Bulgaria has a long history of making wine, and solid wine at that. The only problem is that not many people know about it. They’ve been doing it since the iron age. This small Balkan country has over 120 native varietals, and is quite adept at growing some of the hits as well. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay…there are fantastic versions of these (and others) to be had.
In the 1980’s, Bulgaria was the fourth largest exporter of wine in Europe. As communism began to collapse, their wine output went down with it. It would take another thirty years for the wine industry to recover. From that point on, it’s only been growing.
The wine culture within Bulgaria is strong, especially in urban areas. Cities like Plovdiv, Burga, and Varna have more quality dining options for visitors than ever before (in fact, Plovdiv is the European cultural capital for 2019!). Leading the charge to bring Bulgaria into the global cuisine conversation is their capital, Sofia.
This city of just over a million residents features a restaurant culture that takes advantage of their location near the Mediterranean. Diners can choose from a wide range of cuisines including Greek, Turkish, Serbian, Italian, and others. On top of fantastic regional dishes, many restaurants also offer great wine lists. Add in a variety of cozy wine bars and hotel rooftop spots, and there are more than enough great ways to enjoy wine in Bulgaria’s biggest city.
Here are four great places to sip wine in Sofia.
Balaban Wine Bar
Turning off Tsar Osvoboditel onto Krakra Street feels like departing from the energy and pulse of downtown Sofia. The former is a bustling, main thoroughfare shuttling vehicles of all sizes straight through the center of the city. The latter a quiet, neighborhood ulitsa where stray cats roam and the quiet chiming of passing bicyclists’ bells is easily heard.
Halfway up that quiet street, Balaban Wine Bar welcomes guests to relax and try, as the owners cheerfully say, “Bulgaria by the glass.” The bar is small but beautifully appointed. Dark wood and brick line the interior, and the big streetside windows open to give the bar a breezy, open feel.
With over 120 varietals known to come from this small Baltic country, that seems like a tall order – but owners Kalin and Maya Balaban deliver. Along with their son, this husband and wife team serve over 80 local wines by the glass, an amazing feat in any city let alone one not particularly known for their wines…yet.
Patrons can enjoy a selection ranging from the expected wines like Mavrud, to obscure choices like Papunka, Gergana, and Storgosiya. Small plates of cheeses and charcuterie are available to accompany the wines, and any wine is available for purchase to take home.
Sit down at one of their small sidewalk tables and soon one of the family members will come over, smiling, and ask a single question. “White, red, or rosé?” With an answer, your Bulgarian wine adventure begins.
Balaban Wine Bar, 22 Krakra Street, +359 88 945 3356,
Morino Urban Wine & Dine
Located in downtown Sofia, Morino Urban Wine & Dine features a creative and sophisticated menu, the option of dining on their comfortable terrace, and a wine list featuring over 300 selections.
Open since 2016, Morino Urban Wine & Dine puts wine front and center. Their menu is designed to augment the wine list and features dishes like grilled Balkan trout, marinated pork loin with white wine and garlic sauce, and poached salmon. Their wine selection offers a broad range of choices from Bulgaria as well as Europe, both by the glass and bottle.
The interior is modern, full of wood and tile. The walls are lined with paintings, photography, and prints of all sizes and themes. Cylindrical lighting hangs from the ceiling, the shades featuring quotes from famous writers like Shakespeare and Robert Louis Stevenson. Nightly live jazz (and sometimes funk) music keeps everything lively and fun.
Morino Urban Wine & Dine, 1 Makedonia Boulevard, +359 87 7077225
Coupage Wine Shop
What catches the eye first when you enter this small yet charming shop is the huge Bulgarian map drawn in chalk up high on the wall. It stands out amongst the vertical rows of wine bottles and small counter display filled with cheeses and charcuterie.
Coupage Wine Shop is the proud creation of owner Aleksander Angelov, who wanted to create a wine bar and shop with a European feel in the center of Sofia. Everything sold here is made in Bulgaria, most of it coming from small wineries and farms. Direct relationships with many of the suppliers and producers helps Angelov stock items not easily found otherwise.
Located on a small side street just a few blocks from the Palace of Justice, Coupage offers wine tastings for individuals and small groups. Angelov often conducts them himself. They comprise four to six wines and can include morsels of Bulgarian cheeses and meats if desired. Every tasting begins with a tour of the chalk map. Reaching high with a long pointer, Angelov explains the history and characteristics of each Bulgarian wine region.
Once the tasting is over, Angelov is happy to make seemingly unlimited recommendations for other shops to visit, as well as restaurants of every cuisine imaginable throughout the city. “Bulgarian wine and food should be known by the world,” he proudly exclaims. “Our quality is very high.”
Coupage Wine Shop, 42 Solunska Street, +359 88 417 0301
The sleek interior of Sense Hotel’s rooftop bar is impressive. Contemporary designs, dark finishes, and lots of glass give the impression of modernity. It’s a stark contrast to the expansive view of an old, old city.
Sit at one of the high-top tables, and be eye-to-eye with the domes of the colossal Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, located a few blocks away. Choose a different table and gaze down Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard lined with golden Viennese cobblestones, a Hapsburg wedding gift to Prince Ferdinand in 1893. Yet another seat yields views of the National Assembly building. It’s tough to find a bad seat in this bar.
The view is rivaled by the drink menu. Whether it’s cocktails you fancy or a sip of wine, Sense can slake your thirst. The menu offers a wide range of wine options from Europe as well as Bulgaria. Many are available by the glass as well as by the bottle. Sense also serves a full menu of dishes from their Gastro Bar ranging from simple appetizers to full meals. It’s just another excuse to stay a bit longer and take in the view.
Sense Hotel, 16 Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, +359 700 20 670
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!