The history of winemaking in Bulgaria dates back over 3000 years ago - with the ancient Thracians consuming wine from elaborate gold vessels in the shape of animals and mythical creatures. They traded what was then a dense, sweet wine from native grapes with the Greeks. During the Roman era, techniques improved and this is thought when white wines were introduced.
Homer’s Iliad describes the honey sweet black wine, which the ships of the Achaeans brought daily from the Thracian city of Ismarus to their camp outside Troy. Archaeological digs have found numerous votive plates, decorated vessels and coins depicting scenes of wine drinking in the lives of the Thracians.
Probably the best-known pieces are of Bulgarian gold and silver, which depict ritual wine drinking situations with the god Dionysus. It is also worth noting that ‘Plynius the Old’ stated that the first European vine grower was a Thracian named Evmolp. Wine trade spread throughout Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. When the Ottomans occupied Europe, wine production in Bulgaria could continue because of a loophole in Muslim law allowing sacramental wines. Win, continued to thrive until the end of the 19th century until Phylloxera hit the country.
When looking more closely at Bulgaria you can easily see why it has such a long history with producing wine - good number of sun hours, fertile soils and geographic latitude (equivalent to central Italy and southern France) provide the perfect vine growing conditions practically all over the country.
The Bulgarian Wine Institute was established in Pleven in 1902. Wine cooperatives were on the rise by the 1920s and ‘30s. During the height of Communist rule in the 1960s and ‘70s, much of the wine export market were mass produced reds that gave Bulgaria a reputation for being mostly plonk. Bulgaria was the world's second largest wine producer in 1980s, but the industry declined after the collapse of communism.
In 1989, with the fall of Communism, many of the wineries became privatized, with more focus on quality, and some attracted overseas investment. When replanting initiatives started, they took the route to focus on native varietals like the red Mavrud and Pamid in the south, and Gamza (Kadarka) in the north. Misket (Muscat) was planted as an attempt to produce a Bulgarian equivalent of Hungarian Tokaji.
Grapes are a mix of local and international. For whites: Dimyat, Misket and Ottonel, which are produced along with Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer. For reds: Gamza, Mavrud, Malnik, Red Misket and Pamid, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Gamay Noir, Syrah, and Rkatzeteli. Dimyat is Bulgaria’s most widely grown indigenous white varietal and its wine is served chilled on hot summer days.
A curious legend claims that Dimyat was originally cultivated in the Nile Delta of Egypt and was brought to Bulgaria by Crusaders; all that is currently known, its characteristics are typically Balkan. Wine production is now growing again, reaching 108million litres in 2011.
A government decree on the 13th of July 1960 officially divided Bulgaria into five distinct viticultural regions.
North - Danubian Plain:
The climate is temperate continental, hot summers and many sunny days a year. Typical styles are Muscat Ottonel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Aligoté, Pamid and the local Gamza.
East - Black Sea:
The Black Sea region is where 30% of all vines are located. 53% of all white wine varietals are grown here. Wine styles include Dimyat, Riesling, Muscat Ottonel, Ugni blanc, Sauvignon blanc, Traminer and Gewürztraminer.
South - Thracian Lowland:
A temperate continental climate and moderate rains are ideal conditions for producing red varietals growing in the lowlands of Upper Thrace. The region also includes the Sakar Mountain. Mavrud is a famous local wine, as well as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscatel and Pamid are grown here.
Southwest - Struma River Valley:
The region includes the valley of the river Struma in the historical region of Macedonia. The area has a strong Mediterranean influence from the south. The local style Shiroka melnishka loza (taking its name from Melnik), as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Sub-Balkan - Rose Valley:
The varietals Muscatel, Riesling, Rkatsiteli, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominate. The region mostly produces dry and off-dry white wine with less red wine.