(Re)discovering Bulgarian Wine
Even though I spent my childhood in Soviet Russia, where Bulgarian wine was in abundance, my first conscious encounter with it was in Italy, where I was doing my wine master. Coming back from a Christmas break, one of my classmates proudly brought a bottle of Mavrud, to show her wine-loving friends what modern Bulgaria had to offer. Well, to say the least, this wine was very different from what I’ve ever tasted before, and the quality was definitely there. Not that it has surprised me, Bulgaria is one of the oldest wine regions, with 3000 years of history, but with all its ups and downs of the wine industry through the years of transition economy (the 90’s), I didn’t expect much.
After the fall of the socialist regime in 1989 when the vineyards have been returned to their owners, the industry experienced some serious difficulties: abandoned vineyards, lack of investments, shortage of grapes and almost no quality control. As a result, the country was making ‘lean, green under ripped wines’ gradually losing most of its clients and markets. The situation improved in 2000 when Bulgaria became a member of major agricultural funds and European agricultural development programs that attracted local and foreign investors. Many small and medium-sized, perfectly equipped wineries appeared in each viticultural area over the country. With technological innovations and marketing efforts, the image of the Bulgarian wine industry has been completely changed in a positive way only over a decade.
Five Bulgarian Wine Regions
Wine is produced all over the country, from the Danubian Plain in the north and the Black Sea coast in the east to the Thracian Valley in the south and Struma Valley in the southwestern corner of Bulgaria. There are 5 major viticulture areas in Bulgaria, each characterized by unique climate conditions, soil types, and specific grape varieties. The regions include Danubian Plain, Black Sea Coast, Rose Valley, Thracian Valley and Struma River Valley.
Black Sea Coast (green) – maritime climate characterized by hot summers, mild winters and dry and long autumns favorable for the production of white wines. Over 50% of the white grape varieties are concentrated in this region, most importantly, Dimyat, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Chardonnay, Alligote, and Ugni Blanc.
Danubian Plain (blue) – temperate continental climate with hot summers, cold winters and warm and dry autumns. Red grape varieties are mainly represented by Gamza, Pamid, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The most typical white grapes are Misket, Riesling, and Chardonnay. Some of the best Bulgarian sparkling wines made with the traditional method are produced here.
Thracian Valley (yellow) – transitional, temperate continental climate, with mild rainy winters and warm, dry summers. The Balkan mountains serve to protect the region from sharp northern winds creating favorable conditions for the production of rich, dense red wines made from local grape variety Mavrud as well as international varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the red grape varieties are concentrated in this region (60%).
The Rose Valley (red) is surrounded by the mountains that protect the vineyards from extreme temperatures. The diversity of micro-regions and soils is fascinating, and the climate conditions in the region are considered to be the most suitable for cultivating high-quality vines. The Rose Valley is the birthplace of Red Misket, used for the production of white wines that rank among the finest white wines in Bulgaria. Other grape varieties include Chardonnay, Muscat, Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc, and a few reds such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Struma River Valley (purple) – the region in the southwest of Bulgaria in the border with the country of Macedonia. The area is tiny but climatically very distinct, with a strong Mediterranean influence from the south (early spring). The local Melnik, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are cultivated here.
Bulgarian Wine Tasting experience
Recently I had a chance to taste about 30 different wines from Bulgaria, and I was impressed by the quality of wines and diversity of grape varieties and wines styles.
The best dry white wines come from the cooler north-east region, but I’ve tasted some wonderful whites from warmer Northwest Bulgaria and Bulgaria’s southeast region Sakar. A true discovery was the diversity of dry aromatic whites, made of indigenous grape varieties such as Dimyat, Misket, Sandansky Misket and Tamianka (Muscat Blanc), all with exciting aromatics and charming acidity. It was interesting to see the expression of place through the tasting of local Pinot Noir, which provides an exceptional value along with other international grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Native reds and hybrids such as Melnik, Mavrud, Rubin, Gamza vary in style from light and fruity to big and bold, and together with native whites represent the country’s wine identity.
Bulgarian Wines Tasted at the Seminar in February 2018
I really enjoyed Sauvignon Blanc single varietal (’15) as well as a Sauvignon Blanc Cuvée of Chardonnay, Traminer, and Riesling (’16) from Tsarev Brod from North Black Sea region. You can definitely feel the sea climate influence – wines are light and fresh with ample minerality and high acidity. The Orange wine (’17) made of Sauvignon Blanc from Villa Melnik is refreshing and very approachable, considering it comes from the relatively warm region of the Struma Valley. Chardonnay from Cote du Danube from the northwestern part of Danubian Plain has classic Chardonnay flavor characteristics and added complexity from lees aging. Basic Chardonnay with good potential.
Dimyat (’16) from Karabunar Winery (Thracian Valley, West) is quite a rare find as only a few wineries produce 100% Dimyat wine in Bulgaria. Likely to be originated in Bulgaria, Dimyat is related to Aligote and Chardonnay. Fresh and crisp with bright acidity, this wine is perfect for the hot summer days with salads, sea food, vegetarian pastas or as an aperitif. Sandanski Misket and a blend of Misket & Muscat from Via Verde winery (Struma Valley) were phenomenal. Both with flamboyant aromatics, balanced sweetness, and fresh acidity, thanks to the vineyards being high in altitude. Single vineyard Tamianka from Bratanov Winery (Sakar) is one of the best aromatic whites in the country. Exotic with a perfumed smell, flavors of orange marmalade, Turkish delight, and stony aftertaste.
International Reds & Blends
Bulgarian reds can be a great value and there are now impressive examples of Pinot Noir across various quality zones, from bright and fruity wines hailing from northern Black Sea Coast (Tsarev Broad) to rich and smoky samples from the north-west of the country (Burgozone winery). Quite often international grape varieties are blended with indigenous, which add local flavor to more familiar international grapes. I particularly liked the blend of Melnik & Pinot Noir from Villa Melnik (Struma Valley): black fruit, ripe tannins, vibrant acidity and spicy nuances in the aftertaste. Some other favorites were Cabernet Sauvignon, Gramatik and delicious Marselan Gramatik from the Rupel Winery (Struma Valley).
Local Red Varietals
The Struma Valley (the Southwest of Bulgaria) is a birth place of native Melnik, of which there are two different clones exist: Shiroka Melnik (Broad-Lived Melnik) – a late-ripening and age-worthy red and Melnik 55 or ‘early Melnik ‘– a hybrid between the Broad-Lived Melnik and French Valdeguie grape. It was very interesting to see different faces of Melnik during the tasting. Shiroka Melnik (’15) from Villa Melnik, was fresh, young and structured, with black fruit flavors, sensual tannins and a touch of tartness. In turn, Melnik 55 (’15) from Rupel Winery was more concentrated with typical spiciness, pronounced coconut aroma and subtle sweetness of blueberries.
Mavrud is another ancient and probably the most important indigenous variety originated in the Western Thrace wine region of Bulgaria. The name Mavrud derives from the Greek word ‘mavro’, which means black (most likely because of its bluish-black skin). Mavrud (’15) from Karabunar Winery is a spicy, black-fruit-scented, well-knit and thoroughly approachable wine ready to drink right away. Mavrud & Rubin (’13) from Villa Yustina is a wonderful blend of two common Bulgarian grape varieties. Rubin is a unique local cross of Nebbiolo and Syrah often described as a man wearing a suit and cowboy boots because of its plummy fruitiness and firm tannins. Dynamic and elegant the wine is marked by aromas of dark fruit, forest floor and a hint of truffle.
Bulgaria maybe still need some time to win back its export markets, but recent changes in the industry show great results. There is an evident trend towards better quality, more sustainable viticulture practices, technological innovations and distinct individuality.