Last night Melnik experienced a rare summer thunderstorm. This morning it is misty, and a thick layer of clouds and fog hug the Melnik Sand Pyramids. We hope the weather clears as we want to visit the nearby Rozhen Monastery and hike the surrounding area for views of Melnik and its famous pyramids.
The Welsh wine importer from the UK, Will Hill, meets me for coffee just before 9 AM. It mists and drizzles as we contemplate the day. Militza and Boyan from Villa Melnik will take us to the monastery and pending the weather, we’ll hike or return to the winery. Since Will just joined us last night for dinner, he has yet to tour the winery and taste the Villa Melnik wines.
We get to the monastery just before 10 AM and when the clouds give relief and break for just a hint of blue sky. The Rozhen Monastery dates back to the 13th century and sits high in the Pirin Mountains that surround Melnik. Also knowns as the “Nativity of the Mother of God” inside the church is the icon of the Holy Mother, which they believe to have magical powers.
The complex is like a fortress. Its massive walls and hexagon shape help stave off intruders for hundreds of years. A huge iron door is riddled with bullet holes, several embedded in the door. It survived the five hundred years of Ottoman rule, who let the Bulgarian people keep their Orthodox fate as long as they obeyed the Ottoman rule of law and paid taxes.
Inside the fortress, it feels more like a country estate with its leafy courtyard complete with a massive grapevine that is well over a hundred years old. On the southwestern side of the complex upstairs, there is a kitchen complex with a large clay wood-burning oven that monks still use today. Next to it is a dining room or refectory with a huge table where the monks assembled for meals. At one end are a few murals that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
After walking around the complex and wandering through the church, a cute feline greets us. I snap a few photos, and I’m sure it is one of many Monastery Cats, or ‘kotka’ as they call them in the Bulgarian language.
With the weather clearing, we take a thirty-minute hike, winding around narrow paths to a vantage point where we can get a glimpse of the tiny town of Melnik, which is also the smallest in Bulgaria. It could be the oldest town too. At the turn of the century, its population numbered 30,000 or more. Today less than 200 people call Melnik home. We also are treated to an expansive view of the Pirin Mountains and those Melnik Pyramids, eroding sand peaks that give Melnik an otherworldly or exotic feel.
As we wind down the mountains, we pass through the village of Rozhen and another church we see the burial ground Yane Sandanski, the Bulgarian revolutionary who led and fought with the resistance that led to Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman Turks. Using the monastery as a hideout, in 1915 when he left the fortress he was ambushed and killed.
Militza shares more stories of Bulgarian lore such as Baba Vanga a mystic and healer who is buried in nearby Rupite around an ancient caldera. Soon we’re back at Villa Melnik Winery and while Militza guides Will through the history and operation of the winery, I wander the three-story gravity-fed operation and take pictures.
I look out the window on the top floor of the winery and see a man pull into the driveway on a vintage motorcycle. It’s Grampa Slavi a veterinarian and grape farmer from nearby Harsovo. He doesn’t speak English, but Lyubka translates. The shiny black machine is in perfect shape. Grampa or Uncle Slavi as he’s known, bought the 1962 MZ ES-175 new when he was just twenty years old. At now seventy-seven years old, he still likes to ride through the hills and small villages that surround Melnik. He lifts the seat to show me the nameplate and year of the motorcycle, then indulges my request to photograph him while riding. I try to capture a good shot as he spins and rides the parking lot making figure eights, with a huge smile on his face. Made in Germany by Motorradwerk Zschopau, founded in 1906 the company. At its highpoint, the company built more than 80,000 motorcycles and employed over 3,000 people. They exported the bikes to over 80 countries.
Back inside the winery, I find Will and Militza in sitting at a table in the tasting room with a line up of wines, cheeses, cured meats, and cut fruit. I try a few wines that I didn’t yesterday and continue our conversation about Melnik wines. Soon Nikola joins us. In his hand is another bottle from the Villa Melnik treasury—the library, a single vineyard 2011 Bergule Mavrud—one of the first vintages produced by Villa Melnik.
Once again, I’m at Villa Melnik Winery and tasting history. As we talk and ponder the early Mavrud, I sense a spark in Nikola. He gets up from the table and grabs a small pitcher and motions for Will and me to follow him into the cellar. We don’t know what he is up to, but as we wander from one end of the caves to another, Nikola tells us he’s looking for a particular barrel but admits he doesn’t know where it is. After a few moments, he finds it and with a large glass siphon, referred to as a thief in the winemaking business, he snitches some wine and fills the pitcher.
It’s the 2016 Villa Melnik Hailstorm, the Melnik, Cabernet and Syrah blend from the year he lost most of his crop because of an unusual summer hailstorm. While the official 2016 Hailstorm is bottled and on the market, this blend is from the second blossoming of grapes that year. In what can only be described as miraculous, after the hailstorm the vines flowered again, forming new clusters. These ripened much later than the grapes that survived the hailstorm, Nikola harvested them separately and made a barrel of wine from just the second bloom. Now we get to try it.
The wine is dense and inky and exhibits dark cherry, berries, and plum on the nose and sour cherry, blackberry and a hint of pepper on the palate. Nikola feels it can use more time in the barrel, but he will bottle this wine in a year or so.
As we sip the wine, we talk about Militza’s Melnik Wine Route Map and some other wineries in the area. She suggests visiting Orbelus Winery in nearby Kromidovo village before they close. Boyan takes the wheel of his Audi, and we wind through the Harsavo and find our way to Orbelus.
The architecture of Orbelus is stunning. Sitting like a massive wine barrel half-buried in the vineyard, Orbelus is one of just a few Bulgarian wineries that the EU certified as organic. Floor to ceiling curvilinear windows provide views into the vineyard below. Here we find a couple from Los Angeles who after spending time in Greece now are exploring Bulgaria and Melnik. I’m impressed and encouraged and hope this part of the world garners more attention and responsible tourists.
Our server takes us through a line up of whites including a Sandanski Misket, a Bulgarian varietal made from a cross of Broadleaf Melnik, Tamianka, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromatic and crisp with floral and honey notes, it’s a fresh summer drinker. But what strikes me is when he pours a blend of Sandanski Misket with Assyrtiko, the white grape famously grown on the volcanic slopes of Santorini in Greece. This wine has more structure and complexity and notable higher acidity.
As we taste more Orbelus wines and move into the deeper and darker reds, I am impressed by the flavors and quality, especially given that the entire production is from organically grown grapes—a challenge that Orbelus is committed. And another reason wine lovers and tourists should explore in Bulgaria.
We taste a great line of Bulgaria’s Orebelus Winery wines.