Bulgaria’s Rich Wine History Continues To Evolve — Part of the NEW Old World

The following afternoon I sit down one-on-one with Marin, who guides me through a fast-track “master class” of Bulgarian wine. We find a quiet cafe in a leafy neighborhood, far off the main drag. WE snack on cheese and dried meat while tasting the beautiful bottle of Pamid I’ve been carrying for well over a week. A gift from Dimitar at Zagreus, I was excited to learn that Marin hadn’t tried the “Hand Made” wines from Zagreus. So very subtly, I felt I could introduce a new wine to one of the most passionate Bulgarian wine ambassadors and sommeliers in the country.

He is a wealth of knowledge and runs me through the history of winemaking in Bulgaria. From the Thracians who discovered winemaking around 3000 BC to the many dark periods of wine, Bulgaria’s wine history is rich. There was a halt of wine production in the late 1300s when the Ottoman’s began its 500-year rule. Then, after its liberation from the Turks in 1879, Bulgaria entered a period of a wine renaissance. Yet even that abruptly halted in 1900 because of the worldwide phylloxera epidemic.

As the world recovered and introduced new varietals, Bulgarian winemakers studied in France. They brought international and phylloxera-resistant rootstock and varietals to the country while establishing local cooperatives in the model of South France. Then during the Soviet period, the government set up large state-owned monopolies, and by the 1950s, Bulgaria declared the wine industry as an economic priority.

Through scientific and agricultural institutions set up in Pleven and Sandanski, Bulgaria developed new varietals through the crossing of several international and local varietals, including reds such as Rubin, Melnik 55, Ruen, and Bouget. They also identified and established five unique wine regions and underwent an aggressive vineyard planting program of both Eastern European and international varietals. In 1970 legendary wine critic Hugh Johnson recognized the potential of Bulgaria’s wine industry, writing that its white wines were better than its reds. By 1980, Bulgaria was the fourth largest wine producer in the world and the largest in the eastern bloc. Bulgaria was also the first country in the world to market wines using varietal names such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and others.

Disaster hit again in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev carried out an anti-alcohol campaign. Known as the “dry law” it was not unlike Prohibition in the United States. The government ripped up vineyards throughout the Soviet Union and decimated the production of wine and distilled spirits.

With the fall of communism, some five years later, Bulgaria struggled to regain its status and revitalize its wine industry. This hasn’t been easy. Because so many people fled Bulgaria during communism, the process of identifying and returning the land to owners before communism was complicated. Even today, vast swaths of land in ideal agricultural areas remain uncultivated and barren, if not abandoned. Mostly, winegrowers did not make wine. So rather than focus on harvesting vines at optimum ripeness for winemaking, they harvested them too soon for fear of bad weather destroying the fruit. This, among other factors, resulted in a shortage of quality grapes, which created fierce competition and even theft of grapes. So during the first ten years after communism, Bulgarian wines were barely drinkable—lean, green, and under-ripe.

After Bulgaria’s admission to the EU in 2007, economic programs offered growers and wineries funding for up to 50% of the investment required. Over the next ten years, Bulgaria’s wine industry matured as vineyards came online, and winemakers experimented and embraced the notion of terroir-driven, organic, and blended wines.

Established in 2005 to address European Law, Bulgaria currently recognizes just two PGIs. (map courtesy of Marin Atanasov and Brand Marketing Organization World Wines)

In 2007, Bulgaria designated two protected geographical indications (PGI) and 52 protected designations of origin to comply with European Union law. Marin agrees that the current classification of just two PGIs is contentious. Those regions do not appear to be based on any research or science. In looking at a map of Bulgaria and its two PGIs, it seems as if someone drew a horizontal line across the center of the country.

As for the considerable amount of PDOs, only Spain, Italy, and France recognize more than Bulgaria. Those countries have more developed wine industries, and wineries use PDO classifications on labels to communicate distinctness of its wines based on uniqueness defined by place or terroir. However, in Bulgaria, practically nobody uses PDO classifications on labels.

In 1960 Bulgaria identified five unique viticulture regions from 1960—this was abandoned in 2005 when the Bulgarian wine industry complied with EU law. Many winemakers still refer and urge a return to these classifications. (map courtesy of Marin Atanasov and Brand Marketing Organization World Wines) 

Another suggested breakdown of unique geographical regions for wines includes nine distinct viticulture regions. (map courtesy of Marin Atanasov and Brand Marketing Organization World Wines) 

Marin tells me most winemakers recognize distinct differences in the five regional designations established before Bulgaria ascended into the EU. Some propose that Bulgaria renew the prior designations, while others propose an even more detailed vision of nine PGIs.

“The Bulgarian wine map is in transition,” says Marin. “I think we are moving from a micro to a macro phase,” he says. “I expect it will get more detailed soon.”

There’s no question Bulgaria’s wine business is in transition and growing. In the nearly three weeks I’ve explored the country, I see a new generation of winemakers taking risks, experimenting, and pushing the old guard in new directions. There’s no doubt that Bulgaria has a rich history of winemaking dating back thousands of years. The evolution of the wine business since the break-up of the Soviet Union is significant. It hasn’t been easy for today’s vineyard managers, winery owners, and winemakers to transition from that legacy. It took some entrepreneurs ten and even twenty years to purchase sufficient contiguous plots of land to plant new vineyards. As those vineyards mature, especially in the last ten years, its clear Bulgaria is writing a new chapter in its winemaking history.

The region I’ve explored for the past two years, and especially here in Bulgaria, is the old world. But it’s the “new” old world as it reemerges on the world wine stage.

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