Zina Sorensen met her husband and business partner Vasil Zlatev in Sweden, where the two pursued a Master's Degrees in Environmental Management and Policy. In 2013, while researching wine tourism as a tool for sustainable rural and tourism development, the couple realized that there was a vacant gap in the market. Bulgarian wine tourism was almost nonexistent and there was potential for a middleperson to link potential wine tourists with the wineries. Two years later, Zina and Vasil launched Bulgaria Wine Tours, which was the first tour operator in Bulgaria to focus on wine tourism.
Any reference to Zina and Vasil as simply “tour operators” is a bit short sighted. They are advocates for Bulgaria, which also happens to be the European Union’s poorest member. Bulgaria Wine Tours itineraries include much more than a string of tastings. Of course they are both passionate about educating clients about the quality of Bulgarian wine, but both Vasil and Zina are equally dedicated to sharing insights about the nation’s rich history and culture.
Wine Tourist Magazine recently caught up with Zina and Vasil and asked a few questions.
WTM: When did you first encounter Bulgarian wine and what was your initial reaction?
Zina: My first real encounter with Bulgarian wine would have to be in 2013, when I started my research on wine tourism in Bulgaria and I got to visit wineries and taste their wines. My initial reaction was genuine surprise that the quality was so high yet I had never even seen a bottle of Bulgarian wine anywhere outside of Bulgaria.
WTM: What surprised you most about the Bulgarian wine industry?
Zina: I was surprised to find out that Bulgarian wine history is incredibly old. The history of wine making is supposedly over 5000 years old in Bulgaria. Another thing that surprised me when I visited 14 wineries in a short period of time back in 2013 was how modern the wineries were and how good the wines were. I realized that there was a large potential for wine tourism yet wine tourism was almost non-existent.
WTM: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Bulgaria?
Vasil: A general misconception about Bulgaria is that it is an undeveloped former socialist state. Many of our guests have said things like “We expected Bulgaria to look much more Soviet than it does”. In fact, the socialist period was only a tiny fraction of Bulgaria’s rich history, but it is the period that people associate Bulgaria with the most. Our guests are surprised to find on one hand, Roman and Thracian ruins and on the other hand, a place that is trying to catch up with the modern capitalist states of the west. In terms of wine, I have also encountered out-of-date opinions from people who have negative connotations with Bulgarian wine due to their experience with Bulgarian wine in the 1970s and 1980s, and still believe that Bulgarian wine is of low quality. Some people have not caught up to the fact that Bulgarian wine has evolved exponentially since the socialist era – especially in terms of quality.
WTM: One of your goals was to create rural job opportunities. Are you seeing signs of success?
Zina: During my master’s thesis in 2013, I surmised that more sustainable forms of tourism had to be explored in Bulgaria for social, economic and environmental reasons. One of those forms of tourism was wine tourism. Wine tourism can positively influence sustainable rural development – including creating rural job opportunities. My personal goal was to start Bulgaria’s first wine tour operator. As for creating rural job opportunities, I cannot say that I have personally been responsible for any incline in rural jobs associated with wine tourism. What I can say is that in the last few years, I have seen wineries become more aware of taking wine tourism seriously with some wineries hiring new employees that are solely dedicated to wine tourism, opening hotels or guesthouses and building capacity for wine tourism in the region. Quite a few of these wineries employ predominantly local labor with one winery being the largest employer in the municipality where it is located.
WTM: How do you use your wine tours to change western perceptions of Bulgaria?
Vasil: Our wine tourists are mostly from the West, and they usually arrive in Bulgaria with little to no knowledge about Bulgaria as a country or about Bulgarian wine. Some might have some misconceptions about Bulgaria based on the country’s turbulent past with communism and a reputation as a poor country. We like to say that we let people discover Bulgaria through its wines as this is a great opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the destination, see the nature, taste the food, meet and hear stories from people on the ground.
Zina: By the end of their tour, every single one of our guests are positively surprised by the country and its history, culture, nature as well as its cuisine.
WTM: Can you tell us about one hidden gem that every wine tourist should visit?
Vasil: This is a tough question because there isn’t just one hidden gem. What comes to mind is the South Sakar Micro-Region, where the wineries are small, family-owned wineries that are friendly and welcoming. The region is mainly rural with very few visitors and great options for an excellent combination of authentic wine, food and nature experiences.
WTM: What is the best season to visit Bulgaria? Why?
Vasil: Bulgaria is very hot during summer and very cold during winter. The best season to visit is in the spring (April – June) and fall (September – November). Harvest takes place in the fall making it an exciting time to visit.
WTM: If a wine tourist is new to Bulgaria, what area should they visit first? Why?
Zina: This is another tough question because it would depend on so many factors such as what other interests the wine tourist has and how long their stay in Bulgaria is going to be. There are five wine regions in Bulgaria and each one of them offers a slightly different experience. Since most people arrive to Sofia Airport, I would recommend heading down to the southwest wine region of Bulgaria called The Struma River Valley & Melnik Region. I would recommend stopping at Bulgaria’s largest and most famous monastery, the Rila Monastery (UNESCO), before continuing to the Melnik region. This small region is the hottest region in Bulgaria and home to the endemic grape - Broadleaved Melnik. The wines from this region are predominantly red. A unique white wine from the region is the Sandanski Misket. Things to do in the region besides visiting wineries includes spending time in the town of Melnik, the smallest town in Bulgaria, and visiting the Rozhen Monastery.
Vasil: Another relatively easy destination if you are arriving in Sofia is Plovdiv – Bulgaria’s second largest city and Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited town. Plovdiv is the European Capital of Culture in 2019 and has a rich and interesting history. Located just about two hours from Sofia, Plovdiv is almost in the middle of the wine region with the largest number of wineries – the Thracian Valley. This makes it a perfect base to explore the numerous wineries in the Thracian Valley.