Is Bulgaria the next “new” wine region on the horizon?

It is fun to discover “new” wine regions. There are many regions in the Balkans that have been producing wine since Roman times and used to have thriving industries. But as a result of geo-politics, their wine industries suffered and almost died. Luckily, there has been a resurgence. Greek, Croatian, and Slovenia wines are more and more readily available in the market. But Bulgarian wine? Have you ever had a wine from Bulgaria? If Robert Hayk has a say, Bulgaria will be the next “new” wine region as I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and share here.

Is Bulgaria the next “new” wine region on the horizon?

Wine production in the Balkans, which includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and Turkey, dates back to before the Romans.

In Bulgaria specifically, there is evidence of winemaking since 4000 B.C. And in the 1980s, Bulgaria was the second largest producer of bottled wine after France. Of course, it was more about quantity over quality. And 90% of the production went to the Soviet Union with only a small amount of the best quality wines going to Europe, mostly to the UK.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the wine industry. Everything went from state-run to privatized, and quality continued to suffer. That was until the year 2000 when things started to shift and money started to come in from the EU. French and Italian winemakers, including Michel Rolland, had already started coming to Bulgaria. And in 2011, Robert Hayk returned to Bulgaria with business partner Tina McKendree with the goal to bring Bulgarian wines to the U.S.

Is Bulgaria the next “new” wine region on the horizon?

Hayk was living in Moscow after the Soviet Union collapsed. He was 18 years old and he moved back to Armenia to take care of his grandmother. There was a war, and he was living with no electricity and in dire circumstances.

In 1999, Hayk got a job with the U.S. embassy in Armenia. His boss then invited him to move to Bulgaria and work for the U.S. embassy in Bulgaria. Bulgaria was also going through a transition period, but as Hayk explained, “It was better than what was happening in Armenia, which was totally cut off from the world.”

He brought his family to Bulgaria and worked there for four years. He learned the language, made friends and fell in love with the country.

Hayk then moved to the U.S. and worked at the World Bank. Ultimately, he knew he wanted to return to Bulgaria and work in agriculture and finance. Sixty percent of Bulgaria is agricultural land, and wine is a part of Bulgarian culture with 50% of the people making their own wine at home.

With Bulgaria’s history with wine, Hayk focused on the wine industry. While Bulgaria is a member of the EU and NATO, it is still a poor country, and he has set a goal to revitalize an industry to help the local community. It is not just the production of wine, but also the marketing, tourism, and any other aspect that will help create opportunities for people to be able to stay home in Bulgaria. In helping one industry flourish, he is hoping to build a sense of pride for Bulgarians.

When Hayk returned to Bulgaria in 2011, he worked with enologists to understand the terroir. The wines that had been produced during the Soviet Era were uniform, formulaic wines. There was no emphasis on terroir as all the grapes were blended for industrial production. Bulgaria still largely looked at viticulture as industrial. Working with growers and producers, Hayk has been changing the focus to terroir.

During the Soviet era, international varieties were mass planted in Bulgaria. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc make up almost three-quarters of the planting. And Bulgaria also has many indigenous varieties, which had been preserved and are being reintroduced.

Is Bulgaria the next “new” wine region on the horizon?

When looking to market Bulgarian wine to the U.S., the question is, do you start with grape varieties that are familiar but can be grown anywhere? Or do you focus on indigenous grapes that are interesting, but no one knows them and cannot pronounce them? Hayk explained the challenge of exporting wine from “a region that nobody knows, which nine out of 10 people can’t find on a map, and 10 out of 10 don’t know they produce wine, and then bringing a grape variety no one can pronounce and do not know.”

So, they decided to start with Cabernet Sauvignon, the number one grape in the U.S.

“With Cabernet, the field is large and competitive,” Hayk said. “But we can find a market with price and quality.” It is a way to introduce Bulgarian wine to the U.S. market. It is a way to get the conversation started, and Hayk is building a foundation.

While the focus is initially on international varieties, they also work with one indigenous Bulgarian variety, Gamza. Gamza is a red grape variety that has been cultivated in northern Bulgaria since ancient times. It is a late-ripening, thin-skinned variety that prefers cooler climates and thrives on windy hills. It is likened to Pinot Noir or Gamay.

Hayk and McKendree have brought in their own enologists and viticulturists. They work closely with growers and producers. And so far, it has worked. In the first year that they started, they sold 7,000 bottles of wine in the U.S., specifically in Chicago where there is a Bulgarian community. A decade later, they are selling 600,000 bottles per year.

Is Bulgaria the next “new” wine region on the horizon?

There are two labels currently in the market: Rough Day and Bulgariana. Both labels offer both quality and value. Under their company G&B Imports, Hayk and McKendree promote sustainable practices, and all the farmers and producers they work with adhere to their high standards. They also believe in transparency and do not use any animal products, hormones or unhealthy additives.

Rough Day offers single-varietal wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a rosé made from Gamza. Rough Day wines retail from $11-$13 and are distributed nationally. What is eye-catching about Rough Day wines is the playful label which has a dog on it. The fun packaging is what captures consumers’ eyes, as well as the familiar grape varieties. The fact that the wines are from Bulgaria is an added surprise.

Bulgariana was a label initially exclusive to Total Wine & More, but as of 2023 is available nationally. The Bulgariana label offers Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gamza and Cabernet Sauvignon that retail for $15-$17, as well as a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that retails for $21.99.

Hayk and McKendree are introducing Bulgarian wine to the U.S. on an entry level, but the plan is to slowly introduce higher quality wines and then native varieties. To do this, Hayk is focused on elevating the viticultural practices. To set by example, they are working toward owning their own vineyards and doing their own production. “We want to be our own example of what you should be doing. The raw material is there, and we want to help the producers understand,” Hyak explained.

Hayk and McKendree are dedicated to following best practices and being transparent. They want to focus on terroir. They want to have full control from grape to glass and are becoming more terroir focused. Ultimately, they are “hell-bent on putting Bulgarian wine on the map.”

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.