The first time I visited Bulgaria, I went on a wine tasting and picked up one of the best sparkling rose wines I’ve tasted for under €10, then on the next trip I bought several bottles in the supermarket for €3 to €7. I was just picking blindly though, not really knowing what was good, so on this recent trip I booked a wine tasting experience in Sofia so I could get a clue about who makes the best Bulgarian wine and where it comes from.
Then later I met up with some friends living near Plovdiv and tried those two pictured above. And of course we had to sample a few others to get a full picture…
If you’ve heard of any Bulgarian wine brand at all, that probably means you’ve visited the country. That’s because not much of it gets exported, for now, and the country’s most prevalent grape variety is not well-known by international wine lovers. The problem is more perception than conditions though since the country’s favorable climate and fertile soil have long made it an ideal location for growing grapes and producing wine.
I wanted to go from clueless to at least having a basic knowledge, so this wine tasting experience led by a local expert allowed me to get a base and ask some questions.
A Short History of Bulgarian Wine
The Bulgarian wine story is much like the Hungarian wine story or the Romanian one. In a nutshell, the communists ruined everything. Many of the former Iron Curtain countries had a long and storied history of producing distinctive, well-crafted wine using traditional methods that stretched back centuries, sometimes millennia.
In Bulgaria’s case, the winemaking tradition goes all the way back to the time of the Thracians, an ancient Bronze Age civilization that inhabited the region. Apart from the country of Georgia, there are not any parts of the world with such a long wine history as Bulgaria. The Thracians believed that wine was a gift from the gods and they used it for both religious and secular purposes.
In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, the protagonist Odysseus encountered a Cyclops who was a wine-maker. This is believed to be a reference to the ancient Greek colonies that were established along the Black Sea coast, including the region that is now Bulgaria.
The ancient Greeks and Romans also recognized the quality of Bulgarian wine. The Romans conquered the region in the 1st century AD and introduced new grape varieties and winemaking techniques. They also established large-scale vineyards and exported Bulgarian wine throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman poet Ovid even wrote about the quality of Bulgarian wine in his works.
During the Middle Ages, production of Bulgarian wine continued and its barrels moved across Europe. In more modern times, Bulgaria became a major wine exporter to Europe and parts of the United States in the 19th century, when a few large-scale wineries emerged, and the popularity extended into the next century.
But then the Russians took over in the mid-20th century and the best Bulgarian wine became something people cried about when talking about the old days. All the communists wanted was high volume at a cheap price. Out with tradition, in with state-owned factories producing mass-market wine. At that time, a lot of international grape varieties went in, crowding out the local ones, to produce familiar flavors.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a free Bulgaria, families who had kept their own vines growing for personal production expanded their operations again. Others who had grown grapes for the mass market started finding ways to produce a higher-quality product from what they had planted and added new plantings for variety and blends. In a sense they reawakened sleeping giants and got back to making good wine worth drinking again.
My Sofia Wine Tasting Event
I got out at one of central Sofia’s Serdika subway station and walked a few blocks to a wine shop called Tempus Vini. It’s a small place that’s laid out efficiently, with wine bottles lining the walls and a table in the middle that was set up with cheeses, meats, breadsticks, olive oil, and glasses. Five of us gathered around to get schooled and taste some Bulgarian wine.
Kalin first explained the history a bit and went into the different wine-growing regions of the country. Bulgaria is blessed in many ways by its multiple mountain ranges, which I’ve experienced as a hiker and a skier. These mountain ranges create barriers and produce different microclimates. Unlike some countries where one ideal growing spot dominates, here there are different climates supporting different grapes.
Between 60 and 65% are red grapes overall, but this varies a lot by region. Most of what grows well in the coldest northern parts of the country will be different than what grows by the Black Sea and in the southern areas close to Greece. The largest area by production is in the south near the second-largest city of Plovdiv. They get 200 days of sunshine and the temperature rarely dips below freezing in the winter, getting hot in the summer, so a good climate for grapes. There they can even grow Cabernet Franc and Malbac and have it turn out well.
It would have been boring to drink those though, so Kalin introduced us to wines made from Miskets, Melnik, Mavrud, Gumza, and Rubin.
We had two wines from a producer so small that they number every bottle. The first was a floral and fruity muscat variety called Dimyat that grows in the north near the Romanian border. This is a light, easy-drinking wine that has a powerful nose.
We later had an intense red from them made from the Gamza grape, a fickle one that is a challenge to raise to maturity, requiring a warm, dry, and fungus-free late summer and autumn. It grows in rocky, hilly areas. Both were excellent, from a vineyard that has been around since before the Soviet days.
We also tried a fruity unaged Rubin grape wine that reminded a few of us of cherry candy. It’s not the first thing I would order or buy, but apparently, it’s catching on with international buyers just because it’s something different. Rubin is a hybrid grape that is sometimes combined with other reds in a blend.
The one that went best with the olives and cheeses was the Minimum Mavrut, a heavy aged red wine with plenty of tannins that tasted mature and well-structured. The one we tried comes from Zagreus Winery, a certified biodynamic operation that only uses its own grapes.
There are two varieties with Melnik in their names, more on that in a minute, and we sampled the Melnik 55 from Rupel Winery, located so close to Greece that you could probably walk there.
In a way, this was one of the strangest wine tastings I’ve ever been to because the flavors were so different than anything I’ve tried before and these were all grapes that you almost never see in countries outside the Balkans. It was a great experience if you want to try some of the best Bulgarian wine out there, especially with all the background info from Kalin and some well-chosen cheeses to accompany what you’re tasting.
The Main Wine Varieties of Bulgaria
If you want to pick up a familiar Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah here, then you’ll be able to find those, either on their own or in blends. Wine grapes that do well in France don’t necessarily do great in the Balkans, however, so the results can be mixed.
The best-known native grape from Bulgaria is Mavrud, which goes back to ancient times when European borders were fluid at best. It’s a small, aromatic red wine grape that can range from drinkable to fantastic depending on who is behind the process at the winery. It has enough complexity to stand on its own without much aging, or it can spend some time in oak and age well. It also goes into some blends, but frequently as the star with the most percentage.
Shiroka Melnik is another one you will see a lot on Bulgarian wine bottles, from a lot of different brands. This also dates back to ancient times, though be advised that there’s a hybrid called Melnik 55 that’s a kind of Frankenstein grape, one bred to combine with other grapes originating from France, with more tannins, and able to be harvested earlier.
Dimyat is a white wine grape that grows near the Black Sea coast. It is a favorite with those who like dry white wines.
Misket is another white wine grape grown in multiple regions of Bulgaria. There’s also a hybrid Sankeski Misket that was bred to hold its acidity when the residual sugar goes up, making it ideal for some of the hotter regions that produce white wine.
For a more exhaustive list of the wine grapes grown in the country, follow that link to a story from fellow travel writer and wine expert Brooke Herron. She also did an article on tours of two wine regions in the country.
A Wine-buying Shortcut or Two
You know the feeling: you waltz up to a supermarket or wine store shelf and see 100 bottles or more to choose from, with no clue besides the price or the labels to give you an idea about the quality. Now imagine this problem amplified by the fact that most of those labels in another language. Now add to that a price range of €2 to €12 for 95% of the bottles on that shelf.
How do you make any kind of educated guess?
My wine store guide Kalin says that if you’re not on a strict budget, let price be your guide. “Only the best producers in Bulgaria can get away with charging more than 25 lev (12.5 euros): only the top restaurant owners and the people who really know wine will spend more than that.” So he says if you see a bottle priced at that level or above, it really has to be something exceptional, usually from a small producer or the “reserve” level from one of the larger ones. It will be a bottle that has won tasting awards or is highly regarded by the experts.
If you get up to the €15 and above level, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be getting something special, “probably on par with a wine that’s 40 or 50 euros in Italy or France,” he says.
I’m rarely at that lofty level when I’m not at an organized wine tasting, so I tend to go with the middle of the pack. I’ve often bought bottles of Bulgarian wine for the equivalent of a few euros and been very happy with what I’ve gotten, especially with the reds.
If I’m buying for a party, which I was lately when I ran a ski trip in Bulgaria, I go for the best box wine available, which is a terrific bargain here. While box wine in the USA is often lousy (the leading producer once told a journalist that he could grow grapes on asphalt if he had to), in Europe it’s usually more than drinkable. That’s especially true here, where €10 to €12 can get you a few liters of something decent.
There’s even a stall at the “Ladies Market” in Sofia where they will fill up your jug with what you want for a great price: in the photo below, that’s the price in lev per liter, with 2 lev being roughly one euro. Sure, this will not be the best Bulgarian wine you will encounter on your trip, but at three euros per liter, you can’t really go wrong.
There are certain brands, however, that are widespread and reliable, so if in doubt, they’re usually a safe choice. I’ve had good luck with Villa Melnik, Borovitza, Logodaj, and Merul. Minkov Brothers is the oldest, making the Cycle brand you’ll see everywhere (a solid bet). If you’re more discerning though, seek out a good wine shop like the one where I went to really get some insight into what’s good. Or go visit a vineyard or two. You can find tours if you’re near a wine-making region, such as the cities of Plovdiv and Varna.
The wines we tried in my tasting were all from small producers, so they’re not so easy to find. If you do manage to visit a winery, buy what you like on the spot. The prices will be good and you may not ever see that brand again.
One easy shortcut is to visit the wine shop where my tasting happened: Tempus Vini in Sofia, a city that’s really growing on me. This wine shop in the capital is so influential that they have their name on several releases from wineries that they work with. The owner probably knows more about Bulgarian wine than almost anyone, so tell him what you like or what you’re cooking and he’ll have some good options for you. He knows a lot of the producers personally too, so he might even tell you a good story to go with it.
Then when I met up with my friends Nick and Dariece that run the Goats on the Road blog, they brought a few from a winery that’s so close to where they live outside of Plovdiv that they can walk to it: Dragomir. Hey, it was my birthday, so they brought the good stuff. (Two of their bottles, with Thracian references, are pictured at the top of this post.)
The red wines that company is producing are intense, complex, and expensive-tasting, the kind of wine you have with a hearty dinner rather than sipping on the terrace on a hot summer day.
I’ll be back in Bulgaria again this summer to attend the Bansko Nomad Fest conference, hopefully gathering some good nuggets for the Nomadico newsletter I put out each week. I found a lot of interesting wines to try there in the supermarkets and mini-marts, but this time I plan to take an excursion to a proper wine shop there in a residential area to find a wider selection. Next time I’ve got something to celebrate, I’ll be a big spender and top the 10-euro level for some of the best Bulgarian wine.
Otherwise, I’ll keep taking advantage of the bargains. This is, after all, one of the cheapest wine regions in Europe.
Book your own wine tasting experience in Bulgaria here.