Wines from the Thracian Lowlands of Bulgaria: a study

Back in the 1980s Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon was a supermarket and off-licence staple. Bulgaria’s Soviet-era wine factories were turning out huge quantities of wine, and some of it was pretty good. By 1990, Bulgaria was selling more than 2 million cases to the UK, making it the fourth largest red wine supplier, and four years later this had risen to 3.3 million cases. Things have changed a lot since then, with the opening up of borders, land restitution which led to many vineyards not being looked after properly, and privatization of state-owned companies. Export sales fell precipitously from the mid-1990s. Now Bulgarian wine is beginning to find its feet again.

This is a country with a long history of wine production. Archaeological records show that the Thracian Valley was making wine 7000 years ago. Its climate and soils are certainly well suited to viticulture. The Thracians were a group of tribes who occupied large parts of southeast Europe from 2000 BC to 500 AD covering modern day Bulgaria and much of the Balkans. Thrace was famous for its wine, and it had an important role in society. The god of wine Dionysus was Thracian. Ottoman rule in the 14th and early 15th centuries was a disaster for Bulgarian wine, though, only returning in full in the 18th century. By the time phylloxera arrived, there were 100 000 hectares of vines in the country. By the 1920s this was down to 45 000 hectares, with many vines in small plots – more than half of the households in the country were making their own wine. This carried on growing so that by the end of world war 2 there were 145 000 hectares, most of which ended up in collectivized farms under communist rule.

The big changes have accompanied the accession to the EU in 2007. By this stage, there were fewer than 50 000 hectares of vines that were producing. Vineyards were in need of renovation. There are just two wine PGIs in Bulgaria: Thracian Lowlands and Danube Plains, which were introduced in preparation for joining the EU. Around 30% of the country’s wine comes from them, but they are so big that they encompass a range of different terroirs and it’s hard to make any comments about their specific characteristics. There are also 52 different PDOs (protected designations of origin), which is a lot for a small country.

The Thracian Valley, though, has some of the country’s most interesting winegrowing areas, and is a big diverse region. It spreads from the Struma Valley in the southwest all the way to the Black Sea coast in the east, and abuts the Greek and Turkish borders. The climate is continental, with hot summers and very cold winters, but this is moderated in many parts by proximity to the sea. Many of the vineyards are planted on the flats, but some are on rolling hills. The country is divided by the Balkan mountain range, with the west of the country quite mountainous, with the exception of the Stroma River Valley, whose climate is moderated by the river that flows to the east. The Danube Plains, the other PGI to the north, is more continental in climate.

In terms of grape varieties there are some well known international stars, but they share the stage with indigenous varieties that perform really well. There are also some communist era crosses. Local varieties include Mavrud, Rubin, Melnik, Misket, Tamyanka and Pamid.

Zlaten Rozhen Sauvignon Blanc Sandanski Misket 2022 Struma River Valley, Bulgaria
12.5% alcohol. 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Sadnanski Misket. Fresh, pure and lively on the nose with zesty lime notes. This is textured and fruity with some grapey richness but also lively citrus characters. Juicy and pure with lovely fruit. A really nicely balanced fruity white wine. 89/100

Via Istrum Cellar Selection Tamyanka 2022 Danube Plain, Bulgaria
12.5% alcohol. This is a clone of Muscat. Highly floral with a zesty citrus fruit aroma. Fruity and lively with a mint twist to the citrus and table grape fruit. Lively and juicy with nice precision and a slight bitter twist. Some herb notes on the finish. Dry and really nicely textured with some freshness. 91/100

Rupel Winery Rusalli Tamianka 2022 Bulgaria
13% alcohol. Very aromatic with zesty grapefruit and lime as well as some table grape. Terpenic and intense. The palate is ripe and fruity but there’s nice restraint and good acidity. Juicy and limey with a touch of spice, showing lovely grapey intensity. 91/100

Leva Rose Valley Chardonnay Dimiat Muscat 2022 Thracian Valley, Bulgaria
13% alcohol. Fruity and bright with zesty citrus fruit, some table grape richness and a hint of green apple. Lovely fruit here: very fine and pure with nice crisp fruit. There’s a bit of grip on the finish. Fruity style. 88/100

Château Copsa Blanc Cuvée 2022 Thracian Valley, Bulgaria
13% alcohol. Red Misket (a pink-skinned variety), Muscat, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Lively and zesty on the nose with bright aromatics showing lime and some pithy grapefruit. The palate is bright and fruit driven with a nice citrus core, some fine spices, a touch of pith and some apricot richness. Nice finesse here. 91/100

Domaine Boyar Platinum Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2022 Bulgaria
13.5% alcohol. Aromatic nose with some toast and spice as well as sweet peach fruit. The palate has fine bread and toast notes supporting ripe citrus and peach fruit, with some vanilla sweetness. Nice weight and texture: a sophisticated barrel-fermented Chardonnay with bready softness. 90/100

Minkov Brothers Enoteca Riesling 2015 Thracian Valley, Bulgaria
13% alcohol. Lively, bright and lemony with nice pithy, stony notes. Bright and zesty with a dry finish. Lovely citrus fruit core here, finishing dry. 91/100

Burgozone Pinot Noir Côte du Danube 2022 Danube Plains, Bulgaria
14.5% alcohol. Sweetly aromatic with bold, rich berry fruits and some sweet vanilla and clove notes from the oak. Juicy, very ripe and exotic with lovely strawberry and berry fruits. Juicy and fruity. 88/100

Aya Estate Colorito 2021 Bulgaria
13.5% alcohol. A blend of Shiroka Melnishka Loza and Pinot Noir. Juicy and focused with lovely red cherry and raspberry fruit, with some pepper spice and a nice grainy savoury character. Nice grip here: an elegant, medium-bodied red with nice balance and focus. 92/100

Cheval de Katarzyna Mavrud 2021 Bulgaria
14.5% alcohol. Ripe, textured and sweetly fruited with lush green-framed blackberry and cherry fruit, showing nice balance. It’s ripe and lush but there’s some freshness here. Strawberries, stewed plums and a touch of white pepper. 90/100

Katarzyna Mavrud 2021 Thracian Valley, Bulgaria
14.5% alcohol. Dense and structural with ripe cherry and blackberry fruit, with firm tannins as well as sweet fruit. This is a bold, structured wine of real depth. Ripe, but not overripe with well-integrated oak. A substantial wine. 93/100

Rupel Winery Gramatik Rubin Barrique 2020 Bulgaria
14.5% alcohol. 100% Rubin from vineyards next to the Greek border. Ripe but well balanced with spice-laden cherry and blackberry fruit, with nice grippy structure. This is grainy and substantial with nice weight and a firm, slightly bitter cherry finish. Lovely depth and intensity here. 93/100

Château Copsa Rouge Cuvée 2019 Thracian Valley, Bulgaria
14.5% alcohol. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This is sweetly fruited and dense, but has lovely definition to the blackcurrant and berry fruits. Juicy and linear with some firm tannins, showing hints of wax and leather. Really impressive fruit here, with some good supporting structure and a sweet woody note on the finish. 92/100

Minkov Brothers Oak Tree 2016 Thracian Valley, Bulgaria
14.5% alcohol. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with 27 months in new French oak. This is fresh and expressive with bright cherry and plum fruit, showing brisk acidity and nice structure. Ambitious but not overblown with good tannic structure under the ripe berry fruits. Finishes quite firm, suggesting that this could have a long life ahead of it. Grainy and grippy. 93/100

Domaine Boyar Platinum Merlot Barrel Aged 2018 Thracian Valley, Bulgaria
14.5% alcohol. Refined blackcurrant and blackberry fruit with some sweet, spicy oak. Nice concentration and richness here with some blackcurrant bud and sweet spice. Grippy but lush and ripe. Well made, and crowd pleasing. 89/100

Leva Winemaker’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2022 Thracian Region, Bulgaria
13.5% alcohol. Sweetly aromatic nose with raspberry and cherry, showing sweet fruit but also some supple green characters. The palate is fresh and juicy with forward berry and cherry fruits, as well as a bit of grippy structure. Lovely ripe, forward fruit hhere with some grip on the finish, as well as a dust of cocoa and wood spice. 90/100

Zlaten Rozhen Exclusive Lot Sycagy 2017 Thracian Lowlands, Bulgaria
13.5% alcohol. A blend of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese. This is a really stylish wine showing some mineral notes as well as black cherry and blackberry fruit, with notes of iodine and spice. Grippy and grainy with good structure, showing some tar and spice. Very Barolo like, in a ripe style, with the fruit and tannins in nice poise. It’s grippy, but has lovely silky fruit. 94/100

Aya Estate Disegno Petit Menseng 2019 Bulgaria
10.5% alcohol. Marmalade, spice and pithy lime fruit here, with some sweet apricot character. Lovely combination of sweet and savoury here, showing juicy lemony fruit. Nice fruit here, with sweetness balanced by the structure. Really lovely. 93/100