Starosel: Old Village New Times

We didn’t know what to expect on our very first trip to Bulgaria, and we hadn’t been able to research as much as we tend to do before we go to pastures new, so we were excited at the prospect of something new and, to us, untapped.

Bulgarian wine has been imported into the UK for many years; in the 1980s it was the second largest wine producer in the world; Winston Churchill was said to have hundreds of bottles of Melnik shipped to him annually; Bulgarian cabernet sauvignon was positively the best around the world for many years although it can be found at both ends of the financial spectrum, starting nowadays at £3.50 a bottle in the supermarket.

Statistics and legends abound and we were well aware of its 5,000 year old historical roots, a massive winemaking heritage, more so than many Western European countries.

Homer’s Iliad pays homage to Thracian wines: “Prepare a feast for your Councillors; it is right and reasonable that you should do so; there is an abundance of wine in your tents, which the ships of the Achaens bring from Thrace daily.” And in the 4th century BC Aristotle wrote that Thracian wines were so dense that the Greeks had to dilute them with water!

Having tasted them many times over we knew that these can be big wines, so we knew what to expect, but tasting in situ can always give us a completely different perspective.

A trip to the Rose Valley and the excavated Valley of the Kings is an important feature of any stay in Bulgaria, and a focus of that tour has to be a short stay at the Starosel complex – a restaurant, hotel, spa and winery.

Fly into Sofia and it’s only a few hours’ motorway drive south-east to retreat from city life. And what a great retreat it is.

Immediately, life slows down apace as you near the old village, ‘Starosel’.  The car has to grind to a halt as we round a corner: a herd of goats are ushered from the middle of the road to a derelict farm building in the centre of an orchard, presumably their home. One of them stops at some rubbish bins and raises himself on to his hind legs to have a quick rummage inside before he is pushed along with the others. Life is quiet here.

Starosel is well signposted from the main road, so for the tourist, intrepid explorer or a newbie to Bulgaria, it’s not hard to find.  But you do need to want to go there.  You wouldn’t happen to come across it on a quiet drive through the countryside, it is definitely off the beaten track and those who come to stay here have sought it out.

Starosel has a good name in Bulgaria and a name for great wine.  Talking to Bulgarians that we know in England they tell us that Starosel is one of the top wines in Bulgaria, but it seems to be much more than that. It is really loved, it seems Bulgarians have a genuine affection for Starosel wines, so it was with much interest that we visited the Starosel complex for the first time in February 2014.

A highlight of the visit was not only the spa complex but an opportunity to visit the excavated remains of a Thracian king’s tomb, a wine cellar and temple just a few kilometres away from Starosel. There’s a wonderful synergy between Thracian culture and wine culture in Bulgaria; the two are intertwined with some of the most exciting gold treasures that have been excavated in Bulgaria comprising wine goblets and associated wine paraphernalia. The ritual drink was, after all, wine.

We drive towards the complex down an unmade stony road, a few rows of vines to our right and a donkey in a paddock in the car park.  This is where we learn that the complex also houses a menagerie of farm and wild animals and birds. Peacocks roam the grounds, strolling through the restaurant calmly between tables; there’s a huge rabbit (responsible, we’re told for the mass of babies bounding about); two caged deer watch timidly as children peer through at them – they were rescued and are being reared by staff; ducks dive in and out of the small central pond; a turkey scrapes about under a tree.  The owner of Starosel, the charismatic Angel Angelov, is a massive animal lover.

Reception is welcoming and staff speak competent English, enthusiastically.  There’s an architect’s mock up of the apartment buildings being constructed on the hill overlooking the winery, and outside the work is in progress with diggers digging and builders building.  There’s also a traditional looking bar in Reception that acts as the wine shop, and the well known ‘Wine Treasure’, a dry red wine produced from the best selection of grapes, is kept – tongue in cheek – in an old Bank Treasury safe.

We’re keen to see the hotel side of the complex and are taken to the farthest part of the building, walking past restaurant, outdoor and indoor swimming pools. Our room is on the top floor, a fabulously spacious corner room with balcony overlooking beautiful hills and farmland, with huge sweeping dramatic skies. We walk out on to the balcony to find a large spa Jacuzzi, a definite surprise and a very welcome one. It is still cold outside, although becoming springlike, and perhaps a hot dip taken in the cold air will invigorate! First thing in the morning it did!

The room is simply adorned, using natural materials, handmade wooden furniture, and rich red folkloric tapestry fabrics that create a sense of Bulgarian tradition in a fairly quirky but modern setting.

Satisfied, we return to Reception where we meet a charming young girl who leads us around the winery recounting stories of the Thracian rituals, all revolving around winemaking and wine drinking, showing us the old copper still where they make rakija (which is stunning, incidentally!), chatting enthusiastically as we drift around the tanks, barrels and bottling plant.  Starosel was the first of the new wineries to vinify in stainless steel and they also handle the bottling for other local wineries, too small to be able to carry out the whole production process unaided.  Several of these wineries also use the same oenologist.

Then we descend stairs to an extraordinary tasting room, a rotunda, built to resemble the 2,000 year old Temple of Dionysus found 2 kilometres away from the Starosel site. It is darkly lit, a stunning circular space to carry out a tasting event, although given the option we agree to sit upstairs where we can enjoy tasting the wines as well as allowing us to see them in daylight.

Starosel wines are outstanding in a very simple, traditional way.  They don’t boast of grandeur or claim to be something they’re not, simply they are what they are.  And they are extremely pleasant and very moreish.  We taste a chardonnay full of wild white flowers, herbal notes, and a delicious light peach flavour. They blend Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Ottonel to produce a Millésime of just 1,200 bottles, a citrusy, zesty white, perfect with fish.

Their syrah rosé grabs our attention, dark red bursting with redcurrants and a hint of white pepper, this is going to be a winner with chargrilled seafood and meats, a ‘real’ rosé to add to our list.

Starosel’s mavrud is rich and dark, almost black in colour (we’re told that ‘mavrud’ comes from the Greek word for black) and it looks thicker than a normal wine, it’s deliciously intense and we feel the heat of a hot summer. It’s harvested much later than all the other grapes as the weather starts to change, during October.

Wine Treasure, the fine dry red, that we saw stored in the bank safe in Reception is their prize wine comprising merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. With a production of 1,300 only, each bottle carries a message: “Each nation leaves behind them treasures, and the current generation will judge the previous generation by the treasure they leave behind.” It’s a message that certainly shows the passion that Angel and his team have for their craft.

Stoyan, the winemaker and young in-house oenologist, is completely entrenched in his work and he enthuses repeatedly as he opens each bottle, as we taste with him and he tells us about the winery, the vines, the harvests and the wines.

Dinner in the restaurant is an experience. When we tell everyone we are avid fish eaters, Angel and his family go fishing for us; in the evening a superb platter of carp arrives.  Grilled cheeses and fresh feta are positively delicious, the tomatoes are sweet and juicy, salads such as the Chef’s Tabietliyska (aubergine, olives, roast peppers) and the famous Bulgarian Shopska are superb, and meats are grilled to perfection.

Whilst we’re discussing, tasting, and learning Stoyan teaches us the ultimate [to us] Bulgarian joke.  “This wine will be good with.”  Yes, that’s it.  That’s the joke.  Brilliant. And Starosel is one of those places. Starosel will be good with.  It needs nothing more, it’s good with.

© Pacta Connect 2015