Wine tour? In Bulgaria? Absolutely! Bulgaria is one of the most interesting up and coming wine countries, which surprises especially with its rosés. Here are my tips to what to drink and where!
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Bulgaria might be one of the most exciting up and coming wine producing countries, but viticulture itself has long history in this well-kept secret of a country. The art of winemaking was brought here by one of the first nations to ever settle in Bulgaria: Tracheans. And ever since then - and that's thousands of years- wine has been an essential part of Bulgarian culture.
"It might not have always been good", our guide smiles. "But it's always been so affordable even the poor people could drink it!"
Bulgarians themselves actually believe that Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was in fact Bulgarian and was later adopted as part of the Greek Pantheon. Who knows- the story of that particular deity is a peculiar one, even by Greek standards. Though his father was Zeus, the head of all the gods, his mum is said to have been a mere mortal (ok, well, a princess at that)
The country is divided into 5 principal wine regions. Trachean Valley that spreads around the city of Plovdiv is probably the most ideal for touring the wineries: within a 100-kilometre radius there are tens of wineries.
Until 1986 Bulgaria was, in fact, the second largest wine producing country in the world (no prizes for guessing who #1 was - of course it was France!), though communism put an end to that (too). After the fall of Soviet - and subsequently that of socialism - the wineries were privatized and the industry started its slow path to recovery.
After Bulgaria joined EU grants and aid started flowing into the country and they have been put to good use: giving birth several interesting boutique wineries.
There are more than 40 native grapes in Bulgaria, out of which Mavrud and Rubin (crossing of Nebbiolo and Syrah, in fact) are the most popular red ones. Melnik, hailing from a region bearing the same name, used to be so popular that Winston Churchill himself is said to have ordered hundreds and hundreds of litres of it each year. The most used white native is Dimyat, which is also a widely used ingredient for a rather fine local cognac distillate.
Quality wines, however, are mainly made using imported grape varieties: with reds it's mostly Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Syrah-blends and with whites the go-to grapes are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
The biggest surprise of the trip was the quality Bulgarian rosé. I sampled some seriously good ones and they were so good Provence'd better watch out!
And it is cheap, too (well, compared to Scandinavian prices I've been forced to learn to live with everywhere else is cheap) - especially the kind locals schlep home from the wineries in 5-litre-jerrycans for about €1 a litre.
There's wide range of quality, of course, but especially in the past decade the quality of Bulgarian wines has made serious progress and this has been noted in international competitions, too.
Last year's edition of the prestigious contest of Concours Mondial de Bruxelles was actually held in Plovdiv of all the places.
As we started our tour of the wineries this year's harvest had just come to an end.
As the majestic scenery around the winery gives away, Medi Valley is the highest located winery in the whole country. Located about an hour's drive from the capital Sofia, this Smochevo village gem quickly becomes one of my favourites.
The winery was opened in 2007 and now receives guests every day of the week. For more information as to how to get there, just see here.
Modern and clean building has a special gallery providing visitors information about the history of this wine region. Not only is the place informative, it's worth a visit for its affordability, too. Prices for tastings start at a couple of euros and the shop allows you to go giddy with souvenir shopping, too: prices start at less than €5.
Grapes used here are Chardonnay, Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their portfolio consists of three lines: A Good Year, Incanto (their premium collection) and Excentric Incanto, only introduced in 2014.
The last series also features 100% Mavrud, Viognier and Rubin, made using grapes bought from outside the winery.
All Medi Valley's reds mature in French oak for 12 months. Bulgarian oak is not used as the winery feels its quality is too inconsistent for their exacting standards.
Their Mavrud's dry heaviness is such a departure from Mavrud's traditional, generic softness that its hard to even recognize it's Mavrud. As a result it has struggled to find its audience both in Bulgaria and abroad.
A Good Year series proves to be a delight. Chardonnay (2015) charms with its subtle smokiness and notes of tropical fruits and Rosé 2015 (55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5 % Syrah) is one of the best ones I've ever had and both make their way back home with me.
By the way - should you find yourself in this part of the country - you should definitely not miss out on a visit to a nearby Rila Monastery - one of Bulgaria's UNESCO World Heritage Sites!
Situated less than two-hour-drive from Sofia towards Trachean Valley there's Starosel - another place that has turned wine into a flourishing business. The winery-come-hotel is an affordable and versatile destination especially for the beginners.
A double room, for instance, is only 45 €/ 52€ a night (depending on the day of the week) and the price includes use of all the resort's facilities.
Prices for just tasting tours vary between €3 to €15.
The complex consists of hotel, spa, outdoor pool area and restaurant. Oh, yeah, and the winery.
Starosel is a nice one-stop-shop, though based on the guide's demeanor "now, does any of you know how we start tasting the wine?") his crowd usually seems to consist of people who have never even seen wine.
The tasting rotunda is impressice in its Greek-inspired atmosphere (in that Disneyworld Winelover Edition-sort of theme park-kind of way) but the dim lighting makes it anything but ideal for studying the colour of the wine (because that's how we start the wine tasting) or making notes.
The restaurants is... well, Bulgarian. It's cheap and you won't need to leave hungry.
The website fails to impress an international traveller, though - all the information is only available in Bulgarian. Thank God for Google Translate...
This winery is located in the village of Ognyanovo near Plovdiv just a short ride from Starosel (and about 150 kilometres from Sofia) and here, too, visitor is left breathless by the stunning scenery.
Located at the foot of Rhodope mountains the altitude of the vinyards combined with the clay and limestone soil produce wines with acidity and minerality.
Interestingly enough all the grapes cultivated by Bessa Valley are red: Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Apart from their Merlot which - despite its sharp lingonberry-like bouquet - surprises with its smooth finish the wines tend to be dry and rather sturdy; the kind I would only combine with food.
The winery is open to public from Monday through Friday. Prices for tasting tours start at €10 pp (min. 10 persons) or €25 as a VIP package (min. 5 persons).
For more information, please see here.
The story of the winery starts in 2001, when the area surrounding it was purchased by German count Stephan von Neipperg. Head of a noble family with more than 800 years of experience in winemaking under their belt, he already owned 6 cellars in Bordeaux.
140 hectars of planted vineyards currently produce 550 000 - 650 000 bottles of wine annually, out of which approximately 80% is exported (mostly to UK, Central Europe and North America).
One of the reasons for this is the price: their crown jewel Enira Reserva (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah) for instance costs €25. That, of course, is nothing to us, but in Bulgaria that's the equivalent of one child's day care cost for a whole month.
It's already evening as we drive into the winery. Sun, which just a little while earlier gilded the tops of nearby Rhodope mountains in all shades of purple has already set and thousands of stars now dot the dar sky curving over us. Somehere in the village dogs bark.
The unmistakeable smell of the pastures closeby mingle in the air with mouth-watering aromas of a barbecue. The source for the latter is soon located in the courtyard, where Josif is smiling cheerfully, motioning us closer and pointing at the whole lamb roasting over open fire.
Welcome to Villa Yustina - another one of my Bulgarian wine tour favourites!
While rest of the world celebrates February 14th as The Most Romantic Day Of The Year, in Bulgaria (and in the homes of every single girl on this planet) the day is known as the Day of Wine.
Instead of St. Valentine, Bulgarians have dedicated that day to St. Triton, the patron saint of wine. On that day this fountain is said to squirt out wine instead of water (count me in!)
Located in the village of Ustina, about 26 kilometres from Plovdiv, Villa Yustina is one of the tens of boutique wineries in Bulgaria. As for reasons why you, too, should include it on your tour, there are many. There's the great staff, intriguing wines and different events, such as those combining local Rhodopean food with local wine (4 courses and wines about €20. Gotta love this country!)
And in case you can't tear yourself away, you don't have to. The winery also has their own guest house (accommodation for 4 persons including 2 tastings approximately €150, just the accommodation about €100 per night. Prices for tastings only start at €6 pp.
Fore more information, just see here.
Founded as late as 2006, winery's portfolio features 3 lines: Villa Yustina, 4 Seasons and Monogram, their prestige series.
White grapes used include Traminer, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, reds comprise of Pinot Noir (still wonder why they're my #1?), Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Native grapes are only showcased in one wine: Mavrud-Rubin blend courtesy of the Monogram series.
The above mentioned Mavrud-Rubin blend has the sort of vivacious complexity you don't often encounter with these grapes.
4 Seasons proves to be a carefully curated collection of wines each more enticing than the next. Ones I take home are Spring (as it can never arrive too soon!), a wine where Semillon wonderfully balances the Sauvignon Blanc the currant leafiness of which usually tends to be a bit too much for me; Autumn (Pinot Noir, d'uh!) and Cabernet Franc, which features a bewitching combination of smokiness, pepperiness, berry notes and mocha.
This boutique winery is located mere minutes from Plovdiv and is a peculiar place for its size alone: I doubt I'll ever see a winery that minuscule!
Borne out of a dream shared by two Bulgarian enologists they have taken on a mission to revolutionize the way Bulgarian wine is perceived. And their take is nothing if not personal.
The grapes are sourced from thoroughly selected producers and the annual yield is small: approximately 60 000 bottles. Most of their production is exported as well: the only places you'll encounter Dragomir's wines are specialty shops and top restaurants.
The owners' passion for Bulgarian wine is evident also in the fact that their wines are primarily blends that combine imported varieties with native grapes.
Dragomir Reserve series feature a 100% Rubin. They even have desert wine version of Mavrud and of Orange Dimyat.
Sarva series include a Chardonnay-Dimyat- blend, Mavrud-Merlot-blend and a rosé made using Mavrud and Rubin.
The popularity of rosé has in the recent years seen a surge in Bulgaria, too and theirs has been chosen as the best in the country for a whopping 6 times.
Dragomir's style is particular and not necessarily for me. No matter how much complexity there seems to be on the nose, the taste itself (at least when drunk by themselves) fails to deliver and tends to fall a bit flat. Combined with right food the experience might, of course, be completely different.
In case you're in no rush (and why would you!) there are several other noteworthy wineries, too.
Based on the wines I've been sampling throughout the journey I would definitely recommend Chateau Copsa, located north of Starosel in the village of Karlovo. They are also home to a castle-like boutique hotel, where each of the 5 rooms is decorated according to a certain grape they're also named after. Prices both in the hotel and restaurant are extremely affordable, too: a double room will only set you back about €60.
Another one that piqued my interest (well, with Pinot Noir that is easy...) is Salla Estate in Blaskovo on the Black Sea coast (calling all passengers to Varna/ Burgas!)
Tastings start at €10 pp, a package including accommodation in their guest room and all meals €65 pp.
One thing you should remember though is cash. Bring cash, carry cash - not all wineries accept credit cards.
How about that? Who's ready to get on the next flight back to Bulgaria with me? I'm soooo far from being done!
How about that? Who's ready to get on the next flight back to Bulgaria with me? I'm soooo far from being done!
ANYONE FOR SECONDS?
SHARING IS CARING!