In the recent Observer Food Monthly 50 (Everything We Love About Food Right Now) at number three was wine editor David Williams’ celebration of adventurous winemakers snubbing ‘noble’ grapes to make good wine from under the radar varietals such as Chilean Pais, Argentinian Criolla and Spanish Airen plus ‘reinvented’ workhorses such as Cinsault and Carignan.
To the former list now add Rubin from Bulgaria. No, me neither. The only Rubin in my consciousness was Rick, the full-bearded record producer who gave hip hop-music its voice and superintended the late flourishing of Johnny Cash with his American Recordings.
Ah, Bulgarian wine. For me it conjures up loon pants and tank tops, for it was the affordable elixir of my hippyish studenthood back in the Seventies. Sturdy reds, pretending to be claret, as they accompanied trial and error Boeuf Bourguignons and Coq au Vins at our at fledgling ‘dinner parties’.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot predominated among the reds, to the detriment of Bulgaria’s indigenous grapes. It worked, as the hardcore Communist country amazingly became the world’s fourth largest producer by this pandering to the mainstream. The Soviet Union was much the largest consumer of these industrial scale tipples until the collapse of the Iron Curtain took this particular wine trade with it. A winemaking culture dating back 3,000 years was on its uppers. Affordable rivals from the New World certainly rushed to fill the gap in the UK.
Meanwhile, in the Thrace Valley (spectacularly pictured above) little pockets of Rubin grapes – a hybrid of Syrah and Nebbiolo – were biding their time. Maybe that time has come as Bulgarian wine is enjoying a modest resurgence. It has never left the bargain basement section of supermarket shelves, but we are now talking the quality market, that explored by Central and Eastern European specialists Vida Wines.
They sent me a Rossidi Rubin that’s worth every penny of its £21.29 price tag. It does seems to combine elements of of the Barolo grape Nebbiolo (paleness and fragrance) and the more intense Syrah. Fragrant and herby, it is a more elegant rival to another Bulgarian stalwart, Mavrud.
Rossidi is a combination of the names of the founders – Rosie and Eddie Kourian, whose vineyard is near the village of Nikolaevo in the Eastern Thracian Valley.
On the evidence of this bottle they couple (not the duo pictured!) do live up to their claim to be “the new face of Bulgarian wine”, but there are plenty of rivals in this viticultural revival.
A good primer to what’s happening in this corner of Europe is The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova by Caroline Gilby MW (Infinite Ideas, £30). She praises the new wave wines for being artisan, affordable and authentic.
“The change has been a complete revolution from communist, mass-market, wine-based alcoholic beverage, to today’s industries where an exciting raft of small producers has added interest and individuality and pushed quality forward.”
That’s true in other Eastern European countries. Another Vida wine I admire is Slovenia’s Kristančič Pavo Cristatus Classic Cuvee 2014 (£23.39), a methode traditionelle sparkler which displays a wealth of peachiness and brioche using Pinot Blanc and indigenous Rubela as its base grapes.
Two reds I’ve hugely enjoyed recently are Belliani Valley Winery 97 Unfiltered Saperavi 2019 from Georgia, deep in colour and reeking of blackberry and plum. Imported by Boutinot, expect to pay around £20 retail, worth the couple of quid mark-up on the simpler filtered version. And Maurer Oszkár Crazy Lud Red from Serbia’s border with Hungary. Fourth-generation winemaker Oszkár cultivates 15 ha of land by hand and horses, growing native grapes from vines up to 100 years old. There is grippy Cabernet Sauvignon in this bottling, which offers a decided earthiness alongside substantial acidity without swamping some lovely fruit. Flawd at Manchester’s New Islington Marina also stocks, at £25, a Lud majoring on the local Kadarka grape. Who’d have thought the world offers so many under the radar grape varieties yielding such riches?