Wines of Bulgaria: Are they the next must have wine?

Wines of Bulgaria: Are they the next must have wine?
Master of Wine, Christy Canterbury leads a seminar on Bulgarian wines at Untitled in Chicago

Is Bulgaria the next Portugal?

When it comes to wine, Bulgarian wines may not be the first wine selection to come to mind.

But that may be changing.

Once upon a time Bulgaria was one of the top wine producers in the world. For centuries, wine production and Bulgaria went hand in hand.

Then in the 1980's, things changed. Wine production dropped like a lead balloon after the fall of communism, making Bulgarian wines as difficult to find as the proverbial needle in a haystack.

But eventually, after some hard times restructuring its wine industry in 1990s, Bulgarian wine began to regain its foothold.

Starting around 2001 many new vineyards were planted with modern winemaking facilities introduced in both the new and existing wineries.

bulgariaembrut1-1Today, with time to mature, Bulgaria is turning out some amazing wines including a sparkling wine similar to champagne from Eduoardo Miroglio with a price point way below typical champagnes and a drinkability with pinpoint perfection.

Although Bulgaria currently ranks around #20 in world wine production--well behind the big 3--France, Italy and Spain, its rise has been meteoric--especially in the last few years.

While many of the world's top wine producing countries declined in production between 2013 and 2015 including Italy, down 8.3% and Spain down a whooping 18%, Bulgaria's production is up 32.8% on the World Wine Production by Country list--topping other "hot" wines such as South Africa up 22.4% and Portugal up 8.1%.

Although not widely seen or sold in the US--except in some east coast locations, Bulgarian wines are worth a try, if you can find them.

I stopped by my local Binny's yesterday in search of just such a wine. Aisles and aisles of wines filled with thousands of bottles from all over the world were on display but where was Bulgaria?

Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

After a thorough search with a very helpful wine associate and a check of the store's computer, we were able to find Bulgaria! A single variety, on the bottom shelf near the back corner of the store.

A good looking bottle of Bio made from organic grapes--75% Mavrud & Rubin from Edoardo Miroglio in the Thracian Valley--from 2014.

So why Bulgaria?

There's a reason why Bulgaria has been a wine mecca for thousands of years. The location, between Europe and Asia, nestled between Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia has just the right conditions for growing grapes.

Throughout the wine regions of Bulgaria meticulous attention is being paid to local varieties of grapes with excellent results--and many are taking notice.

One compliant about some of the wines being produced currently in Bulgaria is that they are a little too oakey but this seems to be improving.

At a masterclass, hosted by Master of Wine, Christy Canterbury, featuring leading producers of Bulgarian wine using indigenous and international varieties paired with lunch at Chicago's Untitled, we were treated to an exploration of Bulgarian wines--the new and the old world wines from all five regions of Bulgaria.

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"White wine, white wine, why aren't you red?"

Bulgaria has always been known for their reds. In the 1970s, it has been said, that Bulgarian wine used to be practically everyone's basic red of choice.

Recently Bulgaria has been upping their production of whites with  some very good results but the red/white breakdown countrywide is still heavily red with of 2/3 of the wine production red wines and the other 1/3 white.

Even though, the red wine production out paces the white there is an equal number of the red and white grape varieties in Bulgaria with 22 red and 22 white varieties--tho not all are actively used in wine production.

The grapes

The five most popular grapes used in wine production in Bulgaria are:

  • Mavrud: an ancient red grape variety, mainly grown in the Plovdiv area. The wines are dark, strong and develop nicely in contact with oak.
  • Rubin: a hybrid between the grape varieties nebbiolo and syrah. Rubin wines have a deep ruby colour and typical aroma of berries and are sometimes blended with Mavrud for a 100% Bulgarian blend.
  • Shiroka Melnishka Loza (+ Melnik 55): a red grape variety endemic to the Melnik area. There are different hybrid varieties created from this grape variety, such as Melnik 55.
  • Dimyat: a white grape variety cultivated mainly along the Black Sea coast, used for the production of dry white wines and cognac distillate.
  • Cherven Misket [Red Misket]: used for high quality white wines. There are different geographical variations of the grape in Bulgaria. The various Misket wines are sweet and flora.

The regions

There are five main wine producing regions in Bulgaria with the Thracian Valley, perhaps the best known and oldest region, producing the most wines--around 35%. Located in the southern part of Bulgaria, it is characterized by a moderate continental climate and good rains during the growing period. Mavrud, a famous local wine, as well as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscatel and Pamid are produced in the Thracian Valley.

The Danube River Plains (in the northern region) produces around 30% of Bulgarian wines. It includes three sub-regions: Eastern, Central, & Western. The climate is temperate continental, with a hot summer and many sunny days. Typical styles from the region are Muscat Ottonel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Aligoté, Pamid and the local Gamza.

Also producing around 30% of Bulgaria's wines is the Black Sea Coastal eastern region. The region includes three sub-regions: Northern sea coast, Internal sub-region & South sea coast. The region is characterized by its long and mild autumns that are excellent for the accumulation of sugars required to make fine white wine (53% of all white wine varietals are concentrated in the region). Wine styles include Dimyat, Riesling, Muscat Ottonel, Ugni blanc, Sauvignon blanc, Traminer, and Gewürztraminer.

To the south of the Balkan Mountains lies the Rose Valley with its two sub-regions: eastern and western. It is known for its production of Muscatel, Riesling, Rkatsiteli, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The region includes the Sungurlare Valley that is noted for its wine from the Red Misket grape variety.

The Struma River Valley (South Western Region) is not large in size, but possesses some specific climatic features which are very similar to the Mediterranean regions. It is known for its “Broad Leaved Vine of Melnik” (Shiroka Melnishka) cultivated for the production of dry and semi-dry wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pamid varietals are also produced. The local wines are characterized by full taste, with spicy southern tones

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