Bulgarian wine has suffered a steady decline on the world market since the mid 1990s, tarnished by an East European image, stifling bureaucracy and issues of quality. But as Simon Meads reports, the country's leading producers are fighting back.

The Bulgarian wine industry made that common, and fatal, mistake of assuming the love affair would last forever. And, although sales to the UK peaked in 1996, at upwards of 1.5m cases, the signs of a downhill slide were already visible.


Lovico

It is no mystery either that the dramatic drop in demand for Bulgarian wine in the UK can largely be attributed to the rise in popularity of fruit driven New World wines.

"In the past," says Dimiter Dragiev, export director of producer Lovico: "We used to supply wine according to old Bulgarian legislation. For reserve, it had to spend three years in a barrel."

Ageing periods have since been shortened - reserve wines now spend a year in wood, preserving far more fruit character, while the use of small barrels and barriques is growing, as opposed to large old vats holding thousands of litres. "It's not a legislation change," adds Paul Scaife, commercial director of Lovico International: "But a response to the market and what people want."

Bulgarian wine producers are the first to admit their response was slow, but by polarising their position from the existing image of the country, the leading producers are now setting themselves up as modernisers, in touch with western tastes.

Boyar Estates formerly Domaine Boyar, used to act as an agency for several Bulgarian wineries. Since 1995 though, it has changed its focus to producing its own wines. With the help of private investment and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the company bought two existing wineries in Shumen and Iambol investing millions in both.


"Wine laws miss the point by concentrating on regions, rather than production and quality"
Margo Todorov

At the same time, it (Boyar) constructed the US$13m Blueridge winery in Sliven in 1998, an ultra-modern stainless steel installation that would not look out of place in Australia or Chile.

"The brave move was to build the new winery," says Margo Todorov CEO of Boyar Estates. "We knew we had to upgrade the wineries."

Both a poster and TV campaign have backed improvements in production.

However, the advertising campaign: "What does it matter where it comes from" has already come under fire, particularly for the "Jesus was born in a trough" execution. But it does accept, if rather defensively, the brand's origins. "We made mistakes in the past," admits Steve Abrahams of Boyar Estates UK. "We didn't mention the country of origin and that was a mistake."

Ironically, one of the key issues that Bulgarian winemakers are addressing back home is where the wine comes from, in other words their regional origins. New wine laws are now in force to control the areas the grapes originate from. However, producers are not happy with the direction the government have taken.

"Bulgarian wine law is very artificial," says Todorov who feels the wine laws completely miss the point by concentrating on regions, rather than taking a strong stance on production and quality.

"It is written to appeal to the European Union and is not of benefit to producers," he continues.

It's not difficult to see his point. Since the fall of the socialist regime in Bulgaria in 1989, the privatisation of the 100,000 hectares of vineyards has been a laborious task, and the vineyards and the wines have suffered as a result.

In large areas of the country, the vines compete with grass and weeds and many are left to their own devices. Come harvest time vineyard owners attempt to sell their poor quality produce to wineries, getting turned away only by the more scrupulous producers. In these conditions, the answer for the likes Boyar and Lovico is to be self-sufficient from grape to bottle. Lovico's target is to be totally self-sufficient is 2009.

Meanwhile producers have to work with selected growers to ensure quality. What's more, the economic conditions mean that it is a buyer's market. "We have a shrinking market and an oversupply of grapes," says Todorov. "It is a good atmosphere for us to sit back and take a good look at the market. Also we can be more selective."

It's clear from the rash of recent changes that Bulgaria wants to win consumers. And the fight, for the time being, will be at entry level and just above. "We want to regain customer's confidence at £3.99," says Scaife. "This will let us develop other things in the future."

As something of a sign to the new beginning for Bulgarian wine, Lovico's latest brand is called Revival.