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WINE TOURISM SLOW TO DEVELOP IN SLIVEN, BULGARIA

June 22nd, 2009 45 comments

A translation of this story appeared in the September issue of Bacchus wine magazine, published in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Text by Joe Linstroth

Photography by Evan Martin

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SLIVEN, BULGARIA — Hidden amidst the weeds and behind a rod-iron door that once marked the entrance of a World War II bomb shelter is the degustation room of one of Sliven’s oldest and largest wineries.  There are no signs or posted hours of operation.  There is no indication whatsoever to the public that what lies behind the graffiti-covered facade near the center of this sleepy city in central Bulgaria is a place to taste the wines made by Vini Sliven.  By appointment only, large groups can see what lies behind the secret entrance.  Inside is a series of cool, arched tunnels that house the winery’s oldest wines and long tables where the visitors can sit and taste them.  The dusty, moldy bottles add to the ambience.  But the stash is also a buried clue that reveals a neglected treasure, and only recently have the Sliven region’s wine-producers begun to realize that they might be sitting on gold.

 Wine-making in Bulgaria dates back nearly 3,000 years.  In fact, it is theorized that the Thracian societies who inhabited what is now Bulgarian soil were the first to introduce commercial wine-making to the civilized world.  Wine tourism in Bulgaria, however, is a new concept.  The Sliven region, with its own long wine-making tradition, is just beginning to explore its potential. 

 But building elegant chateaus that serve good wine and offer free tours is only the first step.  Wine tourism in Sliven has suffered for many reasons, and only some of them can be attributed to the lack of new facilities.  There is little information or advertising to direct wine tourists to the places that currently exist.  Cooperation between the wineries to promote the region has been non-existent, as has significant support and additional marketing from the Sliven municipality and local tourist agencies. But there are signs that producers are beginning to take wine tourism seriously.

 The Potential Exists

 Sliven’s wine history combined with its close proximity to the Blue Rocks, which attracts tourists with its panoramic views and accessible hiking trails, makes it an ideal place for wine tourism in Bulgaria. Located just 100 kilometers from many of Bulgaria’s popular Black Sea resorts, Sliven’s wineries are a short trip away for international tourists looking for more than just sun and sand.  

“What is on the Black Sea is not Bulgaria,” said Georgi Zhekov, the finance and planning manager for Vinex Slavyantsi, one of the region’s largest wine producers.  The company sees the potential for wine tourism and Zhekov said it has future plans to enter the market. 

“Tourists can touch the countryside and taste good wine,” said Zhekov. “They can see another type of Bulgaria.”

For Bulgarian tourists, most of the wine cellars are located just off the main road from Sofia to Bourgas and easily accessible by car.  

Elka Mihaylova, manager of Sliven Tours, one of the only travel agencies for local tourism, said she has seen increased interest in wine tourism among Bulgarians.

“Wine production is very important for the Bulgarian economy and it’s maturing.  In the last two years, Bulgarians have started to show interest,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”

 Plans for the Future

On a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in June, the main dining room at Chateau Windy Hills was filled with 20 Belgian tourists tasting wine and having a light lunch.  Afterword, they toured the facility, taking pictures of the modern production equipment and the oak barrels lining the cellar walls.  

“In Belgium, we know Bulgaria has good wine,” said Eric Cambien.  “It’s not only the French wine that’s the best.” 

Opened in 2006, Chateau Windy Hills is one of the first models for wine tourism in the region.  Unlike many of the Sliven region’s large wine factories such as Vini Sliven, Vinprom Karnobat and Domain Boyar, which produce wine in large quantities that sell at lower prices, Windy Hills is more focused on quality, producing smaller batches of wine with higher price tags.

 “You don’t find many chateaus like this one in Bulgaria,” said Mariana Vassileva, the manager of Windy Hills.

 But more are coming to the Sliven region. 

 Earlier this year, another boutique winery opened a chateau in Elenovo, which is approximately 45 kilometers from Sliven.  Like Windy Hills, Edoardo Miroglio’s Soli Invicto has a restaurant and hotel rooms in addition to wine degustation and tours of the facility.

 Some of the region’s largest wineries are also recognizing the potential.  They have acknowledged that industrial factories discourage tourism and are devising different approaches to enter this new market.

 Vinprom Karnobat, one of Bulgaria’s largest wine producers, is putting the finishing touches on its Chateau Karnobat, Brothers Minkov.  Located 50 kilometers east of Sliven on the main road to Bourgas, the winery, which will feature wines from Karnobat’s Cycle label, will officially open this September, said manager Ivan Ivanov.

 “We have two big wine factories and now is the time to make the wine cellar for boutique wine, where we will show special wines, more expensive wines,” said Ivanov. 

 Maria Dimitrova, executive assistant at Vini Sliven, said her company has plans to move into the boutique wine business as well.   It will transform an old wine cellar in the village of Padarevo, which is approximately 45 kilometers northeast of Sliven, into a microvinification winery, complete with a barrel room, a small bottling line, a tasting room and, eventually, a hotel. 

 Just a few kilometers down the road from Padarevo, Vinex Slavyantsi is formulating a different plan.  Zhekov said the company wants to renovate a house it owns in Sungurlare, the village adjacent to the wine factory.   Instead of a boutique winery, however, they will offer hotel accommodations, wine degustation and feature mountain bike rentals and trails that wind through and around their vineyards.

 “In Bulgaria, some companies with tourism concepts want to have them in their wineries.  Our concept is to go out into the country, into nature and into the vineyards, because our winery is more industrial,” Zhekov said. 

Both Vini Sliven and Vinex Slavyantsi said they expect their new facilities to be completed in two or three years.  All of the companies said they plan to pursue funding from the European Union for these projects. 

But securing the funding and building the necessary facilities to attract tourists is just the beginning.  The real challenge, it appears, will be for all parties involved, from the wine companies to the Sliven municipality to the local tour operators, to work together and to focus their attention on the business of wine tourism.

 Challenges Lie Ahead

Chateau Windy Hills sits prominently on a lone hilltop a few hundred meters from the main road between Sofia and Bourgas.  Yet no signs direct passersby and tourists to the wine cellar’s access road.   Their business seems to rely on contracts with tour operators, online advertising and word-of-mouth.  Judging by the manager’s reluctance to provide the number of visitors the chateau has received this year, this strategy seems to have produced limited results.

The large wineries are also struggling to attract tourists.  Vini Sliven has its unused cave.  Domain Boyar has a tasting room in front of its factory on the outskirts of town. But, surprisingly, it is not open on the weekends, when tourists are most likely to visit, nor was it open on a Monday, despite the sign on the door that said otherwise.  A representative at Vinprom Yambol, another one of Bulgaria’s largest wineries, which is located 30 kilometers south of Sliven, had to get approval from the owner before even discussing the company’s efforts in wine tourism.

In the last few years, the Bulgarian wine industry has been focused on planting more vines and modernizing equipment and methods.  But it is still hampered by the reputation that it produces only low-quality, cheap wines.   By connecting domestic and international wine enthusiasts with Bulgaria’s unique terroir and native grape varietals, wine tourism could help change Bulgaria’s image and support the wineries’ top priority, which is to make and sell good wine.  

“It is the way to show people the new side of the Bulgarian wine industry,” said Zhekov. 

With most of the larger wine companies focusing on production, however, opportunities for attracting tourists have been neglected.  The companies may feel there are not enough tourists to devote resources to wine tourism, but without more commitment, the situation is unlikely to change.  

“The possibility for wine tourism is not so big at this moment,” said Dimitrova. “This is a secondary aspect of our business.  But I think that everybody could improve – the municipality and our company.”

Stoyan Markov, the city’s director of Economic Development and European Programs, said he is preparing an information packet, to be ready by year’s end, which will be printed in both English and Bulgarian to promote tourism in Sliven.  In addition to information about hiking in the nearby mountains and the city’s museums and art galleries, the packet will include a map of local wineries.  

“Our idea is to attract different kinds of tourists to Sliven,” he said.

The map, however, is likely to have only a few dots, as it appears there are just two or three noteworthy degustation rooms for wine tourists to visit.  But it is a start.  The last round of promotional material the city produced in 2007 had almost no mention of the wineries.

Markov said that compiling information for the wine map has been a challenge because the local wineries have not organized collectively to promote wine tourism in the region.  Such a long-term, collective vision has yet even to be conceived.  And this may prove to be the wineries’ most difficult task. 

Vassileva at Windy Hills was reluctant to offer suggestions of other places where tourists can go to taste wine in the Sliven region. 

“The competition is fierce,” she said, after hesitating to mention Edoardo Miroglio.  

Ivanov at Chateau Karnobat recommended that tourists go to one of his company’s other vineyards or factories.  But Vinprom Karnobat does not have anywhere else in the Sliven region for tourists to go.

Collective entrepreneurialism, through promotion of the region’s wine tourism, will require a change in mentality – a far more difficult task than building chateaus.

For guidance, they could look at the formula for success of most other wine tourism regions in the world.  From Napa Valley to Tuscany to Alsace-Lorraine, competing wineries have organized to promote their region’s wine.  Many areas, like Napa for instance, offer trains and buses that take tourists to the area’s many producers to sample their wines.  By promoting their regions’ tourism together, the producers were rewarded with more than enough business to go around.   The Sliven wineries’ competition is less among each other than it is with other wine-producing regions.  For international tourists, they are competing with these famous wine areas around the world.  Among Bulgarian tourists, Melnik is the most well-known. 

Some of the wineries also expressed future plans to export their products.  Cooperation could support these ambitions as international wine sales are most often linked to the good reputation of an appellation or a geographical region, rather than the individual reputations of the producers. 

But there is evidence that a few Sliven producers may have begun to recognize the economic benefits of working together. 

“We are helping each other, because it’s difficult in this business. It’s really difficult to promote,” said Silvia Kiuchukova, the sales manager at Soli Invicto.  “For example, if we have a group in Elenovo, they taste our wines and stay for two hours, and we send them to Windy Hills to taste their wines and compare.”

Some of the other wineries with future plans also expressed an interest in working together when they are ready.  The success of wine tourism in the Sliven region may depend on it.  At the very least, their collective promotion will make it easier for tour operators, like Sliven Tours, and the local municipality to join their efforts.  Together they could work to ensure that the region’s natural beauty and the wineries’ new facilities don’t end up like Vini Sliven’s wine cellar – hidden and forgotten.

 **Evan Martin contributed reporting from Sliven, Bulgaria.