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In the Spring of 2019, Charine and I were invited to the 8th Annual ‘Balkans International Wine Competition & Festival’ in Sofia, Bulgaria. The contest is open to wineries from all countries located in or around the Balkan Peninsula. In addition to the contest, this year featured a three-day, open-air festival where around 100 wine cellars poured over 1,000 wines.
Although we weren’t on the judging panel this year, we did participate in ] masterclasses, dinners, and the open-air festival. We cherished the opportunity to reconnect with the latest vintages from producers in countries like Serbia, Greece, and Turkey. It was also a great opportunity to get our first, in-depth taste of what’s happening in Bulgarian wine.
Bulgarian Wines: Our Impressions
We have a lot of experience with the wines of Eastern Europe. The countries that are our blind spots are Ukraine, Russia, and Bulgaria. This festival and competition was a fine opportunity for us to discover the wines of the latter. During the week, we tasted the medal-winning wines from the competition and examples from producers pouring at the festival. Here are a few quick thoughts:
- Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (both varietal and blends) showed correct flavors and high amounts of complexity
- There are several local red grapes that show promise including Rubin, Mavrud, Shiroka Melnishka (aka Shiroka Melnik), and Melnik 55 (a cross based on Shiroka Melnishka)
- There are fantastic wines at competitive prices compared to Western Europe
The Not So Good
- The five main international varieties still dominate (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot) which equate to many generic wines
- Many reds suffer from bad oak management
Best Wines From The Balkans International Wine Competition & Festival
Top wines from Balkan countries can stand toe to toe with great wines from more renowned countries. There were some stunning wines at the festival. Greece had a strong showing as many iconic producers were represented. There were also a few familiar faces from Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Turkey. One of our favorite wines from Serbia captured the ‘Best of Show’ Red Wine Trophy (see below).
It is great to see that Bulgaria is an open market, with many wines from surrounding countries present – this isn’t always the case in the Balkans.
Exotic Wine Travel’s Picks:
You can find out more about our scoring system on the WINE RATING page.
- Kechris, ‘Tear of the Pine’ Retsina
This is from a producer that wanted to make a Burgundy-style Retsina. The Kechris Tear of the Pine Retsina is made from a selection of grapes and is barrel aged. It is full in body with notes of pine needles, basil, white peach, and lemon. It smells like Retsina but acts like a rich, full-bodied white on the palate. Resin flavors are there but the wine shows a lot of harmony on the palate. Score: 90/100
- Biblia Chora, Olivos White 2018
We love the Biblia Chora Olivos White and this vintage is another knockout. It’s a barrel-fermented wine made of Assyrtiko and Semillon with lots of potential to age. Ripe white peach, apple, passion fruit, and yogurt make up the flavors. The wood is integrated flawlessly, it’s weighty on the palate and the acidity keeps the wine alive and nervy. Long finish. Score: 92/100
- Monemvasia, ‘300’ 2018
The Monemvasia ‘300’ is a blend of Kidonitsa and Assyrtiko aged in stainless steel. It’s a Mediterranean white wine with notes of yellow flower, sage, and white peach. The body is oily and similar to a Vermentino from Sardinia, Italy. With a round body and bite from the ripe fruit flavors, this has real palate presence. Score: 89/100
- Kir-Yianni, ‘Ramnista’ Xinomavro 2013
We’ve been drinking the wines from Kir-Yianni for a long time. They do a great job with Xinomavro, a grape that we both love. This is not the current release, but it shows why Xinomavro is compared to Nebbiolo, especially Barolo. There are savory notes of tomato leaf and tobacco that go along with the red fruit and perfume. It’s medium-bodied with high acidity and grippy tannin and a long finish. If you love Barolo, it’s time to try an aged Xinomavro. Score: 92/100
- Arcadia, ‘Nareen Cuvée Michel Salgues’ Brut 2015 – Turkey
We tasted the Arcardia, ‘Nareen Cuvée Michel Salgues’ Sparkling wine during a masterclass and it impressed us. The wine is aged on the lees for a whopping 30 months and made from the grape Narince. It’s unique and well made with notes of pine, pear, white peach, and brioche and a fine bead of bubbles. For a Brut sparkler, it is a little sweeter than expected with a persistent finish. Score: 90/100
- Chamlija, Kara Sevda 2017 – Turkey
Mustafa Chamlija won a prize as the top Turkish producer at this year’s Balkans International Wine Contest. At the festival, he brought his top Papaskarasi, the Chamlija Kara Sevda. This is a fine and elegant wine with more concentration than the standard Papaskarasi bottling. There are notes of raspberry, cherry, tobacco. It’s silky, juicy and serious with fine tannins. Score: 91/100
- Lipovac, Tammuz Amfora 2017 – Montenegro
Lipovac is a small Montenegrin winery that produces high-quality juice. A big part of their production is made in clay amphoras. The Lipovac Tammuz is a brand new wine in the portfolio. It’s made with Kratošija (Zinfandel) fermented and matured in amphora. For a grape that is normally jammy and brash grape, this wine is very elegant. It has a pretty nose with red fruits, violets, pepper. The peppery finish and fine tannins are impressive. Score: 90/100
- Matalj, ‘Kremen Kamen’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
The Matalj Kremen Kamen 2016 won the trophy of ‘Best of Show’ Red Wine Trophy at this year’s Balkans International Wine Contest. We’re fans of this wine in every vintage. The 2016 is another fine wine (although not quite at the level as the great 2012). This Cabernet Sauvignon has cherry, tobacco, and cedar notes. The fruit is ripe and the palate is round and complex with subtle power. Polished tannins guide the long finish. Score: 92/100
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- Château Copsa, ‘8TH’ Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Château Copsa is a boutique winery located in the Thracian Valley. The property and vineyards are heartbreakingly beautiful. The Château Copsa, ‘8TH Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the reserve wines from the estate.
It has notes of cherry, capsicum, cedar, and sweet cedar. This medium-bodied Bordeaux blend has fantastic barrel integration. The wood is used judiciously and the tannins are fine. Some may complain this wine doesn’t have a ‘sense of place’ but it’s delicious. Score: 90/100
- Edoardo Miroglio, ‘Elenovo’ Cabernet Franc 2016
Edoardo Miroglio is known for his sparkling wines and his reserve red wines named Elenovo. While we’re fans of the Elenovo Mavrud, Elenovo Rubin, Elenovo Cabernet Sauvignon, the Edoardo Miroglio Elenovo Cabernet Franc stole the show. It’s rich and ripe Cabernet Franc aged in oak for 24 months. It has the typical Cabernet Franc notes of cherry, black olive, oak, and capsicum. The wine is full in body with a silky mid-palate and grippy tannins. Think Chinon in a ripe year. Score: 90/100
- Orbelia, Sandanski Misket 2016
The Orbelia Sandanski Misket isn’t the greatest white wine in the world, but it’s a fine example of the Bulgarian grape Misket. This is a fantastic summer sipper. The wine is crisp and easy with notes of white flower, mineral, flint, and peach. For a grape that struggles to keep freshness, this has plenty of lemony acidity. It’s similar to a more floral Muscadet Sur Lie from France. Score: 88/100
- Zelanos, ‘Z’ Cabernet Franc 2016
While Bulgaria has the reputation of producing wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon, we had several fantastic varietal Cabernet Francs at the show, including this Zelanos ‘Z’ Cabernet Franc 2016. The wine is aged in French oak for 10 months and has capsicum, black olive, cherry notes. Full and silky with grippy tannin. Score: 90/100
- Vinex Preslav, Rubyiat 2017
Yes, it’s another Chardonnay, but this Venix Preslav Rubiyat 2017 is the real deal. Vinex Preslav one of the oldest, quality-driven wineries in Bulgaria and this is one of their reserve wines, a barrel-fermented Chardonnay. It’s a big and buttery example. There are notes of pineapple, guava, and sweet vanilla. The wine is big-bodied, but not overly fat with a long finish. Fan of Napa Chardonnay can take note of this one. Score: 91/100
- Vila Melnik, ‘Aplauz’ Shiroka Melnik 2016
The Villa Melnik ‘Aplauz’ Melnik 55 2014 was one of the first Bulgarian wines we ever tasted. That wine is solid in its own right, but we prefer the Villa Melnik ‘Aplauz’ Shiroka Melnik. This grape is the original Melnik which is a late-ripening grape (unlike the Melnik 55 which is a cross that ripens earlier). This wine has notes of wild strawberry, pepper, tobacco. It’s medium-bodied with some tannic kick and a spicy finish. I don’t have tons of experience with the grape but something about the acidity and tannins tell me this should age gracefully and drastically improve. Score: 89/100
- Ivo Varbanov, ‘Feux d’artifice’ Syrah 2011
Ivo Varbanov wasn’t at the festival, but I met him for dinner one night after the show. He brought this ‘Feux d’artifice Syrah 2011, which is a blockbuster. This Syrah spends 36 months in French oak – both in 225L and 500 L barrels. It has the typical notes of black fruit, tangerine peel, and pepper. Rich and muscular with tons of texture and extract, the wine is full-bodied with chewy tannin and a long finish. This is very similar to top-flight Syrahs from Washington State (USA). 92/100
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Thanks to the Balkans International Wine Competition and Festival for accommodation. The opinions expressed in this article are unsolicited and have not been paid for in any way by governmental bodies, enterprises, or individuals. We do not sell editorial content as that would destroy the legitimacy of our reviews and the trust between Exotic Wine Travel and its readers. On occasion, we extend the option of purchasing the wines we review or/and the products we spotlight. Some of these product links are set up through affiliate programs, which means Exotic Wine Travel gets referral credits if you choose to purchase these items via the links we provide.