Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bulgarian Wine

I used to write about wine (4 books and about 700 articles) specialising in the lower market sector. So I knew more or less what I was about – especially as I was tasting about 2,000 wines each year. Now I am just an ordinary punter.
Because I have been both wine writer and publisher, a kind invitation comes my way each year to visit the London International Wine Fair, now held at ExCeL, in London’s dockland, and organised by Brintex. I generally decline to go, no longer having a column in which to pass on helpful information on wine. But this year I accepted.
In the 1970s and early 1980s Bulgarian wine was generally available. And excellent, reliable wine it was - reasonably priced as well. Bulgaria, bless it, was introducing the British public to the pleasures of drinking good red wine. After all, they had been making the stuff since at least the 5th and 4th century BC. So they should know what they were about. And they made masses of it (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon), swilled down with much pleasure by generations of appreciative Britons.
In 1986, when most supermarkets were selling their Cabernet Sauvignon for under £2 a bottle, I wrote that Bulgaria could become the next great wine- producing country, flooding the world with their products – a view later confirmed during a private visit to that country when I saw what ideal conditions prevailed there. Progress was such that they were even using helicopters to spray the vast vineyards.
But this has not happened. So I tried to piece together the story of decline.
I was told that their government in 1944 turned a fragmented, small-holding operation into a modern, far-sighted, co-operative industry. But in the latter part of the 1980s, because of their close ties to Communist Russia, they did as they were told in a crusade against alcohol consumption and grubbed up vines in many of the best areas. They have yet to recover. One voice predicted that it would take another ten years. The overall picture was gloomy. Some of the trouble lay, so one person almost whispered in my ear, was due to politics, Mafia, graft and social upheaval. About which, I am glad to record, I know almost nothing.
But wine is still made in considerable quantity, and small, boutique wineries are beginning to flourish.
I tried to promote the idea that good and low priced wines should once again be marketed in the UK – if only to get the public to think of Bulgarian wine as a sound choice once more – starting at the bottom end of the market.
That they can make fine wine there is no doubt. I tried several at ExCeL, some of which have not yet found an outlet in England.
One particularly fine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Mavrud and Rubin, made by Vinza–Assenovgrad, and called Ententa, is available at Vinopolis at around £25. Only about 7,000 litres of it are made each year. There are also other of this company’s wines available at Vinopolis. Another red to seek out is Enira. This is made by Frenchmen, who are trying to change the image of Bulgarian wine in the Bessa Valley. Waitrose sell this excellent 2006 blend of Merlot 60%, Syrah 15%, Petit Verdot 15% and Cabernet Sauvignon 10% for £8.99.
I had a chance to taste only some of Bulgaria’s upper-market wines. But there must be more reasonably priced wines around in the market place, and more on their way for sure.
It made me very sad to see the declining fortunes of one of Great Britain’s favourite suppliers of good table wine.
So let us hope that they will get their act together again and start flooding our wine shelves with the wine that they once made and marketed so well.
And let us also hope that this will take place well within that predicted 10 year time scale.

Friday, May 02, 2008


In preparation for sowing seeds in flowerpots, with a view to growing more vegetables in the small, paved garden in London, I opened my ancient toffee tin of garden seeds to see what was inside.
Some used packets had been bought recently, like climbing French beans, broad beans and parsley. Other seeds, taken from the previous year’s crop, like tomatoes, clung to the kitchen paper on which they were dried. Others were tied in plastic freezer bags, like rocket and chillies.
But there were seeds there of unknown age and origin, some loose - all later to be cast haphazardly in open urban ground.
In looking through a 1962 diary, where I have, since then, recorded the rotation of crops, arrival of house martins, first cuckoo notes and other observations of nature, I found my list of seed viability.
Now, by nature, my life is made up of experiments. This manifests itself, especially in the kitchen, where nearly every dish is contrived differently from that cooked previously, and in the garden.
In gardening, like cooking, we are inclined to believe what we are told by “experts”, or have learned from, and believed, the printed word. When some sage has pronounced (perhaps erroneously) on a subject, and, right or wrong this has since been perpetuated, we believe it.
So when I wrote an unpublished work on vegetable gardening, a proposed section was to be the viability of seeds with some original input.
It struck me that merchants might possibly suggest that their seeds did not remain viable for as long as they actually did (quite untrue, I’m sure), and that “Packed in the year ….” did not necessarily mean the year harvested. And I had noticed that some packets of seeds sold in foreign countries suggested longer viability than those sold at home.
So, with a combination of discovering packets with the longest seed viability recommended at home and abroad, and my own experiments over many years, I drew up a list. It has been very popular among my gardening friends.
One point to note is than when compiling it many years ago, there were few, if any, F1 Hybrid seeds on the market. These do not necessarily produce a good crop from saved seed. So my list is for non-F1 Hybrid seeds – old-fashioned, normal seeds.
Another point is that the following viability list depends on seed gathered and dried by your self, with the following year for planting being recorded as year one.
As a note of interest, it is not always necessary to dry tomato seeds – though I usually do, especially to keep two excellent unknown strains going. Once, when eating a splendid salade tomates in France in springtime, I extracted some tomato seeds from the vinaigrette dressing and planted them on my return to England. I was eating those very same tomatoes that summer. This year I have grown plants successfully from the fresh seeds of two kinds of mini tomatoes.
A final point is that the seeds in the following list may well last for longer – some much longer – than here recommended (we learn quite often that seeds from ancient civilisations have been germinated successfully).

Here they are, with the years of their viability, all in a line to save space, and in the original order from my book:-