Winemaking in Bulgaria dates back to 4000 B.C. when the Thracian empire ruled the land. Even Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey mention fine Thracian wine, including one particular scene in which Odysseus kills the cyclops Polyphemus after offering the one-eyed giant one too many glasses.
By the time the Romans arrived, winemaking was in full swing, and the country’s wine industry continued to thrive throughout the Ottoman reign between the 14th and 19th centuries. Despite suffering significant damage to vines during the phylloxera epidemic, Bulgaria’s wine production flourished in the late 1970s, when it was considered one of the largest wine exporters in the world.
And yet, nowadays, most drinkers are unaware that there’s wine to be discovered all across the country.
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“It’s a struggling industry in Bulgaria right now,” says Robert Hayk, the cofounder of G&B Importers, a Maryland-based company that has brought Bulgarian wine into the U.S. since 2011. “They produced massive amounts of wine and then saw the complete disintegration of their industry following the fall of the Soviet Union. After that collapsed, the central economy collapsed, they privatized, and went into the dark ages and lost a lot of markets.”
But a new dawn is ushering in change.
The State of the Bulgarian Wine Industry
The vineyard area of grapes explicitly harvested for wine production decreased from 250,648 acres in 2009 to 159,135 acres in 2018, according to The Ministry of Agriculture’s 2019 Agrarian Report. However, overall wine production is steady, with about 120 million liters produced in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service’s 2020 Bulgarian Wine Market Report.
Moreover, young winemakers like Petar Georgiev and Radostin Milkov are entering the industry, bringing new energy, a fresh perspective , and experimentalism to Bulgarian wine. Established in the Thracian Valley in 2014, Georgiev/Milkov‘s production focuses solely on quality, sustainable wines made from Bulgaria’s native grapes. The winemakers’ pét-nats, Mavrud, Rubin, and Red Misket are among a few of the wines that have recently flooded the Washington, D.C., market through Bohemish Wines, an import launched in 2021 by Bulgaria-born Nataliya Georgieva.
“We wanted to produce wine and use native varieties to show people what we thought Bulgarian wine could be,” says Georgiev. “To be among the few who have wines in the U.S. shows that Bulgarian wines can be modern and attract people from around the world. But more importantly, it shows what we, as Bulgarians, can do if we focus on the grapes that have always grown here and put quality over quantity.”
Overall, exports to the U.S. are still relatively low. Only about 30 Bulgarian producers have bottles in wine shops, grocery stores, and restaurant menus across the U.S. But interest is growing thanks to placement in major chains like Albertsons, Delhaize, Food Lion, Giant, Martin’s, and Costco. “There is still some resistance from buyers, but there’s a lot more curiosity now,” says Hayk, noting that G&B Importers is slated to bring in about 700,000 bottles this year of Bulgariana, K Cellars, and Rough Day wines. That’s a massive jump from the 400 cases of wines he brought in over 10 years ago.
Deanne Travis—who founded the San Francisco-based Bulgarian wine importer Kristova Family Partners with her mother, Helen Yanek—agrees that buyers and wine enthusiasts are becoming more “willing to try something new.”
“I think U.S. wine drinkers, in general, are showing more interest in wines from other places in the world, especially younger drinkers. They want to discover new places, new regions, and new wines. That’s everything Bulgaria has to offer,” says Travis.
Edoardo Miroglio, widely recognized as one of Bulgaria’s top wineries, is among the four producers in Travis’ portfolio capturing the attention of younger drinkers with its popular Bio Rosé, made with a blend of native Bulgarian grapes Melnik, Mavrud, and Bouquet (a cross between Mavrud and Pinot Noir). With wines from Edoardo Miroglio’s Bio line sold nationwide at Whole Foods, Travis believes the wines made from Bulgaria’s indigenous varieties have the most potential for success in the U.S. right now. And she isn’t alone in her thinking.
“There are so many countries that produce excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. But only Bulgaria makes Mavrud. That’s what makes our wines so special,” says Georgieva, who notably works with producers mainly focused on indigenous varieties.
Key Wine Regions
While native varieties may be the focus for many winemakers in Bulgaria, the country has the climate and soil to grow various grapes. Bulgaria is nestled between Romania, Turkey, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece, and the Black Sea, and is home to a diverse landscape with over 37 distinct mountains, valleys, plains, forests, rivers, and gorges.
Climates vary across the country. In the south, climates range between continental and Mediterranean, while the north sees a more temperate climate. Soil types are just as diverse, with some areas covered in black earth and grey forest soils, acidic soils, alluvial meadow, shallow sandy soils, mountain soils, and more.
Only two recognized Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) in Bulgaria, the Danube Valley and the Thracian Lowlands, were designated after the country entered the European Union in 2007. However, the PGI system is controversial, as the areas are too vast to indicate regional characteristics.
“We still have to separate our regions and make the laws to structure our wine more specific to each region. We are working on that, but we still have lots of work to do,” says Georgiev.
Nonetheless, many in Bulgaria still recognize five major wine regions.
Danube River Plains
About 30 percent of all Bulgaria’s wine production occurs in the Danube River Plains across its Eastern, Central, and Western subregions. To say the region is enormous would be an understatement; it stretches from the Serbian border to the Black Sea. With varying climates, weather, and landscape—most of which is covered in forest—it’s hard to pinpoint a specific wine style or terroir characteristics. Overall, the region has a temperate continental climate. The summer is really hot, and the winters are frigid.
Black Sea Coast
On Bulgarian’s eastern wine region is the Black Sea Coast, which is broken up into two subregions: the Northern sea coast and the Internal subregion. While this area is known for producing fresh and vibrant white wines—including international varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Traminer, and Gewürztraminer—the region is also a popular and glamorous vacation destination frequented by Europeans.
Home to 35 percent of Bulgaria’s wine production, the Thracian Valley in the south, makes up the entire Thracian Lowlands PGI. The hot summers, dry, mild winters, and limestone soils make this region ideal for various grapes. Many producers here work with some of the world’s most recognized grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and even Pinot Noir.
Although the Rose Valley is predominantly known for its captivating rose fields, a small amount of wine production is done here too. Mountains surround the region, which has a continental climate with long, hot, and dry summers.
Just a stone’s throw from North Macedonia and Greece lies the southern region of Struma Valley. High mountains and close proximity to the Aegean Sea result in a diversity of microclimates throughout the area. Still, overall, Struma Valley is one of the warmest regions in the country. Nicknamed Melnik, after the famous local grape variety and the local town, several international grape varieties thrive here, too, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Traminer.
Key Native Grape Varieties
Although Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most planted grapes across Bulgaria, more and more focus has been put on reviving and replanting indigenous varieties. These are five to know.
Although the origin of Mavrud is unclear, the grape is believed to be the oldest in Bulgaria. It is also the most planted and the main focus of Bulgaria’s International Mavrud Day, an initiative created by the Bulgarian Association of Wine Professionals, which seeks to promote and educate the world on Bulgarian wines and wine tourism.
A thick-skinned red grape, Mavrud produces deep ruby red wines full of black fruit notes, plenty of tannin, and acidity.
Created in 1944, Rubin is a cross between Nebbiolo and Syrah. Like Mavrud with its thick-skinned complexity, Rubin makes red wines that can include herbal and plummy fruit characteristics, though it is known to have rigid tannins. It’s primarily used in blends, though with patience and good practices in the cellar, some winemakers make varietal bottles that show deep-fruited flavors, structure, and balance after aging.
Also known as Shiroka Melnishka Loza and broad-leaved Melnik, this grape is also an ancient variety with unknown origins. Ask the people of Melnik, and they’ll say the grape has been there longer than the people. Shiroka Melnik is often used for sparkling wines and rosés. It is also the parent of Early Melnik, also known as Melnik 55. These grapes are almost exclusively found in the Struma Valley.
Believed to have originated in the Balkans, Gamza thrives throughout the northwest areas of Bulgaria. Producing light- to medium-bodied wines, the grape can be compared to Gamay and is increasingly attracting younger drinkers with its tart cherry and savory profile.
The most recognized white wine that’s also the most consumed white wine in Bulgaria is made with the Dimiat grape, also known as Dimyat. The grape is believed to have first appeared in Bulgaria during the Middle Ages. It produces rather easy-drinking and refreshing white wines with plenty of acidity.
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Janice Williams is a New York City-based freelance writer covering wine and spirits. Certified WSET Level II, her work has been featured in print and online publications, including Newsweek, Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Uproxx, and Thrillist, among others. You can follow her work on Instagram @browngirldrinkswine and website janicewilliams.net.