It forbids augmenting wine with alcohol and sets limits on the addition of sugar.
The alcohol used in alcoholic drinks must be obtained solely by fermentation of agricultural products. The bill bans using rubbing alcohol and other synthetic substances in drinks (presumably, a clause likely to make anyone who has had more than one tipple of various drinks in Bulgaria in these past many years pause for mildly worried thought).
The fines for those who produce or sell drinks that do not comply with the new rules will range from 10 000 to 100 000 leva. Those who counterfeit brands (given that this article is about wine, it should be noted that this offence is more likely to apply to locally-produced fakes of drinks such as whisky, for example) will face fines of up to 30 000 leva.
Going by official and industry figures, Bulgaria’s wine industry saw some growth in 2011 but again, there are some facts that are worrying.
According to the Executive Agency on Vine and Wine, wine exports in the first nine months of 2011 were 2.6 per cent higher than in the same period of the previous year, the largest proportion of exports in this part of 2011 going to Russia, which accounted for more than 45 per cent of all exports.
Romania was Bulgaria’s second-largest market, followed by Poland, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Germany, Hungary and Mongolia.
As to the domestic market, official figures are that per capita consumption of wine in Bulgaria in 2010 was 5.5 litres (the same year, the figure for beer was 15.8 litres).
In the first nine months of 2011, Bulgarians drank a total of more than 58 million litres of wine, an increase of more than 16 per cent compared to the previous year, according to a Bulgarian National Radio report at the time.
In October 2011, Bulgarian National Radio, quoting Association of Hoteliers and Restaurateurs in Bulgaria head Blagoi Ragin, said that wine consumption in restaurants in Bulgaria in the past three years had increased by eight per cent.
However, the problem was that Bulgarians ordered cheap wines, Yevgeni Haramliyski, head of a wine manufacturing company, was quoted as saying. He said that current figures were that 85 per cent of wines sold cost consumers up to four leva a litre.
Ragin said that Bulgaria had no need to stand back in competition on the global wine market but the shortcomings in policy and promotional advertising campaigns needed to be overcome.
"Bulgaria is visited by five million foreign tourists a year and if they each drink at least half a bottle of local wine, our economy would benefit," he said.
He called for wine tourism to be blended in, as it were, with cultural and rural tourism – adding that those interested in wine tourism tended to be the planet’s "more creditworthy" and affluent travellers.
Red and white
However, what if they wanted to drink a nice Bulgarian white wine? (Some connoisseurs rudely suggest that there is no such thing; other critics differ.)
It seems that they should hurry, because – speaking in an interview with BTA published on February 14 2012 – Executive Agency of Vine and Wine director Krassimir Koev said that there was a very large deficit of white wine and stocks would be exhausted by the middle of the year.
Koev said that in Bulgaria the ratio between red and white varieties was 60:40 in favour of red. He said that foreign companies bought up white grapes to produce wines in their own countries and now there was a "huge shortage" of white grapes.
He seemed to display a less bullish view of the sector, saying that from 2010 to 2011, exports and domestic growth had been minimal, while there had been people who had ditched the industry and businesses in the wine industry that had gone bankrupt.
Whatever the future of Bulgaria’s wine industry, it is at least sure of its past.
The country may not yet have a fully-developed network of wine tourism stops, but it does boast one of the world’s museums dedicated to wine, in the Kayluka Park near the town of Pleven in northern Bulgaria.
Founded in 2008, the cave galleries store more than 12 000 bottles of Bulgarian wine from all regions of the country. According to Bulgarian National Radio, the place has the largest single collection of old wines in Bulgaria, about 7000 bottles that are between 30 years and a century old.