An Ancient Landscape…
Bulgaria is at a significant crossroad of human migration between Europe and Asia minor. In fact, Paleolithic fossils found in Bulgaria are some of the earliest known anatomically correct humans dating to 43,000 years ago.
Evidence of grape harvesting from grape seeds of vitis vinifera have been found at seven different Neolithic sites across Bulgaria. Humans seem to have been making and consuming alcohol as soon as they moved into agrarian societies, and some researchers believe that making alcohol may even have been a motivation for settling down.
The Rise & Fall of the Thracians
The ancient Thracians were a cultural group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting much of modern day Bulgaria from about the 1500 BC to the 600 AD. They did not leave written records, so much of our information of these tribes came from writings of neighboring countries. The Egyptian writer Athnasius said that Thrace was known for sweet wines, and Homer tells that the Greek hero Agamemnon and his troops drank Thracian wine every day.
Ancient authors portrayed Thracians as ‘uncivilized’ drinkers for not diluting wine with water and for allowing women to drink, unlike in neighboring Greece. Stories claimed Thracian kings rewarded soldiers with wine for killing their foes. Legends of making wine vessels from skulls of enemies likely stemmed from this era.
Wine also had important roles in nearly every stage of life, including births, weddings, funerals, and more. Ornate Thracian drinking vessels made of gold were seen as a sign of advanced civilization, while neighboring tribes and nations drank from animal hide wineskins.
Many different waves of migration from the East and West resulted in fierce clashes in the region. By 700 AD, the Thracians had been subjugated by the Romans, Celts, Macedonians, Goths, and eventually Slavs. All of these conflicts wiped out the Thracians.
The Emergence of the Bulgarians
It is believed Bulgarian tribes came from a region in northern Afghanistan called Balkhara. This area was occupied by Alexander the Great, who eventually allied with the Slavic tribes and waged war against the Roman occupation from Constantinople.
The first Bulgarian Kingdom was established in 803 AD after gaining independence from the Eastern Roman Empire. Conflict continued over the next 900 years with neighboring empires such as the Byzantines and Ottomans taking over the Bulgarian lands.
In 1700-1800, while still under the Ottoman rule, the Bulgarian National Revival period blossomed, and wine reached a high point of production and quality. Books on winemaking and vine growing were published with incredible detail, including the first ever indexes of indigenous grape varieties. Wine began to be exported to Europe and Central Asia.
Bulgaria was finally liberated from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.
The Modern Era
By 1939 Bulgaria started to come into its modern form with the establishment of 60 wine cooperatives. Many Bulgarians went to France to learn winemaking and grape growing. In 1948, the government formed Vinprom to take charge of all wine production and marketing. Many wine institutions were built in the next decade and there was a massive increase in oenology journals and publications.
By 1956, Russia was importing 26 million liters of Bulgarian wine, pressuring Bulgaria to emphasize the quantity of wine produced rather than the quality of wine. Modern French, German, & Italian equipment was used all over the country. Plants were built for processing, filtering, and stabilizing bottled wines.
By the 1970s, the Research Institute in Sofia was subscribing to nearly every specialist vine & wine journal in the world and issuing them to oenologists at wineries. This kept the entire wine industry up-to-date. Bulgaria was no longer cut off from the western world's incredible improvements in modern winemaking. This all contributed to Bulgaria's large bottled wine export business.
Russian demand for Bulgarian wine began to decline in the 1980s because of President Gorbachev's campaign against alcoholism. Fortunately, the UK market opened in 1982 and became one of Bulgaria's most important export markets.
Communism ended in 1989 and land reform was critical in shaping the future of the wine industry. Because the industry had been a state-run monopoly under communism, there was much confusion about who owned the vineyards.
With Bulgaria’s acceptance into the European Union, new wineries have been established, many of them championing techniques of environmental responsibility focusing on indigenous grapes.
The current times are the most exciting days for the Bulgarian wine industry.