In Bulgaria, the end of one year and the beginning of the next signifies the start of a serious wine drinking marathon. This usually happens not only because of Christmas and New Year celebrations, but also because of the many name days such as Dimitrovden on 26 October, Arhangelovden on 8 November, Nikulden on 6 December, Stefanovden on 27 December, and Vasilyovden on 1 January. Even if you have only lived in Bulgaria for a short while, you will be surprised how many acquaintances you have who celebrate on one of those days. What is more, they simply insist that you have to come and celebrate with them. Get ready – wine features heavily in all kinds of celebrations in Bulgaria. It's part of the tradition.
Bulgaria was a grape-growing land as far back as the time of the Thracians, some 2,500 years ago. The temperate climate, moderate rainfall and many hours of sunshine per year provide the perfect conditions for various sorts of vines and different methods of production. Rakiya is one of the results and, while much of it is homemade, giving rise to newspaper articles about alcohol poisoning as a result of inadequate preparation, its reputation as a national drink comes second to that of wine.
In Bulgaria wine-making is the first priority of over 300 private producers, who are steadily gaining popularity. In some cases, as much as 80 percent of the production is exported and the rest of the wine is released on the internal market. This tactic sometimes achieves the paradoxical result of a brand being easier to find abroad rather than in Bulgaria – unless you know the producer.
Things are changing, however, as more and more people within the country begin to appreciate high-quality wines and the market for them is steadily on the rise. Many renowned styles such as Chardonnay, Traminer, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling are grown here, but the local varieties such as Mavrud and Gamza also deserve your attention.
Almost every plain and lowland in Bulgaria has a characteristic wine-producing region, because of the diverse climate. If you are looking for a particular taste, then a wine cellar from this area usually delivers it. The Black Sea region is home to 30 percent of all vines and is particularly well known for its whites. This is the place where you can find good Traminer and Sauvignon blanc wines thanks to the warm and mild autumn, which results in a higher concentration of sugar in the grape.
Several famous styles grow in the Danubian Plain, with its sunny days and hot summer. The local Gamza was once an important part of Hungary's famous Bull's Blood wine, but now its production is limited there, unlike in Bulgaria. You could also try also the blends with Aligoté, which came from Burgundy but is now twice as much grown in Bulgaria as it is in its place of origin.
The terroir in the Rose Valley, just south of the Stara planina, is also suitable for many white-grape styles such as Riesling and Rkatsiteli, used to produce dry wine. An interesting local variety, grown in the Sungurlare Valley, is the Red Misket, which has a pink to violet skin colour but is blended into white wines. A little to the south is the Thracian Lowland with its Mediterranean climate, where red grape styles such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Mavrud and Merlot are grown. The wines produced in this area are suitable for the winter because of their strong and warm taste.
The area with the strongest Mediterranean influence is the valley of the Struma river, in the southwestern part of Bulgaria. It's worth visiting the small town of Melnik just to see where the wine barrels used to be stored in caves specially dug for the purpose. And, of course, you have the chance to take away with you some of Melnik's great wine, mostly of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot styles, but with the addition of the local Shiroka melnishka loza, or broad-leaved vine.
Choose carefully when it comes to your wine cellar, and avoid low-end wines entirely because they have most likely been boosted with chemicals and will probably give you indigestion. Not all the cellars take part in the national or international wine competitions, so medals and first places are not necessarily reliable criteria. Wine tourism is a good way to make discoveries: you can stumble unexpectedly across a real gem from some of the small producers.
Some wine cellars in Bulgaria specialise in producing high-end wines for connoisseurs. The Bulgarian Heritage brand uses the centuries-old traditions of the central Danubian Plain, the temperate climate and the sunny hills close to Veliko Tarnovo to their fullest advantage. The results are high-quality white and red wines such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, which find favour with wine lovers.
When you are looking for the perfect red wine to complement your meal, take a look at the wine cellar Nov Jivot, or New Life, from Brestovitsa. Its Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mavrud and Rubin come from an old viticultural region at the foot of the Rhodope, which produces excellent red wines. The Mavrud is an esteemed local vine, grown mostly in the region of the Thracian lowland. The Mediterranean climate and mild winters here add to the clear taste of the wines, and the products of Nov Jivot go well with cheese, red meat and game, pasta and piquant salami.
Imported wines play a part of the Bulgarian wine market as well. The key word is diversity – Cartel, one of the leading companies, imports from major wine-producing countries such as Chile, the United States, New Zealand, Argentina, Spain, France, and Italy. The limited editions include a variety of wines made to the highest standards. A good example is the Cabo de Hornos wine from Chilean wine cellar Viña San Pedro, whose exceptional taste is the result of 18 months ageing in French barrels. This red blend takes its name from the region in the south of Chile where the Pacific and the Atlantic merge.
If you find yourself wondering how to complement the wine you have just bought, remember that you are in Bulgaria. Cow or sheep cheese and kashkaval are the perfect addition. You can find them at the Maestro shop, which carries the dairy products of Sheepka 99, made by the original recipe and delivered straight from the manufacturer.