Bulgarian wine today

Melnik sand pyramids in Bulgaria

25 June 2020 This report deserves to be more widely read, so we are republishing it free as part of our Throwback Thursday series.

9 June 2020 Caroline Gilby MW brings us up to date on the transformation of the Bulgarian wine scene.

I always look forward to a trip to Bulgaria. It’s beautiful, dramatic and intriguing though sometimes scruffy and shabby round the edges, but always welcoming. Bulgarians proudly tell a tale of their country’s origins. The story goes that God forgot them and all he could do was empty out the last of his sack of goodies, giving Bulgaria a bit of everything – mountains, forest, lakes and rivers and, in spring, wildflowers that can be breathtaking. There are also stunning monasteries and Thracian treasures, including some of the richest ancient gold ever found.

My picture above is of the dramatic sand pyramids of Melnik. Below is traditional Bulgarian decor inside the National Revival Kordopulov House  in Melnik, a wine merchant's house built in 1754.

Traditional Bulgarian decor at an 18th century merchant's house in Melnik

What takes me back time after time is Bulgaria’s wines, and today the wine scene is an incredibly dynamic place (at least it was until coronavirus did its worst). Few people outside its borders have any idea of how different this modern era of Bulgarian wine is – indeed it is actually quite hard to track down straight Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon unless you’re looking at bottom-shelf supermarket wines.

That is why I, and some passionate Bulgarian friends, set up the Modern Wines of Bulgaria tasting in London in 2018 and 2019 (and we hope to again in 2021) to bring some of those new-generation producers to the attention of the UK trade. I kind of grew up in wine alongside Bulgaria. I’ve been following the wine industry there for close to 30 years. Every time I visit there are new producers popping up and more wines to taste. Not everything is rosy by any means, but the best are well worth seeking out.

Even if reliable statistics can be hard to come by, it’s still worth looking at a few numbers to give context. The Ministry of Agriculture’s 2019 Agrarian Report gives a total vineyard area of 64,400 ha (159,135 acres) in 2018 (a decrease from 101,434 ha in 2009). More importantly, the area of vineyards actually harvested for wine production has fallen to just 29,382 ha (72,605 acres). This is split between 18,055 ha of red wine varieties and 11,327 ha of white wine varieties, though the harvest is close to 50:50 due to the higher yields of white wine vines.

In 2018, the official harvest of wine grapes from the vineyards was 182,569 tonnes, of which wineries processed 151,938 tonnes (giving 1.04 million hl/27.5 million gal) and the rest going to home-made wines. Forecasts for 2019 suggest that wine production was down to 908,000 hl from 126,800 tonnes, so a further decrease. At the same time, the number of registered producers has increased from 268 in 2018 to 282 in 2019. The only public data on varieties grown dates back to 2013, based on more than 60,000 ha of vineyards, and while it shows Merlot followed by Cabernet Sauvignon as most planted, this isn’t much use today as nearly half that area has fallen out of production.

Another area of concern for Bulgaria is its wine laws. Since it aligned with the EU in 2005, it has had two PGIs that split the country into the northern region of the Danubian Plain, and in the south, the Thracian Lowlands (shown on this World Atlas of Wine map). These account for nearly 40% of Bulgaria’s wine production. Almost everyone believes that they don’t reflect the climatic or soil differences on the ground. For instance, it’s not hard to see distinct differences between the hot, dry Struma Valley in the south-west and the Black Sea-influenced east coast, though both are officially Thracian Lowlands (sometimes written Thracian Valley).

The previous era of wine legislation divided the country into four regions with one significant subregion (the Valley of the Roses), based on real science according to sources who worked on it then. And it seems the current authorities agree, with tentative identification of five regions (rather similar to the historic regions) in the national wine strategy plan up to 2025. PDOs are even more useless – 52 are listed – but they account for less than 1% of production. Wine producers have explained that the rules are too strict, specifying things like row spacing, making them almost impossible to use in practice. There are also complaints that Bulgaria’s bureaucracy hampers the establishment of new PDOs, something that producer groups in South Sakar and Struma Valley would like to do.  

Back when Bulgaria actually joined the EU in 2007, the country had ambitions of increasing plantings towards 130,000 ha, but as it turns out, the industry has gone in a different direction. To a large extent what’s happened is that small and fragmented land holdings in the hands of part-time farmers producing poor grapes have gone and what’s left is a much more quality-focused, but more niche, industry. Most wineries, especially the new ones, aspire to make seriously good wine and thus own their own vineyards or have long-term supply contracts in place.

The rise of numerous small, independent wineries has also been hugely significant – bringing dynamism, personal vision and variety to the industry. There’s much more detail on the politics of all this, as well as the personal stories of many wineries, in my book The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova. The Ka&Ta Bulgarian wine catalogue, which is updated every year (and in English), is also a useful guide as to who is producing what.

The last five years or so have seen a sea-change in attitude and mindset that has resulted in many diverse and interesting wines. One positive aspect to those huge PGI zones is that producers have lots of freedom to experiment with new varieties, to rescue old varieties and try out unusual blends, along with pet-nat, orange wines, concrete eggs and amphorae such as those below at Better Half winery. Cabernet Sauvignon (the grape that built Bulgaria’s past reputation) on its own has fallen out of favour among the top reds – many of which are now blends.

Amphorae and tanks at Better Half winery in Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s developing home market has been a huge support – now Bulgaria drinks more of its own wine than it exports. Domestic wine sales have increased 14.2% by volume and 19.9% by value in the last five years, suggesting consumers are drinking better. It’s notable that wine events in Sofia are full of glamorous younger faces – on both sides of the table (a similar event in the UK would be dominated by grey hair), showing real enthusiasm for learning more about wine that is a world away from the homemade stuff of their grandparents. One of the most instructive, if not exactly fun tastings, I ever did was with my much-missed winemaker friend Ogy Tzvetanov (co-founder of Borovitza). He insisted that I taste a selection of homemade wines bought from the roadside so I would understand what village people believed to be authentic wine. I tasted every fault in the winemaking book that day, but the point was well made about the gulf between these and what most of us would regard as sound wine. 

It’s not that long ago that the first generation of premium Bulgarian wine appeared (Jancis will remember a tasting we both attended in 2003 at which the first signs of a new era were evident). Many of these early wines were all about power and concentration, with lots of oak, because winemakers needed to show a point of difference to the old stuff. I was lucky enough to re-taste the wine that won that competition and upset the established names (Santa Sarah, Privat Cabernet Sauvignon 2001) late last year thanks to Emil Koralov and it was still very impressively alive.

From then, wine quality has moved on a long way and winemakers are now better at understanding drinkability. They can rein back on extraction and oak with confidence that their fruit is now good enough to stand up for itself. And, unlike neighbouring Romania, most of the winemaking talent is home-grown, though there's a handful of notable foreign investments such as Miroglio, Bessa Valley, Midalidare and Eolis. The first wave of new plantings in the 2000s are old enough to benefit from deep root systems and give better balanced wines, too. I can’t help thinking that Bulgaria’s women have a lot to do with this new wave of wines. There is quite a group of impressive women winemakers and women owners who help shape their winery visions.

Bulgaria's grapes

One question I am often asked is about which grape has the best potential to be a flagship local variety for the country. This is a subject that causes much heated debate, first of all around whether a single flagship is actually required, and, if so, which variety it should be. Among the reds, the leading candidates are Mavrud, Rubin and Melnik 55, with some arguing for Gamza (though as Kadarka/Cadarca it’s strictly a Balkan grape rather than Bulgarian).

Mavrud is the most widely planted and the oldest. Not much is known about its origins or parentage – though there’s a tale that it is named for a young man who saved a city from a lion. He owed his courage to drinking the produce of a vine his mother had secretly saved in the face of Khan Krum’s edicts to uproot vines in the ninth century. Mavrud is a vine that is easy to over crop, with tannins that can be rustic, though better producers are making increasingly appealing and classy wines.

Rubin is a cross of Nebbiolo and Syrah created in 1944. It produces really deep-coloured wines with potentially high levels of sugar but can easily lose acidity if picked a day or two too late. Konstantin Stoev of Dragomir is a believer in Rubin. ‘You have to work much harder with Mavrud to get the same quality as Rubin', he maintained.  Alberto la Rosa at Miroglio disagrees. ‘I’m a Mavrud guy. Rubin can’t give age-able wine due to the proportions of norisoprenoids [see flavour compounds] and anthocyanins', he explained.

Shiroka Melnishka Loza (broad-leaved Melnik) is another ancient Bulgarian variety, but it’s hard to ripen, even in the sunny Struma Valley. Philip Harmandjiev of Damianitza complained to me once, ‘I lost seven years of my life struggling with Shiroka.’ Its most enjoyable expressions are currently as sparkling wines (such as Logodaj’s Satin), in rosé or adding a local character to blends. Its offspring, Early Melnik or Melnik 55 (a cross with Valdiguié approved in 1977 and also known as Ranna Melnishka) ripens a couple of weeks earlier and has more generous fruit and softer tannins. It was first vinified by Stoycho Stoev (now winemaker at Medi Valley), who is still a strong supporter of it, though it can be a flagship red only for the Struma Valley, where it can admittedly be excellent. Anyone who has tried growing it elsewhere, including Kapka Georgieva (chief oenologist) at Korten Wines and La Rosa at Miroglio, think it’s only good for rosé.

As for white wine grapes, the country’s native varieties can make appealing wines for drinking young but really that’s as far as they go, at least so far. It is also a marketing nightmare explaining the differences between all the various grapes named Misket (Cherven, Sandanski, Vrachanski, Varnenski, Kailashki to name but a few). Mostly they produce grapey pleasant wines without any ageing potential. The most widespread local grape is Dimiat/Dimyat, which probably arose in the Middle Ages as it’s been identified as the likely offspring of Coarna Alba and Heunisch Weiss (aka Gouais Blanc), and almost certainly didn’t come from Egypt as is often claimed. High yielding, it tends to produce neutral wines with plenty of acidity, though there have been some interesting attempts at orange wines (The Wine Society has a version from Bulgarian Heritage).

Producers are searching out unusual local grapes such as Gergana at Tsarev Brod or resurrecting old varieties such as Kokorko (aka Berbecel), at Yalovo, and the low-acid Keratsuda, at Villa Melnik, in the search for a point of difference. Unfashionable as it may be, Chardonnay produces some of Bulgaria’s best whites in my view, with increasingly strong showings for Vermentino and Viognier. Sauvignon Blanc is popular locally and there are now some really expressive, fresh versions from the cooler north and near the Black Sea.  

Markets and importers

The UK is still Bulgaria’s number three export market and growing (1.7 million litres in 2018) after Poland and Sweden, but to find Bulgaria’s most exciting wines in the UK (and the US) you mostly have to go to specialist importers. In the UK, The Old Cellar and Vaskovino have good selections online, while Alliance Wines brings in Bessa Valley, Swig has Miroglio, Delibo Wine Agencies ships Chateau Burgozone, and Top Selection has some Terra Tangra wines. Among retailers, better-than-bottom-shelf Bulgarian wines can be found at The Wine Society, Laithwaite’s, Theatre of Wine, Waitrose, Turton Wines and Novel Wines, among others.  

In the US specialist importers include Kristova Family Partners (Rossidi, Miroglio, Orbelus Villa Yustina), Mister Wright Fine Wines (Miroglio and Bessa Valley) and GB Importers.

I can also highly recommend a visit to Divino. Taste every November (if and when we are allowed) in Sofia where everyone who is anyone in Bulgarian wine will be showing their latest efforts.

The wines

The following are some tasting notes from wines and wineries that have impressed me in the last 12 months, though only a handful are available in export markets such as the UK. It’s not meant to be definitive list – just wines that I’ve managed to taste and have found exciting and or intriguing. I’m bound to have missed some that should be here, but even so, I’ve come across so many good wines that I limited myself to one per winery.

These 31 wines are grouped by style/colour (sparkling, white, rosé and red). Within each group the wines are listed alphabetically by producer (sur)name but you can reorder the wines within each group as you wish.

Sparkling

Logodaj, Satin Rosé Brut NV PGI Thracian Lowlands

The serendipitous outcome of a winery struggling to get the high-acid Shiroka Melnishka ripe enough for red wines and a consultant with a doctorate in sparkling winemaking. 100% Shiroka Melnishka from Struma Valley, 2 years on lees.
Inviting pale pink wine with gentle raspberry and rhubarb notes, fine bubbles and bright acidity. It is dry, but not too dry. (CG)

12%
2020
16.5 +

Midalidare, Sparkling Wine Brut NV PGI Thracian Lowlands

100% Chardonnay grown on cool north-facing slopes. New in 2019, in Bulgaria this was voted 2019’s top wine by Divino.
Surprising freshness and purity – a wine with lovely tension. Fine bubbles, with apple and citrus notes and inviting biscuit overtones. (CG)

12%
Drink
2020
2021
£22.50 The Old Cellar
17.5

Edoardo Miroglio, Rosé Metodo Classico Brut 2014 Nova Zagora

100% Pinot Noir, traditional method, 24 months on lees.
Pinot Noir is a surprising flagship at Edoardo Miroglio – very well done in all styles, even though it’s a grape not normally associated with Bulgaria. This super-pale tawny pink is elegant and refreshing, with creamy bubbles and lovely purity of fresh wild-strawberry fruit and subtle brioche overtones. (CG)

13%
Drink
2020
2021
£18.95 The Old Cellar, $21 Kristova Family Partners, Mister Wright Fine Wines
17 +

Tsarev Brod, Pét-Nat Riesling 2019 PGI Danubian Plain

100% Riesling. Almost certainly Bulgaria’s first pet-nat, produced at this small estate in the cool north of the country.
Winemaker Nikolay Krastev makes fresh and aromatic wines. This has just a hint of natural character underscored by zesty apple notes and gentle bubbles. Refreshingly drinkable. (CG)

11.5%
2020
£13.95 The Old Cellar
16

White

Alexandra Estate Vermentino 2018 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Svetlana Slavova’s personal project launched in 2013, though no winery of her own yet. She was looking for whites that kept acidity in hot regions and is finding Vermentino gives great results. It’s aged in used acacia barrels.
Hints of quince, honey and fresh herbs, with good texture and freshness. (CG)

Drink
2020
2021
£13.50 (2015) The Old Cellar
16.5

Better Half, Dalakov Kvevri 2017 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Nikolay Dalakov has been involved in so many of Bulgaria's new vineyards, but this is his family garage winery with his ‘better half’ Yana and son Stefan immaculately kitted out with small clay vats and amphorae. This is Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier, 100% fermented and aged 6 months in qvevri.
A lovely creamy wine, with acacia, poached pear and spice notes. The texture is supple, and soft but fine and long too. (CG)

13.5%
Drink
2020
2022
17 +

Ch Burgozone, Eva 2017 PGI Danubian Plain

Three generations of women and three grapes (Chardonnay plus Tamyanka and Viognier) are the vision here. It’s from low-yielding vineyards overlooking the Danube and sees no oak.
Honey, peach and a touch of floral character are backed by cool acidity and attractive complexity. (CG)

13%
Drink
2020
2021
16.5

Ch Copsa, AXL Rose Valley Misket 2018 PGI Thracian Lowlands

A strict vineyard selection from 25-year-old vines of local Misket Cherven grown in the heart of the Rose Valley.
There’s a charming floral aroma, almost a touch of rose petal, attractive fruit purity and mineral freshness. (CG)

13%
2020
£13 The Daily Drinker
16.5

Maryan, Orange Dimyat 2018 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Local variety Dimyat has spent four months on skins in barrel.
Has kept a nice balance of fruit along with structure. There’s exotic fruit, orange peel and tangy herby notes. (CG)

12.5%
Drink
2020
2021
16

Orbelus, Orelek Assyrtiko/Sandanski Misket 2018 PGI Thracian Lowlands

One of Bulgaria's few certified organic producers with a winery shaped like a half a barrel, just over the border from Greece. Sandanski Misket is Muscat x Shiroka Melnishka.
This unique blend offers a bright and inviting gently floral nose with a lively mouth-watering palate of peach and grapefruit zest, and a fresh mineral finish. (CG)

12%
2020
16

Stefan Pirev, Kosara Chardonnay 2017 PGI Danubian Plain

This is the personal vision of a well-known winemaker.
Stefan Pirev has a real affinity for white wines, and this is an elegant Chardonnay, in a gently burgundian style, with a subtle touch of oak, enough freshness and a good finish. (CG)

13%
Drink
2020
2022
16.5 +

Ivo Varbanov, Seriosa e Piccola Viognier 2018 Bulgaria

Classical pianist Ivo Varbanov is the owner of this small estate in South Sakar and this wine was made by Maria Stoeva of Bratanov. She’s particularly proud of this Viognier made with more than 20% fermented in a 500-litre cask of Bulgarian oak.
Fine Viognier, expressing spiced pear notes with a touch of honey. Has nicely rounded weight and texture supported by excellent freshness. (CG)

14.5%
Drink
2020
2022
£17 Hammonds, £18.99 The Wine Library, £15.95 (2017) Vaskovino
16.5 +

Rosé

Red

Bendida Mavrud 2018 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Elizabet Porteva’s tiny and quirky winery has almost no equipment and is committed to local grape varieties.
This young Mavrud has been made with less extraction than normal and no oak, making an attractive juicy and appealing, though not complex, wine. (CG)

2020
16

Dom Bessa Valley, Grande Cuvée 2015 PGI Thracian Lowlands

This is the top wine of the Bessa Valley estate, one of Bulgaria’s first true wine estates in the modern era. It is a French/German project with Marc Dworkin (from St-Émilion) as winemaker. 25% each of Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
It’s a beautifully made wine, with classic structure, great fruit intensity and elegant tannins – but give it another year for the oak to really settle in. (CG)

14%
Drink
2021
2025
£31.95 The Old Cellar
17 +

Bononia Estate, Gomotartzi Gamza 2018 PGI Danubian Plain

Gamza is getting more attention as an important local grape in northern Bulgaria with producers recognising that trying to turn it into a dark serious wine is never going to work. This pale red is invitingly fruity, with spicy strawberry notes, fine tannins and refreshing acidity – not complex but just delicious. (CG)

13%
2020
16.5

Borovitza, Sensum 2010 PGI Danubian Plain

Bulgaria’s first ‘terroir’ wine, intended to show that the cool but sunny north-west of Bulgaria could produce classy and long-lived red wines. Produced from 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% from 60-year-old vines.
This is remarkably elegant, classy, complex and still very much alive. One of my last bottles from the late great Ogy Tzvetanov. (CG)

13%
Drink
2020
2022
£19.95 (2013) Vaskovino
18 +

Boyar, Solitaire Merlot 2017 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Single-vineyard selection from Elenovo village with 12 months in French oak. Made under the guidance of one of Bulgaria’s women winemakers, Kapka Georgieva.
Merlot may be Bulgaria's most planted grape, but this is a rather special interpretation. It has a fine and beautifully integrated nose, impressive fruit but also complexity and balance. (CG)

13.8%
Drink
2020
2025
17.5

Bratanov, 3 Blend 2015 PGI Thracian Lowlands

The tale here is of a father and sons bringing the family heritage in South Sakar back to life. The winery has a low-intervention approach and uses spontaneous fermentation in the hands of French-trained winemaker Maria Stoeva. It’s 50% Cabernet Franc, 35% Merlot and 15% Rubin aged for two years in three types of oak.
It’s ripe and dense with generous plum and chocolate overtones, velvety texture and good harmony. (CG)

14.5%
Drink
2020
2024
16.5 +

Dragomir, Reserva Rubin 2015 PGI Thracian Lowlands

The personal vision and boutique winery of a husband and wife team of oenologists. They have a particular passion for Rubin and the Reserva is their flagship.
It’s a big but polished wine with masses of concentration, fruit, power and ripe but grainy tannins. It feels far too young still – give it another few years. (CG)

14.5%
Drink
2022
2025
£44.95 The Old Cellar
17

Eolis, Inspiration 2017 Bulgaria

A tiny Swiss investment in the foothills of the Rhodope mountains, using biodynamic approaches to make serious long-lived wines with focus on structure and freshness. This is a Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon barrel selection.
Finely constructed, with a serious backbone and underlying freshness but will offer even more in a year or too. (CG)

14%
Drink
2020
2025
£21.95 (2012) The Old Cellar
17

Libera, Hotovo Melnik Blend 2017 PGI Thracian Lowlands

From the Struma Valley. A single-vineyard blend of 36% Melnik 55, 32% Shiroka Melnishka and 32% Melnik 82 with 5 months in French oak.
It’s focused on fruit with cherries, berries and blackcurrant cordial, a whiff of cloves and bay leaf, some structure but not overdone, and decent freshness. (CG)

13.5%
Drink
2020
2021
£17.95 The Old Cellar
16.5

Medi Valley, Great Bulgaria Rubin/Mavrud/Gamza/Melnik 55 2018 Bulgaria

A uniquely Bulgarian blend of Rubin, Melnik 55, Mavrud and Gamza, each from its best terroir. Rubin and Mavrud from the Thracian Valley, Melnik 55 from south-west Bulgaria (Sandanski area), Gamza from north-west Bulgaria.
The result is an intriguing, complex, black-fruited wine, with hints of clove and a touch of vanilla. It’s ripe and polished with some grip, and is surprisingly refined and harmonious. (CG)

14%
Drink
2020
2023
17

Orbelia, Via Aristotelis Cabernet Franc 2017 PGI Thracian Lowlands

From the Struma Valley.
Cabernet Franc may have been in Bulgaria for a long time, mixed in with Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s increasingly showing its mettle as single varietal – here beautifully expressed with aromas of brambles and tea leaves, vivid fruit, fresh acids and nicely grained tannins. (CG)

14%
Drink
2020
2022
17

Rossidi, Nikolaevo Vineyard Syrah 2017 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Small independent winery based in a Sliven warehouse. The Syrah has been the winemaker Petar Georgiev’s favourite wine the last three vintages.
Restraint is the hallmark of this winery, and this is super-clean with nice Syrah expression, understated and elegant with a long finish. (CG)

13%
Drink
2020
2023
$16.99 Bulgarian Wine
16.5 +

Rumelia, Merul Reserve Mavrud 2016 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Mavrud specialist near Panagyurishte (where the Thracian gold treasure was uncovered). Aged in a mix of new and used French and American oak.
Plums, bilberry and a touch of smoky herbs on the nose, then lovely fruit, big but textured tannins and good length. (CG)

14%
Drink
2020
2023
£13.50 The Old Cellar, $31.99 Calvert Woodley
16.5 +

Villa Melnik, Rare Varieties Melnik Jubilee 1300 2016 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Wife, husband and daughter run this small family estate with dramatic views and a strong commitment to rescuing Bulgaria’s rare varieties. Melnik 1300 was created from Shiroka Melnik crossed with Saperavi in 1963 but renamed to celebrate 1300 years of Bulgaria in 1981.
It’s inky dark with lovely fresh damson, bilberry and cherry, with a backbone of well-handled tannins and juicy acidity. (CG)

14.5%
Drink
2020
2023
17

Yamantiev's, Marble Land 2015 PGI Thracian Lowlands

A single-vineyard blend from a plot at 400 m lying over marble bedrock, based on Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Syrah. Co-owner and winemaker Ivana Yamantieva believes in international varieties to show the quality of Bulgarian terroir.
This certainly delivers a serious, intense cassis-filled wine with beautifully judged oak, fine-grained tannins and balanced acidity. Potential for ageing for at least five years too. (CG)

14%
Drink
2020
2025
£25.95 Vaskovino
17 +

Zelanos, Z Cabernet Franc 2017 PGI Thracian Lowlands

Owner Reni Slavova has been growing vines for 25 years, but a new era of quality began in 2013. Winemaker Svetla Roshleva makes precise elegant wines in an immaculate winery.
This shows the raspberry-leaf side of Cabernet Franc with juicy, fresh bramble fruit and well-integrated oak from own vineyards close to the Valley of the Roses. (CG)

13.5%
Drink
2020
2022
16.5 +