Bulgaria is a small but important wine country, especially in wine history. At one point, it was the 4th largest wine producer in the world, although many of us outside of the Soviet Union in the 1970s & 80s would probably have never tried a single drop of it, but it's slowly becoming a trending wine region as winemakers overcome the political-social struggles the country has endured in the last few decades.
GENERAL TERROIR & HISTORY
This Eastern European country has a long viticulture history, dating back to the mid 14th Century. There was even a painting of Bulgarian monarch Khan Krum from 811 AD drinking wine from the skull of Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I, his opponent at the battle of Pliska. The Khan Krum winery in the Black Sea region still bears his name until today.
Most of it's wine production in the 1900s fed the Soviet Union, and following it's collapse, so did the industry. At it's height, 90% of wine production went to the Soviet Union and the Bulgarian wine industry was a state-run, socialist, wine-growing monopoly. French varieties were brought to Bulgaria in the 1960s, which led to a rapid replacement of local varieties with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Muscat that were introduced during the 1960s. However, today it is finding it's style as a modern wine-producing nation, slowly shifting it's focus from the iinternational varieties to indegenious varietes such as Kadarka, Mavrud & Melnik.
Similar to other New World countries, it's not uncommon for grapes to be transported over miles from vineyards to wineries in Bulgaria, as wines are grown in various regions throughout Bulgaria.
In terms of climate, Bulgaria receives around 2,200 to 2,500 sunlight hours per year, which is similar to Northern Italy, Southern France, and Northern Spain and Portugal. Most of the vineyards are found in the Tracian Valley, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot make up 31% of the vineyard area and are very important varieties because they act as proof of quality of Bulgarian wine and a bridge into other varieties.
Vineyard yields in Bulgaria are surprisingly low, suggesting a quality focused future for Bulgarian wine. This will be further developed in the future, with talks to separate the country's into 9 different regions, which hopefully over time will promote regional styles & quality.
MAJOR WINE VARIETALS & STYLES
The dominant wines in Bulgaria are decidedly red, with international varieties taking up about 70% of plantings. However, there is a growing number of young winemakers who are reintroducing the local varieties, and in the future they are expected to grow in production numbers
LIGHT BODIED WHITE WINE
Most Sauvignon Blanc in Bulgaria were only planted in 2000, so are relatively young & new to the Bulgarian wine industry. More subtle, and stronger herbal notes of lime peel, pea shoot, white pepper and fresh cut grass, it is slightly heavier than say a New Zealand SB, with a salty-savory finish.
FULL BODIED WHITE WINE
Chardonnay, Dimyat, Rikat (Rkatsitelli clone)
Rikat is Bulgaria's top planted white grape varietal, and is usually used as a blending grape to round out flavors, similar to how Semillon is used in white Bordeaux.
Chardonnay is often made in unoaked styles to create fresh and fruity wines with notes of apple, pineapple, and starfruit. They often are relatively acidic, with subtle gravelly minerality. While harder to find, some oak-aged versions are produced.
Dimyat is a local varietal related to Chardonnay & Aligote. With strong acidity & notes of apple, citrus, and apple blossoms, it'll be similar in style to an Aligote, or a more aromatic & less dry Gruner Veltliner.
AROMATIC WHITE WINE
Red Misket, Tamianka (Muscat Blanc clone)
Red Misket is a pink skinned grape that produces dry & mineral aromatic white wine, with notes of mandarin, rose, lime & thai basil. It would have a somewhat salty finish with notes of dried pineapple or mango.
In Bulgaria, Muscat has a different name, Tamianka, due to the it being a clone that has a distinctive note of incense. Off dry styles are common, and display layered aromas of ripe fruit, flowers and spices. Single vineyard Tamianka wine from the South Sakar wine region has served as a flagship wine for the aromatic whites of the country.
Muscat Ottonel & Gewurtztraminer are other aromatic whites also grown in Bulgaria.
LIGHT BODIED RED WINE
Kadarka, Pinot Noir
Kadarka, or Gamza, is an Balkan variety that prefers cooler climates. It might remind you of an Italian Barbera, or Oregon Pinot Noir, with tart berry flavors & a herbal note with touches of black pepper and baking spice
Pinot Noir from Bulgaria, especially those from the limestone soils of the Danube Plain, are showing amazing potential. Imagine flavors of pomegranate, dried violet, hibiscus, and cocoa powder with fine grained tannins and an earthy, mushroom-like minerality.
MEDIUM BODIED RED WINE
Mavrud, Cabernet Franc
Mavrud (Mavroudi in Greece) is an indigenous variety that exudes rich, crushed cherry and chocolate-like flavors on a medium body. Depending on the style & extent of oak ageing, these wines can either be rich & powerful, or elegant & closer to a lightly oaked Malbec.
Still very much an up & coming grape, Cabernet Franc growing amazingly well in Bulgaria's moderate climate. While still very new with variable results, you can expect single varietal wines with notes of cassis, red paprika, black currant, capsicum, dust, mint, and cherry
FULL BODIED RED WINE
Melnik 55, Rubin, Cabernet Sauvignon
Melnik 55 or "Early Melnik" is named after the town where it originated. A cross between local Broad-leafed Melnik and French Valdeguié, it grows exclusively in Struma Valley, where the mountaineous area allows it to deliver elegant and peppery reds with flavors of strawberry, blackberry, black pepper, mesquite and soy sauce. If unoaked, single varietal wines can be much lighter, similar to a Beaujolais Gamay, but can also be bold tannin wine with bitterness similar to green tea powder, especially if blended
|Did you know? Melnik 55 is rumoured to be a favorite of Winston Churchill, especially the one from Lodobaj Winery|
Rubin is a cross between Nebbiolo & Syrah, taking on the tannins of Nebbiolo and the herbal plummy fruit of Syrah. Treat it very much like an Italian Nebbiolo, which does well with ageing to soften the tannins. You can often find it being blended with Mavrud, acting like the Cabernet in a Bordeaux blend.
Cabernet Sauvignon from Bulgaria tend to be slightly lighter & more elegant, with a touch of tartness. Often black cherry fruit driven with subtle tobacco leaf, violet, and vanilla aromas, it's often blended with Syrah & Mavrud
MAJOR REGIONS / SUB-REGIONS
While it officially has 2 EU recognised regions, 2 regions are within Bulgaria split up into 5 viticultural regions. Most of the vineyards. The Thracian Lowlands has the highest overall vineyards, of about 35%, growing a mix of white & red grape varietals. The Black Sea area has the highest concentration of white grape vineyards, taking up about 30% of Bulgaria's total vineyards.
BLACK SEA COASTAL
This region enjoys long and mild autumns as well as cooler climates, creating a favorable condition for the cultivation of sugars necessary to make fine whites. The dominant variants in this region include the Dimyat, Riesling, Muscat Ottonel, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer.
VALLEY OF THE ROSES
It includes the Sungurlare Valley, which mainly grows “Red Misket”, designated for the production of dry and semi-dry wines. Some of the varieties cultivated here are the Muscatel Riesling, Cabernet, Sauvignon and Merlot. More white wines are produced here.
Known for its own local variety of wine, the Mavrud, the region's temperate continental climate in the area and the good distribution of precipitation create the best conditions for the cultivation of red wines. Protected by the Balkan Mountain from the cold winds from Russia, and its neighboring areas provide a Mediterranean climate with its mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers. The Americans have coined the term “Thracian Valley condition” to describe other areas with similar conditions.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the common varietals produced here. They also produce local originals such as the Shiroka Melnishka Ioza, used for the production of dry and semi-dry wines and described to “have a full taste, with spicy southern tones.”