Caroline Gilby MW is one of the most respected writers and wine experts on Central and Eastern European wine and is author of The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova. Robert Smyth interviews her on how she moved from studying botany to writing about Bulgarian wine; how she’s seen the Central and Eastern European wine regions progress over the years; and how she combines her passion for running with her passion for wine travel.
What’s your first memory of wine?
Trying Italian “champagne” (Asti I’m sure in reality) when we visited a colleague of my father’s in Italy. He worked on an international project for nuclear reactor safety and brought us along for a family holiday. I must have been about eight or nine and felt so grown up.
You come from a background of botany and plant sciences. How did you make the transition to wine?
I enjoyed drinking wine but knew nothing much about it until I moved to Bath for my doctorate. I joined the university wine society there – it seemed like a fun way to learn more about wine. I caught the bug quickly, won a couple of tasting competitions, but probably most influential was winning a trip to Quinta do Noval, where I had my “road to Damascus” moment and decided to look for a job in wine.
Are there any similarities or synergies between the different fields?
Being a scientist has definitely helped – partly because running quality control was a key part of my first job as a trainee buyer and partly to help me understand viticulture and the technical side of wine.
Of the three countries, you covered in The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, which is your favourite and why, or in which do you feel the most excitement when you visit, and why?
That’s a hard question – I love visiting all three for different reasons, and each is very different – Bulgaria came first in my wine life though so maybe has slight edge for that reason. But this whole region has undergone a wine revolution in the last thirty years, and continues to evolve rapidly, so each time I go there are new wines and new wineries to discover. At the same time, more established producers are getting better and better as their vines age and their understanding of their native grapes and their land improves.
Part of the reason for writing the book was to tell the story of how these three countries emerged out of the eastern bloc in completely different ways. Bulgaria is perhaps the country of strongest passions – my best friends and worst enemies in wine; Romania is so Latin and chaotic – always a fascinating side trip down a salt mine, a horse ride or some bit of history or nature but never anything happening on time. And in Moldova there’s an air of gratitude that anyone is even noticing they exist.
Which has developed the most since you’ve been covering them? Which has the most to offer going forward?
All three countries have gone from mass production of huge volumes of wine-based alcoholic beverage in the previous era to diverse and fascinating private industries. Arguably Moldova came from behind, partly due to its past reliance on Russia and then the brutal effects of two Russian bans on its wines, but it is working hard on catching up.
All three have had political and economic challenges to overcome but are on a good track now – wine is a great lens to see what’s happening. Romania is by far the biggest of the three and perhaps has the largest diversity of wine regions and significant plantings of local varieties. It has strong domestic market which still drinks a lot of not very good wine but there’s also a growing interest in quality wine. Bulgaria in the last couple of years is showing a real confidence in its wines – moving beyond correct and sound winemaking towards some genuinely exciting and diverse styles.
How do you feel books are holding up in the age of internet, social media? Do books and print journalism still have a place?
It’s harder for books to make an impact I think but people still do like to have paper in their hands. There’s a lot of short “sound bite” information about on the internet but if you want to go into real depth, I believe printed books still have the edge – and their batteries don’t go flat.
In your article on Malvazija Istarska for the Circular, you mention that it has a strong claim to be considered as a great grape variety. Which other grapes of Central and Eastern Europe can make a similar claim, in your opinion?
Furmint for definite – able to go from bone dry and steely, via complex layered dry whites to amazing sweet wines, and also fine sparklers. Rebula in Slovenia can also do amazing long-lived complex whites, fine bubbly and gorgeous passito wines.
On the red front Kékfrankos/Blaufränkisch/Modra Frankinja is exciting – now thought to originate in lower Styria in today’s Slovenia. The key thing with this lighter and more acid-driven red is to vinify it more like Pinot for elegance, as it works less well when producers try to extract structure. Coming up on the outside are things like Fetească Neagră, Melnik, Mavrud and Gamza/Kadarka all capable of good wines in the right hands but I’m reserving judgement about greatness so far.
Which countries in Central and Eastern Europe are you impressed by lately?
Beyond those in my book Slovenia continues to impress. Serbia is making rapid strides in with some genuinely world-class wines as is Bosnia and Herzegovina with its exciting local grapes. North Macedonia has also made huge progress recently particularly with the inky dark Vranec. Croatia is always fascinating with its huge diversity of grapes and climates, though 18 million tourists (in 2018) mean not so many wines leave its dramatic shores.
Which other regions or countries in the wine world are you currently excited by?
I was really impressed on a recent trip to Armenia by how far it has come in barely a decade since Zorah first showed it could make high-quality wines from almost forgotten grapes like Areni Noir and Voskeat. Today’s industry has a group of diverse and dynamic wineries and an amazing story built on 6 millennia of winemaking history, which lucky visitors can see for themselves in the Areni-1 cave with its 6,000-year-old winery.
What’s your take on the natural/organic/biodynamic movement? Do the wines measure up?
I firmly believe that wine is a luxury and as such we should encourage responsible and sustainable viticulture and winemaking. So any moves in that direction are good but it’s not always a clear cut decision.
It depends a little where you are what is feasible – going organic will always be easier in warm dry climates whereas damp ones will require a lot of copper-based sprays which are not good for earthworms or soil microbial life. And if you can’t control rot and lose a whole vineyard as I saw recently in Tokaj then that’s not sustainable.
I think some parts of biodynamics make good practical viticultural sense whereas other aspects … well, you can read my views elsewhere on the web. But if belief in biodynamics gives people the motivation to pay more attention to the details of what they are doing then that’s all good and there’s no doubt that many producers using biodynamic techniques do make amazingly good wines.
As for natural wines – well no wine is natural by definition – from the moment the first vineyard was planted. And I hate wine faults with a passion – wine has to be good and enjoyable above all, however it was made.
Do you have any tips for Circle members who may be considering taking the MW?
I loved the breadth of experience it gave me – filling in the gaps in my wine experience. For me, the business and marketing areas came hardest. You will also meet a great group of people and learn more about wine than you thought there was to know (and realise that you never stop learning). Having said that, it takes a lot of time, passion and commitment so definitely not to be undertaken lightly.
At what point did you decide to pursue your MW studies?
From the day I started my first job with Augustus Barnet – and luckily for me, they wanted their own “homegrown “ MW so I had lots of support from my boss Peter Carr MW and his boss Keith Garrard.
What’s next for Caroline Gilby?
More wine obviously – and next year’s target is to do as many vineyard runs as I can find to bring together two passions. I’ve run the Medoc marathon a few times, and the Zorah vineyard trail run in Armenia this year, but there are lots more to go!