Bulgarian Winemaker Eyes Asian Market
By Kim Boram
Yonhap news agency, South Korea
On a chilly November day, a Bulgarian farm village in the small eastern town of Sliven looked calm and peaceful, except a big winery in the center, after the end of the harvest season.
Tens of huge silvery containers about 5 to 6 meters tall glittered in the sunlight, with the sound of an aircraft engine growling for takeoff. The containers hummed as they began the process of turning the freshly harvested grapes into wine.
"Grape purchases already finished last month. The grapes are crushed and undergoing the first step of fermentation for a few days here in the containers," said Dimitar Panov, the chief production manager from Domaine Boyar, the biggest winemaker in Bulgaria.
Some 130 employees are working at the factory, with all wine-making processes including fermentation, bottling and labeling carried out in one place. It also has a laboratory for finding out the best flavor and aroma for its wine.
The winery produces 9 million bottles a year and exports 80 percent of its goods, according to the manager. Its main buyers are from England, Russia and other European countries. English customers bought some 4 million bottles of Bulgarian wine last year through retail giant Tesco PLC, he added.
"Our wines are very competitive in those markets, with lower prices and relatively higher quality," said Panov.
Winemaking is one of the key agricultural industries in Bulgaria. The eastern European country has more than 220 industrial wineries with a total capacity of 710 million liters. More than 50,000 tons of wines were shipped overseas in 2010, valued at US.3 million, according to data released by Bulgaria's Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
Bulgarian wine enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when it was the main food provider for the Soviet Union. It was the world's second-largest exporter of bottled wine after France.
After the end of the Cold War, however, the former communist country lost its main trading partner and its wine production and exports plunged. Still, the biggest buyer of Bulgarian wine is Russia, with a share of 49.1 percent of the country's wine exports in 2010.
In order to diversify its business portfolio, Panov, the product manager of Domaine Boyar, said his company is now trying to breaking into the populous Asian market where people are getting familiar with European wines but not aware of the taste of Bulgarian wines.
For the first step, 10 containers of wine were shipped to Singapore, and the Bulgarian wine company is in talks with a Singapore retailer to increase the amount.
"We know Asia is a big market. We will focus on China, Japan, and Korea as well," he added.
He said he has confidence his company will carve out the untapped Asian market and attract Asian customers with cheap Bulgarian wines, especially reds which are made of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay with some strong tannin and fruity flavors.
"Lower prices will be the biggest weapon of our products to appeal to them along with good taste," said Panov.
South Korea imported USD 135 million of wine in 2011, up 5 percent from the previous year, despite a slump in domestic consumption of alcoholic beverages amid an economic slowdown.
Free trade deals with the European Union (EU), Chile and the United States fueled the demand for wine, with the intention of eliminating tariffs imposed on the alcoholic beverage and lowering actual prices. Wines from Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, can also benefit from the tax cut.
"South Korea is an underestimated market, for sure," said Plamen Mollov, the chairman of Bulgaria's National Grape and Wine Making Association. "We have some promotion projects in China, and Korea can be include in the new projects in the near future to encourage investments in Bulgaria."