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Bumper harvest turns sour for Bulgaria’s grape growers

Assenovgrad — Last year’s grape harvest in Bulgaria proved to be a bumper one but independent grape growers around the country say they are in no mood to celebrate.

Plenty of sun and just the right amount of rain boosted the yield in 2009 to well over 400,000 tonnes of grapes from 369,400 tonnes the year before.

And winemakers say the quality is excellent, too, with high sugar content, mouth-watering aroma and rich colour.

Nevertheless, independent grape growers are not cheering, because slumping wine sales are forcing major winemakers to cut back the volumes of grapes they traditionally purchase from them.

And travelling in one of Bulgaria’s wine-growing regions between the southern city of Plovdiv and nearby Assenovgrad, home to Mavrud, one of the most popular red grape varieties, one comes across scores of crates filled with grapes lining the roads, with makeshift "for sale" signs.

"Do you want to buy some?" asks 65-year-old Elena Nikolova from the nearby village of Proslav, rather hopefully.

"It’s a nightmare," she huffs. "The wineries don’t want to take it at all or try to buy it dirt cheap, so we’re forced to try and sell the grapes by the roadside. But can you imagine how many people will really buy it to take home and make their own wine?"

Nikolova said she and her three cousins, who work 1.2 hectares of Mavrud, have decided to uproot their ageing vineyard and sell the land.

Hundreds of thousands other small vineyard owners, who were given their land back after the communist-era cooperatives were dismantled, are facing similar fates.

Yordan Stefanov, director of the huge Winery Assenovgrad nearby, said he would be buying almost no extra grapes from small growers in face of a 15 to 20 percent drop in export orders.

"We rely on grapes from our own vineyards of over 20 hectares and from contracts with local cooperatives. Purchases from individual small grape growers are being cut to the minimum," Stefanov told AFP.

The wine plant, which shipped as many as 20 million bottles of wine to the Soviet Union during the Communist era, is still among the top 10 Bulgarian winemakers with an annual production of 2.1 million litres of wine.

But soon it hopes to be able to cover as much as half of its processing volumes of around 3,000 tonnes of grapes a year from its own vineyards.

All wineries, especially the countless new chateau-type winemakers that have sprung up around the country, are now feeding 50-70 percent of their production needs with their own grapes, National Vine and Wine Chamber chairman Plamen Mollov said.

"As their most recently planted vineyards come into full fruit bearing over the next years, most wineries will be able to cover their entire production with their own grapes," he said.

That, experts say, will spell the end for small grape growers who own over half of the country’s 104,335 hectares of vineyards, unless they join forces to set up cooperatives.

In 2009, the wineries cut nearly half of their purchasing volumes to around 120,000 tonnes from 203,447 tonnes in 2008, according to data compiled by the National Vine and Wine Chamber.

Two thirds of Bulgarian wines are made for export, most of it going to Russia, which accounted for 62 percent of total exports of 87 million litres last year. But orders to Russia have slumped by around 25 percent.

Sales to other countries, such as Poland, Sweden, Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, have also dropped, leaving winemakers with enough stock of unsold wine to cover sales for another year even if no wine is made at all this year, the data showed.

Diana Simeonova/AFP/Expatica