Columnist, Food

A barrel room at Castra Rubra winery in Bulgaria, a country that’s producing bargain wines that taste expensive. (Robert Hayk)

Wine wasn’t Robert Hayk’s first career. He was a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch, and before that worked for three years at the U.S. embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, during the heady post-Soviet 1990s. When he decided to forge a new path in wine, Hayk drew on his Bulgarian contacts to help answer the market’s craving for wines from a new region offering exceptional quality for the price.

Two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria was ready.

Southeastern Europe, especially the Balkans and Turkey, might be the next region thrilling us with bargain wines that taste expensive. The formula for success appears to be a combination of modernity and tradition: State-of-the-art winemaking techniques taught by “flying winemaker” consultants from France and elsewhere provide a boost in quality, while indigenous grape varieties give local flavor to blends based on more familiar international grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

When Hayk decided to import Bulgarian wines to the United States, he looked for family-owned producers who could help him “create a decent-quality wine that surpasses its price in value,” he says. He found “a vineyard manager so old, nobody knows how old he is,” and a winery in Bulgaria’s Thracian Valley that served as a production facility for several producers.

“Traditional wine, made with as little interference as possible, is a better wine at all levels,” Hayk says.

The result was Bulgariana, a brand that sells in the $10-to-$15 range with excellent cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir, among other wines.

“With Bulgariana, the goal was to create a decent-quality wine that surpasses its price in value,” says Hayk. “It was a way of establishing a benchmark for Bulgarian wines.”


A vineyard at the Castra Rubra winery in Bulgaria, where Bulgariana wines are made. (Robert Hayk)

Hayk, co-founder and majority owner of G&B Importers, based in Elkridge, Md., has hitched his star to Michel Rolland, perhaps the world’s most famous and controversial wine consultant. (Rolland is criticized, unfairly, for promoting globalization in wine; rather, he uses modern techniques and technology to improve quality and express a region’s or vineyard’s character.) The Bulgariana wines are made at the Castra Rubra winery in the Thracian Valley, where Rolland consults.

Hayk, 45, recently expanded his portfolio to include some of Castra Rubra’s own wines, which reflect Rolland’s polish and style. “There are a few boutique wines, but the majority of the line still sells for between $10 to $15 a bottle,” he says.

Soon, the G&B portfolio will include a wine from Hayk’s native Armenia (another Rolland project) and California wines from Rabble Wine, which emphasizes non-interventionist winemaking: “They believe we got away from God’s way of making wine — letting the grapes do the work,” Hayk says.

Bulgaria may be leading the way, but we are also seeing delicious wines from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Turkey. Quality can be uneven, especially in white wines. But this is an exciting region for wine adventurers to explore.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.