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Buying a Vineyard

What about buying a vineyard in Bulgaria? Imagine sun-kissed vines, a bottle of your "own label" on the table set on the terrace outside your very own special property.

This is an enticing lifestyle but many forget how hard the work is and how demanding a vineyard can be. For those who dream of this idea and want to do it, we take a look at the possibilities.

Finding your perfect vineyard is something of a hit and miss affair. First of all, do you want it as a hobby or to really make money? Even, once you have decided this, many working vineyards change hands privately and do not come up for sale on the open market.

A vineyard in Bulgaria is a particularly attractive proposition, when one considers that 1,000 sq.m of vines in much of the EU will set you back 4,000 euros, yet in Bulgaria prices are from 500 euros to 2,500 euros depending upon the condition of the vines. This makes for high demand of such properties.


A Potted History

During the 1950's, there was massive planting of various international grape varieties, mostly dedicated to exporting every day wine to the Soviet Union. By 1966 Bulgaria had become the sixth largest wine exporter in the world. In 1999 with 117,000 hectares producing 2.9 million hl of wine per year, Bulgaria was the third largest vine growing country of PECO. These days, as in times gone by, Bulgaria still aims at the export market, selling almost half of all wine produced overseas.

The problem is that from the 80's there was a decline in Bulgarian vineyards due to the decrease of export of wine to the Soviet Union. Many vineyards received little or no investment. During the 90's the state monopoly of the wine industry stopped and resulted in all the wine cellars being privatised.


Present Day

More than 97,000 hectares are covered by 80 industrial wineries.

The main varieties grown are Cabernet Sauvignon (14%), Rkatzeteli (14%), Merlot (12%), Pimid (11%), Red Misket (8%), Dimyat (6.5%), Muskat Ottenel (6%), Chardonnay (2.7%), Gamza (1.6%), Riesling (1.3%), broad vine from Melnik (1%), Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer (1%)

Current trends are towards white wine varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, along with the red wines of Cabernet, Merlot and the broad vine from Melnik.

It is interesting to note that the wine industry in Bulgaria accounts for 30% of farm exports to the EU. The wines being sold mainly in the UK (accounting for 25% of exports), Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands.


Five Wine Regions

Nonetheless, the potential for wine making in the country is enormous, with five main wine regions. The climate in the northern area is continental with cold winters and hot summers. With the influence of the Black Sea and the Med, the climate is milder in the south. Local hilly terrain creates ideal micro-climates with good quality soil - making excellent conditions for growing high quality grapes.

The five regions, together with their percentage of total vineyards, are :

Northern - 35%
Including the Danube plain and the vinyeards of Rousse, Svischtov and Suhindol. This area also includes Veliko Turnovo

Sub Balkan - 7%
The area around the Valley of the Roses

Eastern - 30%
The Black Sea area. Particularly the white wine regions of Targovishte and Preslav

South West - 6%
The region of Struma Valley

South - 22%
The Thracian Valley along the Maritsa River


Vineyard Registration

Bulgaria was required to create a Vineyard Registry as part of it's EU accession programme.

The Executive Agency for Vineyard and Wine (EAVW), a body belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture, is in charge of the registry. A turnkey computerised system named ISVW is the basis for the Vineyard Registry of Bulgaria.

ISVW monitors:

- registration of new producers, updates for producer data and producer cessation
- registration of parcels of land for vinyeards
- registration of viticulture operations for the management of planting rights...
- Registry of Grape and Wine - for registration of wine production, stock, grape production and all annual declarations


Before You Start

Before you are taken away on a tide of sitting with your glass of vino looking out over your own vines, there are some things to consider.

Get to know the market and consider where you will want to sell your wines at the very outset. You need to know that even if you make high quality wine, you'll be able to sell it and that people will want to buy it.

Immerse yourself in all aspects of how to make good wine. If you don't want to make the wine yourself, find a good winemaker from Bulgaria.

Are you looking for a hobby / lifestyle or looking to make money?


How Much?

The next thing is budget. Do you have enough money for such a project? It is likely that it will cost about 10,000 euros or more per hectare of good variety vineyards. This usually does not include a house to live in.

If you are looking at a hobby, then a couple of hectares will be sufficient to just about break even. However, on a more commercial scale a small domain would be ten hectares of vines.

After the vines, then comes the "cellar" (vats, production equipment, etc). This could easily set you back 30,000 euros.

Tip : Before your first wine is ready for sale and you are paid for it, you'll have to pay for everything with your own money. Buying the vineyard itself is only the beginning of your outlay. Unpredicted expenses will certainly pop up. Be sure to have a big stash of cash.


Where to Look

Rather than heading for the 'hot spots', look for vineyards in neighbouring areas with similar cilmate and soil. Keep an eye open for up and coming areas which everyone is talking about but haven't quite arrived yet.

The reason for this is simple, in up and coming locations you can buy land without feeling you're being robbed and you might get a real bargain. Additionally, if you can manage to produce great wines in these less popular areas, you'll really stand out from the rest and be, hopefully, on the way to greatness.


Next Steps

We are sure you'll be trawling the internet for a very long time. The search for a vineyard is a slow process. Most of the information you'll get back from agents will be very basic. Every time you decide to view, you'll be eating up money on flights and accommodation. Do remember to contact notaries and lawyers in the region you would like to buy as often they have contacts with families who would like to sell without going on the open market.


This is it !

Then comes the day when you have found the vinyeard of your dreams. Don't lose your head. Go through things methodically. Remember, it is the vines which are the most important thing.

When viewing vineyards during summer, the vines are very dense and it's difficult to see how much of the vine is dead and not been replaced. Walk the rows carefully and examine the wood and leaf quality. Any disease can often be spotted for round dead patches. Count the grape clusters. Look at the state of the wires and poles holding up the vines and remember to check drainage systems.

It is wise to take some soil samples from various spots in the vineyard to later get an analysis of nutrients and chemicals.

One of the things which is important with younger vines is to get papers stating the clone of the grape variety and which root it was grafted to.

From all this information you should be able to assess how you can improve the quality of the wines being currently produced or if not being produced yet, to assess the potential of future wines.


Making it pay

At the very least you should do all your sums and ensure that it really is possible to make the amount of money that you need in order to live. Then take that figure and take off 30% - can you still live on that? Being an agricultural activity it is subject to weather conditions plus the vagueries of the market. This produces a degree of uncertainty.

Even as a hobby you'll need at least a hectare to break even. If you have a hectare of vines it is a full-time job. If you have more than two hectares, you need to employ people. It's competitive these days.

Many who would like to own a vineyard are caught by the romantic notion and do not give enough financial consideration to the whole project. If you want to make a living from a vinyeard be sure the vineyard you are thinking of buying can do that and that you have the skills to do it as well.

If you need help, you may be able to hire a traditional farmer who is willing to diversity. Even so, you should make sure you have an exit strategy in place. One bad year for weather can wipe you out, particularly in the early stages. In pure property investment terms, owning a vineyard is a challenge. Future purchasers may well want the land for something else and to them it is just a house with a field. Maintaining the land as a vineyard could massively reduce your future market when you come to sell.


Buy Established or Start from Scratch

Ask yourself whether you wanted to buy a working vineyard or if you prefer to start from scratch. There are pros and cons to both.

Working or Established Vineyards
- the hard work of establishing the vinyeard is already done
- access to audited accounts to help you establish financial viability (if you can't get these, then alarm bells should be sounding!)
- the vineyard should have an established marketplace
- whatever decision the current owners have made you are stuck with them in the short term
- it will be very difficult to modify the physical attributes of the site

Starting from Scratch
- all the choices are yours, from varieties of vine to the system to be used
- you can find the perfect site
- whilst you will have all the options, you might get some of the choices more wrong than the owner did of an existing vineyard
- you'll have a long wait before you get any return, maybe five to seven years to reach full production

Other Considerations

Skills - those producing the best wines and who are most successful and those with the best skill in viticulture and winemaking, plus the business skills required to market the wine. If you don't have these skills you will need to employ skilled and experienced people who can assist you.

Accommodation - many Bulgarian vineyards do not include a house on the land. Where will you live? It may be possible to set aside a small parcel on which to build a house. If not, how far away is it practical to live and will there be security problems if you are not on site. Looking after a vineyard is restrictive on your time. You will be there most of each working day and if you are not there, what will be happening in your absense.

Size - a small vineyard may seem ideal but you will always be limited to the amount it can earn based on its size. There are other ways to earn income but you should have a clear idea of how to do this. Many vineyards have added extra activities such as bed and breakfast, tours, restaurants, shops and so on. These may be critical issues in earning a sensible income.


Top Tips for Buying a Vineyard

1. Choose the area carefully
2. Make sure you have enough money - plan for at least half a million euros
3. Ideal size is around 20 hectares, for about 130,000 bottles per annum
4. Where will you live?
5. The quality of the land

6. Marketing will be vital to success in such a competitive market
7. Plan for it being hard work. The vines have to be tended to every day, come rain or shine. It's not for the retired or those seeking an easy life.
8. It can take three years to show a profit
9. Pay for top quality
10. Even if you are not successful at wine making, the land and property will increase in value

If you are not into professional wine making but would like your own small vineyard, then a small two-hectare vineyard could be just up your street. Get the vines tended by a local and then sold to the local cooperative. The harvest will probably be just enough to pay for the hobby and lifestyle, whilst you'll still have the satisfaction of owning your own vineyard. After all, there is nothing better than sitting at home and seeing the grapes ripening on the vine in the distance.

For real lovers of wine, there is probably nothing else to match owning your own vineyard, whether professionally or just for pleasure, and they take the hard work as part of the fun. A vineyard allows you to put together creativity with lifestyle and very few people get that chance.

We'll raise a glass to that !