A Tour of Bulgaria in a Glass
Having visited Bulgaria twice for the Balkans International Wine Competition and having visited several wineries, I was thrilled when I was contacted to taste through a large number of Bulgarian wines coming into the US market. Here's what I found in my "Tour of Bulgaria in a Glass".
Bratanov 2015 Tamianka Single Vineyard Sakar 14.5% $21
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.
Villa Yustina 2015 Gewürztraminer Estate 4 Seasons - Summer Thracian Valley $20
This is a very distinguished Gewürztraminer rather than a slam-bam-thank you-ma’am sort of wine. It has a hedonistic fragrance and plenty of sweet spice. The lychees, the apricot flesh and the freesia are all packed in, and they give a bountiful finish. These vineyards are in the footsteps of the Rhodope Mountains, lending the wine structure rather than opulence. Interestingly, this winery is owned by Tomica Metal, Bulgaria’s biggest producer of stainless steel tanks fermenters.
Burgozone 2016 Chardonnay Côte du Danube Danubian Plain 13.5% $16
This is a fascinating, unoaked Chardonnay! Its Day 1 and Day 2 persona were very different. It is screwcap-closed, and its tight, first impression was all tutti-frutti pit fruits. It was nice for a sip by the pool or at a cocktail hour. However, on Day 2 (with one glass gone from the bottle and stored overnight in the fridge with nothing more than the cork in it), the wine blossomed. It turned into a more saline, savory, brothy expression that was well-suited to the table. What an incredibly cool chameleon character! On Day 2, the wine tasted of lightly-ripe honeydew melon, cracked white pepper and lemon pith. The medium finish carried a mineral lift and pleasant fruit concentration.
Minkov Brothers 2011 Rheinriesling Le Photographe Thracian Valley 13% $23
This is impressively pale in its straw gold color and youthfully aromatic for a five-and-a-half year old wine! The nose has that pretty grandma’s purse or floral hand soap character with touches of rose petals and orange peel. Given its track record so far and its integrated but zingy acidity, this should continue to hold. I’m just not so sure it will improve from here. The moderate lingering finish is lightly cheesy and petroly, suggesting this wine service will pair extremely well with gooey cheeses.
Tsrev Brod 2014 Riesling Danube Plain 12.5% $20
This winery used to sell its grapes to Santa Sarah, but since 2015 Niki Krastev (former winemaker of Santa Sarah) has been making the wines at this boutique winery. This Riesling has a super pale yellow color and crystal clear, bright appearance. The nose offers vinous and grapey strains accompanied by fresh parsley and wet thyme. This is super-pleasant, refreshingly quaffable and ready to drink. In fact, it’s time to drink up.
Via Verde 2015 Expressions Misket/Muscat Thracian Valley 13.4% $22
This is a blend of 70% Misket and 30% Muscat Ottonel. Its nose smells like summer wild flowers mixed with baking spices. It’s dry, medium-plus in body and expansive on the palate. It’s on the verge of being a summer sipper, but it is really more of a gastronomic wine. It’s light on the medium finish with notes of white peach and mirabelle.
Karabunar 2015 Dimyat Bulgarian Heritage Thracian Lowlands 13% $14
This is a super rare wine. Almost no one makes 100% Dimyat. It is made by Nadia Dulgerska, named the best winemaker in Bulgaria in 2013, who is clearly a determined personality. This is an incredibly reductive white, so it is hard to understand it when first opened. However, the wine evolves from Day 1 to Day 2, if a bit reluctantly. On Day 2, the wine lost its reduction and gained some pleasant grapey and floral tones. There is notable purity, crisp acidity and a bone-dry, minerally finish. This is ready to drink today though might improve several points with bottle age thanks to its riveting acidity.
Tsarev Brod 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Danubian Plain 13% $20
This is a minerally and minty representation of Sauvignon Blanc that is likely to be polarizing. It’s not usual to sip a wine and feel you are chewing into a spearmint leaf. Yet, if you sip the wine knowing its roots – those being in the coolest grape-growing region in Bulgaria – you’d better grasp what the wine is about. Still, this unusually refreshing element gives this wine a new dimension of pairing possibilities and leaves your palate totally perfumed with hard-stemmed herbs. The fruit, in comparison, is modest and mostly composed of robust, citrusy character. There’s an evident phenolic note on the finish, which adds tactile interest and makes this a Sauvignon Blanc for food rather than simply for the patio. There is obvious intention here. The medium finish further attests to that.
Burgozone 2016 Côte du Danube Rosé Danubian Plain 13.5% $14
This trio of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Syrah provides a cornucopia of fruit, including lightly candied flavors of watermelon, strawberry and red cherry. It will make merry without food yet pair well with the generosity of the sweeter flavors of summer – from orange, yellow and red bell peppers to strawberries with balsamic dressing to sweeter-fleshed shellfish like crab and lobster. Gulp down!
Drink: Through Early 2018
Villa Melnik 2016 Bergule Rosé Struma River Valley 14% $NA
Star bright with a neon mid-summer salmon color, this is the least Cabernet Sauvignon (50%) influenced of the trio tasted here. Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in Bulgaria’s warm climate. The Cabernet Sauvignon delivers a big pop of sweet and light red summer fruits on the mid-palate. The ensemble includes 30% Mavrud and 20% Merlot, and its first aromatics show delicate strawberry fruit and soft-stemmed herbal tones. The palate is caressing and medium in body with a touch of glycerol. It’s gulpable from every angle.
Drink: Through 2017
Via Verde 2015 Expessions Rosé Thracian Valley 13.5% $22
This combination of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc is more of an Old World wine expression. If you avoid fruit bomb-y rosés, this could be the way forward. It smells of dusty potpourri and watermelon rinds. It is straight-forward on the palate but pristine clean and wearing a classy glass-top closure.
Drink: Through 2017
Orbelus 2013 Melnik Thracian Lowlands 14.8% $20
This is a blend of Early Melnik (85%), Grenache Noir (10%) and Petit Verdot (5%). These vines are tended to with loads of TLC, as are the wines with double tries and no filtration. This wine has such sincere berry fruit character that it reminds me of top-shelf Zinfandel. It has mulberries, blueberries and oodles of grated spices. It delivers delightful roundness on the palate with serious density, full-throttle flavor and exuberant youthfulness despite its 4 years out of vintage. This offers extraordinary balance and value.
Rupel Winery 2015 Marselan Gramatik Barrique Thracian Lowlands 14.5% $18
Dynamic on the nose with loads of primary and juicy mulberry and roasted red plum tones, this wine doesn’t taste so much of the barrique it might seem to promise on the front label. I’ve tasted possibly a dozen Marselan over the last few years, and every time I do, I get more excited about the grape variety. In my very select experience, Marselan starts off with a nice touch of reserved fruit character then pops into a saline and slightly earthy finish. That is a flavor profile I find incredibly food friendly and still highly sippable at the same time, assuming there’s good lift…and Marselan always has refreshment even if it doesn’t come from the feel of acidity. The mid-palate here pops with peak-of-season blueberries accented by a touch of cinnamon. I’d love to taste this five-plus years on. For now, it gets even better when it has been decanted for 3-4 hours.
Villa Yustina 2013 Monogram Mavrud & Rubin Thracian Valley $25
This is all native: the 60% Mavrud and 40% Rubin spend 18 months in new Bulgarian oak. This deserves some air as it is a compact and ripe wine that is full of demanding, youthful vigor. The nose shows pure, rich and voluptuous fruit that nods to carefully ripened grapes. Its palate is decadent with just enough back-palate acidic lift to keep the wine in line. The velvety mid-palate dissolves into a mildly grainy finish that helps rein in the unctuousness on the lingering finish. Rich and robust, this wine is for a table of hearty food.
Minkov Brothers 2014 Cabernet Franc Le Photographe Thracian Valley 13% $23
This is an easy play on words, as this youthful bottling certainly is a snapshot of Cabernet Franc. If I had to liken it to another region (the dread of many a winemaker, but the ask of many consumers), I’d say this is a Loire-style Cab Franc from a warmer year. Medium in body, the wine has a come-hither plushness accompanied by the high-toned evergreen notes often found in Cabernet Franc. Aged 10 months in old French oak, there’s no aromatic clue to this step of élévage, though there is a smoothness to the tannins and a moderate breadth of the palate that is characteristic of wood aging. Moderate on the finish, this ticks all the boxes and tastes particularly well at cellar temperature. It delivers plenty of wine at its asked price!
Rupel Winery 2015 Gramatik Barrique Cabernet Sauvignon Struma River Valley 14% $18
This wine smells of Cabernet Sauvignon (black currants, eucalyptus) and is far more graceful than its Merlot family member. Its lightly grainy tannins lend it well to red meat-based meals, and its integrated oak (in total contrast to the Merlot) allows the wine to meld well with food. This may be the best integrated of the Rupel wines and is a highly classy Cabernet!
Villa Melnik 2013 Bergulé Cuvée Thracian Valley 14% $NA
Whoa! I expected this wine to be an easier drinking style of wine based on its label and the winemaking (stainless steel tank fermentation followed by one year in Bulgarian oak) described on the back label. Boy, was I wrong. This wine is a dense and meaty trio of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah and 15% Merlot. It is packed with North African spices, irony tones and an appealing, sweaty masculinity. It’s funky in the best way and – despite its majority base of Cabernet Sauvignon, it reminds me a lot of Crozes-Hermitage. Bayleaf, dry-aged steak, iodine and black pepper linger through the medium finish. Excellent wine!
Rupel Winery 2015 Melnik 55 Gramatik Barrique Thracian Lowlands 14% $18
I decanted this wine after a few sips, and I wish I’d had the chance to decant it two hours before I splashed it into my glass with a sirloin steak. It was superbly concentrated and structured. I suspect that, as with the Marselan, this might have achieved higher heights on a second or third day after opening. Alas, it was good enough to not make it that far! The wine’s flavors of sweet mulberries and baked blueberries folded in beautifully with the red meat, and its judiciously extracted structure has just enough glimmer of lifting acidity and lightly papery tannins on the finish to help cut through the meat’s lightly greasy savoriness.
Rupel Winery 2015 Merlot Gramatik Barrique Thracian Lowlands 14.5% $18
This wine is oaked within an inch of its life. It smells and tastes of toast and dark chocolate more than its mulberry and red plum jam undertones. The palate is fiery with alcohol, and the tannins are broad and unrefined (especially for Merlot). This will have its following, but this is nonetheless rather disjointed. Ambitious but just missing the mark, it nonetheless should be worth a look in future vintages.
Burgozone 2014 Pinot Noir Côte du Danube Danubian Plain 13.5% $16
This wine has a super pale, cranberry color with a shiny copper glow on the rim. The nose is delicate and very Pinot-y with pleasant tones of smashed summer berries and rose petals. It may say Côte du Danube, but I could easily see this being a Côte de Beaune in its aromatic profile. The palate, however, has a more welcoming, caressing quality than its Burgundian cousins with a light layer of viscosity and much creamier tannins. The palate turns on flower bed-like earthiness then lights up the palate with lovely freshness. The finish is on the slighter side, but this delivers plenty of crackling-fresh red fruits and is a good wine to serve slightly chilled.
Orbelus 2015 Hrumki Thracian Valley 14.5% $20
Hmruki means “notions”. All of this bottling was handpicked, gently handled and left un-filtered. A bit of a theme here, but I preferred it on Day 2, with about one glass out of the bottle. What was prominent oak on Day 1 had noticeably softened on Day 2, becoming much more harmonious and approachable. So, be willing to feistily decant this! The reward is a show of deeply ripe mulberries, roasted black plum skins and hints of flamed charcoal. The center palate is grippy, rather than on the gums, and that sensation seems to channel all the flavor right through the finish, which has good length. This is a blend of 42% Merlot, 25% Melnik 55, 16% Syrah, 10% Marselan and 7% Grenache.
Bratanov 2013 Merlot & Syrah South Sakar Selection Thracian Valley 14.5% $19
The two components of this big-bodied and intensely ripe wine were aged 24 months in neutral tank and 500L new Hungarian oak casks. It is an equal split of Merlot and Syrah. The fruit here is baked – like a cobbler – with lots of baked blackberries and black currants. There is a lightly bitter licorice/amaro after taste on the moderate finish. The tannins are impressively refined and tight-knit, so much so they fade into the background and deliver a rather softly structured wine. Between the easy-going structure and modest concentration, this is a wine to enjoy sooner rather than later.
Karabunar 2015 Mavrud Bulgarian Heritage Thracian Valley 13% $16
Round, juicy and approachable, this wine works well in casual settings. It tastes of black plum jam and licorice and has an expansive mid-palate. Its tannins are tame and laid-back and work well with this medium-bodied wine’s integrated acidity. There are noticeable milk chocolate tones stemming from 10 months in French oak that are a bit intrusive if oak isn’t your thing. Otherwise, it is very approachable. Interestingly, it is hardly the feisty sort of Mavrud the textbooks make you expect.
Via Verde 2015 Expressions RED Struma River Valley 13.4% $22
This is a nicely spicy and easy-going blend of 60% Syrah and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon that has medium body and moderate concentration. Its dark, blackberry fruit character and cracked black pepper tones clearly favor its dominant Syrah character. The seamless tannins and well-placed acidity blend nicely into the palate. Very well executed yet with its light finish and straightforward character, do enjoy it while its young. Given its slightly bitter aftertaste, it is best placed at the table for most US consumers.