North Bulgaria is often being somehow underestimated when wine lovers think about local wine and tourism. With the much bigger density of wineries, better developed wine routes, its various nature, infrastructure and tourism in general our South has arguably the leading role. I don’t want to set a border line between both (as the Balkan Mountain Range geographically does). However, talking about wines, the North stands out as an example for elegant wines, with sense of place. In the following lines I will focus on the North-eastern wine region of Bulgaria predominantly as a wine route, including five distinctive wineries, one wine bar and a few stunning sights…
In the very beginning here is just a quick note – Bulgaria has only two PGIs: The Thracian Lowland and The Danube Plain. Many people (including me) share the opinion, that this doesn’t depict the nuances of the wines and more important for me: the travel destinations. So I prefer to speak about at least five or even nine wine regions. That’s a long discussion, which I will skip for now.
The climate of the north-eastern region is predominantly continental due to the wide Danube plain – flat area with slightly hilly landscape in some parts. The western and eastern boarders are flexible terms. In the west we have arguably an imaginary line from Svishtov to Suhindol (both used to be essential wine production places). Getting closer to the Black Sea in the east, its influence is getting stronger, of course. Well, it is at least clear, that in the north we have the Danube river and in the south – the Balkan Mountain Range. What is most important – NE Bulgaria is definitely the place for white wine lovers, for gentle Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir in Old World style!
I will start my journey with our former capital and one of my favorite cities – Veliko Tarnovo (by the way, in North Bulgaria are located 3 of our previous capitals before Sofia – since the country foundation in the distant 7th century). On its main tourist street, the so called “Street of crafts”, you will find the recently opened Wine Tasting Centre, where you could choose between plenty of local wines to enjoy – including ones from cellars, which are not open for visitors. These will be combined with carefully prepared appetizers. The cellar-like space underground is being used also for tasting courses and wine educations.
Only 15 minutes’ drive south from V. Tarnovo is located Yalovo. This artisan winery has been founded by the visionary Anton and the winemaker Dimitar. The latter is one of the most passionate searchers of lost local varieties, like Kokorko e.g., which I had the luck to try. With the regime change in 1944 towards socialism, plenty of quality varieties were replaced by more fertile ones, following the goal to produce huge quantities… Yalovo’s home is the village school, built initially in 1938 and transformed into winery a few years ago. You will be impressed by the touch of eclectic art inside, creating some noble atmosphere, huge yard for hanging around with a glass of wine and place for the children to run around. In addition, the visitor will find a colorful portfolio of wines and labels – including scandalous, traditional, minimalist – all in all almost everything one can think of!
Not far away, near Elena (famous in whole Bulgaria with its dry-cured ham, similar to Prosciutto) is another wine place of interest – the family Maryan Winery, founded in 2010. The history of the village with the same name goes back to the legend of Kera Tamara – daughter of one of the most successful Bulgarian rulers Tsar Ivan Alexander. Kera Tamara is also one of the famous brands of the winery. Stefan, the charming winemaker and friend of the family, has created within the years some really good wines – Chardonnay, orange wine, Sauvignon Blanc (including one, which was aged in oak), the local Dimyat and some distinctive red blends. The winery is buying grapes from different places within the country.
We will make now a big jump towards the North – a short drive from another beautiful city (Ruse) and on the Danube River is located Seven Generations. Another new Bulgarian wine project or better said a dream of Mr. Luben Rabchev, which came through after he returned back to Bulgaria after 40 years in USA. And he founded this beautiful place, following the wine traditions of his family. A long time ago, in 1878, a young man named Iliya Rabchev left his family in Bulgaria and went to France, to study wine-making. Four years later Iliya returned to the village of Byala Cherkva and founded the Rabchev wine cellar. Soon the “Rabchev” family cellar becomes the largest producer of wines and spirits in the region. Nowadays the estate includes also a cozy hotel with a nice view to the river. Don’t miss their Red Cuvee and the wines from Cabernet Franc. Being in the region you should visit the Ivanovo rock-hewn churches, built in 13th century by hermits and declared as UNESCO heritage site.
Near the city of Shumen is one of the most distinctive Bulgarian wineries – mostly thanks to the talented and dedicated winemaker Nikolay Krastev – Tsarev Brod. The flagship variety turns out to be the local Gergana (a cross between Dimyat and Muscat Ottonel). But you should taste the whole selection of the winery, and even their Sauvignon Blanc. I am saying “even”, because as you well know this variety is a massive trend worldwide. Bulgaria is not an exclusion and one could hardly find a winery, which is not working with it. But Tsarev Brod owns the oldest plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in our country – planted in 2001! Another highlights are the Pet-Nat wine, Chardonnay and Riesling (including Ice wine) and some excellent Pinot noirs. In addition, the visitors are being treated in a very kind way, the tasting room is nice and comfortable and it is highly possible to leave Tsarev Brod as a friend and big fan of them.
Here we should mention two essential sights in the area. I will start with The Madara Horseman – an outstanding early medieval large rock relief, carved on the Madara Plateau, dated in the 8th century (UNESCO). Who is representing the relief is not clear, most probably one of the Bulgarian Khans, who ruled at this time… On the top of the hill in Shumen, in 1981 was officially unveiled the Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument, dedicated to the anniversary 1300 years from the foundation of Bulgaria. Well, it is hard to describe this typical expression of socialism art. It is huge, brutal, strange and for sure valuable from architectural point of view. You simply should see this giant!
Our next destination (last, but not least) is Salla Estate, which is very close to the Black Sea, but still influenced mainly by the land. We are talking about another precise master of white wines, plus Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. Anelia Hristakieva became fully deserved Bulgarian Winemaker of 2019 – a prestigious title, because only winemakers are allowed to vote. There are a couple of rooms for accommodation and a restaurant in the complex. The owners of Salla adore horses and have 10, some of them participating in (and winning) competitions. The complex is respectively very appropriate for horse lovers and kids – also because of the large spaces… You shouldn’t miss the picnic site of Salla, ca. 3-4 km away from the winery, providing a marvelous view to the hills around.
As a conclusion I can say, that definitely the wines from NE-Bulgaria are improving constantly and quickly. I would even add, that this region is “pushing” Bulgaria into the right direction – towards the current wine trends worldwide of fair, gentle and elegant wines, less oaky, with varietal, terroir expression. Just go and explore the region – why not together, by joining our Винен тур “Между Дунав и Черно море” or Via Vino comprehensive Food and Wine tour in North Bulgaria!