France and Italy have held the European wine spotlight for ages, along with Germany, Spain and Portugal. But several countries in the eastern part of the continent now aim to become major players on the world wine stage, including Bulgaria.
What do Bulgarians know about wine? The country has been producing wine for at least 7,000 years—the ancient Thracians who inhabited the land are believed to have been the first to make wine.
In fact, the Asenovgrad Museum of History in southern Bulgaria has what may be the oldest glass bottle used for wine, along with numerous artifacts related to winemaking unearthed from the region.
Bulgaria’s wine culture survived 500 years under Ottoman rule until 1878, and then 45 years of Communism (1944 to 1989), during which state-owned wineries were streamlined for mass production and export. The decade following Bulgaria’s transition to a market economy was rough on its winemaking industry, as the vineyards were privatized and several former export markets dried up.
But things have improved dramatically in the past 15 years, as many Bulgarian vineyards have invested heavily in infrastructure and technology. More winemakers are now focusing on quality vs. quantity.
The country’s advantages include a climate and terroir that rivals those of major European wine producers, plus Bulgaria has its own ancient and unique grape varietals.
In particular, “Bulgaria is very good for the production of red wine,” says Ivan Todoroff, president of Todoroff Winery in the Thracian Lowlands region, one of the country’s first boutique winemakers.
What’s more, Bulgarian wines tend to offer high quality at a value price. For example, the Bulgariana 2011 cabernet sauvignon from Bulgaria’s Thracian Valley was ranked #29 on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Best Buys of 2014. Imported by Grapes & Barley in Bethesda, MD, the wine retails for $10.
Located in the Southeast corner of Europe, Bulgaria borders Romania on the north, Greece and Turkey on the south, the Black Sea on the east and Macedonia and Serbia on the west. The Balkan Mountains divide Bulgaria’s north and south; the southern part shares some of the Mediterranean influence as Italy, while other terroir is similar to France.
Bulgaria has four major vine and wine regions defined by the soil and climatic conditions and the grape varieties: the Danube Plain region (northern Bulgaria); the Black Sea region (eastern Bulgaria), the Thracian Lowlands (southern Bulgaria) and the Strouma Valley (southwestern Bulgaria).
Bulgaria, part of the European Union since 2007, has 55 areas for making Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) wines. It has two main viticultural and oenology regions for Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) wines, or those with a special indication of geographical origin made from specific varieties: the Thracian Lowlands and the Danube Plain.
The Danube Plain lies south of the Danube River and north of the Balkan Mountain foothills, with the Timok River to the west and the Black Sea to the East. The region has a temperate continental climate with hot, dry summers and cool nights.
At an educational masterclass and tasting in New York last year, co-moderator and Balkan wine expert Jeff Jenssen noted that Bulgaria’s Danube Plain boasts alluvial soils, which impart minerality to some of the wines. For instance, he cited a 2012 viognier from Chateau Burgozone, a 13-year-old winery based in the region, as fresh and floral with enhanced mineral flavor from the limestone in the soil. The wine retails in the U.S. for about $14.
The Thracian Lowlands region has the Balkan Mountains on the north, the Black Sea on the east and the borders with Greece and Turkey on the south. Wines made here benefit from the Mediterranean influence, which provides a transitional continental climate that’s mild and warm.
Some of the wineries based in this area include Domaine Boyar International, Karabunar Winery, Katarzyna Estate, Vinzavod Asenovgrad, and Vinprom Yambol.
Part of wine and spirits giant Vinprom Peshtara, Vinprom Yambol produces some of the wines for the Bulgariana label, as well as Villa Yambol and other wine brands. Established in 1924, Vinprom Yambol is one of the oldest wineries in south Bulgaria.
When Bulgaria was mass producing wine for export during the Communist years, winemakers focused on the varieties that were popular in the intended markets, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
But some of the country’s native grape varietals have been commanding more attention in recent years and offer a unique point of differentiation in the crowded wine world.
Dimyat, for instance, is an aromatic, sweet grape used in white wine as well as brandy production.
Misket is an ancient Bulgarian grape that’s a hybrid of dimyat and riesling; red misket produces a pink-hued, fruity and floral wine. Vinprom Yambol typically uses dimyat and misket to make brandy and rakia (Bulgarian grappa) rather than wine, says its executive director Krasimir Avramov.
Bulgaria is better known for its unique red grape varieties, however. Gamza, which is known as “kadarka” in some other European countries, is one. It produces a fresh and fruit-forward style of red wine that’s sometimes likened to pinot noir.
Melnik, a broad-leaf grapevine, is named for the smallest town in Bulgaria and grows only in the Strouma Valley in the country’s southwestern corner near the Greek border. The region’s sandy, volcanic soils give the red wines unique characteristics and flavors of cherry, smoke and herbs.
Pamid is used in red table wines that are best enjoyed young, so it’s frequently compared to Beaujolais. Pamid is also close to gamza and pinot noir, Avramov says, but Vinprom Yambol uses it primarily for grappa.
The rubin grape, a cross between Italian nebbiolo and French syrah, is compared to Beaujolais as well. It was created in 1944 and recognized as a grape varietal in 1961.
“Rubin is underestimated in Bulgaria, but I think it has huge potential,” says Velizar Chatalbashev, general manager/export director for the Vinzavod Asenovgrad winery. The rubin grape has a lot of soft tannins, so it doesn’t need a lot of time in the barrel, Chatalbashev adds. The wine is light-bodied with fresh fruit and spice flavors.
Mad about mavrud
But Bulgaria’s most important indigenous grape is mavrud—the red varietal is believed to be one of the oldest grapes in Bulgaria. Mavrud is grown primarily around the region of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city after the capital, Sofia. About 70% to 80% of the mavrud in Bulgaria comes from Asenovgrad, Chatalbashev says.
What’s unique about mavrud? The wine is deep, purple-red in color (the name mavrud comes from the Greek word for black), with a rich texture and flavors of ripe berries and spice.
Mavrud has the potential for longer-term aging compared with some of Bulgaria’s other wine varieties, Chatalbashev notes. He adds that mavrud also boasts a healthy dose of the antioxidant resveratrol: 7.5 mg. per liter, vs. the average 3.5 mg per liter for most red wines.
“Mavrud is a grape that speaks Bulgarian and can interpret the language of the terroir,” says Nicoletta Dicova, brand ambassador for Neragora, a new organic wine estate in the Chernogorovo region of the Thracian Lowlands.
Some think mavrud could be to Bulgaria what carménère is to Chile, though the red wines are quite different. Mavrud is a big grape with more aromatics, Avramov says, so the wine is fruitier and heavier than the more herbaceous carménère.
But while mavrud has had a following in the U.K., it’s not well known or well promoted in the U.S. For that reason, Vinprom Yambol is focusing on the more popular wines for the North American market, such as chardonnay and merlot, Avramov says.
Neragora, which is releasing its first wines this spring, believes that the Bulgarian terroir is also good for pinot noir, Dicova says. The vineyard had initially planted the varietal to use for sparkling wine, but the quality and aroma of the pinot noir grapes inspired them to experiment with still wine as well.
The resulting pinot noir is “intense and aromatic, and richer than Burgundy style because of the generous Bulgarian climate, yet very firm and elegant,” she notes.
Communicating a quality story
Although it’s part of the Old World and has an ancient wine history, Bulgaria now shares some of the same challenges as new-world winemakers like Australia and Chile. One hurdle is getting consumers in countries such as the U.S. familiar with and interested in its unique wines.
Another problem is that some markets had been flooded with Bulgarian wines during the Communist years. So the country has been trying to shed its image as strictly a bulk and bargain wine producer.
The winemakers are doing best to change that perception. Vinzavod Asenovgrad, which includes the Chateau Asena, Version Plaisir Divin and Temptation wine brands, invested $6 million in its new Asena boutique winery, which opened in November 2013.
“We’re choosing the best grapes and using modern technology to produce premium wines here,” says Chatalbashev.
After purchasing a 70-year-old winery from descendants of the original owners in 2001, Todoroff refurbished the facility to focus on producing small batches of high-quality wines. Todoroff also added a hotel and wine spa to the winery in 2007.
Bulgaria’s National Vine and Wine Chamber (NVWC), established in 2000, aims to further the development and competitiveness of the country’s wine industry. The NVWC offers certificates of origin to quality wines, as well as certificates of authenticity to grape varieties. It also organizes exhibitions, competitions, tasting and lectures to demonstrate the quality of Bulgarian wine.
Investment in the country’s wine industry will help promote the offerings as well. The Bulgarian State Agency on Winegrowing and Winemaking (BSAWW) said in October that up to 11 new wineries will be soon established in Bulgaria by foreign investors.
Many foreigners have already taken note. Italian textile baron Edoardo Miroglio opened his eponymous winery in 2002 in the Thracian Lowlands region, which includes the Soli Invicto boutique hotel, named for one of the wines.
Neragora was also founded in 2002 by an Italian, Massimo Azzolini. He had been working in Bulgaria in organic mushroom farming and was impressed with the land and local grapes—especially mavrud.
Gaining a foothold in the global wine market isn’t easy. But consumers today are more sophisticated and adventurous about wine, and they’re interested in discovering new ones. The history, signature grape varietals and lower price points of Bulgaria’s wines offer a unique selling proposition. But in the end, it’s all about taste.
At the Bulgarian wine seminar last spring, co-moderator Mike DeSimone recalled serving Chateau Burgozone’s viognier to friends at Christmas in 2013. “They liked it,” he said, “and it was a big surprise that it was from Bulgaria.”
Dimyat. An aromatic and sweet white grape, dimyat comes from eastern Bulgaria, primarily the Black Sea coast region. It’s used in white wine as well as brandy production.
Gamza. Known as “kadarka” in some other European countries, gamza is a late-ripening red grape cultivated in northern Bulgaria. It makes a fresh and fruit-forward wine that’s comparable to some pinot noirs.
Mavrud. Bulgaria’s signature indigenous grape grows primarily in the Thracian Lowlands region near the city of Plovdiv. Mavrud wine is deep red in color with a rich texure and spicy, berry flavor.
Melnik. The broad-leaf Melnik grapes grow only in the warm and dry southwestern corner of Bulgaria and are used to make a popular red wine.
Misket. This ancient Bulgarian white grape is a hybrid of dimyat and riesling; red misket produces a fruity pink wine. Misket is often used to make brandy and grappa.
Pamid. One of the oldest red grapes in Bulgaria, pamid is used in light-bodied table wines that are meant to be enjoyed young; it’s frequently compared to Beaujolais.
Rubin. The grape variety rubin is a cross between the Italian nebbiolo and French syrah. It was created in 1944 and recognized as a grape varietal in 1961.