The Northwest region of Bulgaria is often described as the least developed region in economic terms. However, when it comes to nature, history, traditions, food and winemaking, the Northwest region might be the most authentic and preserved region in Bulgaria.

Northwest region of Bulgaria on a map

The Northwestern region starts just north of Sofia – the capital of Bulgaria. You have to cross the dramatic Stara Planina (Balkan) mountain range in order to get to the Northwest. The drive from Sofia is scenic with long stretches of pristine nature and untouched landscapes. On our way, we passed a number of tunnels piercing the proud Balkan mountains as well as some dramatic aqueduct-like passages.

Our first stop was the town of Vratza. Vratza is famous for its steep rocks – part of a natural park -towering over the city. It was on these rocks that one of Bulgaria’s most inspiring revolutionaries from the 19th century – Hristo Botev – found his death; hence, the big monument of him in the city center. We ate at a local restaurant (Balabanov House) located right off the main street, where we could choose from a variety of traditional dishes. Just outside of Vratza is the Ledenika cave, famous for its cave rock formations.

Statue of Hristo Botev in the centre of Vratsa

We were getting thirsty so we headed out to our first wine stop. And what a stop it was! The Borovitsa Winery was the destination we were aiming for and after a quick 1.5 hour drive, we reached our goal. The winery is housed in the village of Borovitsa and boasts a wide range of wines – sparkling wine, orange wine and of course, whites and reds. In addition, the grape varieties that Borovitsa works with are not the most usual grapes you find in a Bulgarian winery. Some of the more interesting grape varieties that can be discovered in Borovitsa’s vineyards are: Rkatziteli, Evmolpia, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir and of course, the traditional red variety for the Northwest – Gamza.

Inside of Borovitsa winery

Speaking of the vineyards, Borovitsa has the most hard to access vineyard we have seen so far in Bulgaria. A small plot of Borovitsa’s vineyards is tucked in between the impressive 35 kilometer-long Belogradchik rock formations. How did we get there? We went on a wine safari! We embarked on a 4×4 drive and drove around the Belogradchik rock formations in order to get to the vineyard. On the way, we stopped at specially-created picnic spots providing a perfect view over the mysterious Belogradchik rocks. We also went on a wine treasure hunt and visited the 103 year-old vineyard that Borovitsa takes care of. Read more about Borovitsa Winery and our wine safari experience in our post: Borovitsa: Wine on the rocks.

Inside of Borovitsa winery

This perfect day ended with a tasting of Borovitsa wines and a home-cooked dinner at a guesthouse located right by the iconic Borov Kamuk (Pine Stone) rock ensemble, part of the Belogradchik rock formations. There is nothing better than having a nice family-style dinner, tasting some outstanding wines and waking up the next day to the changing colors of Borov Kamuk.

Belogradchik rocks
Borovitsa wines

After breakfast, we headed to the town of Belogradchik, about 15 minutes away from Borovitsa, where we visited the Kaleto fortress. Kaleto is an ancient fortress using the Belogradchik rock formations as natural fortification walls. After a refreshing walk along the rocks, it was time for more wine!

Kaleto Fortress

Next on our agenda was a winery located in a cave. That’s right: a cave! The astonishing Magura winery is situated in the Magura cave – one of the largest caves in Bulgaria where prehistoric cave drawings have been found. Magura winery was created during the Socialist period when the wine industry was state-owned. The winery opened its doors for the first time in 1970. The main person behind the project was an oenology professor from the nearby Rabisha village who studied in France and discovered that the characteristics of the area were similar to those in the Champagne region. Thus, Magura winery became the first Bulgarian winery to specialize in sparkling wine. We had to walk down a damp and dark tunnel, leading us into the cave. Once inside, we could see bottles with sparkling wine lined up going through the remouage process, old degorging and bottling machines and a tasting corner with used oak barrels serving as tables. Tastings at Magura winery are unique as they are conducted inside the dimly lit cave.

Old method of making sparkling wine
Magura Cave winery

After the refreshing visit to Magura winery (since the temperatures outside were quite high), we set off north. Our destination was Chateau de Val – a family-run wine estate, not far from the Serbian border to the west and the Danube river to the north. Chateau de Val was founded by Val Markoff – a local who emigrated to the United States during the Socialist regime, but returned to his home village to continue the centuries-old wine-making tradition in the region. Meeting Val was an experience in itself. A tall, long-haired man with a profound interest in the ancient cultures who inhabited these lands, the Thracians in particular. It is fair to say that Val’s personal story can inspire any playwright or movie-maker. Val fled Bulgaria when he was 19 because he was considered a rebel by the Socialist authorities. They wanted to arrest him because of a Beatles picture that he had and still proudly displays in his home, located on top of the wine cellar. Val made a stellar career in the United States, but was drawn back to his home village where he engaged in wine making. His answer to our question – Where did he learn to make wine? – was simple: It is in people’s genes here. You might feel skeptical towards such an answer but seeing Val’s passion for his vineyards and tasting the wines he makes will change your mind. A visit to Chateau de Val is really a visit to Val’s family home – you are welcomed by the family, seated on their balcony and served the wine they make along with food prepared by them or by people in the village. It is no coincidence that Chateau de Val regularly receives the so-called audience’s vote during wine events in Bulgaria.

Grand Claret Reserve 2011 from Chateau de Val

We spent the evening in the city of Vidin. Vidin is located on the bank of the Danube river in the northwestern tip of Bulgaria. We had dinner on one of the many boat restaurants situated right on the river. On the menu was a typical appetizer from the Vidin area, fish from the Danube river and, of course, plenty of wine. Strolling down the streets of Vidin and along the river bank gives you an idea of how much more prosperous the city once was. Nevertheless, the somewhat obsolete cover of the city conceals the genuineness of Vidin and its people.

Danube River

The next morning started with a walk inside the proud guardian of the river – the Baba Vida fortress. This Medieval fortress has hosted Byzantines, feudal rulers, Bulgarian rulers, including the last king of the second Bulgarian kingdom, and Ottomans. We learned the story of Baba Vida – the proud daughter of a Bulgarian aristocrat who refused to marry and leave her hometown and instead stayed to help her people and honor her father by constructing this impressive fortification. We marveled at the view from the top of the towers. We explored the rooms of the fortress, including the prison. And…we met a few local wine producers who took us to an old storage room (also used for storing wine) in the fortress where they organize joint tastings of regional wines. A wine tasting experience can’t get better than this – a walk around a Medieval fort, an introduction to the stories and legends of an old city and a private tasting from the best wines the region has to offer –  all taking place inside the fortress!

Baba Vida Fortress

The way back south to Sofia was long but we caught ourselves silently reflecting on the uniqueness of this region and reliving the experiences from the last days. The Northwest of Bulgaria has so much to offer – rich history and culture, unspoiled nature, fascinating stories, remains of past glory, warm hospitality and generosity. Meeting some of the winemakers of the region made us understand how personal wine making is for them. It is a way of life, a duty to the land and a gift for the next generations. The winemakers in the Northwest felt like one big family who were proud of each other’s children (their wines) and who rightly viewed themselves as different from the winemakers in the rest of Bulgaria. Perhaps this is the reason why the winemakers of the Northwest want to establish their own Wine Republic in this very region…

Taste the terroir of the Northwest, discover fascinating wines, sample the local food, reconnect with nature and, most importantly, meet the founders of Bulgaria’s Northwest Wine Republic on our newest and most exclusive wine tour.

View our ‘Wines & Wonders of the Wild North-West Tour’!