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The History of Bulgarian Wines

The 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 drinking’.

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.

Liberation

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 nations.

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 cooperatives.

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 today.

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 Rkatziteli.

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.

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