ABOUT BULGARIAN WINES
History of Bulgarian Wine
Viticulture in Bulgaria dates back to ancient times and the traditions in wine production and wine culture on the Bulgarian territory are older than the Bulgarian country itself, formed in the year 681 AC. It is a historical fact that on the lands of the ancient Thracians, which populated the territory of contemporary Bulgaria, wine was a great part of the every-day life and pagan rituals of the tribes. In fact, the oldest European viticulture was born in Thrace 5000 years ago and the Thracian viticulturists were the first viticulture teachers in Europe. Traditions and methods of winemaking were inherited and sustained and because of all this, many Bulgarian traditions, legends and other folk-style manifestations are related to the vines. The national songs also praise the wines and the grapes and even Homer wrote about the famous Thracian wine in his works. Evidence for the great development of viticulture during the time of the Thracians can be found all over Bulgaria’s territory. There are numerous monuments and archeological excavations in the form of amphoras, rhytons, and jugs used for serving wine. Nevertheless, the greatest interest has been placed on the Panagyurishte golden treasure, comprising of golden dishes for drinking wine.
In the development of viticulture in the country, there have been many periods of flourishing, as well as numerous of total uprooting and destruction of the vines. For instance, vine growing was remarkable after the arrival of the Romans within the peninsula, however, after the fall down of the Roman Empire, vines suffered severe damages and some were even destroyed. Later, during the First Bulgarian Kingdom, viticulture and drunkenness developed to such an extent, that Chan Krum decided to pass a law for the total destruction and uprooting of the vines in the country. During the middle ages, the bogomils were also against wine drinking, but nevertheless, viticulture developed even further. Along with food, good wine was also exported to the European marketplace. After the fall of the Bulgarian Kingdom under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled between the 15th and 19th century, viticulture in Bulgaria continued to exist. Although it was generally a dreadful period for Bulgarian wine making, the Christian population was allowed to produce and consume wine as this was seen as an essential part of the Christian traditions within the Empire. During the 18th century, drinking traditions were revitalized and demand for higher quality wines emerged due to the appearance of a more wealthy Christian population. In addition to this, export markets started to evolve, primarily for red wines from the Black Sea region. Muslims weren’t allowed to consume wine, as required by the Koran, but they were still lovers of good dessert grape varieties and are the main reason for the current existence of dessert grapes in Bulgaria.
After Bulgaria’s liberation in 1878, the wine industry experienced a rapid growth and in 1897 the total area of planted vines reached 115 000 hectares. During that time, the phylloxera had spread in Europe (France) and reached Bulgaria’s vineyards in 1884, evident first in the Vidin region. The phylloxera destroyed most of the original vine plantations in the country and put an end to the traditional viticulture in Bulgaria. The destruction of thousands of hectares of planted vines put Bulgaria’s viticulture and wine industry at risk, but nevertheless, as the phylloxera had previously hit many countries in Western Europe, the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture acted promptly by inviting the renowned French wine expert Pierre Viala to solve the problem. Viala travelled around the country and recommended the American solution to the phylloxera problem, which had proven to be successful in the other struck countries in Europe. The French expert made several other recommendations, which led to the establishment of the Pleven Institute in 1902. The renewal of the vines in the country started in 1906, but was done at a rapid phase only after the end of World War I.
The greatest development of the Bulgarian viticulture was seen in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the introduction of the vine and wine cooperatives. Those cooperatives transformed wine production in Bulgaria from a small private business into a base for a future wine industry. In the beginning of the 20th century, several strong winery centers were established, some of which were Lovech, Suhindol, Melnik, Plovdiv-Pazardjik, Chirpan, Pleven and Sliven. Most of those cooperatives were built via Austrian and other western European expertise and had an average capacity from 500 to 1,500 tons, while the areas of planted vines in the country reached 200 000 hectares. After the socialist revolution in 1944, the wine production in the country was monopolized, consolidated and converted into a state industry. During the socialist regime, some of the vine plantations in the country were destroyed due to Moscow’s anti-alcoholism campaign. An important factor introduced by the socialist regime in Bulgaria, which still reflects on the Bulgarian wine industry today, is that there was a mass plantation of international grape varietals like Rkatsiteli, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat Ottonel and Traminer. The marketplace for Bulgarian wines was initially limited to the Eastern Block of the Union of Economic Partnership’s framework. Until the 1960’s and 1970’s standards were low, but then the mass production of prestigious red varietals marked its beginning and wines entered the international marketplace. In the 1980’s, Bulgarian wines also entered some of the Western markets, reaching successes in the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and others, but 90% of the wine exports went to Russia.
After the fall of the socialist regime in 1989, Bulgaria’s viticulture and wine production experienced great changes. The industry was liberated from government monopoly and a process of privatization of wine cellars and wine factories in the country followed, which caused great concussions, dismissals of employees, as well as in some cases closures and destructions. In 1991, agricultural lands were returned to their pre-1944 owners or their heirs, which led to vineyards being owed by a number of different heirs, posing significant barriers to potential investors. Additionally, wine producers faced the problem of controlling the quality of the purchased grapes. The high demand for raw material every autumn artificially escalated its price, and the most common practice was to harvest before the grapes are ready, leading to a decade during which Bulgarian wines had a distinct ‘green’ accent in their taste and aroma and lost most of their clients and markets. However, the situation improved in 2000-with Bulgaria’s membership in agricultural funds and programs such as SAPARD (Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development) and PHARE, many foreign investors managed to put their projects for modern wineries and cellars into reality. This gradually started to change the overall picture of the Bulgarian wine industry and small, medium and large, perfectly constructed and well-equipped new wineries, appeared in each viticultural region of the country for only several years. With several other private investments in the wine industry and improvements in technology, one can state that the image of the Bulgarian wine industry has been completely changed in a positive way only over a decade. With the new era in the Bulgarian wine industry, there has been a tendency towards small and medium-sized wineries and the style of wine production has changed towards the modern market tendencies worldwide.
Climate and Soils in Bulgaria
Bulgaria’s climate, soils and temperature levels create excellent weather conditions for growing superior grapes and wine production. There is a diversity of perfectly suitable for viticultural practices natural landscapes in the country, with lush rivers and hills sloping down gradually to the costal areas, as well as with valleys and plains that are embraced by mountain ridges.
In Bulgaria, there are all four seasons- mild winter, pleasant and long autumn, hot and dry summer and blooming spring. The average yearly temperature in the country is + 14.7°C, while the average temperature between the months of April and September is + 23°C. The average temperature sum necessary for the vines is between 3500 and 3700 °С. The sum of the rainfall per annum is between 470 and 953 liters per square meter, while the sunlight per year is estimated to be between 2200 and 2500 hours in the country. On one hand, the climate in the South of Bulgaria is characterized as intermediate continental, tending to Mediterranean. On the other, Northern Bulgaria is distinguished by its temperate continental climate. The climate along the Black Sea is maritime, while the regions with an altitude of 1900-2000 meters above sea level have a climate that is mountainous.
The soils are diverse between the various regions of the country. In Bulgaria there are cinnamon and grey forest soils, humic-carbonic soils, acidic soils, fertile black earth (chernozems), mountain soils, alluvial-meadow, including both deep and shallow sandy soils, and others. They are all extremely favorable for the development of the vines, for the good maturation of the grapes and for the production of quality red and white wines.
The climate, lay and the variety of soils in the country present great opportunities for viticulture and winemaking. Bulgaria benefits from excellent nature and climate-related conditions for growing both international and traditional local grape varieties.
Bulgarian Wine Regions
According to ДВ 67/16.08.2005, the Bulgarian territory is divided into 2 main regions for the production of regional wines, namely the Danube Plain and the Thracian Lowland. However, according to the old enactment no. 162/13.07.1960 of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria, Bulgaria’s territory is divided into five main viticultural regions, according to the different soil and climatic conditions in the country. Those regions are: Danube Plain (North Bulgarian), Black Sea (East Bulgarian), Rose Valley (Sub-Balkan), Thracian Lowland (South Bulgarian), and Struma River Valley (Southwest Bulgarian). Each region offers specific grape varieties and wines.
The Danube Plain (Northern Bulgaria) wine region encompasses 49 distinct micro-areas and regions. It is characterized by a temperate continental climate. Its main features include hot summers and a significant amount of sunny days, as well as very cold winters. Fogs are also very common for the region. Soils are mainly black earth and grey-brown forest, as well as alluvial-meadow soils. The region covers the central and western part of the Danube Plain, the south bank of the Danube River and its appurtenance regions. The most typical white grape varieties in the region are Chardonnay, Aligote, Muscat Ottonel, Misket and Riesling. Red grape varieties in the region are mainly represented by Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pamid and Gamza. In the Danubian Plain region there is production of quality white dry wines, sparkling wines (classic technology) and quality red wines, which are characterized by rich fruity aroma and fresh taste.
The Black Sea (Eastern Bulgaria) region incorporates 32 distinct micro-regions along the Black Sea coastline and the area of Ludogorie, as well as embraces 30% of the vineyards in the whole country. It also encompasses the Varna, Burgas, Pomorie, Dobrich, Silistra, Shumen and Targovishte viticultural regions. The climate is influenced by the sea, and is characterized by hot summers, cool springs and mild winters. The autumn in the Black Sea region is warm, dry and long, which is advantageous for the accumulation of sufficient amount of sugars for the production of fine white semi-dry wines. Soils are diverse, but constitute of primarily black earth, grey-brown forest, alluvial-meadow and humic-carbonic soils. 53% of the white grape varieties are concentrated in this region, most importantly Dimyat, Muscat Ottonel, Rkatsiteli, Traminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Aligote and Ugni Blanc. Red grape varieties are mainly represented by Pamid, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Black Sea viticultural region is characterized by the production of some of the best dry and semi-dry Bulgarian wines, which combine a pleasant fruity aroma, dense taste and elegant freshness.
The Rose Valley (Sub-Balkan) region includes 13 micro-regions. It is situated on the South of Old Mountain and constitutes of two river valleys: that of Tundja on the East and of Stryama on the West. The main viticultural centres are Sliven, Moscovec, Karnobat, Karlovo, Hisarya, Shivachevo, Yambol, and Sungurlare. The climatic and soil conditions in the region are considered to be from the most suitable ones for cultivating high quality vines. Soils are primarily brown and cinnamon forest ones. The diversity of micro-regions and soils is fascinating, but most significant is the excellent air drainage along the slopes of Middle Forest. Evidence of those excellent conditions is the fact that although the Rose Valley region is not the biggest in Bulgaria, this is where the highest quantity of wine is produced. The main grape varieties in the region are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Red Misket, and Rkatsiteli. The region is known for its production of mainly white dry and semi-dry wines, and less red and aromatized wines. The wines have a characteristic pleasant fruity aroma, fresh and harmonic taste. The wines made from the local grape variety Red Misket are some of the best representatives of the Bulgarian white wines and are unique with their rich fruity aroma, elegant body and gentle, memorisable aftertaste.
In the Thracian Lowland (Southern Bulgaria) region the climate is temperate continental with uniform rainfalls during the whole period of vegetation. It includes 39 micro-regions, representing 60% of the red grape varieties in the country. The region encompasses the central part of the Thracian Lowland and parts of Sakar Mountain. Soils are mainly cinnamon forest, clayey and alluvial-meadow. The Thracian Lowland region incorporates many viticultural centers such as Stara Zagora, Nova Zagora, Purvomai, Chirpan, Korten, Harmanli, Svilengrad, Ivailovgrad, Lubimets, Asenovgrad and others. Most of the red grape varieties in the country are concentrated in this region, namely Merlot, Pamid, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mavrud, Red Misket, Rubin and others. The climatic conditions, which are protected from sharp northern winds, are favorable for the production of rich, dense, memorable red wines from grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Mavrud, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and others. The good wines made from the local grape variety Mavrud are greatly appreciated, as they combine the aroma and the taste of small red fruit, spices and grasses. Asenovgrad, Perushtitsa, Bresovitsa, Brezovo, Karabunar and Septemvri have been recorded in historical books as serious viticultural centers that mainly manufacture the local Mavrud and Pamid. White grape varieties in the region are mainly Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Traminer and Muscat.
The Struma River Valley (South-Western Bulgaria) region is not large in size, including only 10 micro-regions and areas, but has very specific climatic conditions, which make it similar to the Mediterranean areas. There is a diversity of the soils in the region (cinnamon and brown forest soils, alluvial-meadow and mountain soils, and others). It comprises of the South-western parts of the country and encompasses Mesta and Struma river valleys. The main centres are Petrich, Sandanski, Melnik and Blagoevgrad. The influence of the Mediterranean climate, the extremely high temperatures and the relatively poor soils set the pattern for cultivating primarily high quality red grape varieties. The most typical grape varieties in the region are the local variety Melnik (wide leaf vine of Melnik), Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc is also present in the region. The wines of the regions are characterized by warm south tones in the aroma, with roundness in the taste and richness in the overall impressions. The wines made from the local grape variety Melnik (wide leaf vine of Melnik) have gained a lot of interest, as they are rich and have a sufficient volume, as well as gain exotic and very pleasant nuances in the taste when aged.
Grape Varieties in Bulgaria
There are around 200 different grape varieties cultivated in Bulgaria, according to the Pleven Institute.
Grape Variety Structure in Bulgaria
The red wine grape varieties dominate and represent around 63% of the cultivated vines on the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria, while white wine grape varieties represent about 31% and dessert grape varieties around 6%.
The largest share of the red grape varieties is that of Pamid, representing 16%. Following are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon each with 14%. Next is Gamza with 4%, followed by Melnik (wide leaf vine of Melnik) with 3% and others among which the most popular are currently becoming Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Malbec, Carmenere, Fetyaska Negra, and others.
The largest share of white grape varieties is represented by Rkatsiteli-14%. Next is Dimyat with 7%, followed by Red Misket with 6%, Muscat Ottonel with 5% and Chardonnay with 3%. The varieties Aligote, Ugni Blanc, Riesling, and Traminer are represented by 1% of the vines in Bulgaria. Others gaining popularity are Viognier and Pinot Grigio, as well as Marselan, Petit Manseng, Sauvignon Gris, Grenache Blanc and others.
In the last years, Bulgaria has witnessed the construction of small wineries with small vineyards, very similar to the French Chateaus. The main grape varieties in those vineyards are the internationally popular Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, as well as the traditional local variety Mavrud.
Local Grape Varieties
The local Bulgarian white grape varieties are: Dimyat, Vrachanski Misket, Red Misket, Keratzuda, Varnenski Misket (Dimyat and Riesling), Orphe (Red Misket and Pinot Noir), Gergana (Dimyat and Muscat Ottonel), Sungurlare Misket (Red Misket and Sauvignon Blanc), and Bisser (Dimyat and Sauvignon Blanc).
The local Bulgarian red grape varieties are: Mavrud, Pamid, Gamza, Ruen, Melnik, Shefka, Rubin (Nebbiolo and Syrah), Trakiiska Slava (Mavrud and Pamid), Bouquet (Mavrud and Pinot Noir) and Evmolpia (Mavrud and Merlot).
The traditional Bulgarian grape varieties that are most popular and considered to be of greatest significance are Gamza, Mavrud, Melnik, Ruen, Rubin, Pamid, Dimyat and Red Misket. These are examined in detail below:
Gamza is a very old and well-known local Bulgarian grape variety, which is also often referred to as ‘Kadarka’ in Austria, Turkey, Romania, France, Slovakia, former Yugoslavia and Hungary. It is mainly cultivated in the northern part of the country from old times and until recently it has been used as the main grape variety in red wine production from Northern Bulgaria, while in other parts it is grown as single vines in plantations. Gamza is mainly cultivated in the region of the Bulgarian cities Pleven, Vidin, Novo Selo, Suhindol and Kramolin. The distinguishing characteristics of Gamza include:
Skin: dark blue to bluish-black; frail; thin; thick waxen bloom;
Bunch: often compact and single winged; cylindrical-conical; large (15.4/8.2 cm)
Grape: spherical; small (16.2/15.6 mm); deformed when bunch is compact
Relatively late-ripening variety-end of September, beginning of October; however, in Vidin District-mid September
Yield from a single vine: 4-6 kg
19-21.8 % sugar content when it ripens; however, more intense in Vidin District;
Wines: vivid ruby color, pleasant tannins, distinct but mild freshness, taste of small red fruits (raspberry dominates) that is fresh, as well as with light structure;
Best when autumn is dry and warm because if humid, the skin is likely to crack and grapes may be attacked by grey mildew
Should be picked quickly and cultivated in hilly, airy regions with light drained soils;
The local grape variety Mavrud is mainly distributed in the Southern part of the country, particularly in the regions of the Bulgarian cities Chirpan, Plovdiv, Stara and Nova Zagora, Assenovgrad and Pazardjik. From old times, Mavrud has been grown only in Bulgaria. This grape variety is widely considered to be the most treasured for the production of red wines in the country. Main characteristics of the grape variety Mavrud include:
Skin: bluish black; tough, thick waxen bloom; thick;
Bunch: semi-compact to loose; due to its many variations, some forms are compact; winged; large; widened to its basis;
Grape: spherical, fruity and small (15.2/15 mm)
Average weight: 397 g
Late ripening variety- beginning of October in the region of the city of Plovdiv
Sugar content: 17-23%
Titratable acids: 6.1-10.7 g/ dm3
Best conditions for Mavrud: warm micro regions, with no danger of low winter temperatures, and deep, fresh alluvial soils
Not very vulnerable to Oidium and relatively resistant to grey mildew
Wines: sufficient tannin, deep ruby color, taste of blackberry and tendrils, pleasant flavor, acids in reserve, freshness and sweet taste
When in contact with oak, wines obtain dense, harmonious and mild taste, as well as complex and strong flavor
This is a local Bulgarian grape variety that is only grown in Bulgaria and got its name Melnik because it has been cultivated in the Melnik region in the country since ancient times. It is concentrated in the district of Blagoevgrad, particularly surrounding the villages Vinogrady, Hursovo, Kapatovo, and Marikostinovo, as well as the cities of Melnik, Petrich and Sandanski. The main characteristics of the grape variety Melnik are as follows:
Skin: bluish-black, tough, thick
Grape: oval, small (16/15 mm), sour tasting and juicy
Bunch: winged, often double-winged, semi-compact, medium to big size (16.9/10.2 cm)
Sugar levels: 20-24%
Titratable acids: 6-8 g/ dm3
Late ripening variety-first half of October
Best in the Melnik region as it is characterized by an early spring, long and warm autumn, relatively warm and mild winter, hot summer, as well as by high temperatures during vegetation;
Vulnerable to low winter temperatures and prone to sprouting aments
After pruning, there should be moderate loading of the vines and the knots that have two eyes should be left;
Wines (young): dominating flavor of cherry, dense cherry color, typical piquant tartness and sufficient density
Wines (mature): nuances of leather and tobacco, mild tartness and freshness, complex and rich flavor
Good development when there is contact with oak
Ruen has been accepted as a grape variety since 1964 and is solely grown in the Struma River Valley on small areas. It is relatively unknown as most vineyards where it was previously cultivated were destroyed in the beginning of the communist regime. After this destruction, Ruen had lost its popularity until recently when international winemakers have started appreciating it and using it for the production of high quality wines. Ruen is a variety that is seen as a crossing between Cabernet Sauvignon and Melnik, and the wine produced from it is considered best when it has been in contact with oak. Wines are also very suitable for aging and have subtle south flavor.
The grape variety Rubin has been recognized since 1961 and was created in 1944 by the Wine and Vine Institute in the city of Pleven, being a crossing between Syrah and Nebbiolo. Its main characteristics include:
Grape: spherical, small, blue-black
Mid-early ripening-first half od September
Sugar level: 23-25% (28-30% when dry)
Wines: unique aroma, intense ruby color, improve and develop with aging
Used for the production of high quality table and dessert wines
Pamid is considered as one of the oldest local wine grape varieties in the country, which have been grown since the Thracians times. It is mainly concentrated in Southern Bulgaria and is currently also present in Turkey, former Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Albania and Hungary, but is not as widespread in Bulgaria as it used to be before. Its distinct characteristics are:
Skin: red or dark red, thin, frail
Grape: oval, small (15.6/14.4 mm), juicy, weakly attached to the stem
Bunch: semi-compact to loose, cylindrical-conical, medium size (16.4/10.2 cm)
Sugar content: 18-24%
Acidity: 4-5 g/ dm3
Middle-ripening variety-mid September
Yield from a single vine: 4-5 kg
Suitable for any kind of soil, relatively resistant to drought, not very resistant to grey mildew and have medium resistance to low winter temperatures
Best when grown in hilly areas with light drained soils
Wines: best when young, low extract and acidity (i.e. not suitable for maturing); light, red table wines for mass consumption
Dimyat is mainly concentrated in the Black Sea viticultural region in Bulgaria, considered best in the region of the city of Varna, and is also present in Russia and former Yugoslavia. It is present in the regions of the cities from Evksinograd to Varna, Stara Zagora and Shumen. This old local variety has the following main characteristics:
Skin: yellow-green color, frail, thin
Grape: oval, big, with notes of vanilla, fresh, tasty, juicy
Bunch: semi-compact, conical, medium sized
Fast growing, late-ripening variety-second half of September
Used mainly for the production of high quality material for cognac distillate and for white table wines
Resistant to grey mildew, but not resistant to drought and low winter temperatures
This old local variety is mainly concentrated in the sub-Balkan Valley and Sredna Gora, particularly in the districts of Brezovo and Karlovo, as well as the Sungurlare Valley. Red Misket is also present in the regions of the cities Vratza, Sliven, Yambol and Stara Zagora. The main distinguishing characteristics of this grape variety are as follows:
Skin: covered with a thick waxen bloom and typical black dots, tough, thick, pinkish-red with a nuance of violet;
Grape: pleasant Misket flavor, sweet, juicy, small (14/14.2 mm), deformed when bunch is compact, and almost spherical
Bunch: semi-compact to compact, single or double winged, medium size (15.3/9.3 cm), cylindrical-conical
Average weight: 141-239 g
Sugar content: 18-21 %
Titratable acids: 5.4-6 g/ dm3
Best when cultivated in airy and hilly regions
Yield: 10000-12000 kg/hectare (when well cultivated)
Acidity improves when mixed with other varieties
Wines: pleasant Misket flavor, straw-yellow color, and harmonious taste
International Grape Varieties
Apart from the local grape varieties described above, there are numerous international varieties that have been cultivated in the country and are of great significance for wine production in Bulgaria.
The most common white grape varieties of an international origin in Bulgaria are: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Muscat Ottonel, Aligote, Traminer, Rkatsiteli, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Kokorko, Riesling, Sylvaner and Fetyaska Alba.
The most common red grape varieties of an international origin in Bulgaria are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Grenache, Syrah, Gamay, Cinsault, Saperavi and Zartchine.
Wine Categories in Bulgaria
|PDO-Protected Designation of Origin||Still (dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet,
|Brut nature (up to 3 g/l)||White-single varietal and blended|
|PGI-Protected Geographic Indicator||Sparkling||Extra brut (up to 6 g/l)||Rose-single varietal and blended|
|High quality wines without PDO/PGI||-Naturally fizzy/fizzy sparkling||Brut (under 15 g/l)||Red-single varietal and blended|
|Wines without PDO/PGI||-Naturally effervescent/ effervescent sparkling||Extra dry (from 12 to 20 g/l)|
|Special||Dry (from 17 to 35 g/l)|
|-Liqueur||Semi-dry (from 35 to 50 g/l)|
|-Aromatized||Sweet (above 50 g/l)|