Bulgarian wine: A hidden gem
Today everybody needs a bit of escapism. So we’d like to invite you on a journey – through time and cultures, taking you to a place, chosen by the Wine Gods, where some of the first wines “happened” back in antiquity. A wine trip to Bulgaria – a country of undiscovered and discovered treasures.
From the Cyrillic Alphabet through to its ancient history and national cuisine, including its unique yogurt, its Rose valley that smells of paradise and is home to almost half of the world’s rose oil, Bulgaria impresses at various levels. Last but not least, for its wines.
Still, wine might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you hear Bulgaria.
Outside this magical country’s borders, few might link it to winemaking tradition or heritage, partly due to a problematic political past that erased many of its romanticised winemaking roots. Mass production in the 70s for exports to Russia and westwards in the 80s did little to support craftsmanship in wine, or to reveal the significant role wine has long played in Bulgarian culture.
Bulgaria’s quiet revolution over the past 20 years has successfully shifted the focus and changed the shape of the market through emphasis on modern styles and terroir-driven wines.
Nowadays, the wines of the South-eastern country have become synonymous with diversity, great value finds, native grape varieties and unique styles that please wine lovers who have committed to embracing it. These modern wines make the case for hidden gems that long to be discovered.
But Bulgaria’s wine treasures are very real, and their roots can be traced back to antiquity. So let’s start in the beginning.
Looking beyond the treasures: the ancient origins of Bulgarian wine
Perhaps the most notable example of ancient Bulgarian wine culture is the Thracian treasure found in Panagyurishte (central Bulgaria) in the 1949, which dates back to the late 4th century BC. The treasure was discovered by three brothers who worked at a tile factory in the region of “Merul” near the town of Panagyurishte. The stunning Gold Treasure, weighting no less than 6,124 kg of pure 24 Karat Gold, consists of a set of four gold wine vessels used during festivities and libations.
The finely crafted artifact manifests the important role of wine in the history of Bulgaria at its best. Already in 4th century BC, the Thracians had over ten completely differently sized and shaped wine objects.
The Thracians, who populated the territory of contemporary Bulgaria, were skilful winemakers and goldsmiths. Unlike the Ancient Greeks, who diluted their wine with water, the Thracian men (and remarkably women) indulged in undiluted wine, considered by them an act of greatness and a mark of high social and political status, described by Plato in The Republic. Thracian aristocrats were buried with complex luxury vessels. Royal wine cellars have been found during numerous archaeological investigations throughout Bulgaria.
It is no secret that many of the most famous and prestigious Old World winemaking nations have built estates in older architectural styles to convey a sense of legacy.
In comparison, Bulgaria boosts indisputable century-long winemaking heritage, deeply imbedded in its rituals and traditions, and a significant part of the makings of its cultural identity. But what about today?
Bulgarian wine today sits between the Ancient World and the New World – a paradox or a unique blend?
Wine is widely produced throughout the country, from the Danube Plain in the north, the Black Sea coast in the east, the Thracian Valley in the south and the Struma Valley in the southwest. Other than international plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Muscat (which make up close to 70% of total), Bulgaria offers rare unique varieties, championed by independent wineries.
Below we explore some of the best distinctive Bulgarian wines to try.
Mavrud, arguably Bulgaria’s most famous indigenous grape variety (International Mavrud Day is officially on October 26th) has pronounced crushed cherry and chocolate flavours on a medium to full body, with a real potential to produce intensely rich yet dry reds with fine tannins.
Do you remember the name of the area, where the Panagurishte Gold Treasure was discovered? Merul. That’s right. One of the best Mavrud wines also carries this name. We’d highly recommend trying the barrel aged Merul, Reserve, or going for its fresher, fruitier unoaked counterpart, under the white label of Merul Mavrud.
Another indigenous wine to try is Melnik 55 or “early Melnik”, a genetic-cross between the local Broad-leafed Melnik and French Valdeguié. Melnik 55 and Broad-leaf Melnik grow almost exclusively in Struma valley in the southwestern part of Bulgaria, a mountainous area that delivers elegant and peppery reds and pure single-varietal wines that are lighter in body and comparable to Gamay.
Notably, Melnik 55 was the favourite wine of Winston Churchill. Every year he sent his soldiers to Bulgaria to bring him barrels full of his favourite tipple. Today we’d recommend trying Melnik 55 from Orbelia Winery, a delicious juicy wine with an extra-long finish.
Another signature red, Rubin, is a successful crossing between Nebbiolo and Syrah created at the end of the 1950s. Herbaceous and plummy, the wine demonstrates finesse and subtle coffee notes. It shows its best as it ages and the fruit flavours blossom and tannins soften much like an aged Italian Nebbiolo. A great example of Rubin in its full glory can be found in a bottle of Rossidi, a terroir-driven winemaking project that aims at “integrity, authenticity and uniqueness”, according to its founders.
Gamza, also known as Kadarka (an old Eastern European variety) thrives in cool climates, making it very well suited for the northwest of Bulgaria. Its tart berry flavours, savoury profile and a touch of black pepper and baking spice evoke comparisons with Italian Barbera and Oregon Pinot Noir. Gomotarzi Gamza by Bononia Estate, located in the Danubian Plain, makes an excellent example. One to try!
Misket, another ancient Bulgarian grape variety, is most widespread in the country’s beautiful Rose Valley region. A late-ripening variety, the grape thrives on alluvial soils, especially around the cities of Karlovo, Sopot and Kazanluk. Red Misket, which is a highly aromatic grape variety, is used for the production of high-quality white wines although its name might be misleading. The wines tend to exhibit pronounced floral aromas with hints of tropical fruits. One wonderful example is the Rose Valley Misket AXL by Chateau Copsa, which displays complex nose with citrusy and white flowers notes.
There are also other Misket varieties, such as Varnenski Misket and Vrachanski Misket - and the best wines from these grapes are made by Staro Oryahovo winery. When you thry them, you will know what am I talking about.
In Bulgaria, raspberry wine is gaining popularity, but in fact it has been around for centuries. According to an old Bulgarian tale, the students of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the creators of the Cyrillic Alphabet, build a monastery above an ancient Thracian sanctuary. There, the monks would produce wine from wild raspberries. Now a Bulgarian winery called Trastena offers us to relive (and re-taste) this legend. It makes phenomenal raspberry wines that take you to sunnier and carefree times. These raspberry wines work as a fantastic pairing with cheese, creamy desserts, and Asian food, or simply enjoyed as an aperitivo or in cocktails with Prosecco or Gin and Tonic. Your perfect summer drink.