When people think of global wine regions, Bulgaria is usually not at the top of the list. Tucked deep in southeastern Europe, this Balkan country is an obscurity to most Americans. Freed from Communist rule only around fifteen years ago, Bulgaria is ready to join the world’s stage for wine and cuisine.
Bulgaria has produced wine since the iron age, and for a time produced a lot of it. In fact, this small country of seven million people was the fourth largest exporter in the 1980’s. After a subsequent decline in production and export, the last decade has seen Bulgaria once again increasing their output.
Bulgaria has five main wine regions. The northern Danubian Plain enjoys a continental climate with loads of sunny days. It produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other common varietals as well as wine made with the indigenous Gamza grape. To the east is the Black Sea region, where one third of all Bulgarian vines are planted. Home to the Dimyat grape, this region also produces more than half of all the white wine Bulgaria makes.
The southern regions of Struma River Valley and the Thracian Valley benefit from cover from the western Balkan Mountains. With an ideal climate for red wine grapes, these areas produce the dominant local wine Mavrud, as well as other hearty red wines. South of the Balkan Mountains is the Rose Valley, which produces mostly off-dry white wines like Muscatel, Rkatsiteli, and Riesling.
With more than 300 recognized wineries operating today and a re-energized focus on sharing their wines with the world, there is a lot for Bulgarian wine lovers to be excited for.
Here are five Bulgarian wines you should know about.
Also known as Muscat Blanc, this highly aromatic grape is loaded with notes of incense and flowers. While made in several regions, those coming from the South Sakar area are of such high quality they are often made as single-vineyard wines, and represent some of the best white wines made in Bulgaria.
The grapes have a thick skin and are susceptible to the cold. Early harvest is necessary, to protect the grapes from both the weather and attacks from botrytis and vine mites. The flesh of the grapes is especially juicy and sweet, and has an intense floral, musky aroma.
Tamianka is usually made in an off-dry style, although both drier and sweeter versions are found as well. They all share a deep aromatic profile, showing complex layers of rose water, citrus (especially tangerine), flowers, and spices.
Dimyat is Bulgaria’s most-planted native white grape, second only to Rkatsiteli. It is mostly grown in the Black Sea region, although other regions plant vines as well. Thought to be related to Chardonnay and Aligote by way of the ancient grape Gouais Blanc, it is virtually exclusively grown in Bulgaria.
Light and refreshing, this high-acid wine shows lots of white fruit aromas. It is typically made in a slightly off-dry style, although versions range from completely dry to extremely sweet.
Dimyat can take on some interesting characteristics when barrel-aged. Oak aging often brings out the grape’s natural vanilla tones. These wines, however, are generally meant to be consumed young. They are at their best when heavily chilled, and make an excellent partner for most of Bulgaria’s white and yellow cheeses.
In addition to making white wine, Dimyat is also used to make Bulgarian brandy, called Rakia, as well as high-quality Cognac distillate. This varietal is also one of the only wine grapes grown in Bulgaria that is also suitable for eating.
Of all the Bulgarian grapes, Mavrud is the most well-known and likely to garner international acclaim. One of the oldest Bulgarian varietals, Mavrud dates back to Roman times. Given its history, some think Mavrud is a clone of Mourvedre, although not definitively.
The legend of the grape involves the 9th century ruler Khan Krum, who outlawed all alcohol and destroyed all the vines in his kingdom. One day, a lion escaped from its cage and attacked the locals. A brave young man confronted and killed the lion. The king questioned the boy’s mother, asking where his courage came from. Meekly, she admitted to having kept a vine and giving the boy wine made from it. The king was so impressed, he ordered the vineyards replanted and named the grape for her son, Mavrud.
Despite being a late-ripening varietal (harvest usually takes place around mid-October), Mavrud is not cold-resistant. It thrives in the warmer wine regions of the country. Thought to come from the Plovdiv area of the Thracian valley these grapes are small and hefty, with thick skins.
Deeply colored with a distinctive ruby hue, Mavrud presents aromas of blackberry and spice with accents of prune and vanilla. Sufficient tannic structure and acidity give these wines some ability to age. Mavrud develops wonderfully in oak, gaining powerful aromas and complexity over time.
Created in 1944 at the Institute of Viticulture and Oenology in Pleven, Rubin is a hybrid of Syrah and Nebbiolo. Somewhat unknown when first made, it has enjoyed a steady increase in popularity and growth in planting areas since the 1950’s.
A relatively early ripener, this medium-sized grape presents a challenge for harvesters. Towards the end of the growing season the grapes develop sugar rapidly—however the acidity declines just as fast. Winemakers need to pay close attention to their crops when early September comes to make sure they capitalize on just the right balance.
Assertive tannins and deep flavors of espresso, plum, and herbs make Rubin a favorite of bold red wine fans. Rubin can be enjoyed young but is at its best when aged. As it matures the acidity mellow and the tannins mellow, while the fruit tones bloom, showing more of the nebbiolo in its heritage.
Named for the picturesque village in southwestern Bulgaria, Melnik wines are elegant and flavorful. Fresh and fruity with spicy nuances, their lighter body and approachability when young make them excellent partners for a wide range of grilled meats and fresh vegetable dishes.
The grape itself comes in two clones, broad-leaf Melnik and Melnik 55 (typically referred to as “Early Melnik”). The latter was created in 1963 by crossing the original grape with the pollen of French varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Jurançon, Durif, and Valdiguié. The goal was to create a vine that ripened earlier than the broad-leaf version, hence the nickname.
The early Melnik grape is thick and dark blue, often covered in spots. It’s generally resistant to low temperatures and can withstand molding well. Harvesting typically takes place in the third week of September, and the resulting wine is capable of moderate aging. Melnik 55 ages gracefully, taking on notes of leather, spice, cherry, and vanilla.
Adam Centamore is a writer and professional wine & cheese educator in the Boston area. His book, Tasting Wine & Cheese – An Insider’s Guide to Mastering the Principles of Pairing, was a finalist for the IACP Cookbook of the Year award. Adam conducts tasting events and seminars around the country and has written for Saveur Magazine, Culture Cheese Magazine, the Boston Globe, and other publications. When not working, he enjoys traveling to discover new ways to enjoy cuisine and culture. Adam loves to eat, drink & learn!