Buyer Freddy and I really had no idea what to expect - but while that was maybe a little daunting, it also meant we arrived with completely open minds and a real thirst to explore.
Luckily, we had an outstanding guide to help us. Mitko Nikolov, owner of a successful Bulgarian wine business Apollowine, knows pretty much everything and everyone there is to know in the Bulgarian wine scene. He's a popular man - seemingly never off the phone! - and his shrewd eye and boundless enthusiasm meant we got a truly excellent and thorough introduction to the Bulgarian wine industry in the few days we were there.
He also showed us as much of Bulgaria's food scene as it was possible to consume in just four days - more on that later!
So, what do you need to know about Bulgarian wine?
Bulgarian wine: the scenery
The first thing you should learn about Bulgaria is it's beautiful, and well worth a visit if you get the chance. Our road trips to wineries across the region took in breathtaking scenery, driving past beautiful babbling brooks and mountain views that evoked American national parks. As well as the plentiful deer we saw, Mitko told us you'll find bears and wolves in the wild too.
Then there were the vineyards, which looked more like Tuscany, with sweeping, sun-drenched slopes, cypress trees and sleepy mountain backdrops. Often on our trip, all you could see for miles was vineyards and mountains, and stopping to take photos at a particularly picturesque spot in the Melnik region, we did feel like we were the only people in the world.
It was then a real contrast when we arrived in old, forgotten villages, driving past crumbling buildings, stray dogs, going along crazy pothole-filled roads (some of the bumps we went over, I was sure the van would fall to bits!) with the only people in sight seemingly a handful of old ladies sitting outside their homes in shawls watching the world go by. Mitko told us that there's a lack of people in rural areas now - most of the younger generation move to the cities to find work because there aren't many opportunities for them here - so a lot of these villages are sadly fading away. Wineries are even reporting struggling to find enough local labourers to help pick grapes at harvest time.
Bulgarian wine industry: innovation and local identity
Then, we'd suddenly find ourselves arriving at the gorgeous, modern, welcoming wineries with winemakers who really know what they're doing! All the wineries we visited had put a stylish personal stamp on their estate, from beautiful wall murals to state-of-the-art tech, and there was an inspiring and impressive mix of people in the Bulgarian wine industry - younger and older, male, female etc - and a range of winemaking ideas to match.
The wine industry is still growing in Bulgaria, going through a delightful and well-deserved revival, and so at the moment everyone knows everyone! Not only did this mean, as we discovered to our delight, that the same Bulgarian artist designed the labels for most of the wines we saw (which in itself gave Bulgarian wine its own visual identity), it also lent itself to an incredibly convivial, chatty atmosphere - everyone wants to talk, to tell stories, and show every inch of their winery. This led us to operate on 'Bulgaria time' for most of the trip, meaning we were always late for our next appointment, but this chilled, welcoming pace made it probably the most charming, friendly wine region I've ever visited.
Grapes are a mix of well-known international varieties and local stars. By far the most interesting were the local ones - such as mavrud, melnik and dimyat, with a few exceptions for well-known grapes done stunningly well, like chardonnay and pinot noir at Zelanos.