It took just about twenty minutes to venture through the line at the border between Greece and Bulgaria and another ten minutes to clear customs and immigrations with another stamp in my passport.
I last was in Bulgaria in September 2016, so this crossing doesn’t add another country to my growing list. What it represents, however, is fulfilling a promise to myself to return to Bulgaria so I could spend more time exploring—especially its diverse wine regions. For two days back in 2016, I wandered downtown Sofia, the country’s capital and its colorful markets, national gallery, and other downtown sights like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
The night before I left for Macedonia, I enjoyed local Bulgarian food with a bottle of Bulgarian red wine. The flavors, complexity, and rich texture of that wine surprised me. Made from Gamza, a red wine grape grown in the northwestern part of the country, it’s not a varietal indigenous to Bulgaria. You can find it in Romania and in Hungary where it’s called Kadarka. I loved the wine that night and appreciated the servers who suggested I try local Bulgarian Gamza. As I sipped and wondered about the wine, it occurred to me, I know nothing about Eastern European wines.
In Romania in the Transylvanian capital of Cluj-Napoca, I had a similar experience. So I root my promise to return to this part of the world with curiosity and a desire to learn not just about the wine, but about the people, history, and culture.
Last year I ran out of time before I returned to Bulgaria. My big plan then was to ride my bike all through the Balkans, from the Adriatic to the Black and ultimately Caspian Seas. By the time I got to Kosovo, it was time for me to journey back to Greece and home.
So breaking through the border today represents my return, my promise, and a new journey of adventure and discovery.
I plan to connect with some leaders in the Bulgarian wine and culinary scene and to sit down with them and learn. I’ve got a ton of questions. Ultimately, the experiences I record here on worldrider.com will serve as an outline for my next book. I plan to title it “CORKS” in homage to my last book, “FORKS.” As with the latter, “CORKS” will be much more than a book about wine—it’s a book about people and their passion, struggles, and success.
Today, I head to the smallest town in Bulgaria and one of its most important wine-growing regions where I will meet Militza Zikatanova and her father Nikola, who founded the family-run winery Villa Melnik. The winery represents a dream and homage to the 200-year-old winemaking traditions of his family and the place where he was born.
What excites me the most about Nikola and Villa Melnik is the family’s dedication to preserving indigenous local Melnik grapes—especially at a time when so many producers uprooted the old vines to grow international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and others.
Welcome to Bulgaria. Stay tuned for more of this story.