Wine Dissolves Borders in the Balkans

Last weekend twenty judges from Europe, Russia and the US gathered in the name of wine at the inaugural Balkans International Wine Competition in Sofia, Bulgaria. Two days of judging followed by two days of wine festival called for frequent reaching across the table - and not just to pour wine. The discoveries were enticing for palates, engrossing for wine nerds and intriguing for history and politics buffs.

The jury panel awarded 23 gold medals, 63 silver medals and 134 bronze medals. As our Chairman, Konstantinos Lazarakis, pointed out, we were not overly generous with the golds. He considered that both a fine display of professionalism and an encouraging challenge for winemakers as many wines hover near gold territory. I look forward to seeing the results from next year’s event.

Among many other wines, I was particularly impressed with the rosés I encountered. In fact, for the Grand Trophy vote, I was torn. I felt conflicted between two wines I truly loved for their energy, refreshment and completeness in style - the Dragomir Winery Estate 2011 Sarva Rosé (a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Rubin blend) and the Eduoardo Miroglio 2008 Brut Rosé Estate (a sparkling Pinot Noir) – and the greater complexity of the winning Santa Sarah Wine Estate 2008 Merlot Bin 41. The Merlot won my top vote in the end, but my palate-memory remains most smitten with those joyous rosés.

The wine nerds, myself included, found no shortage of fascinating local grapes. I was delighted one evening to toast with Monemvasia Estate's Kidonitsa, a Greek variety with less than five hectares planted in the world. I discovered Graševina and its many expressions as well as the fact that it is named for its cluster shape. Graševina means “looks like a green bean”. From Prokupac to Vranec to Feteasca Neagra, there were so many flavors and textures of the Balkans to absorb!

History and politics have made clear impressions on the wine industry. However, aside from acknowledgements and explanations as to how some Balkan countries have had to entirely reconstruct their vineyards and ressurect their wine heritage, politics did not cross the threshold of the Grand Hotel Sofia. Citizens of some countries who do not recognize each another officially clinked glasses, shared best practices and danced the gala night away. Yet again, the ability of wine and food to bring people together and to create and cement relationships showed its impressive – and moving – power.