I actually had glass of wine called “Carpe Diem” in my hand when I got the news. One of my dearest friends in wine died suddenly yesterday and I’m still in shock that he’s gone.
Another cruel reminder about living the life you have to the full and not putting things off. Last year, I had promised to take my husband to meet Ogy and see his winery at Borovitza in the far north west of Bulgaria, but then work got in the way, winter closed in and I put it off. I was hoping that Easter this year would work, but now it will never happen, something I will always regret.
I’ve known Dr Ognyan Tzvetanov for at least 15 years, first as a winemaker, academic and consultant to the Bulgarian industry, when he was always happy to answer my endless questions about the real picture and politics (always a huge topic) in Bulgaria. Gradually this developed into real friendship. I recall one trip when Ogy took me for walking tour of Sofia back in around 2005. My shoes may have been pretty but quickly reduced my feet to bleeding blisters, but it didn’t matter because it was so fascinating uncovering layers of history in Bulgaria’s capital city. And he always took the time to meet me at the airport for a quick coffee or to squeeze in beer somewhere even if my busy schedule didn’t allow time for anything more (and to hand over a bottle of unlabelled “party special” brandy for my husband as he knew where the good stuff was hidden). Always imported beer at that, as Ogy had no time for what he saw as lax standards of microbiology in Bulgaria’s national breweries.(He had been head of winemicrobiology at Bulgaria’s National Wine Research and Control Institute).
There were often surprises on trips to Bulgaria with Ogy – the ancient Thracian tomb of Dionysios, the stunning golden treasures of Panagyurishte, the Magura cave (where some of Europe’s oldest human remains have been found and last spring a visit to the idyllic mountain village of Koprivshtitsa (where Ogy’s partner-in-wine Adriana had been born).
One of the most valuable tastings I ever did with Ogy was on our way to see the potential winery he had just bought in northwest Bulgaria in 2007. On the way, we stopped to do a tasting in a rather boarded-up hotel so we sneaked in via the kitchen – as ever Ogy had a friend there. The tasting that greeted me was a line up of odd-looking liquids in a random selection of reused water and soft drink bottles. These had been bought from roadside stalls and the local market. I can’t say it was the most fun tasting I ever did as the “wines” showed every wine fault you have ever heard of, plus some randomly weird aromas from use of hybrid grapes too. But the point was well made and has stuck with me ever since. Ogy wanted to show me what local people understood to be the most genuine wines and therefore the huge gulf of understanding that had to be bridged when trying to persuade them what would be required to make quality wine as we might understand it in the west. It was dark by now and after a snack of cheesy chips (a great Bulgarian dish and perfect after wine tasting) we headed onto our hotel for the night. I had no idea what sight would greet me in the morning when I opened my curtains and looked out over one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Even Bulgarians mostly don’t know what a treasure they have in the Belogradchik rocks – though it was nominated as one of seven natural wonders of the modern world a few years back.
Ogy and his winemaking partner Adriana had finally found a way to really make their wine dreams reality. At that time, you couldn’t just open a new winery but had to find a property with an existing licence, which was proving tricky. Both had been renting space in other wineries or even using a warehouse to make their wines to this point, travelling around the country sourcing plots of the best grapes wherever they could find them. North west Bulgaria was not well regarded by the big players of the industry, especially for the rich and super-ripe reds that were their mainstay. However, Ogy and Adriana had found that there were some amazing old plots of vines in this virtually abandoned corner of the country, producing fantastically intense fruit. And because this area is relatively cooler than the rest of the country (especially at night), but with long sunshine hours, ancient soils and good sloping sites, the wines have great potential for elegance, complexity and long life. Bulgaria’s first true terroir wine Sensum was launched by Ogy from the 2003 vintage and came from one such plot of 48 year old vines.
A chance conversation one day led them to an abandoned and utterly derelict winery at the foot of the Belogradchik rocks – and importantly still with the right licence.
Financing the project brought the next headache. There were number of EU funds available to wineries around the time of Bulgaria’s accession in 2007. In theory these were designed to support rural development and provide local jobs, but in reality the burden of bureaucracy and financial restrictions meant it was mostly already well-funded companies who benefited. The rules required that applicants were financially stable, debt-free and could fund any project upfront, then you could reclaim 50% back on completion. In practice, this made money difficult to obtain by exactly the sort of companies who needed the help – but somehow Ogy and Adriana managed it.
In their own place, Ogy and Adriana had total freedom to do what they wanted and adapt their methods to every parcel of fruit. And it helped them get away from some of the unexpected issues with rented tanks – I recall one story about an amazing Sauvignon they had made, but every time they went back to check it, it seemed somehow more dilute and they wondered what had gone wrong. Finally the truth emerged. The winery staff had spotted that this was the best wine in the place and had been quietly siphoning off wine to drink and topping up with whatever else they could find in the winery. At Borovitza, some batches were just a few bottles (they even had special tiny barrels coopered if necessary – below a 67 litre barrel for their first MRV, a Marsanne, Rousanne Viognier white blend).
Not every wine always worked – but everything was interesting, and many wines were truly fantastic. Among my favourites are the winery’s flagship Dux, Vox Dei Pinot Noir (matured in barrel with a piece of meteorite found in the vineyard), Sensum, Bouquet (a rare Bulgarian speciality), Cuvée Bella Rada (a surprise for me as I normally hate Rkatsiteli) and the ever fascinating Gamzas (including Black Pack, Granny’s and others – all of which had some great story about obtaining the grapes). I’m not huge fan of orange wines usually either but I’ll make an exception for Orange Garden Chardonnay which is complex and beautifully drinkable too. Ogy joked that the juice looked like Fanta Orange – picture below is the juice from the press.
Ogy was often opinionated about the rest of the Bulgarian wine industry, but in spite of this he frequently took time to arrange visits for me so I would understand the bigger picture. He found it frustrating that industry lobbying influenced dividing the country into just two regions for wines with Protected Geographical Indication status. He firmly believed that this was about making life easier for big companies to source wherever they wanted. He felt the old five regions had been based on clearly identifiable differences in soil and climate. In the end, it meant he went his own way, feeling unrecognised by the industry and wine press in Bulgaria, and let his wines speak for themselves.
And so they did – quietly gaining listings in Berry Bros and The Wine Society, among the very few Bulgarian wines to break out of the trap of “ultra-cheap only fit for supermarket bottom shelf” status. Recognition came in from critics like Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker and others. When I showed him that Jancis had highlighted Dux in the World Atlas of Wine, his face was picture of surprise, disbelief and joy. Just a few months ago, he got to show his wines at the historic Five Kings House in the heart of London alongside the likes of Bollinger, Chateau Yquem, Jadot and Schloss Vollrads. He definitely had an air of “I can’t quite believe I’m here, in this company, and in a hall that has been the heart of the wine trade for centuries.” I’m told he kept the text I sent him afterwards, to tell him that his Gamza had been singled out as a highlight of the tasting by the chair of the Institute of Masters of Wine.
Ogy once told me that if his wines were ever sold in Berry Bros he could die a happy man. He achieved that and so much more. I only wish he could have had time to fulfil the rest of his ambitions, but his generous heart let him down in the end.
Rest in peace Ogy.