The "Oscar-winner" wine guide

Katia Iontcheva is the co-author of the first and most detailed wine guide on Bulgarian wines and for the 10th edition they received Gourmand Award – given first time for a Bulgarian wine guide. She is one of our jury members, and we have asked her about the secret of the success of Bulgarian wines.


– You publish a guide about Bulgarian wines and the 10th edition received Gourmet Award. What is this award, why is it important?
 – KA&TA Bulgarian wine is the first and most detailed wine guide on Bulgarian wines. We started it in 2012 and KA&TA 2013 was our first edition. We have recently released our latest – 12th edition.
The 10th edition – KA&TA Bulgarian wines 2022 received the award at the 28th Gourmand Award Ceremony that was held in Umea, Sweden in May 2023. This is the first Gourmand Award given for Bulgarian wine guide. 
It is an acknowledgement of the work that Tzveta and I have been doing to spread the word about the improvement and diversification of the Bulgarian wine sector and provide a comprehensive guide to Bulgarian wines and cellars. Moreover, this award is proof that Bulgarian wine and wine tourism have gained recognition and that it is worth visiting the country and tasting our wines. 
 
– Tell us more about Gourmand Award!
– The Gourmand Awards have been compared to the “Oscars” and are given at a dedicated ceremony at different locations each year. They were founded in 1995 by Edouard Cointreau. Every year, they honour the best food and wine books, printed or digital, as well as food television. Gourmand Awards are given in different categories. In the past years, some of the most renowned wine journalists received such awards – among them Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Oz Clarke, Robert Joseph and many others. The criteria for each category on the list vary, but as their founder says - they have all in common one guiding principle: all books are chosen for their appeal and importance from an international point of view. These books deserve to be promoted, to become known internationally, and should be translated and distributed worldwide. 
We are happy that our wine guide has served its purpose to promote Bulgarian wine and wine tourism.
 
 

– Before being a full time wine writer, you imported wines, what is more, you were the first importer of South African wines to Bulgaria and one of the first five wine importers in Bulgaria. Why did you change?
– When I started in 2003, the Bulgarian wine market was totally dominated by domestic wines. At that time the wineries had just been privatised, but there were very few newly built modern cellars. The transition to higher quality wines and more attention to detail in vine growing and winemaking were still to come. At that time wine consumers were less curious and less open to the unknown world of wine. I remember when I was attending wine exhibitions, people would come and ask if South African wines were made from oranges as it was coming from Africa, so unknown was the country and its wines. As wine importer, I was always relying on the SA John Platter’s wine guide. As wine geek and wine traveller I always counted on wine guides that would give me sufficient information on the quality of a particular wine or the options for visiting certain wine cellars. That is how in 2012 together with Tzveta we started KA&TA the Bulgarian Wine guide when we realised that such a tool was unavailable in our country. For the next 7-8 years I was both an importer and wine writer until 2020, when I decided to stop the SA wine import. I have also imported wines from other countries, and I have never given up the plans to import wines again, but now I am looking at more traditional regions. The change from wine importer to wine writer happened gradually and I think at some point these two occupations actually complemented each other. The experience of tasting many wines from all over the world and learning so much about wine in my studies actually helped me judge better what Bulgarian wine had to offer and provide an objective and educated evaluation of it.
 
– You have a Master’s degree in Economics and in Oenology, plus a WSET Diploma. Your entire professional career is related to wine. How did it all begin? Why have you become a “wine person”?
– Even before I finished my Master’s degree in Economic I was already working for the biggest Bulgarian winery at that time – Vinprom Rousse. It was fairly easy for me to fall in love with wine and it quickly became my passion. 
After I left Vinprom Rousse, in 2002 I decided to import wines from South Africa. Probably that is when I realised, I had become a wine person as I practically refused to do anything else, any other business but wine. At that time I had visited South Africa and I loved its wines and wine tours. Subsequently, wine has made me travel the world in pursuit of my interest to learn more and to get a taste of what every continent and each wine appellation has to offer. For me, wine has become a long journey and it is far from over. I believe wine is an experience and the best way to enjoy it is to be there, to comprehend the origins, the people that make it. On the other hand, a bottle of wine can be a unique way to get a taste of faraway places without necessarily having to go there. It works both ways.

 
 

– According to the latest survey by The Wine Merchant magazine in the United Kingdom, Bulgarian wines are among the top 20 most sold wines. What is behind this success in your opinion?
– Bulgarian wine is not a newcomer to the UK, and it deserves to have a sort of new beginning in the UK market. It was well known after a very active advertising campaign at the end of the 80-ies, and the beginning of the 90-ies with the well-balanced, entry-level wines made predominantly from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that were a market hit. However, the change of ownership in Bulgarian wineries in the 90-ies and the less structured approach to the UK market coincided with the efforts and marketing strategies of the countries from the southern hemisphere to enter that market and our wines were quickly pushed out of it. 
Those who have drunk Bulgarian wines in the UK would remember the good old image of value for money but the younger generation would have far less knowledge of our wines. In the past 10-15 years the quality has improved tremendously. Bulgarian winemakers started using more traditional and indigenous varieties. The wines are now showing more character and more sense of the terroir. Recently, there have been several wine tasting events that managed to improve access to our wines. The recent trend of wine consumers becoming more curious and open-minded towards lesser-known grape varieties, from less popular wine countries and region is also contributing to those statistics. I believe that the recognition Bulgarian wine got in the 90-ies among then younger people in the cheaper sector is helping that trend. Today UK wine consumers in their 50-ies and 60-ies have a positive attitude and are now interested in exploring Bulgarian wine from a different quality perspective.
 
– I know that as an independent Bulgarian wine writer, you can’t have a favourite Bulgarian wine, not even a wine style. However, if I ask you to suggest three white wines (styles, varieties) to someone, who does not know your wines yet, what will you recommend?
– Yes, you are absolutely right that I would not recommend a single winery or wine brand. I would recommend going online to our website where my opinion about thousands of Bulgarian wines can be easily found. 
However, the second part of the question is quite valid. Historically, Bulgaria had been traditionally focusing on red wines. In the past few years this trend has changed and white and rosé wines are not considered any more summer wines and their consumption has been steadily growing. From 60% reds, 35% whites and less than 5% rosé wines when I started the wine guide back in 2012, it consumption has evolved to roughly 40% white, 40% red and about 20 % rosé wines. The best-selling white wine variety is still Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay is very popular as well. Nevertheless, I hope and believe that Dimiat/ Dimyat - an old indigenous variety is eventually going to become the much needed symbol of a Bulgarian white wine just as Furmint is for Hungary. It is a non-aromatic variety with high acidity and can make interesting and high-quality white wines if grown and produced with proper attention. Several varieties are called Misket and are very interesting and worth tasting as well. Their importance and market share is also increasing. Some of them are old and indigenous – Vrachanski Misket, Karlovski/ Red/ Sungurlarski Misket, some are crossings made in the past 100 years – Sandanski Misket, Varnenski Misket. Most of them would make aromatic wines with white flowers and rose notes. The only exception is Varnenski Misket which is predominantly mineral and salty.
 
 
 

– And the same with red wines. What are your tips to a newcomer to Bulgarian wines?
– Bulgaria’s most planted red grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and as in most places, they can make for some very high-quality wines if you choose the right producer and brand. Traditionally, we have been prouder of our red wines. We also have several local traditional varieties as well as some very successful crossings. The most commercially important one is Mavrud. 26th of October is a date that we celebrate it. Shiroka Melnishka Loza (Broad Leaf Melnik vine or just Melnik) is another local variety of significant presence. It is a very late ripening grapes and has been widely used in different crossings developing varieties as Melnishki Rubin, Ruen, Melnik Jubilee etc. About 80 years ago a crossing of Syrah and Nebbiolo – Rubin, was developed and it is a variety that can make high-quality wines as well. Cabernet Franc is another variety that would rather often receive 5 stars in our wine guide and I would strongly recommend finding and tasting a good Bulgarian Cab Franc. Syrah is a variety that can also make exceptional wines in Bulgaria – riper and with fuller body style wines. 
 
– How about the average Bulgarian wine lovers? What do they drink? Are they open to the wines of Hungary or other CEE regions?
– I think Bulgaria has become an exception compared to most of the wine producing countries as there is a huge diversity of wines from all over the world including CEE countries. Wines from Hungary, Greece, Croatia are available on the market. The average wine lover is very curious, open-minded, and less loyal to one brand or producer. I believe it is one of the main reasons for having so many wine importing companies, working with many wineries from any given region. Of course, for most Bulgarians, Tokaj would be the easily recognisable Hungarian appellation and Tokaj wines are appreciated here as dessert wine.
 
– As we mentioned earlier, you have a degree in Oenology. Have you ever made wine yourself? Or do you plan to? What are your future hopes for Bulgarian wines and what are your future wine plans?
 – After I started writing the wine guide I decided that I need to have full qualifications to do that and in 2013 I started my education at the University of Food Technology and acquired my Master’s degree in Oenology. I have never made wine myself and I do not currently have any plans to do that. I believe, a winemaker must love his own creation and that would come in conflict with my attempt to provide a fair, educated and objective evaluation of all wines on our market. But, as they say, never say never. 
My plans are to start work on the next edition, having the current 12th edition of KA&TA already made available. I have also the honour and pleasure of being a judge at many local and international wine competitions. In the next two months I am going to the Rosé Wine Competition in Kazanlak, Bulgaria, then Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in Guanajuato, Mexico and the Winelovers Wine Award in Budapest, Hungary. There are also many wine destinations on my calendar as I consider my wine journey to be far from over. As to Bulgarian wine, I believe what we do with the wine guide is a genuine contribution to the industry's development and growth of the industry and I am committed to continuing that effort in every way I can.


 
 

Upcoming key dates

  • 18 June 2024 Entry deadline
  • 28 June 2024 Judging
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  • 29 June 2024 Judging

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