Old Thracian Wines
Historically Bulgarian wine
can be traced back to ancient Thrace and the Greek god of wine ‘Dionysus’.
Bulgarian territory was one of the regions where many of the
wine traditions were founded during this period of the Hellenistic
world. The cultured vine is said to have first been grown in Central
Asia. The earliest traces of its origin within what is now Bulgaria
go back 3,000 years.
Homer’s Iliad describes the honey sweet black
wine, which the ships of the Achaeans brought daily from the Thracian city
of Ismarus to their camp outside Troy.
As well as the historians the scientists also
believe that the Bulgarian wine cultures of today Pamid, Dimyat, Misket,
Gamza, Mavrud and the broad vine of Melnik date back to these Thracian times.
It would be fair enough to assume that the wines of this period
would have probably tasted quick thick, sweet and flavoured, as
this was how the ancient writers described them. It was also common
for consumers to add water to their wine at a ratio of 2:1, as
drinking wine ‘straight’ was considered uncouth. This
type of consumption of unblended wine was known as ‘Scythian
During these ancient times the Greek historian
Xenophont describes a feast organised by the Thracian king Sevt (424 –410
BC) in which wine was served in animal horns as a ritual practise.
Archaeological digs have resulted in the finding
of numerous votive plates, decorated vessels and coins depicting scenes of
wine drinking in the lives of the Thracians. Probably the best-known pieces
are of Bulgarian gold and silver, which depict ritual wine drinking situations
with the god Dionysus. It is also worth noting that ‘Plynius the Old’ stated
that the first European vine grower was a Thracian named Evmolp.
The wine growing of the Balkans continued with
the arrival of the Romans within the peninsula. Historians claim the eastern
Black Sea Coast region was where white wine started to evolve. It is probable
that this was the period that saw the establishment of the Pomorie and Nessebur
wine production. There are also records of Ovid writing about this on his
way to exile in Tomi in the year 8 A.D.
The Christian Middle Ages
The conversion to Christianity in the 9th century
in Bulgaria gave a new impetus to the concept of wine consumption.
An abundance of wines from excellent to poor
quality were evident. An example of historical interest tells us of the story
where Gofais de Villardouainne, a participant in the Fourth Crusade in the
year 1205 spared the area of Asenovgrad from being burnt to the ground because
he approved of their local quality wines.
There are also records from Italian sources in 1366 that refer
to Count Amadeus of Savoy in his conquering of Nessubur. It is
stated that after he acquired the quality wineries he sold the
remainder. The first creators of standards within the Bulgarian
wine industry can be traced to the monasteries.
It was after this period (14th and
15th centuries) that Bulgarian wines were traded within the regions
of South-Eastern and Central Europe. Busy trade with the port of Dubrovnik
played a very important role in distribution.
A National Revival
The Ottoman Empire ruled Bulgaria between the
15th and 19th centuries. This proved to be a disastrous period
for wine making. However wine consumption within this period survived due
to the fact that it was considered to be a very important aspect of the Christian
traditions within the empire.
The emergence of a more affluent Christian population
within the mid 18th century slowly helped revive wine drinking
traditions. This also created a demand for higher quality wines. Export markets
began to develop. This was mainly of red wine, which was mostly to be found
within the Black Sea region.
The French diplomat Charles de Payssonnel of
the 60’s and 70’s of the mid 18th century stated – ‘Bulgaria produces
quite a large quantity of red wine, but of poor quality. About 5000-6000
carts get loaded and exported to Russia and Poland each year’
Probably the first recorded positive opinions
of expression on Bulgarian wine making came from another French source. Doctor
Paul Lukas during his visit to Stanimaka (Assenovgrad). Dr Lukas was genuinely
impressed by ‘the local wine’, as well as the size of the casks and vats
used by the Bulgarian wineries. He also commented that the size of the production
plants and indicated that supply was intended for the larger future markets.
Encouraging remarks continued
to flow from high profile people, putting Bulgaria very much on
the international map of wine producing countries.
The French doctor and archaeologist P.Siege who
travelled across Bulgaria in 1829 commented specifically on the wines of
the regions of Sliven and Anhialo, which he compared to the quality of the
French ‘Grave’ wine.
Comparisons such as this, of Bulgarian wines
to French varieties could only be perceived as a compliment especially if
they were coming from influential French people themselves.
Bulgaria’s liberation in 1878 found the wine industry
in a fairly good condition. Statistics indicate that there were
nearly 50,000 ha of vineyards in the country. It was not long
after this period that unfortunately phylloxera hit the Bulgarian
vineyards and destroyed many of the old traditional plantations.
As the wine plague of phylloxera had been the evident in many
of the western European producing countries the Bulgarians were
quick to act on what they had learnt from other less fortunate
The Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture and Trade invited the
famous French wine expert Pierre Viala to work on the problem.
His recommendations were based on the American solution to combating
phylloxera, which had been tried and tested successfully in France
and other European countries. Viala’s other report recommendations
were for further modifications to the industry to draw it in line
with its European rivals.
He is recorded as being especially impressed with the Bulgarian
indigenous grape varieties such as Mavrud, Pamid and Miskat. He
stated that the grapes of Mavrud and Pamid should be used in the
production of wine within the southern Bulgarian regions. In relation
the northern territories, he recommended that Gamza should be
the preferred choice. He stated that the Bulgarian Misket could
rival the famous Hungarian white wines and proposed that French
varieties should also be introduced such as Gamay Noir and Syrah
(Shiraz). As a result of Professor Viala’s recommendations
a vine and wine experimental station was established in Pleven
in 1902. This was transformed into a national institute, which
still exists to this day.
Bulgarian Wine Cooperatives
During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the Bulgarian
wine industry started to grow through the introduction of the vine and wine
The first to be established was in Souhindol, which later became
the national model for other wineries to follow. Souhindol was
based on a business concept that was adopted from Southern France.
Most of the cooperative projects were built through
Austrian and other western European expertise. The average winery capacity
levels ranged from 500 to 1,500 tons.
The 30’s was a period where most wine production
was of an indigenous character. However the premium European varieties were
starting to make an appearance with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling.
Within the period where Bulgaria was behind the "Iron Curtain" wine
making was consolidated, monopolized, and turned into a state industry. Its
target market was restricted to the "Eastern Block" in the framework
of the UEP (Union of Economic Partnership) of the socialist countries and
standards remained low.
It wasn’t until the 60’s and 70’s (although Bulgaria
was still under communist rule) that the ‘mass’ production of prestigious
red varieties started to hit the international markets as we know of them
The global consumption of the Bulgarian white
wine products has been less evident in with varieties such as Muskatt Ottonel,
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer Rose.
The late 1990’s - present day
1989 saw a significant political change in Bulgaria
and towards the end of the 1990’s the state monopoly of the wine industry
ended. This resulted in all the wine cellars being privatised.
Bulgaria has more than 80 industrial wineries, which currently
have an output between 1,000 and 60,000 tons. The wineries cover
over 97,000 ha.
The main varieties grown
are Cabernet Sauvignon (14%), Rkatzeteli (14%), Merlot (12%),
Pimid (11%), Red Misket (8%), Dimyat (6.5%), Muskat Ottenel (6%),
Chardonnay (2.7%), Gamza (1.6%), Riesling (1.3%),, broad vine
from Melnik (1%), Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer (1%)
The current trends are leaning towards a gradual
increase in what are known as the international grape varieties such as Chardonnay,
Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer compared to the vineyard areas of Dimyat and
The red wine plantations of Cabernet, Merlot,
Mavrud, Gamza and the broad vine from Melnik are also expected to increase,
contrary to those of Pamid.
Bulgaria’s wine industry currently accounts for
30% of aggregate farm exports to the European Union. Bulgarian wines are
sold in the UK, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, the USA,
Japan, Poland, and the former Soviet Republics.
The largest market is the UK, which accounts
for 25% of exports.