Why Bulgaria, you ask? Earlier this year, I was approached by Brand Marketing Organization World Wines, (a professional organization representing the Wines of Bulgaria), about my thoughts on Bulgarian wine. I thought about where I may have tasted one or two in NYC, but couldn’t say what or when. After they graciously gifted me a mixed case, I kept noticing the word “impressed” coming up on my tasting notes. Three months later, I had an invite to Bulgaria from the Wines of Bulgaria team sitting in my inbox. These kinds of things don't happen to me often, but I’m extremely grateful when they do. ;) Needless to say, I agreed immediately.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Bulgaria is said to be one of the first countries to produce wine (we’re talking 4,000 B.C.!) In the '80s, Bulgaria was the fourth largest wine-producing country in the world. That changed drastically after a few interruptions, especially the collapse of Communism. Today, Bulgaria's wineries are working hard to produce high-quality wine from local and international varietals. I visited 5 wineries, in 4 different towns, and tasted the wines of at least 25 more producers over meals and bar-hops. Read on for my favorites.
Upon landing in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, the old architecture and cathedrals were first to blow me away.The blossoming spring flowers didn't hurt either. After a friend’s recommendation, I had lunch at
Grape Central. This wine bar has a phenomenal local and international list, as well as a seriously inventive young chef. Go there, you will not be disappointed. When asked about Bulgarian food, all I can attempt to compare it to is Greece without the olive oil and Turkey without the spices. It can be quite simple, and pork is definitely popular, along with potatoes, tomatoes, grape leaves and eggplant.
The super small, southern town of Melnik is literally ancient. Pictured above, you can see the sandy mountains where groups go to hike and walk through the wine caves. These old caves within the mountains are large enough to get lost in, and the view from the top is breathtaking. Melnik has several traditional restaurants, serving up local tomatoes and “white cheese” (their version of feta but way better) with every meal. It has actually been named “The Smallest City in the World.”
Plovdiv is the 2nd largest city in Bulgaria, yet still much smaller than #1, Sofia. The words “cool, hip, and trendy” come to mind when I think of Plovdiv. There are young people everywhere, with several great shops and restaurants along the cobblestone streets. Wine bars are also generously scattered. I compared it to a mix between Munich, Germany and Interlaken, Switzerland.
Wineries Visited: The team at "Wines of Bulgaria" did an excellent job sending us to (what I assume to be) the best wineries in the country. Being said, all 5 were fabulous but vary greatly by varietals planted, winemaking styles and overall vision or concept. However, there were several obvious commonalities to me. First, each winery had an extremely modern facility, complete with impressive Bulgarian-made steel tanks and barrels. Touch screens, auto-bottling and labeling machines were commonplace. I expected some very dated technology after google-image showed me that even the best hotels have a late 80s décor. Side note: This was definitely the case, and reminded me much of Cuba. No surprise that the previously Communist rule is the reason for that comparison. I thought it was pretty cool, actually..
I also noticed that our conversations with each winemaker tended to take the organic wine making route. They all clearly knew that the more natural they could be, the more the 10 of us Americans would be inclined to drink (or place an order for) their wines. They’re smart to understand and accept that this trend isn’t going anywhere.
Orbelus: This is the winery that’s shaped like a barrel (which you may have seen on my IG). Talk about modern, their unique architectural decision fit perfectly among their vineyards. Orbelus was also the only “Certified” Organic winery we visited, as well as the first to gain the certificate in Bulgaria. They, like many of the others listed below, produce wine from local and international varietals.The Chardonnay and Viognier blend stood out majorly for me.
Rupel: This small, relatively new, family-run estate is focusing on the local varietals, Tamianka (white) and Melnik (red). Their winery is just 5 minutes from their magnificent hillside vineyards, overlooking the mountain ranges that separate Bulgaria and Greece. P.S., the Mayor of the town greeted us here with home-baked "Pitka" bread. Adorable!
Villa Melnik: I said I didn’t want to pick any favorites but Villa Melnik is definitely up there. After tasting over 20 fantastic wines during our tasting, I still can't get the orange wine out of my mind. It's a subtle orange, (from Sauvignon Blanc grapes) and purposefully so, in that anyone can easily enjoy it. They have a few different lines of reds and whites, varying in price point, which is quite smart for their current (mainly Bulgarian) market.
Villa Yustina: This stunning facility sits within a small, yet very ethnically diverse town outside of Plovdiv. This estate also produces the tanks that many Bulgarian wineries are using today (including a few of the wineries I just mentioned). Their huge vineyards are just 10 minutes away and surrounded by a public park where locals and tourists gather for picnics, weddings and public events. The entire park is equipped with free wifi, just to give you an idea of the technological state.
Karabunar: Just outside the happenin’ town of Plovdiv, this winery is doing it all, from Orange to Rose, even the local spirit, Rakia. Their female winemaker is experimenting with unheard-of blends, aging in French and Bulgarian oak, and clearly knows what she's doing. These wines may have been the priciest of all, but for good reason.
Zornitza Family Estate: This hotel, restaurant and winery is something straight out of a travel mag. Complete with pool, wine cave and 10 separate villas, it reminded me of Tuscany, but everything was half the price.
Clearly, the market for Bulgarian wine is quite small, but I believe that New York is the perfect market for them. With trendy wine bars popping up all over the city, Brooklyn, upstate, etc.. it seems the younger generation has become quite fascinated with the unknown. So many of the wines I tasted on this trip reminded me of my favorites from the Rhone Valley or Languedoc. They’re interesting but they don’t taste weird. The acidity was in line, they every wine is very clearly Old World, the balance was evidently fought for, and almost everything tasted surpassed my price expectations. The group was always asking “how much” (as wine professionals tend to do) and then proceeded to look at each other in astonishment. The wines, hotels, and restaurants are all quite inexpensive and always managed to over-deliver. I would definitely visit Bulgaria again, and urge anyone else to, especially now and before this Balkan secret gets out.