16 September 2016

First Bulgaria Disinfected Me then Infused Me with Wine

I almost don't even know where to begin with this. E and I set off on what was to be a relaxing weekend break at a winery spa in Bulgaria-it turned out to be something rather different.

We left early so we could pick up our rental car at the airport and get the four-hour drive out of the way; unfortunately the travel troubles began right away. Enterprise's system was down ("system problem" are words we often hear in Turkey) so despite arriving at their service counter before 9AM it wasn't until 11 that we were finally on the road. With no traffic barring our way the drive through Turkey went smoothly and the border was upon us long before we even thought to expect it. Three check points later we were out of Turkey and entering the no man's land between it and Bulgaria.

That's where the trouble really began.

The 'green card' "office"

Approaching the first check point our car was unexpectedly sprayed with very chlorinated smelling water. I laughed and asked if we'd just been disinfected. Surely not, said E...but true enough there was a little booth just ahead labeled "disinfection fee collection point" where we were charged the cost of 3 Euros for apparently having Turkey cleaned off our car. Really thank goodness for that because it set a tone of ludicrousness without which we may have committed murder over the next two hours. After paying for our disinfection we pulled into a scrum of vehicles all attempting to cross the border into Bulgaria. In a space of maybe a square half mile were packed so many cars we couldn't even attempt to count them. Tempers were high, horns honked on an off, cars didn't inch forward...they centimetered forward. Suddenly we had so much time on our hands so we turned to Google to discover why everything was at a stand still. Apparently the Turkey-Bulgaria crossing is the second busiest land crossing in the world! That would have been good information to have before we left.

Todoroff complex

Two hours later, TWO HOURS LATER it was finally our turn. We handed over our passports, the car insurance, and the car rental contract but were absolutely flummoxed when asked for the "green card". Apparently saying words louder and more slowly is not just something English speakers do to foreigners because apparently shouting and over enunciating GREEN CARD at us was going to make us understand the Bulgarian border guard. Eventually someone with some English came over and instructed us to drive through the check point (while they held onto our passports) to "the last car and my colleague will help". Okay then. We drove through and parked by the final check point and asked everyone we saw "green card"? until we were directed to a small shack sitting just outside the border crossing area, where a woman sold us Bulgarian car insurance for 50 Euros. The green card.

We drove back to the original check point (no cars at all on this side of things!), parked, and walked to the booth where our passports were being held hostage. Being in the thick of things as we were it was easy to see why it was taking so long for each car to cross the border. After passport (and green card) inspection, the one customs officer shared by two lanes would poke through a car's trunk, rummage through luggage, and then pop the hood for a mechanical inspection. Every. Single. Car. We were spared this process after finally being able to provide the much-desired green card, given back our passports, and sent on our way.

Wine-infused jacuzzi!

Finally free to go we drove through the final final check point, slightly afraid we were going to be stopped and asked for another color card, we drove into Bulgaria-where there was no traffic. None. All those cars that got across the border before us were nowhere to be seen; it was very odd. About 100 kilometers in we stopped for gas. We probably could have got all the way to the spa without filling up but after 2.5 hours of running the AC while sitting in the hot afternoon sun we needed to fill up. Then began the next adventure of actually finding the spa. I don't know about other countries, but Bulgaria doesn't mark streets that have names like 'route 8602'. My Russian might be crap now but thank goodness I can still read Cyrillic because I was able to recognize the name of our destination village (Brestovitsa) and guide E to the correct street. Of course actually finding the spa in Brestovitsa was a whole different story. We had to stop and ask three or four different people being slightly hindered by neither of us being able to speak Bulgarian and me trying to speak to Bulgarians in Turkish.

Finally we arrived at Todoroff Winery and Spa. Sadly it was too late to take advantage of the spa or even join their tour/wine tasting. We were both so exhausted though-it had been 10 hours since we left home that morning-that we were happy to just have dinner and a bottle of wine and sleep early.

The next morning after breakfast we booked spa treatments for the next two days and while we waited for our appointment we sat outside in the cool Bulgarian country air playing with the sweetest kitten. From there E and I luxuriated for about an hour in Todoroff's Barrique Tub-a jacuzzi infused with bath salts and wine, actual wine, while also enjoying glasses of wine. We felt kind of bad because no matter how hard we tried to prevent it, the jacuzzi bubbled away so enthusiastically that the water ended up all over the floor. After pickling in the wine we each had body scrubs with grapes seeds/must (Cabernet Sauvignon!) and massages.

Processing the grapes

Bottling room

Fully relaxed, we lazed away the afternoon with spa treatments and naps until our tour of the Todoroff winery. The original winery was established in 1945 but nationalized in 1947. It was returned to the original family in the late 90s and bought and modernized by Ivan Todoroff in 2001. The winery produces wines made mostly from the same ubiquitous grapes everyone grows but they do also produce some very nice wine from the native Bulgarian grape, Mavrud.

Unfortunately it seems that many of the native Bulgarian grapes have been lost so Todoroff specializes in Mavrud, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the dreaded Merlot. Our guide told us that there are many traditional songs in Bulgaria about red wine and only one about white-which includes a line that goes something like: "Oh white wine, why aren't you red?" Love it.

In addition to making wine, Mr. Todoroff is also dedicated to supporting local artists and for several years has been running art competitions. Winners' works are displayed in the Todoroff tasting room and used for the wines' labels. The hotel itself is something of an art gallery with each floor also displaying the work of local artists, all of which are available for purchase.

We tasted five wines during the tasting: 2015 Boutique Rainbow Silver, 2015 Boutique Mavrud, 2013 Gallery Merlot, 2013 Gallery Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2013 Teres Merlot.

The Todoroff Boutique line is not oaked which made me very happy as the 2015 Boutique Rainbow Silver is a Chardonnay blend: Chardonnay, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc. In the glass it's nearly colorless, clear, and brilliant. The nose is tropical with melon, green apples, and floral notes. In the mouth it's soft with good acid and lots of that green apple. For such a light white wine I was surprised by how well it paired with a strong, salty cheese. It was really quite nice.

The 2015 Boutique Mavrud was by far my favorite of what we tasted. Brestovitsa, where Todoroff is, is located in the Plovdiv region of Bulgaria's Thracian region. Mavrud is native to this area and while it's one of the few native grapes left it accounts for only 1.5% of grapes grown. Which to me is very sad because this was very much my favorite. Also aged in stainless steel, it was a bright purple-red color with a light-medium body. On the nose it was blueberry, floral, candy and the palate was very light tannins, well-balanced acid and more berry, candy, and honey flavors.

Up next was the 2013 Gallery Merlot (the line of Todoroff wines that feature the art competition winners). The Gallery-line wines spend four to six months in oak depending on the age of the barrel and there were definitely some light oak features in the wine with some smoke and vanilla in the nose. In the glass it was a brick red with medium clarity (sediment). The palate was very jammy with dried fruits especially prunes, smoke, vanilla, and oak with some light tannins and a medium finish.

The 2013 Gallery Cabernet Sauvignon was similarly treated with four to six months of oak. Todoroff uses their barrels (French, American, and Bulgarian oak) for only three years, a surprisingly short amount of time, before the barrels are sold off. The Gallery Cabernet is a dark, ruby-red in the glass with dark fruits and black olives in the nose. On the palate it's a medium body with nice, round tannins, integrated acid, and a medium finish with flavors reflecting the nose. It was nice...but there are Turkish Cabernets that are way better.

The last wine we tasted was the 2013 Teres Merlot which Todoroff is no longer selling. They have only a few bottles of their last Teres vintage left and they're saved for tastings. Although after the tasting E sweetly asked if it weren't possible for us to finish the bottle they opened for the tasting (it was!).  E really liked this one, me not so much. The Teres line wines spend eight to 10 months in the barrels which for the Merlot resulted in a deep brownish-brick red, medium body wine. The nose was very heavy dried fruits: raisins and prunes, along with smoke, vanilla, and baking spices. So-like a fruitcake that has spent some time in a smokehouse. It was quite similar to the Gallery Merlot in that the flavors were very jammy and while unquestionably a dry wine it had some very viscous, sweet flavors.

Roman amphitheater

Old city

Our last morning at Todoroff I had my last spa treatment: the Wine Mascarpone. After getting exfoliated again with grape seeds, I was slathered with a mask made out of wine and powdered milk, wrapped up in plastic and heavy blankets, and then the bed I was on turned into some sort of hot waterbed that filled up around me wrapping me in a waterbed burrito. It was pretty fantastic.

Old city-traditional painted Bulgarian building

Roman theatre-still used for events!

After my last spa treatment we packed up the rental car and headed into Plovdiv-Bulgaria's second largest city and one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. Plovdiv is lovely and well worth the visit. The modern city, old city, and ancient ruins are all well integrated and, throwing in bright street art, make for a charming city. The Roman theatre is still used for concerts and events and the amphitheater has been cleverly built around to incorporate it into the pedestrian area of the city.

Plovdiv is full of museums and art galleries so E was in heaven. I was in heaven because the food was amazing. We had lunch at Pavaj, a trendy, hip little restaurant that served up killer barbeque pork ribs.

Getting back to Turkey was not as complicated as getting out, but we had a few bumps. Getting out of Plovdiv was one of them! A few wrong turns though and we found the rounds we needed. As long as we were going the opposite direction of Sophia we were fine and eventually we came upon signs directing us to Istanbul.

Not only we were worried about another two-hour delay but we realized that we were driving into Turkey with 11 bottles of wine. Why we didn't think to take them out of the winery boxes and put them in our bags I don't know; because we both knew better than to try this. Sure enough, while the crossing out of Bulgaria took no time at all, we were stopped at the Turkish border. The customs officer said we were only allowed one liter per person (which can't be right-you're allowed so much more flying in!). However a little stumbling Turkish about how we were on a girls' weekend; isn't there a fee/tax we can pay (the to you implied); and a little flirting later and we, and our 11 bottles, were allowed to cross. Sometimes it's good to be female in Turkey!

While our spa weekend getaway turned out to be a little more adventurous than I had planned it was a great trip! We were disinfected, infused with wine, got to try Bulgarian wine, ate pork, looked at art, and flirted contraband into the country. All in all it was a pretty great trip!

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