The village of Kolarovo is located three-kilometres off the battered Topolovgrad to Harmanli main road. Although little more than a blip on the map, the village has somehow become one of Bulgaria’s best wine producing areas, to date.
Drive into Kolarovo and it’s immediately obvious the village is dominated by two vast and impressive vineyards- Castra Rubra and Telish, situated on opposing sides of the road.
Although it’s tricky to find much evidence of the Castra Rubra brand in Bulgaria, overseas there’s a strong and growing ‘buzz’ with the brand having snagged some significant global awards over the years. In fact, top 10 world wine-maker (according to Decanter magazine), Michel Rolland works exclusively in Bulgaria with Castra Rubra, consulting and advising on everything from construction to vine choice and processes.
We purposely didn’t call ahead, mainly to get a genuine ‘feel’ for the place. Well aware we could likely have the door slammed in our faces, or not actually opened at all. We tried to keep expectations low- however, this proved more and more difficult as we realised just what an impressive facility Castra Rubra actually is.
Let’s be honest, much of rural Bulgarian customer-care is somewhat in its infancy, and many of the more ‘rural experiences’ can be either extra-ordinarily fantastic- as you discover someone passionate, engaging and inspired by what they do, or a true nightmare, as you come face-to-face someone who has been left to ‘manage’ a facility with little information, training, interest or financial incentive… the problem is, in a village setting, you’re never quite sure which you’re going to get.
We needn’t have worried. Greeted courteously, yet with a little confusion (clearly not too many people turn up unannounced in early-April), the owners were called and the truly fantastic Vladimira appeared from somewhere. (Given her passion for the vine- we presume the fields?)
She was everything we could hope for in a guide. Passionate about wine-vines- vineyards and the Sakar region, knowledgeable, fun, well-travelled, and fluent in numerous European languages and BULGARIAN!
The Castra Rubra vineyard has over 160 hectares of predominantly red grapes, and makes exceptional Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Savingnon primarily for the export market. Down the hill at Telish, the lower quality grapes are crafted into mid-market bottles- yet all grapes are from the same fields. Both brands have won a slew of awards both in Bulgaria and abroad, primarily for their high quality product and exceptional value for money.
Its a sad fact, but great Bulgarian wines are still not yet fully appreciated in much of Bulgaria. Many who can afford really good food and wine- when trying to impress, opt for an imported product. But, facilities like Castra Rubra, give hope. Surely, its only a matter of time before things begins to change?
The Castra Rubra facility is impressive by international standards, never mind Bulgarian. Vast, modern and built on the ‘Gravity-flow,’ system, the grapes are hand-picked before being sorted at the top level and working down to the temperature controlled tanks situated below in the bowels of the ‘fortress like’ building.
The imposing stone walls and terraces of the outside, encompass a super-sleek glass, white walled and raw cement interior. As we progress past the immaculately clean processing vats, although empty, the smell of primitive ‘village-like’ fermentation still hangs in the air. Yet as we move into the beautifully lit and glass walled barrel aging rooms, the scents change to smooth and full of promise.
You get a strong feeling at Castra Rubra that the owners very probably enjoy the ‘process’ of making their wine as much as the wine itself. Take the atmospherically lit, deep red aging rooms for example, they’re quite clearly as beautiful as they are functional.
Wine making here is clearly a passion and at the centre of life. You get the feeling the owners come down here to contemplate the very best and slowly aging wines, and with a mixture of hope and excitement, sit and wonder if the culmination of their skills, knowledge and luck have paid off?
How will the results of their accumulated decisions; smell, look and of course, taste?
- Castra Rubra’s top bottles according to International Wine Review 2018
Castra Rubra 2011 Butterfly’s Rock Thracian Valley
Castra Rubra 2010 Dominant Red Blend Thracian Valley
Castra Rubra 2013 New Red Blend Thracian Valley
Castra Rubra 2010 Pendar Thracian Valley
Castra Rubra 2015 Nimbus Syrah Thracian Valley
As the tour draws to a close, we rise from the barrel room up a multi-floor suspended staircase, we pop-through a futuristic glass pod and weirdly we’re back into the super-sleek all-white tasting room.
As we haven’t booked, there’s some juggling to be done with Vladimira’s schedule, she’s a busy woman and needs to make some calls, the most important of which, (for us, anyway) is to find someone to open the bottle shop for our imminent arrival. That done we settle down to sample some wine.
She chooses us a mid-market red, which is of course, very good. It’s interesting that none of us can actually remember the label, just that the room and wine combine to create a luxurious back-drop for Vladimira’s incredible stories of life on the vineyard.
And, that’s the thing about a really great tour guide. A good guide gives you a tour, a really great guide gives you insight. Via Vladimira we discover that last year’s incredibly wet weather forced the crisis decision to remove every individual leaf from the east side of the grapes- ultimately saving the entire harvest.
For someone who thought making wine was what you did when you retired. Along the lines of a few months of effort, a bit of time, a shed-load of sunshine and luck, and voila! Wine! The tour is an eye-opener and truly fascinating. Life behind the awards and artistic labels, is filled with mid-winter pruning decisions, continually attracting and maintaining a skilled labour-force, testing each imported vine variety in each soil type, and of course, the ‘real biggies’ like, how many books it takes to make it through a long Kolarovo winter.
Anyone who has toured a few larger Bulgarian vineyards will know they generally come in two forms: industrial and/or dated. Both of which focus entirely on producing product while paying little heed to the ‘experience,’ of actually spending time there.
Castra Rubra is clearly different. The brand focuses on both top end wine production AND creating a beautiful setting in which to do it. Throughout our experience, the passion, investment and drive behind the vineyard is evident.
As we leave, Vladimira tells us that the primary mission behind Castra Rubra is to make the best wines in Bulgaria, yet according to the international awards steadily piling up, and us- its newest and at this very moment- happiest fans… it absolutely already is!
- The Tour Overview
Experience: A really informative and fun day out
What to Bring: A designated driver
What NOT to Bring: The kids
Prior Booking: Recommended
Shopping opportunities: Yes! The wine shop is fantastic and open daily, with wines priced from under 10 leva to 30 leva
Other Things to Do: Hunt for the Castra Rubra namesake. Discover the ruins of the ancient Roman fortress of the same name.