Saturday, January 9, 2010

Buying Wine In Bulgaria

Sell No Wine Before Its Time - - NOT in Bulgaria!!

Like so many other simple things in Bulgaria, buying wine here is almost like entering into another dimension. YES – you can buy bottles of wine in the larger grocery stores, small neighborhood stores, and smaller kiosks along the streets. But, I’m not sure how many people (other than me for the first few months I was here) purchase it that way.

In Bulgaria, grapes are literally everywhere. If you have a house (in a village, or in a city) you will have grape vines covering your car, back yard, or walkway. In addition, there are large vineyards scattered around the country on the lower slopes of the many mountains in the north or south of the country.

This year was very wet, and produced a “bumper crop” of grapes. Grape prices plummeted, but wine production went up. So… where is all the wine? Almost every house makes their own wine. Most of it is a deep red wine, but there are also some white wines. At Christmas, name days, and holidays, the homemade wine will be served. But, it actually appears before that, and throughout the cool months. And like the grapes, it is everywhere.

The vineyards are south of Plovdiv. If you are driving on the roads in this area, you will find many places where there are cars pulled off the side of the road, with bottles on the hood of the car. Just stop, and buy it. When you go into the larger barzars, you will always find some of the vendors selling homemade wine. I’m not sure where they get the wine, but it must be local.

Buying wine at first can be slightly daunting. But where alcohol is concerned most men will overcome any fears to get it. These wines are not like the legendary Paul Masson wines that “will not be sold before their time”. The grapes are harvested in September and October. I was told to wait (at least) till the end of November to purchase homemade wine. Also, the homemade wine is not packaged in corked bottles. You simply take a plastic 2 liter water (or beer) bottle, and “fill-er-up”. When I first saw these, I thought they were selling coke. The bottles were the same size, and it was a dark red wine. I’m glad I took a second glance to figure it out!

If you don’t want to purchase wine from a car hood, or at the bazaar, you might be able to get it from the 10 gallon plastic casks outside of some of the small neighborhood stores. They sell it by the liter (and I think they supply the empty plastic bottles). You can get white, red, or merlot! “Step right up – and have a taste”!

Since buying wine this way is a step down (well – maybe a couple of steps) from a screw cap bottle or even a box wine, you have to be careful about what you buy. My first couple of liters was purchased from a bazaar booth, and the bottom of the plastic bottle had a “sludge” coating. I can’t really say it was very good - - but it did not cost much!

But, in the past couple of months, I have learned more and gotten a bit more sophisticated (if that is possible). So… here is the short story (with pictures) of my Christmas wine buying trip. My NGO helps and support small farmers in the Plovdiv Region. Some of these folks have vineyards. Because of that, we have an “inside track” on where some of the best homemade wines can be found.

On December 23rd, we traveled southwest to a small town to purchase the wine. We had called before, and gotten the price, and placed an order. There were three of us going. We were purchasing 50 Liters of wine! (We wanted to be sure there would be wine for the holidays!).

So… where would you go to buy the wine? By the side of the road – to a local farm – to a small bazaar - - - NO you go to the local high school. It happens that the father of director of the one high school in town is the best winemaker in the area. We go into the director’s office, and there is a small coke bottle with red wine to test. It is very good! We pull out our cash, and pay.

Then there is a call made, and we leave the school to go to the road where our car is parked. Soon, another car pulls up behind ours, and the transfer is made. (Are you picking up on the similarities of this transaction, and purchasing “contraband” in other countries.)

By the way, as you can see from the pictures, we have moved up in the scale of purchasing wine. None of the “little 2 liter bottles for us”! We purchase it in 5 liter bottles – with a bigger yellow screw cap! We shake hands, wish everyone a Merry Christmas (with all this wine, it should be merry), and head home.

I was not sure how all this would really work. Our fridge can not hold 5 liter bottles. But since it is winter, you just leave the big bottles on the balcony. We purchased a 40 cent funnel, and transferred the wine to smaller bottles in order to pour into a glass. Possibly most surprising, was that the wine was really good. Today is January 9, and I will finish off my 10 liters today. Thankfully, I had some help during the holidays to drink it. But we will have to make plans for “second run” to the village soon.

In the meantime, I will go back to the grocery store and buying wine there. But when I’m drinking the store bought wine, I will be thinking about the next batch of 5 liter bottles.

Have a healthy heart and Stay warm – have a glass of warm red wine!

Oh – if you would like to read a review of the “Beers of Bulgaria” check out this link. Brian is another Peace Corps volunteer, and he did an “exhaustive” study for his blog.


Anonymous said...

Gee - we just ride 12 miles down the main road to the Lakeridge Winery and pick up a case - or two. Your way sounds like much more of an adventure! Next time we take a sip of ours, we'll think of the two of you!
Estelle & Bill

Anonymous said...

As a homebrewer, I've definitely learned to look beyond the container when purchasing and drinking homebrew. :)

FYI, the sludge at the bottom of the bottle was probably lees, the leftover dead yeast from the fermentation process.

- Bryant

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued. Don't know if you can bring it back at all, but I'd be interested in doing some sampling.