Ancient History and Timeless Beauty in Europe's Undiscovered Wine Country | Bulgaria / by Zina Sorensen

Zina Sorenson is a wine enthusiast, small-business owner, sustainable tourism advocate, social media aficionado, travel fanatic and food lover. Besides managing her company Bulgaria Wine Tours, she spends her time trying to raise awareness of Bulgaria as a destination for alternative tourism.

The streets of Plovdiv

The streets of Plovdiv

Panagyurishte Golden Treasure | Photo Credit: Ann Wuyts, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Panagyurishte Golden Treasure | Photo Credit: Ann Wuyts, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Bulgaria is a timeless country located at the crossroad between Europe and Asia, nestled between Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia. A magical place where century-old traditions are a core element of life, ancient history and cultural heritage are the pride of the nation, the mountainous landscapes are beautiful and rugged, and where food and wine are wholesome, flavourful and distinctive.

Meet the Thracians (The history of Bulgarian wine)

Bulgaria is one of the oldest wine producing areas in the world with evidence of wine production dating back to 4000 BCE. The Bulgarian lands were then inhabited by the Thracians – numerous tribes who worshipped wine as a divine drink. Thracian wine was even mentioned in Homer’s The Illiad as the finest wine in the known world.

It is believed that the world’s first documented wine appellation was designated in current-day Bulgaria when in the second century CE emperor Antonius Pius proclaimed the vineyards in Lower Mizia (now northern Bulgaria) as protected.

Traditional Bulgarian Folklore Costumes

Traditional Bulgarian Folklore Costumes

The winemaking tradition in Bulgaria continued through the intervening centuries. The Bulgarian wine industry peaked in the 1970s when Bulgaria was one of the world’s largest exporters of wine and declined after the fall of communism in the 1990s. Following Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007, a number of small and medium-sized boutique wineries began to appear on the Bulgarian wine map. The quality of their work is acknowledged by the fact that Bulgarian wines are the most awarded wines in Central and Eastern Europe. The same boutique wineries are also the drivers of wine tourism development in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Wine Regions

There are 262 wine producers spread out over Bulgaria’s five wine regions, 52 PDOs (Protected Designation of Origin) and 2 PGIs (Protected Geographical Indication), which are EU quality schemes for agricultural products and food products. The Thracian Valley wine region is the region with the highest concentration of wineries.

Bulgarian Wine Map

Bulgarian Wine Map

Local Grape Varieties

There are 44 local grape varieties in Bulgaria – 22 red and 22 white varieties. Not all of them are actively used in wine production but interesting grape varieties utilized for winemaking are: 

Mavrud: an ancient red grape variety, mainly grown in the Plovdiv area. The wines are dark, strong and develop nicely in contact with oak.

Rubin: a hybrid between the grape varieties nebbiolo and syrah. Rubin wines have a deep ruby colour and typical aroma of berries and are sometimes blended with Mavrud for a 100% Bulgarian blend.

Shiroka Melnishka Loza (+ Melnik 55): a red grape variety endemic to the Melnik area. There are different hybrid varieties created from this grape variety, such as Melnik 55. An interesting note is that Winston Churchill usually purchased 500 liters of Melnik wine each year

Dimyat: a white grape variety cultivated mainly along the Black Sea coast, used for the production of dry white wines and cognac distillate.

Tamianka: an old white grape, which is rather difficult to work with and thus, rare to find. Tamianka wines are fresh with aromas of spring flowers and citrus fruits.

Cherven Misket [Red Misket]: used for high quality white wines. There are different geographical variations of the grape in Bulgaria. The various Misket wines are sweet and floral.  

Discover the Wines and Sights

Wine, food, vineyards, mountains, cultural heritage sites, monasteries and churches characterize each and every wine region of Bulgaria. Whichever wine route you choose to explore, you’ll end up with a memorable experience of the best that Bulgaria has to offer.  Here is a sample four-day trip:

DAY 1 and 2 - SOFIA

Sofia, the eclectic capital of Bulgaria, does not have any wineries in close proximity but its buzzing atmosphere is a great place to start or finish a trip in Bulgaria. Stay for a day or two to explore Sofia and the surrounding area. For centrally located accommodations, try Crystal Palace Boutique Hotel. For a sneak peek into the Bulgarian world of wine, spend your evening at Grape Central – a modern wine bar with many local wines on the menu. For a day trip outside of Sofia, we recommend visiting the Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, located 120 km from Sofia in the Rila Mountains. On the way back to Sofia, stop by the Medi Valley winery for a tasting. A bus runs between Sofia and Rila Monastery every day but we recommend booking a private driver or renting a car. 

Medi Valley Wine Cellar | Photo Credit: Medi Valley Winery

Medi Valley Wine Cellar | Photo Credit: Medi Valley Winery

Day 3 and 4 - PLOVDIV

The second largest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv, is the best starting point for a wine tour. Plovdiv is located in the heart of the Thracian Valley Wine Region and is surrounded by wineries. Take a bus from Sofia to Plovdiv (busses run every hour until 20:00) or rent a car for the 1.5-2 hour trip to Plovdiv. If you are looking for a spacious and rather luxurious room with a nice view, stay at Landmark Creek Hotel. Other options are the small hotels and guesthouses of Plovdiv’s charming Old Town. Try Seven Hills Hotel or Old Plovdiv Guesthouse. Plovdiv is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe and it has plenty of cultural sites to offer. A great way to visit the most famous sites is to take the Free Walking Tour of Plovdiv.

Take a taxi to the southern end of Plovdiv to visit Dragomir Estate, a family-owned winery producing outstanding wines. There are more than 20 boutique wineries in just an 80-kilometer radius of Plovdiv, so choosing which ones to visit is a tough task. You will have a different experience at each winery, so you can hardly make a mistake in your choice. 

Autumn Vineyards

Autumn Vineyards

Having said that, there are a couple wineries that should top your list. One of these is Starata Izba Wine Cellar, a wine cellar just 12 kilometers south of Plovdiv, first established in 1882. You will learn about the rich history of the place and taste wines straight from the tanks and barrels. Some of the wines are quite experimental, so you will not encounter them at other wineries. Ever tried a Chardonnay oaked for 46 months? You will be able to at Starata Izba.

Another must-visit winery around Plovdiv is Villa Yustina. The winery is 26 kilometers south of Plovdiv and you will inevitably fall in love with their vineyard-park, hospitality and, of course, their wines. Make sure to try their “Bulgarian blend” of the local grape varieties Mavrud and Rubin, aged in Bulgarian oak barrels.  

If you are staying in Plovdiv for longer, you can also visit the nearby Bessa Valley – specializing in red wines, Neragora – working entirely with organic grapes, Todoroff Wine & Spa – a hotel, restaurant, winery & SPA all-in-one and Starosel Wine & Spa Hotel Complex – sip on wines in the beautiful underground tasting room and enjoy a superb meal in the onsite restaurant. 

Villa Yustina Vineyards

Villa Yustina Vineyards

Shopska Salad

Shopska Salad

Booking a Winery Visit

Call the winery in advance to confirm their availability to meet you. Most wineries can conduct a tasting and tour in English, led by an oenologist, wine tour guide or owner. Tastings are typically accompanied by bread, local appetizers and water. Tasting pours are usually quite generous. Don’t be surprised if you are not offered a dump bucket or spittoon, as Bulgarians are not too fond of spitting their wine!

What to Eat

Bulgarian Patanik

Bulgarian Patanik

Be sure to try shopska salata – with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers sprinkled with Bulgarian white cheese. Ask for kavarma – a hearty meat and vegetable stew, usually served in typical clay pots. Sample a few grilled kyufte – spicy meat balls that are a must-try.  

When to Visit

The off-season months of early spring or late fall are the best times to visit. The weather is warm but not too hot and the traffic of visitors has slowed down.

Getting There

Sofia Airport is conveniently located not too far from thriving wine regions. There are regular international flights with direct routes to over 50 destinations.

Where to Stay

Bulgaria has a varied selection of places to stay in and around wine country – from affordable, charming guesthouses in the rural areas to luxurious, spacious hotels in the large towns. It is highly recommended to try a Spa hotel or a hotel located at a winery. Our favorites are:

  • Crystal Palace Sofia
    • A boutique style hotel located close to the main pedestrian street of Sofia.
    • Shipka Street 14, 1504 Sofia
  • Midalidare Hotel & SPA
    • A modern hotel located between the two wine cellars of Midalidare Estate with an extensive Spa centre.
    • 6239 Mogilovo Village, Chirpan Municipality
  • Landmark Creek Hotel Plovdiv
    • A new 4 star hotel in Plovdiv located by the rowing channel park and surrounded by greenery.
    • 1 St. Valentin Street, Rowing Canal West, 4000 Plovdiv