Villa Melnik Winery—Where Happiness Comes From A Family Working Together & Preserving Bulgarian Heritage

Putting Bulgarian Wine & Melnik On The Map—Liteally

The Matriarchs of Villa Melnik Winery, Daughter & Mother, Militza & Lyubka Zikatanova

After I pull off the main road, I wind my way through small villages on a narrow road, passing through Vranya, Spanchevo, and Harsavo. I see a few elderly men sitting on a curb. A dog sprints across the street, and a few cats scurry about. As the road ascends, I see vineyards climbing up a hill.

I don’t need my GPS to tell me where to turn because standing at the gate of the Villa Melnik Winery is a woman in a colorful dress. Her auburn hair glistens in the sun, and with a huge smile, she welcomes me as I pull in.

“Wow, this is amazing,” she says while scanning my loaded bike. It’s Militza Zikatanova, the sales and marketing director and daughter of the founders of Villa Melnik Winery. We’ve exchanged email and text messages over the past week and arranged to connect here this weekend. I want to learn about Villa Melnik and the booming Bulgarian wine region that surrounds the tiny town of Melnik.

I park my bike in front of the winery which towers three stories and is tucked into the hillside. Parched from the hot ride here from Greece, I sit down with Militza and her mother Lyubka and my thirst with a cold glass of water while we get acquainted. Militza speaks perfect English, and while Lyubka apologizes for hers, it’s clear she understands everything and also speaks very well. The long journey 

After studying and graduating from Boston University, Militza worked for several years for Diageo, the behemoth British alcoholic beverage company. “After three years I realized I’d rather help my father and the family business rather than the big corporation,” she explains. “I could also bring new ideas and develop marketing and tourism programs for Villa Melnik and the Melnik wine region.”

I chose to visit Villa Melnik and this region because of the work both Militza and her father have done to preserve ancient and local grape varietals. Also, because of their efforts to develop and promote wine tourism not just for the family winery, but for the entire region.

Because I will taste Villa Melnik wines—I never drink and ride—I cruise a few kilometers to Melnik, the smallest town in Bulgaria. Home to less than 200 people, Melnik boomed in the early twentieth century when over 20,000 people called it home. I park “Doc” at the cozy Hotel Melnik which will serve as a home base over the next few days as I explore the region. In my room, I look down at the tiny town of Melnik and the unique architecture of its homes. And I look above at the Melnik “Sand Pyramids” pointed formations in the hills hovering over the town.  Later, Militza and her boyfriend Boyan drive me back to the winery.

We take a short walk up the hill behind the winery where we gaze across the Struma River Valley. Far in the distance sitting atop a range of mountains dozens of windmills spin. “They are in Greece,” Militza explains. To the northwest, we see the caldera of a volcano that erupted a thousand years ago or more. “The entire area once was under the sea,” Militza says, “that gives us sandy soil, which combined with minerals from the volcanic eruption and the Mediterranean climate makes this an ideal grape-growing region.”

A few moments later, Nikola Zikatanov, Militza’s father and the founder of Villa Melnik, joins us. Stocky with intense blue eyes, salt, and pepper hair and a thick mustache to match. Militza tells me that many of his friends and colleagues affectionally call him “Nikola Mustache.” He says that it rarely rains in the summer, never snows, and humidity never lingers, that besides wine grapes they grow olives, figs, apricots, peaches, pomegranate and more.

Thousands of years ago, this unique climate and soil composition gave birth to a grape varietal that can only be found here—nowhere else in the world. Broadleaf Melnik ( technically called Shiroka Melnishka Loza), is a late-ripening versatile red wine grape, and the defining varietal for this wine-growing region.

However, because Broadleaf Melnik is late-ripening, it is challenging to grow. Sometimes it doesn’t ripen until early November. It’s a vigorous grape, and if irrigated or let to grow wild, it will yield big watery grapes. If harvested too soon it results in green and bitter flavors. As in other countries in the Balkans, most Bulgarians have small plots of vineyards for making their own house wine. Often they lack the patience to wait until the grapes fully ripen. So to compensate they blend it with Cabernet or other earlier ripening grapes.

Nikola explains that during the communist period, the Soviets innovated grape vine trellising, lifting the bush vines high and training the cordons so they could manage and harvest the grapes with machines. He explains this made it harder for Melnik to ripen.

“It’s likely that by doing this they made it an even later ripening because when grown lower, the heat reflected off the ground helps the grapes ripen,” he says. So he planted Broadleaf Melnik in the traditional manner as bush vines. With a goal of quantity over quality, most people ripped out the indigenous ancient Melnik and replanted Cabernet, merlot and other earlier ripening international varietals.

In the 1950s, Soviet viticulturists and scientists at the Sandanski cooperative near here also experimented with crossing Broadleaf Melnik with international varietals to develop earlier ripening grapes. These included Melnik 55 (Valdiguié), Melnik Jubilee 1300 (Saparavi), and Ruen (Cabernet Sauvignon), among others. Over the years only Melnik 55 thrived, while the others virtually disappeared. It’s Nikola’s mission and passion to preserve these varietals and show their potential and how they can express the uniqueness of the grape and terroir of Melnik.

We return to the back of the winery where Militza and Nikola explain the gravity-fed design of the Villa Melnik Winery. Built with three levels, we stand on the floor of the top-level, or the receiving pad where they bring the grapes to the winery as they harvest them.

Here you can see the three levels of the gravity-fed Villa Melnik Winery outside Harsovo in the Melnik wine region in southwestern Bulgaria.

Villa Melnik uses all Bulgarian-crafted stainless steel tanks. Here you can see the stainless caps covering holes in the floor that are used to move the wine through each level in the winery without the use of pumps.

“All our grapes are hand-picked, and sorted in the vineyard before they come here,” Militza says, “we use local people who need not be trained,” she insists. “In fact, they train us because they’ve been working these vines for generations.”

There are several large openings in the concrete floor the receiving pad. The grapes are de-stemmed, and with a crusher machine on wheels, they feed the juice directly through these openings into the fermentation tanks below without the use of any pumps. Nikola explains that this is better and more gentle for the grapes. It doesn’t stress them or release the tannins by crushing the seeds. It’s also more sustainable because it doesn’t require energy or electricity.

We walk into the winery and stop for a moment in a foyer where Nikola reflects on his inspiration and why he started Villa Melnik. Militza points out that the nearby village of Kapatovo has been home to his family for many generations.

My dad looked for inspiration in folklore and religion when deciding to do this project, our winery. She points to a painting that sits high on the wall above us. It represents the Biblical story of Jesus’ farewell discourse to John, where he refers to himself as “the true vine” and the branches his disciples. God is the winegrower and “cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that bears fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

Nikola says, “My father is the winegrower. I believe that if you work hard, be good, and do good, you will be rewarded with good fruit.”

“I love wine, and when I think of my memories of the past when I was working in our family vineyards with my parents and grandparents, these are my most happy times.” He glances at his daughter and clears his through, his voice resonates off the walls of the tall foyer.

“Later in life, when I had to work long hours to make money, I felt guilty. I didn’t have much time to spend time with my own children. I remembered my happiest times with my family. So I started a winery—growing vines and making wine so when I hopefully have grandchildren of my own to share this happiness and work with them—so they can be happy.” He looks at Militza and smiles. “I want my children and grandchildren to feel how important family is and that the best memories in life come from working together with your family. This is why I started this winery.”

Militza returned to Bulgaria after about seven years studying and working abroad. Her experiences and youthful energy are also an inspiration for her father and others in the region. With a mission and passion for elevating tourism in Struma River Valley and Melnik, she first set out to convince the other fifteen wineries in the area to open to the public. Then she set out to create a calendar of events.

“This is the first time that different businesses worked together and not look at each other as competitors. We understand that people will not come here just to visit one or our vinery,” she explains. “They will come here to visit other wineries, restaurants, churches, or spas.” She points to the hill behind the winery and tells me that a large bank is building a new ambitious winery project. “We are happy they are building a new winery and don’ see it as competition.” she says, “Sure, it’s competition, but it will bring even more people to the area and make this region even more popular.”

She tells me her dream is to make Melnik region the Napa Valley of Bulgaria. One of the most popular events she has got local participation is the popular Bulgarian holiday known as Saint Trifon Day. Celebrated every year on February 14th when the rest of the world honors their loved ones on St. Valentines Day. Saint Trifon is the guardian of the vineyards and winemakers and is the pruner. So on this day, also known as Trifon Zarezan, they bless the vineyards and prune the first vines.

Joking that it’s also St. Valentines Day, Nikola says, “Whether you’re in love or in love in wine this is the day to celebrate.” It’s also a testament to the fact that winemaking and wine growing is an ancient tradition in Bulgaria.  With evidence of wine culture dating back to the Thracian times where people worshipped Dionysis, the god of wine. Militza explains that even during the 500-year rule of the Ottoman’s, people living here could make wine and keep their Christian faith. They also could celebrate Saint Trifon—as long as they paid their taxes.

As Militza continues our tour through the winery, we see each step in the winemaking process. On the fermentation floor, we walk past a long line of shiny stainless steel tanks, including one horizontal tank that rotates like a washing machine during maceration.

Nikola points out that he must use pumps with the tall horizontal tanks to keep the wine circulating during fermentation. “There are some connoisseurs who might say they can feel the tannins from seeds that get crushed between the wheel and body of the pump. For these delicate palates we have this tank,” he says proudly while slapping his hand on the steel of the horizontal tank. “There is no pressure on the seeds and the berries. Wine made in this tank is softer and more velvety.”

These tanks treat the grapes more gently, rotating like a washing machine resulting in softer more velvety tannins.

Militza shows us the laboratory where wines are tasted, tested, and decisions about blends and other factors are made.

Villa Melnik gives local artists a platform and place to exhibit and show their artwork.

As we make our way down to the lower level, we walk into a room at the north end of the fermentation floor, which serves as an art gallery.  Here Villa Melnik celebrates and gives a platform for local artists to display their artwork. Militza leads us into the laboratory, where she explains that the entire family and winemaking team tastes the wines and potential blends, and everyone shares their opinions and suggestions.

On the lower level, we pass by more stainless steel tanks used for aging and storing wine before bottling. She then leads us through a network of caves dug into the side of the hill below the receiving pad. As we wind around, we pass dozens of oak barrique barrels and music pumps from several speakers throughout the caves.

“Everyone likes music, especially wine,” says Nikola. One tunnel opens up to a larger room where several wine barrels serve as tables. Here they hold tastings, events, and even small concerts.

The most important thing, Nikola explains, is maintaining a constant temperature and humidity. Because these caves are underground,  they are naturally cooled. This reduces energy consumption and contributes to Villa Melnik’s goal to be as sustainable as possible. He also explains that they compost the must leftover from the winemaking process and use it in the vineyard as fertilizer.

They use a combination of French, American, and Bulgarian oak. “For our native Bulgarian wines, we only use Bulgarian oak,” he points out. “We feel this is the right and respectful thing to do. We want these wines to be one-hundred percent Bulgarian.” All of the stainless steel tanks in the winery are also designed and crafted by Bulgarian firms. They source steel from Germany, and the instruments and valves come from the best in the world. But craftsmanship is pure Bulgarian.

As we round one corner in the caves, we walk up to wine cellar stacked with bottles and locked behind a wrought iron gate. “This is our treasury,” Militza explains. Here they store the Villa Melnik library wines and offer customers a chance to store a bottle for a special occasion such as a birth, anniversary, or other important life events. “Imagine storing a bottle of wine from the vintage of your child’s birth, and coming back here and opening in eighteen years to celebrate.”

Nikola explains during socialism, Bulgaria’s food processing industry was well developed. After they privatized the industry, Bulgarian entrepreneurs reorganized them into profitable companies, and today they export the Bulgarian tanks to Russia, France, the United States and elsewhere.

As our tour winds down, we end up in the Villa Melnik retail store and tasting room. They have set a table with several glasses, small bites of cheese, cured meats, and bread. It’s cozy and comfortable, and the entire family joins me at the table while we talk more about family, grandchildren, wine, and the future of Bulgarian wine and the Melnik Region.

Now it’s time to taste a selection of the Villa Melnik wine portfolio. We start with the Villa Melnik Aplauz Rose. Made from two Bulgarian varietals, the local Broadleaf Melnik and Mavrud, it’s pale in color and on the palate crisp, clean, and tasty. The perfect starter wine as our conversation continues. For me, Broadleaf Melnik is easier to say than Shiroka Melnik, so Militza shows me a photo of just how broad the leaf is.

“Wow, it’s bigger than your head,” I point out, realizing she is in the photo holding the massive leaf next to her face.

While the  Broadleaf Melnik is only found here in the Struma River Valley, Mavrud, the other grape in the Rose, is grown mostly around Plovdiv in central Bulgaria. Interestingly, Villa Melnik is the only winery growing and producing Mavrud around Melnik.

Today, Villa Melnik owns 30 hectares in two different plots around the winery. The winery produces about 150,000 bottles of wine annually from ten different red grape varietals and six different white wine grapes. The entire production is estate grown and bottled. He designed the winery with a little room to grow, production nearly matches capacity. They don’t buy any other grapes, and they don’t sell their grapes.

While the romance of returning to his roots and his childhood home to create a happy place for the future generations of his family, it was challenging and stressful for Nikola to buy vineyards in contiguous plots. Many people may have given up, but Nikola persisted for over ten years.  He had to negotiate with roughly 1,000 people and write more than 100 real-estate contracts to achieve his dream and open this winery.

Think about those numbers. Ten years, 1,000 people, and 100 contracts. It’s difficult to buy single large plots of land in Bulgaria. “This is why Bulgaria’s agricultural industry disappeared,” he tells me.

After World War II under the communist regime, the Soviets forced people to turn over their land to the State—the government. From the early 1950s and until the early 1990s the socialist government forbid ownership of private property. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the newly liberated governments set out returning property to the original owners and their heirs. This is where it gets complicated.

Mostly and before socialism, families didn’t own large plots of land. Perhaps each owned and farmed a hectare or two. In those days, Bulgarian people had large families, often with five or six children, or more. Those children soon married and built families of their own, each with three or four kids. Then as those kids grew, more marriages and children—the family got bigger. When it came time to return the property to the original families, the number of heirs to that property numbered anywhere from twenty to fifty family members—cousins, uncles, brothers, and sisters.

Now imagine locating the heirs of different families that own plots next to each other, and you’ll understand the work required to locate and then convince every single one to sell. Adding to the complexity is after the fall of communism, with newfound freedom, many people fled the country in search of better opportunity and prosperity.

As I rode around the small villages around Melnik, I noticed prime vineyard locations left barren. On one sizeable sloping south-facing hillside I saw the equivalent of a fraction of a hectare planted. The lone vineyard looked like a small island of vines in a sea of dried grass. Who knows why there are no other vines planted on the hillside. I’m sure many people give up, or other owners aren’t interested in selling because the effort required to complete a transaction just isn’t worth the small amount earned from such a sale.

It’s extremely difficult to buy large multi-hectare plots of land in Bulgaria due to the number of heirs with title claim to smaller plots. I saw several vineyards like this that could be much larger and more productive for the wine grape growers. Nikola at Villa Melnik spent ten years securing his thirty hectares which are divided between two different locations.

Yet, Nikola didn’t quit, he started to search for property and locate heirs in the mid-1990s. With persistence and perseverance, he secured the final contract and began planting vineyards in 2005 and bottled the first vintage of Villa Melnik wines in 2009. Using another winery for vinification, It wasn’t until 2013 did they produce the first wines in this winery. Nikola was able to build the winery thanks to funding programs offered by the European Union.

Villa Melnik would like to gain a few more hectares, and Nikola plans to increase capacity slightly but admits it will take even more time. He thinks it will take another ten or twenty years to buy a plot next to his larger vineyard.

Militza pulls the next wine out of the chiller and tells me the story of how she convinced her father to experiment with an orange wine. Orange wine is made from white wine grapes that gain an orangish or amber color through extended skin contact during maceration. She admits he was reluctant but agreed as long as Militza took care of designing the label and educating and selling a wine that most Bulgarians do not understand.

Now in its third vintage, the Villa Melnik Orange Wine, after garnishing awards and attention, including from Brazilians who are now some of its biggest fans,  the Bulgarian market is slowly opening its mind to orange wine. They make their orange wine in a subtle style with little skin contact so that it is easier to understand and yet still is crisp, fresh, and refreshing on the palate.

I gaze across the table at a wall of awards and medals. Villa Melnik has garnered attention, appreciation, and more awards and medals than they can fit on the wall. All from a wide variety of international competitions, magazines, and regional competitions. They have also made the list of top 50 wines in Bulgaria every year.

Founded in 1874, The Wine Society in the UK is the oldest and perhaps most prestigious wine club in the world, for two years in a row, has contracted Villa Melnik to produce unique and exclusive bottlings for its members. Designed to be marketed to the younger Wine Society members, Nikola named the wine Young & Crazy as a reference to Miltiza’s adventurous spirit and decision to take skydiving lessons. “That’s my daughter,” he tells me while playfully prodding his daughter, “perhaps more crazy than young.”

“And in the United States, Villa Melnik competed and won a video contest sponsored by NakeGrapes.com which led to Villa Melnik’s largest single order, an entire pallet of wine. The crowdfunding site challenged winemakers all over the world to share their dream through a short video. Inspired by the challenge, Militza convinced Villa Melnik winemaker Rumyana to enter the competition. Together they traveled the region filming and expressing their dream: the desire that people would see and understand why Bulgaria not only makes great wine but has a place in history as one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world. Their video captured the curiosity and interest of NakedWines.com angels and customers who voted it first place, which led to that huge order.

It’s efforts like these that inspired me to return to Bulgaria, Melnik and meet Militza and her father. With a hunger and passion for building a name for Bulgaria in the wine and culinary world, Militza created a regional wine route map by convincing fifteen wineries to participate. The map shows all the wineries and includes phone numbers, websites, and hours of operation and more. Her next plan is to post roadside signs that clearly mark a regional wine route. Along the way, they will erect versions of her map on large signs so tourists could stop and discover not only the wineries but other points of interest in the area.

As we talk, I try two barrel-fermented white wines made on the fine lees. The first, a Viognier which Militza’s boyfriend Boyan admits is his favorite. It’s aromatic, viscous and slightly chewy. The second is a rich and creamy Chardonnay with excellent structure and acidity and made in a style that expresses the uniqueness of a Bulgarian Chardonnay.

When we get to the reds, I try a Mavrud made in a simple style without oak and served slightly chilled. It feels like a great barbecue wine, and with its slightly chills seems a great hot summer day red.

Part of Nikola’s mission is to expose and share the wonder and versatility of Broadleaf Melnik, The winery offers it in a blend with Pinot Noir. He admits that many people see blending Pinot Noir with anything as committing heresy and that Pinot Noir is the king of grapes and should never be blended. But he reasons that Broadleaf Melnik shares several traits with King Pinot Noir. He says, “Both are light-bodied, and also lighter in character and has a similar structure and color. In this blend, the Melnik gives it  wilder aromas such as earth, spice, forest floor, and moss.”

“We want to prove that Broadleaf Melnik is the Queen, and is elegant as King Pinot. Besides, what is a King without a Queen? She is elegant as a Pinot Noir and worthy of standing side by side with the  Burgundian Pinot Noir.”

Militza chimes in and insists, “Nobody else makes this blend, we invented it.” Nikola smiles and looks at Miltiza while taking a sip.

“You are very polite and delicate,” he quips. We laugh.

Considering temperatures sometimes exceed forty degrees celsius (104°F) here, I question the notion of such hot climate for a grape that prefers cooler temperatures. Nikola admits that Pinot grown here is darker in color, more powerful, and higher in alcohol. He doesn’t and has no plans to bottle a single varietal, instead, he prefers to use it as a spice, like in this blend.

“We feel this formula bending indigenous grape with a more well known international grape gives the customer sense of excitement and wonder,” explains Militza. “Because they can taste a new grape and at the same time have a safety net in that it looks like a Pinot and tastes like a Pinot. We feel this is a good strategy to introduce foreign wine drinkers to Melnik and other Bulgarian grape varietals.”

As we move to pure Melnik, we start with the 2016 Villa Melnik Aplauz. It’s one-hundred percent pure Broadleaf Melnik aged for one year in Bulgarian oak barrique barrels. Intensely aromatic and with great structure, medium acuity and firm but resolved tannins. At three years old, the wine has finesse but packs power. It clearly has aging potential. Nikola feels it can go fifteen years or more.

“We’ve tried to preserve the original Melnik here, but we also want to show its versatility. Villa Melnik uses it in Rose, blends, single varietal both with and without oak, and even a dessert wine.

Nikola clears his throat as Militia brings three more bottles to the table.”  We’ve also tried to preserve all of its children.”

Two of the bottles are clearly different and in a clean cursive font, the words “Rare Varieties” dominate the label design. It’s also the only brand in the portfolio that features the winery name, Villa Melnik,” larger and more prominent.

I’m “Late ripening varietals like Melnik give elegant wines, but in Soviet times wine drinkers found it more fashionable and preferred full-bodied, powerful, intense and dark-colored wines. So they could uproot Melnik and plant grapes the deliver bigger wines like Cabernet. So scientists at the Sandanski cooperative made crossings of Broadleaf Melnik to deliver bigger wines that ripened earlier so they could speed up production and get it to market quicker.”

Villa Melnik produces just 2,000 bottles each of three rare varietals crossed with Broadleaf Melnik. We first try the “Ruen” a crossing of Broadleaf (Shiroka) Melnik with Cabernet Sauvignon. A dark inky and full-bodied wine with exotic aromas and dark berry flavors that finishes long with spicy chocolate and pepper. It’s complex and intense and inspiring.

“This is a geeky wine, with so much going on,” I explain, telling everyone at the table that it begs for attention.

Next is the Jubilee 1300, named such because they invented the cross 1300 years after the Bulgarian Kingdom was founded. Crossed with the Georgian varietal Saparavi, the inky wine exhibits aromas of black cherry, cassis, mocha, and on the palate, it’s mouth-coating velvety smooth with huge berry flavors that explore on the mid-palate. The wine is seductively tasty. I refuse to spit or dump out the wine, instead take another sip and swirl and savor it in my mouth. Wow.

I turn to Militza, then to Nikola, “This wine is a seducer, I just can’t let go or stop thinking about it.”

Next, we try the Melnik 55, which is bottled under the Villa Melnik Aplauz line because the varietal somehow became the most popular and widely planted. It’s a crossing of Melnik with Valdiguie, a french varietal grown in the Languedoc region of France. It’s the smoothest and most fruity of the bunch. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser, and very approachable for a new wine drinker yet has the structure and complexity that would please a wine lover.

They love my descriptions of the three wines and think these could stick. We have the “Geeky Wine” in the Ruen, the Seducer in the “Jubilee 1300,” and the “Crowd Pleaser” in the Melnik 55. Everyone laughs, nodding their heads.

While many wineries planted and produce single varietals and blends with the popular Melnik 55, barely anyone is bottling the other two. Nikola believes Villa Melnik is the only winery bottling a Julilee 1300, telling me that the varietal nearly disappeared. He may have single-handily saved the rare cross.

I ask him how he feels about these efforts and if his neighbors and competitors questioned his dedication to a disappearing varietal that perhaps nobody knew or cared about.

“In the beginning,” he admits, “many thought I was crazy. But I know many winegrowers are now tempted to grow Ruen and Jubilee because they can see these are grape varieties that give astonish wines.”

He ponders for a moment and takes a sip of the Seducer, the Jubillee.

“I feel happy because by planting and bottling these wines, I know that that the grape varietals will not be forgotten, and I have achieved something that ensures they will have a future.”

There is a trend and a new appreciation in both Bulgarian and foreign visitors of local wines, local grapes, and the unique lesser-known varietals. With such limited production of the three “Rare Varieties,” Militza and her father agree that these wines will help them get their foot in the door and gain the attention of restaurants, wine experts and sommeliers. This can help pave the way for appreciation of all Bulgarian wine varietals.

“It’s also a source of regional pride,” he tells me. He looks at Militza and smiles, “And it’s something for my future grandchildren.”

We move onto the other Bulgarian varietal that is a source of pride for the Bulgarian wine industry, Mavrud. As the only winery in the area growing Marvrud, Nikola admits he learns more with each vintage. He places two older wines on the table. The 2012 bottle is dusty, with cobwebs; clearly, he pulled them out of the “treasury” in the caves. First, he pours us a taste of the 2015 Mavrud, followed by a taste of the 2012, which he explains he vinified at another winery while this winery was under construction.

It’s a lesson and exploration of history. Nikola planted the Mavrud wines in  2005, they were just seven years old when he made this wine. For the 2015 we tasted, the vines were more mature. I sense his excitement and curiosity for Mavrudi’s potential in Melnik,  though admitting he’s still learning and experimenting. I feel honored that he has gone back in the wineries young history and shared these treasures and memories.

After we finish tasting the wines, we pack up to head into town for dinner. Grabbing a few bottles of wines, Nikola announces we will now drink the wines, not just taste them. We sit at a table on the terrace at my hotel, Hotel Melnik, with a view overlooking the town and the Melnik Sand Pyramids—unique formations in the sandy hills created over millennia by wind and erosion.

Just as we pour the first glass of wine, the waiter brings a massive plate of grilled meats and vegetables. There’s also a salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted red bell pepper, and white cheese. Meanwhile, Militza hears from Will, a Welsh guy who works for a UK-based wine importer and distributor she met in London. He’s in Melnik, so she invites him to join us for dinner. More connections, more new friends.

The lovely Militza with her boyfriend Boyan at dinner at the cozy and tasty restaurant at Hotel Melnik.

The food at Hotel Melnik is delicious and almost as good as Nikola’s selection of Villa Melnik wines chosen for the meal. The 2016 Villa Melnik Hailstorm is a one-of-a-kind wine bottled in a year where they lost seventy-five to eighty percent of their harvest because of a very rare hailstorm that destroyed the vines.

Surprisingly, later in the fall many of the vines experienced a second bud break, another rare event. They harvested the more mature clusters and younger new clusters independently, but they used only the first clusters in this unique blend of Melnik 55 (30%), Mavrud (30%), Cabernet Sauvignon (20%) and Syrah (20%).

I’ve never heard of such a second break, and Nikola admits that it amazed him. Yet what he found in the disastrous vintage was the hailstorm caused a forced lowering of the yields. The resulting wines were darker, richer, and more complex. He admits that though he always managed and aimed for low yields of Broadleaf Melnik, the hailstorm taught him to lower them even more.

“Like making lemonade out of lemons?” I ask.

“Exactly.”

Lyubka, Nikola, Will, Boyan, and Militza at the restaurant in Hotel Melnik as we wind down an amazing day of learning history, making connections and new friends and tasting incredible Bulgarian wine—and the food? Fantastic!

Between courses and glasses of wine, we wander through a backroom in the hotel that now serves as a museum of Soviet-era photography, propaganda posters, and antiques. Nikola translates many of the posters, and we laugh at the irony and often silly messages of the propaganda.

As the evening winds down, Nikola, Lyubka, Militza, and Boyan head back to the winery while Will and I sip and continue to talk about Villa Melnik and Bulgarian wine. After completing his WSET diploma, Will hopes to become a Master of Wine (MW), the most challenging and highest level of wine certification in the world. For his MW thesis he plans to focus on Bulgarian wine.—and the Melnik region specifically.

I realize finding Bulgarian wine in the United States is next to impossible. If you find a bottle, it’s likely of much lesser quality than the wines I’ve tried today. And while my exploration of this country has only just started, I already feel that thanks to Nikola and the youthful energy and world experience contributed by Militza and others of her generation, that not only do the ancient and rare varietals of Bulgaria have an opportunity to thrive, so does the entire Bulgaria wine industry—a country that has a long history and was one of the earliest to produce wine.

It deserves exploring and understanding. And that’s why I’m here. What about you?

A large mural in the library of Hotel Melnik depicts the early days and Bulgaria’s history of wine making.http://www.hotelmelnik.com/en/

 


Mentioned in this Post

Villa Melnik Winery
Harsovo Village, Melnik Region
GPS coordinates:
41°28’25” N 23°23’19” E
+359 884 840320
+359 888 007266

Hotel Melnik
2820 Melnik
+359 087 913 1448

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