Wine Tourism and Cuisine
Wine production has over a thousand year long tradition in Bulgaria. The ancient Thracians, who populated the land in ancient times, worshiped the gods Zagreus and Dionysus and used the wine during their religious rituals. Nowadays Bulgaria is a proud producer of high quality award winning wines, some of which are made from unique sorts of vine, impressing wine connoisseurs worldwide.
History of wine in the Bulgarian lands
Wine is an integral part of the history of Bulgaria, it is also an integral part of Bulgarian culture, customs and spirit. The Bulgarian lands have been inhabited by ancient civilizations that have left an indelible imprint on modern Bulgaria. Thracians used wine as an important part of their religious rituals and as a mean of communing with their gods. Evidence for this can be found in the many shrines discovered throughout the country, which brings to mind the ancient rituals and the cult of the god of wine, Zagreus. Bulgaria is home to some of the most important archaeological discoveries, including gold and silver Thracian pieces, most of which were parts of beautiful sets used for serving and consuming wine. The use of the Orphic drink in religious rituals is associated with traditions in viticulture and wine-making. Homer often mentions the superior quality of Thracian wines in his works.
With the establishment of the Bulgarian State these wine-making traditions were absorbed and preserved. Many medieval travelers who passed through Bulgaria referred to the many different types of good quality wines they were offered. In the late 19th and early 20th century a professional approach to viticulture and wine-making began to emerge and the foundations of the modern production methods were established for Bulgarian wines. Nowadays, high quality wines from Bulgaria can be tasted around the globe. Many of the local wines win international awards and astound foreign oenophiles with their qualities and exquisite taste. The love of good wine and the interest in local varieties has brought about an increase of wine tourism in Bulgaria – wine tours and tastings. Many of the wineries in the country organize special events to introduce their newest and best products.
Main wine regions
The Northern Wine Region stretches between Balkan Range (Stara planina) and the Danube river. It is very large and extensive and includes many smaller regions with specific microclimates and different soil and climatic characteristics. Good conditions for growing primarily red grape varieties are found in this area – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pamid, Gamza and Pinot Noir. However, some white varieties with very good quality are also represented, these include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Aligoté, Tamyanka and Muscat. The region produces good try white wines, naturally sparkling wines using traditional technology, high quality red wines with rich fruity flavors. Here the traditions of viticulture and wine-making are highly respected and some of the oldest and largest wine-making centers in the country are in this region – those in Rousse, Svishtov, Vidin, Lyaskovets, Suhindol and Pleven. The only Wine Museum in the country is located in the region of Pleven.
The Southern Wine Region includes the districts of Plovdiv, Haskovo, Pazardzhik, Stara Zagora, Lyubimets and Harmanli, this is the Upper Thracian Plain (Gornotrakiyska nizina) and part of Sakar Mountain. The Balkans provide protection against the extreme cold and high winds from the north. This creates good conditions for the cultivation of red varieties with excellent taste properties – Merlot, Cebernet Sauvignon and Rubin. Soil and climatic conditions are also suitable for the cultivation of some white varieties. The districts of Asenovgrad, Pazardzhik and Perushtitsa grow Mavrud – a uniqe Bulgarian variety. The more important wineries of this region are located in Asenovgrad, Haskovo, Brestovitsa, Stara Zagora and Lyubimets.
The Eastern Wine Region comprises three sub-regions – the Black Sea, Dobrudzha and Ludogorie. The mild climate is favorable for the cultivation of wine grape varieties. These include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Ugni Blanc, Dimyat, Rkatsiteli, Traminer, Aligoté and Riesling. The long warm autumn is conducive to the production of excellent semi dry white wines. Some micro regions also create suitable conditions for cultivation of red grape varieties – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc. The largest wineries in the region are found in Varna, Pomorie, Burgas, Targovishte, Shumen and Preslav Khan Krum.
The Sub-Balkan Wine Region includes the territories south of the Balkan Range to the northern slopes of Sredna Gora mountain and the largest wineries are located around Sliven, Karnobat, Karlovo, Slavyantsi and Sungurlare. The Balkan Mountains create a barrier to keep out the colder northern weather. This generates exceptionally favorable conditions for the cultivation of many grape varieties. The local variety Cherven Misket is typical for this region and produces good white wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Shevka, Pamid, Chardonnay and Merlot also thrive here. The region is known for its excellent dry and semi-dry white wines and to a lesser extent for its red wines.
The South-western Wine Region is relatively small and includes the land along the Struma River south of the town of Dupnitsa. The larger wineries of this region are located in Damyanitsa, Sandanski, Blagoevgrad, Petrich and Harsovo. The climate here is very similar to the Mediterranean. The climatic conditions around Melnik and Sandanski are most favorable for growing grapes. The variety Shiroka Melnishka, which grows only here, is important for wine production in the region. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties are also cultivated.
Unique Local Varieties
Gamza is a local red variety, which thrives best in North-western Bulgaria – Suhindol, Vidin and Pleven. The grapes of this variety mature late and produce red dessert and table wines. These have a clear bright raspberry color and a fruity, predominately raspberry aroma. They are fresh, light-bodies and should not be flavored with oak. Gamza wines are usually consumed young. The variety is grown in Macedonia, Romania and Hungary, under different names. The best-quality Gamza wines can be found in Northern Bulgaria, in wineries in the region of Vidin and Pleven in Northern Bulgaria.
Shiroka Melnishka is a local red variety, which grows only in the regions of Melnik, Petrich and Sandanski, since it is vulnerable to low temperatures. The coloring of the wine is medium deep. The wine produced from this grape variety is of excellent quality, with ripe cherry and herbal aromas, and in the presence of oak it develops undertones of tobacco and leather. The flavor of the young wine is fresh, with pronounced tannin. With maturity its taste becomes softer but retains its spicy finish. The unique flavor of the wine from grape variety Shiroka Melnishka can be experiences in the wineries in the region of Sandanski and Melnik.
Dimyat is a typical Bulgarian white grape used for production of dry white wines as well as aromatic wines and brandies. It develops a fruity aroma with hints of ripe peach. Its flavor is mild with a pleasant freshness. It grown best in the region of Varna but it’s also grown in other parts of the country. You can sample it in the wineries in the region of Evksinograd Varna, Shumen and Stara Zagora.
Mavrud is a very old local variety grown mainly in the areas of Asenovgrad, Plovdiv, Pazardzhik and the foothills of the Rhodopi Mountains. Wine produced from Mavrud is a saturated ruby purple and has an excellent flavor. It has a pronounced rich texture and a luscious aroma with strong overtones of ripe berry and spices. It ages very well in contact with oak. Several wineries in the region of Asenovgrad, Plovdiv and Pazardzhik offer tasting of Mavrud.
Cherven Misket is an old Bulgarian variety, mostly cultivated in the Sub-Balkan region. It is the Bulgarian grape variety that is most highly resistant to cold weather. Wine made from it has an interesting pink tint. It is known that the variety is a hybrid created from Riesling and Dimyat. Its aroma is a bouquet of herbal nuances, quince and honey. Cherven Misket wine can be sampled in wineries in the regions of Straldzha and Sungurlare.
Rubin is a local variety created by cross fertilization from two varieties – Nebbiolo and Sora. Its wines have a deep color and a full-bodied flavor with a soft aftertaste. Its aroma is intense, fruity, with a predominance of ripe blackberry. In contact with oak it develops a hint of fruit jam. Rubin wines can be tasted at wineries in the region of Plovdiv and Septemvri.
Pamid is one of the oldest varieties grown in Bulgaria. It is widely found throughout the Balkan Peninsula under different names. It is suitable for wine production and fresh consumption. Wine produced from Pamid has a light red color. Its aromas are fresh, with fruity notes, elegant body and soft finish. It is consumed young due to the low content of phenolics and does not respond well in contact with oak. It is often used in blends. Pamid can be sampled in the region of Pazardzhik, Pamidovo and Plovdiv.
Wineries and Wine Tasting
Almost all wineries in the country offer wine tasting and have areas specially equipped for this purpose. Both group and individual events can be organized. The region of Pleven, Kaylaka Park, hosts the only Wine Museum in the country. There you can learn about the history of Bulgarian wine-making and the subtleties of wine tasting. There are around 7,000 exhibits – old wines and wine storage and wine-making vessels. The oldest wine in the museum was produced almost 100 years ago.
The Bulgarian Culinary Tradition
Bulgarian cuisine is colorful and diverse. It is rooted in centuries-old traditions and practices. In some places recipes have been passed down from generation to generation and have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Characteristic of Bulgarian cuisine is the simultaneous heat treatment of most products. The recipes include a large number of vegetables and spices, among which are garlic, black pepper, thyme, spearmint, savory, bay leaf and paprika. Some dishes are prepared for specific Bulgarian holidays – Christmas Eve, Easter, St. George’s Day and St. Nicholas Day.
Herbs and spices
Herbs have a prominent place in Bulgarian cuisine. Various healing herbs are used for seasoning in many traditional dishes. These include basil, thyme, oregano and spearmint. Almost all Bulgarian dishes include parsley. It is used in main dishes, soups and salads, both fresh and dried. It is not only used as seasoning, but according to folk medicine it helps cure digestive and kidney diseases. Basil also has a special place in Bulgarian cuisine. It is most often used to season meat, beans and potato dishes. No one in Bulgaria can imagine bean soup without spearmint. This aromatic spice is used both fresh and dried. The taste of wild mint is also excellent. Thyme is also used as a spice and has various medicinal qualities. It has been believed since ancient times that it is a cure for colds, bronchitis, heart disease and rheumatism.
Ingredients: 500 g tomatoes, 2 cucumbers, 1 pepper, 1 onion, 200 g white cheese, parsley (to taste), vinegar, salt and oil (to taste)
Dice the tomatoes into cubes. Slice the cucumbers into rings and finely chop the onion or cut it into crescents. Slice the pepper into thin strips, add the spices and stir. Crush or grate the cheese on top of the seasoned vegetables. Chop parsley finely and sprinkle. It is best to serve the salad well chilled. Olives may be added if desired.
(Cold Cucumber Soup)
Ingredients: 2 cucumbers, 400 g yoghurt, crushed walnuts (to taste), 1 clove of garlic, vegetable oil, dill
Peel cucumbers and cut into small cubes. Stir yoghurt while still in the pot. Add to the cucumbers and continue stirring. Add 1/2 liter of cold water. More or less water may be needed depending on the desired density. Use a pestle and mortar to crush the clove of garlic with some salt and add to the soup with the ground walnuts and finely chopped dill. Season with a little vegetable oil. Tarator is served cold as appetizer.
Ingredients: 1 package of ready pastry sheets, 400 g white cheese, 2 eggs, 400 g yoghurt , butter
To prepare the pastry dough mix 2 cups of milk, 1 tbsp salt, 1 tbsp sugar, 2 eggs, flour – as much as can be absorbed and allow the dough to rise. Then tear small balls from it and roll out on a floured surface.
Place the sheet on aluminium foil or wrapping foil. Spread a mixture of the eggs and cheese on each sheet. Use the foil to roll the sheet. The rolled up sheets are placed on a baking pan in the form of a spiral. Bake in preheated oven at 200-250 °C until brown.
(Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)
Ingredients: 20 cabbage/sauerkraut/ leaves, 2-3 onions, 500 g minced meat, 1 cup of rice, paprika, black pepper, savory, parsley, vegetable oil.
Fry the chopped onions and add the minced meat and some water. When the meat is almost done add the rice and a cup of water. Stir until the rice absorbs the water. Add the spices to taste. Cut the solid part of each cabbage leaf. Put a little of the stuffing in the center and wrap the sarma. Arrange the ready sarmi in a saucepan and add one or two cups of water, cover with a few cabbage leaves and simmer. The sarmi may be prepared without meat. If not using meat, add raisins and walnuts to the rice stuffing.
(Minced Meat Sausage)
Ingredients: 1 kg minced meat (beef or mixed beef/pork), salt (to taste), pepper (to taste), 1 tsp cumin
Mix the minced meat with the spices and let stand to absorb the flavor. Shape as sausages and gill, turn periodically to cook evenly.
Ingredients: 1 kg minced meat, 1 onion, 1 egg, 1 slice bread, chopped parsley, black pepper, savory, salt, cumin
Soak the bread in water or milk, crumple it and add to the minced meat. Add the finely chopped or pressed onions, the egg and spices. Knead the minced meat until well mixed. Shape balls from the mixture. Flatten the balls slightly to make a patty. Grill on a pre-heated barbecue, turn periodically.
Typical Bulgarian Foods
Bulgarian honey is very high quality honey, and its taste and nutritional values are impressive. The country produces many kinds of honey and bee products – acacia, herbal, pine, honeydew and poly-floral honey. The different regions produce different kinds of bee products depending on their natural resources. Some herbs and found only in Bulgaria and there are also some rare or endangered plants here, This makes Bulgarian honey delicious and very unique. It also increases its healing qualities.
Bulgaria produces very high quality propolis with proven healing powers. Propolis has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and also stimulates the immune system. The propolis produces in the region of the Rhodopes in of the highest quality.
Yoghurt is a traditional Bulgarian product. The microorganism responsible for the fermentation of the milk bears the name “Lactobacillus bulgaricus”. The dairy product has a very pleasant taste and is used in the recipes for many beloved Bulgarian dishes: tarator, banitsa, snezhanka salad and as topping for some main dishes as well as a soup thickener. It is also often used as a dessert with honey, fruits or nuts. In addition to its good taste, it is also beneficial to good health. Studies have shown that it has anti-cancer effect.
According to some legends, yoghurt has been around since Thracian times. Thracians learned to to add sour sheep’s milk to fresh milk in order to make it last longer. Therefore a product named “prokish” or leavened milk was created. Other theories associate yoghurt with the Bulgars and the drink “kumis”, a dink made from horse milk.
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