“To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.” …. Clifton Fadiman

A long, long, time ago, in a (country*) far, far away, wine was being made.  Homer’s Iliad describes the honey sweet black wine brought by ship from the Thracian city of Ismarus to their camp outside of Troy. In fact, the earliest traces of cultured vines within what is now Bulgaria go back 3000 years and possibly much more. Fast forward to 1980. Bulgaria is the second largest wine producer. There are 25 varieties of red and white wine grapes registered as trademarks of origin from designated geographic regions.  But after the fall of communism, wine production declined.

Happily, production is again hearty and healthy. Castra Rubra, producer of “Via Diagonalis,” began in 2004 and has 16 wines in its portfolio. Growing in their vineyards are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Sauvignon Gris. The vineyards are in Southern Bulgaria, in the Thracian Plain (a designated region) in the
province of Harmanli that enjoys hot, dry summers and more than 3000 hours of sunshine. Myriad soil types, (rich, sandy, sandy-loam, clay-limestone) but all with good drainage, allow for vines to be grown in areas best suited for them, the whole of the region itself protected by the Balkan Mountains.  These conditions, blended together as they are create a unique terroir and character to Castra Rubra’s wines. But in the case of Via Diagonalis, it is the use of two indigenous Bulgarian grapes that contribute to making this wine, and others of Bulgaria, a unique tasting experience.

Via Diagonalis is a red blend: 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Rubin and 5% Mavrud. The judicious use of these last two grapes is what makes Via Diagonalis so different from other red blends you've tried. Rubin is a crossing of Nebbiolo and Syrah, created in Bulgaria in 1944. It offers aromas and taste of cherry, black cherry, and raspberry and Syrah’s contribution of pepper and crushed violet. Barrel aged, it will accumulate notes of vanilla and a smoky flavor.  Mavrud, its low-yielding and late ripening counterpoint, is thick skinned with coordinating high tannin. Its stewed fruit character on the palette gives the wine a glycerol mouth feel and some spicy character. Some people pick up herbal notes. Together these grapes make for a wine that can be aged well due to excellent tannin/acidity. 

As varietals, these grapes make for powerful wines that some may find too unusual for their palette to readily acclimatize to.  But as blending grapes, they offer an unusual and delightful wine tasting experience. Several vineyards in Bulgaria have reduced their plantings of these grapes in favor of planting more of the classics (Cabinet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot et al) which I think is unwise. As in the culinary arts, fusion is fun. But abandonment of established classics just leaves a void in good taste.

Fresh out of the bottle at a tasting, I found the tannins off putting, but the wine so unusually tempting and promising I bought several bottles to taste later. (About $17 a bottle).  It was a good decision. If you do not decant this wine, I recommend leaving it uncorked for about three hours in order to have it open up and soften.  In the glass, it is a very dark garnet with a distinct nose of blackberry jam and with that note carrying prominently into the initial taste.  Following that rush of fruit, more delicate notes of vanilla, soft spice and a compote of black fruit play on the upper front palette and nose. Hints of leather compliment the juicy finish accented with violet.

In addition to liking this wine for what it is, I appreciate it also for its utility as a “safe, crowd-pleasing” wine. Opening numerous different wines, remembering who prefers which, pouring ---  these tasks distract from the continuity of group discussions in informal gatherings. Unlike more structured dinner parties in which you may want to serve different wines with the different courses, conversation is best served during informal get togethers with a commonly served wine being self poured. And Via Diagonalis is serious enough for committed red wine drinkers of most any ilk to enjoy, yet fruity enough to appeal to newer red wine drinkers and even white wine aficionados.    

Food Friendly, Via Diagonalis Goes
With Many Dishes
It’s also food friendly on many levels and goes well with grilled meats, barbecue, red-sauced pasta dishes and more. I enjoyed Via Diagonalis recently with a dish of whole wheat pasta shells, diced peppers, garlic and onion mixed with slices of Italian sausage dressed in a sauce of aglio e olio, the wine’s fruitiness being a nice contrast to the garlic in the sauce.

The more wines I write about, the fewer I find myself getting excited over. Indeed, the only thing I find distressing about Via Diagonalis is the difficulty experienced in finding it available. Popular in the U.K. and Europe, it has limited availability here. Hopefully that will change.  Distributed by Vinprom Distributing LLC, I learned that it is stocked by House Red Bar in Forest Park, IL. A Google search (“Buy Diagonalis wine”) yielded few results, all outside the U.S.  "Bulgarian Wine Direct” is on facebook and offers direct on-line sales. I have no experience with them. On that note, let me say I have no connection to anyone mentioned here.  Over time, I've simply become more sensitive to wines being reviewed without information being provided regarding their availability. So I’ll be providing information on where less-available wines ARE available in the future.

…………….. Jim

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* “Galaxy” was used in the opening of the movie “Star Wars”.  While Via Diagonalis is somewhat difficult to track down, fortunately you need not be a Jedi Knight to obtain it.

Alc:                         14%
BRIX                      24%
Total Acdity            5.8
Ph                           3.66
Aging                     12 Months, 50% New French Oak Barrels
Grapes Were Hand Picked

Vinification: Cold maceration at 10 degrees C (50F) for 8 days. Spontaneous alcoholic fermentation in inox (stainless) container at  27 degrees C (80.6F). Post fermentation infusion. Spontaneous malolactic in new French barrels.

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