By the time we arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, we knew two things to be true: spontaneous travel is not our preferred vacation style, and we needed a day in Bulgarian wine country.
As with so many of our previous vacations, we planned almost every detail of our somewhat complex, multi-country itinerary before we left the USA. Only one detail wasn’t coordinated in advance: our transfer from Skopje, North Macedonia to Sofia. Just three hours away, there are no trains between the two cities, and flying seemed unnecessarily complicated, so we decided to take an early morning bus instead. The day before our departure, we discovered some unexpected news: the bus we planned to take had sold out. After spending far too much time scrambling to find an alternative, our plans were saved by our incredible Skopje wine tour guide Martin, who arranged not just a door-to-door transfer for us but included a stop at the lovely Matka Canyon in North Macedonia. Hours later, settled into our hotel room in Sofia, we agreed that leaving vacation details up to chance can have disastrous consequences when your vacations are as full as ours are. Although we were lucky our transfer situation worked out so well, we could have easily arrived late enough that we would have missed out on parts of our time in Bulgaria. We were ready to de-stress with a glass or two of wine.
Fortunately, Bulgarian wine country is an excellent place to do exactly that. And we had booked a tour.
If you don’t know much about Bulgarian wine, you are not alone. Although Bulgaria has been producing wine for thousands of years, it maintains a lower profile than some of Europe’s other wine regions. We had a terrific time exploring Bulgarian wine country and some of the local varietals that we had never seen before in our wine tourism.
If you are looking for a wine vacation that combines high-quality wines with unexpected grapes, here’s why Bulgarian wine country might provide exactly the trip you need.
A Brief History of Bulgarian Wine
Bulgarian wine production likely began as early as 4000 BC, with archaeological studies producing evidence of winemaking techniques and tools that date back to the Thracians. Thracians, who inhabited a significant part of the Balkan region for centuries, included wine during ceremonies and celebrations, and wine vessels have been discovered throughout Bulgaria as part of archaeological excavations.
As with most alcoholic beverages around the world, Bulgarian wine suffered through time periods when winemaking was discouraged or disallowed by various ruling bodies. Winemaking was not permitted during the Ottoman Empire’s rule, when churches shouldered the responsibility for preserving winemaking traditions. After Ottoman rule ended in the 19th century, wine production began to grow in earnest, and it continued to expand for decades. Bulgarian wine hit another rough patch when the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1980s; combined with a drought that impacted the quality of the grapes, production quantities significantly decreased.
As we have seen around the world, it’s the smaller wineries that are bolstering the Bulgarian wine industry in recent years. Small to mid-sized wineries with a focus on quality over quantity and local grape varietals are making a true impression on the international wine industry. It’s through these efforts that visitors can truly experience the history, tradition, and excellence of Bulgarian wine. It’s more than merely going through the motions of producing wine; it’s about honoring the generations of Bulgarians who have grown grapes, protected them, and used them to craft a tribute to the history they represent and the future to be built upon them.
Local Wines to Try in Bulgaria
Although Bulgarian wine features varietals that have made their mark on grape-growing regions around the world, some of the best wines we tried were made from grapes that are native to the Balkans and, specifically, to Bulgaria.
Of all of the wines we tried, the most memorable and representative of Bulgarian wine is Mavrud. Mavrud is a deep, dark, complex wine; commonly sporting a beautiful ruby color and featuring a fruit-forward, tannic, even spicy profile. Mavrud is an easy favorite for most red wine drinkers, and Bulgarians are enormously proud of their native grape. In fact, it features prominently in a fun story sometimes shared to explain how the grape got its name. Legend has it that a Bulgarian monarch ordered all vineyards to be destroyed. Later, a lion escaped and terrorized a city before it was slain by a young man named Mavrud. When the monarch asked Mavrud’s mother how he summoned the courage to take down the lion, she confessed to keeping grapevines and producing her own wine, which Mavrud drank before killing the lion. The monarch was impressed and lifted the ban on vineyards, reintroducing legal wine production to Bulgaria. We’ve all met people who rise to the occasion because of a little liquid courage—and perhaps this tale is the origin of that description!—but it’s a fun way to consider how one of Bulgaria’s oldest native grapes came to be so important to the country.
Misket, also known as Muscat in other parts of the world, is commonly grown in Bulgaria and made its way into our tastings during our visit to Bulgarian wine country. Misket is a white wine that typically features tropical and floral notes, making it an easy-to-drink wine and worth seeking out. Misket grapes are temperamental; producing a wine without overbearing acidity that still offers the desired flavor characteristics and color is difficult, and not every winemaker is up to the challenge. When visiting Bulgarian wine country, it’s worthwhile to sample a few Misket wines, especially from smaller wineries that put the time and care necessary into their wine production.
Taking a Tour of Bulgarian Wine Country
We had only one day to explore Bulgarian wine country, and we spent it with Bulgaria Wine Tours. When we travel, we love to explore new places with local guides who can share their knowledge and passion for their country with us. Bulgaria Wine Tours exemplifies what we look for in a tour company: they know great wine, and they know how to create memorable, educational experiences. We love to learn just as much as we love to sample new wines and rediscover favorites, and Vasil expertly shared his knowledge while giving us enough space to form our own opinions of the wines we tried. The wineries we visited were an excellent reflection of Bulgarian wine’s renaissance and a great introduction to a region we knew little about. Better yet, we had a great day getting to know Vasil and learn about his love of Bulgaria and what makes the country (and its wine) unique.
When it comes to wine tourism, we love incorporating tours into our vacation plans. Taking a tour is good for a few reasons: it gives you the chance to connect with a local who, in turn, can take you to lesser-known or off-the-beaten-path destinations you might not otherwise find in your travel planning, it benefits the local economy (especially when you work with a small business tour operator), and it takes the burden of having to research and plan your own wine tour off your shoulders. Additionally, our guided tour meant Vasil was responsible for shuttling us between wineries, which meant we didn’t need to rent a car, drive on unfamiliar roads, or limit our tastings (remember—drinking and driving never mix).
If you are planning a trip to Bulgaria and want to spend time exploring Bulgarian wine country, Bulgaria Wine Tours is an exceptional company. By the time our day wrapped up, we had tried numerous local wines, savored some local cuisine, and learned about the history and culture that makes Bulgaria such a unique country. It was one of the most fun and memorable days of our Balkan vacation.
► Manastira Winery
The first winery we visited during our Bulgaria wine tour was Manastira Winery, named after a monastery that was destroyed by the Turks during the 15th century. After a tour of the property and the wine cellar we were escorted to a bright, private tasting area to sample some of the wines they produce.Over the course of a leisurely visit, we had the chance to try more than 10 wines. The tasting felt special from the beginning; we were seated in front of all of the wines we would try, and we had the opportunity to sip and consider each wine before we learned more about it. Most tastings begin with a brief explanation of the wine, the tasting notes, and occasionally some background information about the grapes and the growing conditions, but at Manastira Winery we were encouraged to think about our own impressions of the wine before our views were colored by an external suggestion. We were encouraged to relax and not rush through the tasting, a truly welcome approach that reminded us of sitting around the table at Bodega Spinoglio in Uruguay, where we remembered the tasting as much for the great people and conversation as we did for the wines.
The first wine we sampled was the Riverside Muscat Ottonel, a floral, aromatic, citrusy wine with a hint of both acidity and elegance on the finish. It ended up standing in stark contrast to our second wine, an unfermented sauvignon blanc that was exciting to try because it’s so uncommon to have the opportunity to sample an unfermented wine in most tastings. This wine, unlike most sauvignon blancs, was not crisp or fresh; it tasted more like nature, like minerals and soil, than the bright or citrusy wines we’re used to sipping. In the same way it is fun to try wine right from the barrel, it was fun to try an unfermented wine and think about how very step in the winemaking process can have a profound impact on the final product.
There were two wines that really stood out: the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Movrud Cabernet Sauvignon blend. The Cab Sav had been aged for a year in oak, and some complex notes of red pepper, smoke, and even juicy tomatoes struck us as uncommon but beautifully crafted. A light wine, it was an easy to drink selection. The Riverside Cab Sav Mavrud blend tasted like cherries and vanilla with the slightest hint of pepper, and the six months it spent in oak left it with a nice smoothness.
Manastira Winery provided an exceptional introduction to Bulgarian wine, and we left feeling more educated about the varietals available—and incredibly relaxed.
More Information: ManastiraWinery.com
► Rumelia WineryIf Manastira Winery showed us that Bulgarian wine could be world-class, Rumelia Winery confirmed it. Settled into the tasting room, we tried five different wines, each of which showcased the artistry of the winemaking process and the character of the grapes themselves. Rumelia Winery is proud of their integration of tradition with technology; located in the town of Panaguriste, which is nestled in the Thracian plains, they benefit from the region’s history and the great weather that is conducive to grape growing.
Of the wines we tried, our first favorite was the Merul Movrud. We find that, when we travel, we often come to prefer local grapes above those we see more often. Perhaps it’s a reflection of our desire to learn as much as we can during our vacations, or perhaps it’s because we find the stories that come from the native grapes to be more powerful than their more well-known counterparts, but in this case it’s also because the Movrud is a truly great wine. Exceptionally smooth and aged for 10 years, it’s a jammy, big, bold red wine.
As much as we loved the Movrud alone, the Erelia—a red blend—emerged as our favorite wine from the tasting. A blend of four estate-grown grapes (Syrah, Movrud, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot), the wine was full of tasty red fruit with a complex profile gained during the aging process in American and French oak barrels. We’re always impressed with blends, which so often showcase a winemaker’s talents as they determine just the right grapes, and percentages of each grape, that will combine to make a wine with the desired characteristics. Erelia truly demonstrated how accomplished the winemaker is.
More Information: Rumelia.net
Bonus Stop: the Panagyurishte Treasure
As we transitioned between Manastira Winery and Rumelia Winery, Vasil had one more surprise for us: a stop at a local museum to see a replica of the Panagyurishte Treasure.In December 1949, brothers Pavel, Petko, and Michail Deikov were amazed to uncover what was declared to be the richest treasure discovered in Europe after World War II: nine vessels that date to the 4th century BC. The vessels, which were crafted from 24-karat gold, were believed to be part of a collection that belonged to Thracian king Seuthes III.
The vessels are incredibly detailed, and like the artwork and tombs we saw when we visited the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, they tell complex stories that reveal what life was like during an otherwise poorly documented time in history. On Vessel number 2, gods Athena and Aphrodite are depicted along with Hera and Paris. Vessel number 7, the largest and most important of the vessels, represents the famous Seven Against Thebes scene from a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus in which Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and Polynices kill each other after a battle over who would rule their land.
The Panagyurishte Treasure has traveled the world and has been featured in collections as close to home as Sofia and Plovdiv and in prestigious museums like the Louvre. Replica sets, like the one that typically resides in Panagyurishte, are a great way to understand the magnitude of the discovery and appreciate how extensive Bulgaria’s history is.
Places to Stay in Bulgarian Wine Country
Although there are hotels much closer to the wineries, we based our trip to Bulgaria and our Bulgarian wine tour from Sofia. Sofia, the capital city, is not very far from many wineries, and helped to simplify the logistics of our travel by selecting a hotel there. We stayed at the Best Western Art Plaza Hotel, a conveniently located hotel we found on Booking.com.
More Information: Booking.com/Hotel/Bg/Kolikovski
We often use Booking.com to review and compare hotels before we travel so we can make a selection based on important factors like proximity to local attractions, restaurants, and public transportation. If you are thinking of planning a trip to Bulgaria, you may find that Booking.com has a great hotel for you, too!
Enjoy Bulgarian Wine Country!
Our Bulgarian wine country tour stood out as a highlight for us during our visit to Bulgaria. From the new and interesting wines we tried to the incredibly fun day we had with Vasil and Bulgaria Wine Tours, our visit left us fully relaxed and glad that wine tourism could, once again, connect us to local culture and people in such a meaningful way. If your vacation will take you to the Balkans, consider making a wine tour part of your plans. It’s amazing how much you can learn through a glass of wine.
Are you interested in wine travel? Here are a few interesting regions to consider visiting!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we visited multiple locations in Bulgaria as part of a tour with Bulgarian Wine Tours, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Bulgaria Wine Tours based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.