Recently, in an attempt to fool my brain into a pretence of normality, I went in search of football to watch. Unfortunately, the YouTube rabbit hole I fell into ended up giving me the least normal star of any World Cup: Paul the Octopus.
Hailed as an animal oracle, Paul was tasked with ‘predicting’ winners in the 2010 tournament by picking between two boxes of food, each garlanded with teams about to play one another. His success rate of over 85% was put down to a streak of luck, but the overthinking that can come during a late lockdown night led me to wonder whether there might be something in it…
Unable to hop over to any vineyards, I decided to line up some bottles from wineries I’ve been to. It seemed the best and most congenial way possible to revisit some special places and memories, whilst enjoying a midweek glass of something interesting. And to add a little intrigue, why not let the bottle be decided by my own Paul the Octopus? Though without an eight-appendaged clairvoyant sea creature, I do happen to be in lockdown with a four-legged agent of chaos.
I’ve therefore thrown my wine fridge open to the predilections of Hades the giant cat. If you can believe it, Hades is still a baby and has years of growing left to do. He's a Maine Coon, the largest domestic cat breed and very much a playful kitten... he just happens to be, well, enormous.
Or, as my colleague and former Wine Society chief buyer Sebastian Payne MW put it: ‘This cat looks like a god – I think you’re going to have to be jolly careful, Martin.’
And fittingly, it was Sebastian who bought the wine Hades decided to parade first. It’s no longer offered by The Society, but what a pleasure it was to try it again after so long.
Borovitza ‘MRV’ 2014
The letters stand for marsanne, roussanne and viognier: three white Rhône grapes that can produce a complementary and delicious blend far beyond their homeland. Chile, for example, is producing some exciting wines using them. This one, however, comes from the middle of nowhere in north-west Bulgaria, and from an estate I visited some years ago with our PR manager Ewan Murray, en route to a conference in Plovdiv.
We both agree today that, of all the vineyards and cellars we’ve been fortunate to visit, the Borovitza trip stands out. There are several reasons why. First, of course, there was the location. Some 5km from the Serbian border and set in the shadow of the ‘New 7 Wonders of Nature’-nominated Belogradchik Rocks, calling Borovitza ‘remote’ would be an understatement. Indeed, we struggled to find the place for quite some time.
‘At no point did we have any idea there was a winery here,’ said Borovitza’s late, great winemaker Dr Ognyan ‘Ogi’ Tzvetanov.
‘We used to pass through here all the time and have lunch in that clearing over there,’ pointing to a scenic spot on the road we’d just come from. ‘My friend told me one day that it existed and that it was up for sale at a ridiculously low price because it was derelict. We have him to thank for Borovitza.’
Ogi was one of the most fascinating, engaging and delightful winemakers I have had the pleasure of meeting, and it was a terrible shock some months after our visit to hear that he had passed away suddenly. I had been keeping this bottle of MRV since then to see how it fared with some bottle age, and to toast the memory of this remarkable, generous and talented man.
A microbiologist and a veteran of Bulgaria’s wine industry, Ogi, along with his partner in wine Adriana Srebrinova, made an extraordinary array of eclectic terroir-driven bottles. Their approach – often low on quantity and high in experimentation – was not without its risks.
As Caroline Gilby MW – a friend of Ogi’s and expert on Eastern European wines – put it, ‘not every wine always worked – but everything was interesting, and many wines were truly fantastic.’ As well as chardonnays and Bordeaux blends, we were treated to indigenous grapes and crossings, a pinot noir aged in a barrel containing a meteorite, an undisgorged extended-skin-contact sparkling orange wine… then there were the wines they vinified from nearby growers’ fruit, often in miniscule quantities. They even had special tiny barrels coopered specially for some of these experiments, and the smallest lot they had made totalled a mere six and a half bottles. I remember having to double check they had said ‘bottles’ and not ‘barrels’.
Combine that with the line-up of local neighbours’ wines, vinified in their homes using grapes growing on porch trellises and served from soft drinks bottles and it made for a tasting that would send shivers down even the trendiest of wine folks’ spines. Speaking of spines…
The fruit for ‘MRV’ came from Borovitza’s own vineyards, and I remember Ogi and Adriana were keen to show us this lovingly tended source material. At first, however, it appeared we wouldn’t be able to: ‘There was too much rain last night – even with our ex-military vehicle I don’t think it will be safe,’ Ogi explained. At this point a colleague became animated and a short but loud exchange ensued. ‘Ok,’ said our host. ‘This man has years of experience driving ambulances in Sofia – we will do our best.’
It was around this point that I remembered Sebastian’s words of wisdom prior to departure: ‘if they drive you to the vineyard, watch your back.’
It is difficult to put into words what a vertebrae-violating, nailbiting, knee-confining ordeal ensued, but neither Ewan nor I shall ever forget it.
The rewards, however, were considerable. This was a stunning location, the vines planted on 240-million-year-old red sandstone, just down the slope from the Belogradchik Rocks themselves.
Mischievously, Ogi distracted me whilst their driver buried a bottle of ‘MRV’ in the ground by the vineyard, which they then pretended to find as though it had been growing readymade in its terroir. We laughed a lot. Then I tasted the wine. At the time this wine was £14.95 and I noted it was ‘a full-bodied, creamy, complex and delightfully balanced food white, and at its price a fantastic buy.’
With a few more years’ age under its belt, it is a superb white by any international yardstick. The colour is still pale and the aromas are as pleasing as they are interesting: the marsanne and roussanne bring lemons, wax and oatmeal and after a few swirls of the glass, the viognier grape sticks its garlanded bonce above the parapet with a peachy, floral quality that complements its blend-mates rather than competing with them. The palate is mouthcoating, complex and viscous, its rich nectarine and peach fruit carried through to the long finish by spice, musk and pepper. A relatively modest 13% and with is no alcohol burn (a trait such blends can sometimes display), it is risotto wine par excellence but bold enough to take on many different dishes.
In short: well chosen, Hades.
As well as to Ogi and his team, I raise my glass to everyone’s health at this difficult time and, if permitted, will return to share what my Lord of the Underworld picks for me next time.