No one knows more about the intriguing wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova than Caroline Gilby MW, who has just written a book all about the subject. We caught up with her to find out more about what makes these regions so compelling.
Caroline Gilby has a real passion for the wines of Central and Eastern Europe
After years of contributing to other people's books (Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and others), I wanted to tell some of my stories from over three decades working in wine.
The book was always going to be about Central and Eastern Europe because that's my real passion since I switched from science to wine in the late 1980s. Like many students, I'd been quite a fan of Bulgarian cabernet while studying for my doctorate and counting the pennies, but it wasn't until I got my first job as a wine buyer that it got more serious.
Back in the late 1980s, Eastern Europe was big business and as the most junior member of the buying team I got this rather unglamorous patch as my first buying responsibility. With hindsight, it was a real privilege to be involved with these countries as the Iron Curtain was falling. They were taking their first strides into a new wine era, moving away from an industry based on collectivised volume production, just as I was making my own early steps into the wine world. We've kind of grown up together (though not without some teenage tiffs along the way).
Bulgaria was the fourth-biggest red wine supplier to the UK at its peak but had virtually disappeared by the mid-1990s. I often get asked what went wrong and part of the idea of the book is to tell that story, as well as the story of what is finally going right with a new generation of producers. And a lot is going well now, which means that we are starting to see more Eastern European wines back on our shelves (for instance, The Wine Society is taking on three new Bulgarian wines made from local grape varieties).
Borovitza vineyard in Bulgaria
Are there many similarities between these three countries?
We are often guilty of thinking of behind the Iron Curtain as a homogenous bloc of communist, concrete greyness. And yes all three were communist, but under distinctly different regimes. As far as wine was concerned, Bulgaria and Moldova both had major roles in exporting wine in the planned economy, while Romania was much more about producing wine for domestic consumption. So even those differences affected what grapes and wine styles were produced. And after regime change, each country took a different approach to privatisation and returning property – which had a huge effect, not least in taking their eye off the export ball. This came at a time when Australia arrived in the UK to do what Bulgaria used to do so well (fruity, friendly and consistent wines with easy to understand varietal labelling).
So the result is three very different countries today, with distinct cultures and distinctive wines. Along the way there have been many hiccups, and there's no doubt that wine quality suffered, but today the best wines in all three countries are genuinely world-class and have something exciting to offer. The days of being cheap may have gone, but there is still amazing value to be discovered.
Moldova is even less-heard of than Bulgaria and Romania. What's the story here?
Moldova actually came onto my radar a bit later. I first went in 2006 to work for a US-funded aid project (USAID). I was expecting to find a mini Romania but instead discovered a country deeply scarred by its Soviet past. USAID had spotted that Moldova was the poorest country in Europe and that wine was an economically significant industry. In 2005, it had accounted for 28% of export earnings and employed a quarter of the resident working population. But two Russian bans later, the industry has been used as a political battleground by former Big Brother Russia. The story of what Moldova has had to deal with is shocking, and yet today it's re-emerging with a reformed industry and an attitude of cooperation. This is one country where wine genuinely makes a difference to people's lives.
A beautiful traditional Moldovan house, where we like to think lots of delicious local wine is being enjoyed!
What should I expect if I want to visit any of these countries?
Great food and a hospitable welcome for a start. Local dishes feature lots of salads and great fresh vegetables, tasty cheeses and yoghurt (Bulgaria is famously where the bacteria that make yoghurt were first isolated) then typical slow-cooked stews or grilled meats. Moldova was recently voted by Lonely Planet as a top 'off the beaten track' destination – visit some of the world record-breaking cellars and the cave monastery of Old Orhei, as well as several great wineries.
Bulgaria's capital Sofia is worth spending a couple of days then head down to the Melnik region for its landscape of dramatic sand pyramids, historic monasteries, scenic walking and the town of Melnik itself. In Romania, head for the hills and especially the wild-flower-filled countryside of Transylvania where farming still goes on as it did centuries ago or take a gastronomic tour and go truffle hunting in the dense forests. Stroll round historic towns like Brasov and Sighisoara (the birthplace of Vlad Dracul) or take a trip down one of the country's amazing salt mines.
Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria
So what are you writing about in the book?
I've tried to cover some of the human stories of the people involved and the challenges they had to overcome – there are some amazing people producing wine there. I have also tried to put today's industry into the context of the history and politics that have shaped these countries. There are also some academic details on grapes and their genetics, plus industry statistics and a section highlighting producers worth trying. There's a little bit of my personal experience too. Something for everyone I hope!
Nazdrave and Noroc!
The publishers are offering Wine Society members a 35% saving on the £30 cover price. Order by visiting infideas.com/buy-the-wines-of-bulgaria-romania-and-moldova/ and entering the code WSR35! The publishers strongly recommend ordering online but you can order by phone on 07802 443957. The code is valid until the end of 2018.
Why not try the wines?
We delighted to say that we're expanding the wines we offer from these burgeoning regions, take a browse around our current selections