Last year I tasted through a shipment of very fun Bulgarian wines in New York City that partially substituted for a trip I was to take there for a third time. Time flies, and again, I’ve had the pleasure of doing a similar round of wines in my office. Moreover, I had the chance to taste again the Bratanov Tamianka 2015, which is too delightful to resist yet has several years of staying power left.

88
Karabunar 2016 Dimyat Bulgarian Heritage Thracian Valley $16
Only five wineries in Bulgaria make varietal Dimyat, “a very old Balkan variety”, according to Wine Grapes, which also states that it is most likely of Bulgarian origin. (Macedonia likes to claim it, however.) In the Communist days, it is said that if Dimyat managed to get ripe enough, it might be called Chardonnay on the label!

This Dimyat shows in striking contrast to its 2015 sibling. This is part of the “Bulgarian Heritage” array from Karabunar; each wine is made from a single, indigenous variety. Its nose is part Pinot Gris/Grigio spiciness and part grassy Sauvignon Blanc. Its medium-bodied palate is packed with yellow plums, pears, yuzu, star fruit and green apple. There’s a touch of caressing, viscous character on the mid-palate and no evident oakiness, despite being aged one month in larger, 500-liter, new Bulgarian oak barrels. This riper, richer 2016 vintage is definitely becoming.
Drink: 2018-19

87
Tsarev Brod 2016 Sepage Danube Plain $19
Hailing from the gently rolling hills of northeastern Bulgaria, this wine approximates a field blend with 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Chardonnay, 10% Riesling and 10% Traminer. All the grapes are harvested and vinified together with a bit of skin contact then see a stainless steel fermentation and aging.

Despite the predominance of aromatic varieties, the wine is surprisingly subdued now. It smells of gooseberries, yellow plums and pebbles pulled from rustling stream. The palate is reserved, too, with just a bit of mid-palate muscle to corral the mild acidity, generous but balanced alcohol and sassily youthful but only moderately concentrated fruit.
Drink: 2018-2019

86
Via Verde 2016 Expressions Sandanski Misket Thracian Valley $19
Though this wine shows “Thracian Valley” on the label, it more specifically comes from the Struma River Valley, which makes almost nothing but red wines. Sandanski Misket is a cross of Muscat Blanc à Petit Grain (aka locally as Tamianka) and Broad Leafed Melnik. Sandanski Misket is grown exclusively in the Struma Valley, and save this wine, it is mostly used for rakia.

Dainty and elegant, aromas of white peach, yellow grapefruit peel and a whisper of thyme drive the wine’s fragrance. Rather light on the palate, with integrated and refreshing acidity, this is a “quieter” sibling to its 2015 counterpart. If you like aromatic wines that don’t pack an exaggerated profile, this is one to enjoy. It sips easily on the patio but also will pair well with summer salads dappled with seasonal berries and pit fruits.
Drink: 2018-19

84
Karabunar 2016 Misket Bulgarian Heritage Thracian Lowlands $16
This heritage grape-based wine is made of the local “Red Misket”, or Misket Cherven, which is a pink-skinned grape. Though the name sounds like Muscat and the wine has a pretty perfume, the variety is not related to the Muscat family.

The wine shows a nose of delicate white flowers and dew-flecked, cool grass. The rather light body and reserved fruit flavors seem lacier and more elegant than the 13% abv marked on the label. The palate moves into white peach and wet riverbed tones but is rather straightforward. Though not quite crisp, this doily-like wine would make a pleasant aperitif or an excellent accompaniment for top grade sashimi.
Drink: Through 2018

ORANGE
89
Villa Melnik 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Orange Wine Thracian Valley $19
This wine spends two weeks on its skins during fermentation, which is how the wine picks up its pale orange color. Because the wine leeches tannin out of the skins in this process, I suggest serving this at cellar temperature (around 55° F.) Any colder and the wine may taste bitter; any warmer and it will seem less refreshing that it should be.

This is a very elegant skin contact white. It doesn’t smell or taste much like Sauvignon Blanc, but it is tremendously well-balanced with a delightfully rugged texture, a hint of pithy tannins and tangy acidity. The flavors range from anise and slate to Rainier cherries and quince.
Drink: 2018-20

REDS
88
Villa Melnik 2015 Shiroka Melnik Aplauz Reserve Thracian Valley $22
The family winery Villa Melnik is based on the town of Melnik along with the Shiroka, or broad leaf, Melnik grape variety. After all, the grape variety was named after this southwestern Bulgarian town not far from Greece. This Shiroka Melnishka was used to breed at least three other grapes, yet continues to stay close to home. Only 150 cases were produced.

The 2015 vintage of Aplauze Shiroka Melnik was aged entirely in new Bulgarian oak barrels for at least twelve months. When I first opened it, there were light wheat bread toast and mocha tones woven into the wine’s copious and fresh fruit. On the finish, there’s a touch of espresso that brings on some pleasantly toasty bitterness. The wine definitely needs air. I poured four ounces and found it simple. So, I used a VacuVin then tucked it back into my wine fridge. When I pulled it out again, it had morphed into a more harmonious and eagerly expressive glass. Shiraz-like (not Syrah, but Shiraz) cracked pepper notes started to pop along with wild raspberry and black plum skin notes. This has the structure to hold in bottle, so I hope its fruit might evolve in the next year to really unleash a more diverse array of flavors. For now, it’s still rather delightful!
Drink: 2019-21

87
Tsarev Brod 2016 Pinot Noir Danube Plain $19.50
This is the only red variety produced at Tsarev Brod, based in northeastern Bulgaria not far from the seaside of Varna and very close to the UNESCO World Heritage rock carving of Madara Rider. Since 2001, this agricultural family has grown its initial vine plantings to 27 hectares.

This Pinot based on Clone 115 is light, bright and brambly. Its smooth tannins are accented by crackling acidity that pulls the blueberry and earth tones into a moderate finish. This red sees no oak and, with its pretty perfume and light body, it would work well with a light chill on a warm summer day.
Drink: 2018-20

86
Burgozone 2015 Pinot Noir Côte du Danube Danube Plain $16
This wine has a dark crimson color and a pronounced nose of milk chocolate covered cherries. Its fleshy, creamy palate with tender tannins is densely fruited and lifted by vivid, mouthwatering acidity. This is an about-face from the 2014 version, and each vintage will have its (likely different) fans.

This Clone 828 Pinot Noir is grown in classic Pinot Noir soils: those saturated with limestone. The “Côte” reference on the label is to the slopes of the Danube River, where the winery is based in north-central Bulgaria.
Drink: 2018-20

85
Villa Melnik 2014 Shiroka Melnik & Pinot Noir Bergulé $15
This wine behaves like Pinot Noir, though it is only composed of one-third of that grape. The Zikatanov family that owns Villa Melnik created this blend as they find similarities between Pinot Noir and the ancient Shiroka Melnishka, especially in the low extract their vines produce.

It is graceful and elegant, despite the full body with 14.5% abv, with sublimely resolved tannins and a whiff of cigar on the bouquet. Smashed mulberries, strawberries and sultry, smoky tones infuse the palate. The wine is maturing nicely with a pleasant diversity of flavors and a finely harmonized structure. Not only is it now easy-going, it’s also very affordable!
Drink: Through 2018

UPDATE ON LAST YEAR’S FAVORITE:
Bratanov 2015 Tamianka Single Vineyard Sakar $21
I tasted through a large number of samples in. Last year, the shining star of my A Tour of Bulgaria in a Glass tasting was the Bratanov 2015 Tamianka. I understand that one of the goals of the owners is to make a statement with this wine. Muscat (as in Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) used to be very cheap and uninteresting in Bulgaria. Though pricey relative to the other wines tasted here, this still isn’t super expensive and it’s incredibly tasty! I was THRILLED to taste the same wine again just now and find it interesting to compare the wine today versus last year.

May 2018:
91
When I read the note below, this wine tastes almost exactly the same. Its evolution is definitely in slow-motion.  I stand by my aging statement! The wine seems vaguelyless vibrant, but it still is as phenomenally overt a wine as I describe below. It also feels slightly tighter, spicier and a bit drier on the finish. I remain utterly entranced by its effusive fragrance!

Late Summer 2017:
92
Hailing from the South Sakar Hills, this wine grape takes its name from “tamian”, meaning frankincense. Only 3,200 bottles of this one-hectare, single vineyard wine were made. If you are a fan of dry but aromatic whites, you shouldn’t miss this.It smells of incense, fresh lychees, white nectarines and rose petals. Its attack is full-on dry, but its medium body expands to cover every crevice of your mouth. This would be brilliant with sous-vide pork loin and dried apricots as well as gooey cheeses. Yes, the drink dates are right; this wine can age well.
Drink: 2017-20